Passion Playby Beth Bernobich
Ilse Zhalina is the daughter of one of Melnek's more prominent merchants. She has lived most of her life surrounded by the trappings of wealth and privilege. Many would consider hers a happy lot. But there are dark secrets, especially in the best of families. Ilse has learned that for a young woman of her beauty and social station, to be passive and silent is the… See more details below
Ilse Zhalina is the daughter of one of Melnek's more prominent merchants. She has lived most of her life surrounded by the trappings of wealth and privilege. Many would consider hers a happy lot. But there are dark secrets, especially in the best of families. Ilse has learned that for a young woman of her beauty and social station, to be passive and silent is the best way to survive.
When Ilse finally meets the older man she is to marry, she realizes he is far crueler and more deadly than her father could ever be. Ilse chooses to run. This choice will change her life forever.
And it will lead her to Raul Kosenmark, master of one of the land's most notorious pleasure houses…and who is, as Ilse discovers, a puppetmaster of a different sort altogether. Ilse discovers a world where every pleasure has a price and there are levels of magic and intrigue she once thought unimaginable. She also finds the other half of her heart.
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CHAPTER ONEIN THE GAME of word links, a large vocabulary was not always an advantage. Words indeed were necessary—the game consisted entirely of words given back and forth, and each response had to connect to the previous one. The good players possessed a quick mind and the ability to recognize patterns. Those who could see the unexpected connections, however, inevitably won.
A simple game with endless strategies and unexpected side effects.
Therez Zhalina watched Klara’s face intently, waiting for her friend to turn the miniature sand glass and start the next round of their game. It was a late summer’s afternoon. The two girls sat in a seldom-used parlor on the third floor of Maester Zhalina’s house. The maids had opened the windows, letting in the warm salt breeze from the harbor, less than a mile away, and a hint of pine tang from the hills and mountains that circled the city to the north.
Klara held the sand glass lightly between her fingers, tilting it one way, then another. She appeared bored, but the look did not deceive Therez. She knew Klara’s style. Her friend would start with something innocuous, like chair or book. Then, at the crucial moment, she would throw out a word guaranteed to fluster her opponent.
I shall have to use her own strategy upon her first.
“Lir,” Klara said, and flipped the glass over.
“Toc,” Therez answered at once.
Klara choked. “Therez! That is not fair. You deliberately chose a horrible image.”
Though she wanted to laugh at Klara’s expression, Therez did not let her attention lapse. “No more horrible than yours, the last round,” she said. “Besides, the link is perfect: And Toc plucked out his eyes to make the sun and moon for his sister-goddess, Lir. Come, the round is not over. A word. Give me a word, Klara.”
“I’m thinking. I’m thinking. What about—Ah, love-of-the-ocean, the sands have run out. Are you certain this wretched device runs true?”
“The glass came with a guild certificate from the artisan.”
“Damp,” Klara said grumpily. “Just like everything else in Melnek.”
“If the sands were damp, they would run slower not faster.” Therez poured a fresh cup of chilled water and stirred in a few spoonfuls of crushed mint. “Here,” she said, handing it to her friend. “You sound like a marsh frog—a very thirsty one.”
“Oh, thank you.” Klara drank down the water. “How delightful to know that my voice is like that of some slithery bog creature. Do you think the young men will appreciate me more, or less, for that virtue?”
Therez smothered another laugh. “Oh, much more. Think what money you could save them on entertainment. No more fees to musicians when you are about.”
“Hah. There speaks a true merchant girl.”
“No more a merchant girl than you,” Therez said. “Here. We’ll play one more round. Unless you’re tired of losing.”
“Make it a double round,” her friend said. “And promise me you’ll turn the glass without delay.”
“Agreed.” Therez reversed the timer. “Duenne.”
They each rapped out answers as quickly as the other spoke, the words connecting through all the facets of life in a trade city on the border between Veraene and Károví. Guild. Taxes. Caravan. Freight. Scales. Fish.
“Klara! He’s not a fish.”
“He looks like one. Come, give me a word or make a challenge.”
“Very well. No challenge. My word is shipping.”
“Hurt. No, wait. I meant to say winter.”
The sands ran out in the silence that followed. Unwilling to meet her friend’s gaze, Therez turned the sand glass over in her hands. Its graceful wooden frame, carved from rare blackwood, made a swirling pattern against the luminescent sand, and the artisan had painted fine gold lines along its edges, reminding her of sunlight reflecting off running water.
“When do you go?” Klara said at last.
“That late? I thought it was—”
“Next spring? It was. My father changed his mind.”
And he might again, Therez thought. After a long tedious lecture about expenses, Petr Zhalina had agreed that Therez’s brother, Ehren, would resume his studies at Duenne’s University. After longer discussions and several invitations, he gave permission for Therez to spend a year with their cousin’s family, who also lived in the capital. But so many ifs and maybes lay between now and next summer. Their grandmother’s illness. Their father’s uncertain health and the state of his business . . .
“Do you want to play another round?” she said.
Her voice was not as steady as she would have liked, and Klara’s eyes narrowed, making them appear like quick, narrow brushstrokes against her dark complexion. But her friend only said, “No. Thank you. May I have another cup of water?”
A welcome deflection, Therez thought as she poured chilled water for them both into porcelain cups. Her father paid extra to have ice blocks transported from the nearby mountains, and stored in his cellars. Her brother said the ice reminded their father of the far north, and Duszranjo, where he’d once lived. Therez didn’t know if that were true. She only knew that her father’s whims on what he spent and what he saved made little sense to her.
“He must have been so very hungry,” she murmured, half to herself. “Starving, for more than one life.”
“What was that?” Klara said.
Therez roused herself. “Oh, nothing. I was just thinking of . . . past lives.”
“Ah, those.” Klara’s black eyes glinted with curiosity. “I must have been a marsh frog at least once. Though marsh frogs seldom care to become humans. What about you?”
Therez shrugged and pretended to study her water cup. But she could sense Klara’s attention. Her friend might pretend indifference, but she was watching Therez closely. “Oh, a scholar,” she said lightly. “I remember ink stains on my fingers. I had a lover, too. Another scholar. I remember us wandering through a library filled with books about everything in the world. About history and poetry, about Lir and Toc. About . . .” About magic and Lir’s jewels, gifts from the goddess to Erythandra’s priests in ancient times, she thought. She had been a scholar more than once, but she didn’t want to tell Klara that part.
Klara, however, was smiling thoughtfully. “Scholar,” she said softly. “That I can believe. Do you remember how it ended, your time with your lover?”
Which one? Therez thought. The answer was the same for both. In the darkness, running from a man I’d known years and lives before. But who her lover was, or who the other man was, she still did not know.
She turned her head away. “It ended badly. That’s all I know. What about you?”
“Ah, mine.” Klara smiled pensively. “Mine are little more than vague dreams—shadows in the night, as the poets call them. But this I do remember—how in all of them I always had friends. It gives me joy to think that.”
Some of the ache in Therez’s chest eased. “And so it should.”
A brisk knock startled them both. Klara arched her eyebrows. “It cannot be your father,” she whispered. “He never knocks.”
“Klara, do not make a joke, please—”
She broke off as the door opened to a liveried boy. “Mistress Therez,” he said. “Your mother would see you at once in her parlor.”
Klara immediately stood and shook out the folds of her loose summer gown. “A summons, I see. Then I shall not detain you a single moment.” She leaned close and whispered, “We shall continue our talk tomorrow, my scholarly friend.”
I should not have told her anything, Therez thought as she escorted her friend down the stairs. That was the danger of the word-linking game. Admit one secret and the rest come spilling out. It had nearly happened when her mother first mentioned the cousin’s invitation. She’d wanted to cheer or laugh, both of them inappropriate reactions. Both guaranteed to convince her father she ought to stay home. Oh, not that she had any true plans. Just hopes and wishes that a twelve-month at Veraene’s capital city would let chance show itself. That she might meet a poet or a scholar—anyone who was not a merchant’s son.
Or even a merchant’s son. As long as he is not like my father, I shall not care.
She parted from Klara at the next landing, and turned into the family’s private wing. All the house was quiet, except when Petr Zhalina held meetings or dinners for his colleagues, but the silence here was deeper, and the air lay heavy, thick with the scent of crushed herbs. Therez drew a deep breath, wishing for a cleansing northern wind, then hurried onward to her mother’s rooms.
She found her mother surrounded by a handful of servants who were laying out pens and ink bottles, parchment, drying dust, and packets of sealing wax. A tray with cups and two carafes occupied the center of the table.
Isolde Zhalina turned at her daughter’s entrance. “There you are, Therez. I’m sorry to have interrupted your visit, but we have much to do. Your father has decided to hold a dinner party next week, and you’re to help with the arrangements. I’m sending out the invitations today.”
“Next week?” Therez asked. “Why the hurry? Papa said nothing before.”
Her mother glanced briefly toward the servants. “Why ever the hurry? Therez, don’t ask such questions.”
So there were business matters afoot. Therez obediently seated herself at the table and poured herself a cup of tea. She waited until her mother had dismissed the servants before she spoke again.
“What is the matter?” she asked. “Can you tell me now?”
“Business,” her mother said, taking her own seat with a heavy sigh. “Your father decided to start contract negotiations early this year. He’s anxious. So is Ehren.”
Late summer brought the annual contract negotiations when merchants settled with the caravan companies and shipping guilds for next year’s transportation. Other guilds often set their contracts as well—the silk guilds who provided raw silks, or woven fabrics, or finished goods; the miners’ guilds who specialized in marble and granite and gemstones; the sundry smaller guilds and artisans who commissioned merchants to sell their wares. The season’s negotiations made for tense conversations at dinner. Still, that did not explain the urgency in her mother’s voice.
“Your father is fretting about losing influence,” her mother continued. “The City Council didn’t invite him to the debate on caravan tolls, and even though they apologized, saying they thought him too ill to attend, I cannot believe the oversight was entirely accidental. Then there are the rumors about higher taxes, talk about closing the border . . .”
“We heard those rumors last year.”
“Yes, but the rumors are louder this year. Much louder. I didn’t pay attention at first, but Ehren says he heard the same reports in Duenne. The king is anxious, and because he’s anxious, he wants more taxes, more fees, and stricter controls between all Morauvín’s cities and Károví. And if the king does close the borders, we shall have to depend on smugglers or forgo our trade across the border. Your father would dislike that, especially after he’s invested so much time and money in opening those routes.”
She poured herself a cup of black tea from the other carafe and stirred in a spoonful of honey. The pale sunlight, filtered through the room’s smoky glass, was not kind to her delicate features. Therez could plainly see faint lines crisscrossing her face, and silvery strands glinted from her neatly dressed hair, like frost upon the mountains. Her mother’s troubled look was not new, not since her father’s illness last spring, but this volubility about taxes and trade was a marked change.
“That’s not all, is it?” Therez said softly.
Her mother glanced toward the door. “No,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but Maester Galt has taken charge of the shipping guild, and he’s proposing changes to the fee structure. Talk says he’s already given the best terms to Maester Friedeck and his son. Your father thinks . . .” Another beat of hesitation. “We do not know if Ehren can return to the university, or if you can make your visit.”
Therez’s chest squeezed tight in sudden distress. It took her a moment before she knew she had her voice under control. “Ah, I see. I had no idea how difficult the year had been.”
Her mother shrugged. “We are not in danger of poverty. But you know your father.”
“Yes, I do.” Therez fell silent. Her tea stood cooling, hardly touched, but she no longer had any desire for its delicate flavor. She had always told herself that her plans might be overturned, but she had not realized how much she had depended on them. Her thoughts flicked back to her word game with Klara. Melnek. Home. Hurt. The sequence was not far from the truth. If only she could live a year—or even two—away from home, perhaps she could determine if hurt was a necessary part of life.
“May I see the guest list?” she asked.
Her mother handed her a sheet. Therez read through the list of names, written in her father’s plain square handwriting. Galt, the head of the shipping guild, of course, and various other guild masters. Maester Gerd Bartos, the current head of the City Council, whose eldest daughter was contracted to marry Galt. A dozen of the most influential merchants and liaisons to the City Council, Klara’s father among them. The list covered an entire page.
“Papa’s invited half of Melnek,” she commented.
“Yes. We must extend ourselves more than usual.” Her mother called up a brief unconvincing smile. “Though it won’t be all work. We shall have music and special dishes and dancing afterward. You are to pick the musicians yourself.”
She took back the list of guests and went through Petr Zhalina’s orders for the dinner, which were more exacting than usual—not only whom to invite, but also how many courses to serve, how much to spend on musicians and decorations, how long the dancing would last. It was unnecessary for Therez’s mother to emphasize that Petr Zhalina wished to make a good impression. The length and detail of these instructions were evidence enough.
Therez absorbed all these implications for a moment. One dinner could not ruin their business, but clearly any future success would build upon its outcome. Every guild head invited. Every leading merchant—
Then it struck her. “I didn’t see Maester Friedeck’s name on the list. You might want to add him. Or no? What’s wrong?”
The habitual crease between her mother’s eyes deepened. “No. When your father heard the news about Maester Galt and Maester Friedeck, they . . . quarreled.”
Therez bit her lip. Suggestions were a delicate matter, even with her mother. “Could you convince Papa to change his mind and invite him? Maester Friedeck, I mean.”
Her mother dipped her pen in the inkwell, still frowning. “Why?”
“Because if the rumors are true, Papa will want Maester Friedeck as an ally, not a rival. He could use this evening to win his goodwill, if not his support. And if the rumors are false, and we snub him, then Papa would needlessly antagonize an important man. You did say this dinner was the key to next year’s success.”
Isolde Zhalina studied her daughter a moment. “Yes,” she said slowly. “I can see why Maester Friedeck should come. But let us have Ehren make the suggestion. That will do better.”
She nodded firmly. That, too, was out of character, Therez thought. A sign that all was not well in this household.
It never was.
Be quiet. It can be.
Still arguing with herself, Therez wrote down the name of a prominent musician. She immediately drew a line through the name, unhappy with her choice. Her pen hovered over the paper. When was the last time her mother had laughed or smiled without care? How had she looked, nearly five and twenty years ago, when Petr Zhalina courted her? Had he promised his love and all his heart? Had she, like Lir, laughed with delight? Or was theirs a marriage of gold and politics, even from the beginning?
The scratching of her mother’s pen ceased. She was staring at the guest list and frowning harder than before.
“A problem?” Therez asked.
“No. But I always find it hard to pick the right words. Especially for certain guests.”
Ah, so the list was not the complete list. Somehow this did not surprise Therez. “Who else is coming?” she asked.
Her mother wrote a line, paused. Her glance flicked up and back down to the parchment before her. “Baron Mann, if he accepts,” she said at last. “A few others.”
Therez exhaled softly. Baron Josef Mann had recently come from a season at Duenne’s Court. Her father must have special plans indeed.
“Paschke,” she said. “We must engage Launus Paschke for the evening. With him and his company, we won’t need any other musicians.”
“Paschke would indeed make a favorable impression,” her mother murmured. “I only hope—”
She broke off and frowned again. Therez reminded herself that a failure meant more than disappointment for herself and Ehren. Failure also meant a lecture from Petr Zhalina to his wife, delivered in a soft monotone that would wash all emotion from her mother’s face. And he would not drop the matter after one or two days—or even a week, Therez thought. That anyone could endure. But her father would bring up the subject weeks and years later—small pointed reminders of his wife’s failings. Strange how a whisper could wound so deep.
It would come out right, Therez told herself. They would dazzle their guests, her father would secure his contracts, and she would see her own plans to fruition. But every detail must be perfect.
BY LATE AFTERNOON, Therez had planned the wines and most of the decorations. She had written to various artists for advice with the finer details; she had also sent a letter to Launus Paschke, asking to meet and discuss hiring his company. In turn her mother had completed the invitations and given them over to Petr Zhalina’s senior runner for delivery.
“We are done for today,” her mother told her. “Go and visit your grandmother. I know you want to.”
Therez did not wait for her mother to repeat the suggestion. She ran to her rooms to store away her notes, then hurried down the corridor to the lavish suite where her grandmother lived alone. Nad??da Zhalina called these rooms her empire, and there she had once ruled with vigor. But in the last year, age and illness had overtaken her—the empire had shrunk to her bedchamber, invaded by nurses and maids and companions. Therez came into the richly ornamented sitting room that formed the outer defenses of that kingdom.
A maid sat there, mending stockings.
“Is she awake, Mina?”
Mina shook her head. “Sleeping, Mistress. Very lightly.”
The sleep of very old people. “What about her appetite? Did she eat today?”
“Three bites, Mistress.”
Therez glanced through the half-open door. The rooms beyond were dark, but a faint light edged the bedroom door. “I’ll just look in, then. I won’t wake her.”
She glided through a second, smaller sitting room, which was given over to dozens of porcelain figures, through the dressing room, to her grandmother’s bedroom door, which she eased open.
Bowls filled with fresh památka cuttings were set about on tables, the pale white blooms like candle flames in the semidarkness. Her grandmother had carried away a handful of seeds from her old home in faraway Duszranjo, in Károví, decades before. After they arrived in Melnek, and her son purchased this house, she had planted beds of them in their formal gardens, over his protests. Now that she was ill, she had the flowers brought to her. Off in one corner stood a thick crude figure of a gnarled bent woman. Lir, as the crone. She had another name in Károví, in the old days, but the goddess was still the same.
Another maid, Lisl, sat in one corner, knitting by the light of a shaded lamp. Therez signaled for her to remain still and tiptoed to her grandmother’s side.
Her grandmother lay with her head turned toward the window, snoring softly. She looked old, Therez thought. Old and frail. Her ruddy-brown skin was mottled, and her once-black hair lay scattered thinly over the pillow. Under the loose pouches of skin, you could just make out traces of the strong old woman from six months before.
Therez’s grandmother stirred. “Therez,” she whispered. “Hello, my sweet. Come closer.”
Therez touched the old woman’s cheek. “Are you well?”
“Dobrud’n. Good and not good, as they say.” Thirty years in Veraene had not erased her strong accent. “I was hoping you would visit.” She tried to sit up. Her face crumpled and she sank into her pillow again with a muttered curse. “I hate it,” she whispered angrily. “I hate sickness and— Ah, you didn’t come to hear my complaints.”
“I came to visit. If you’d rather complain, then I’ll listen.” Therez gathered her grandmother’s hands in hers and gently kissed them. She could feel how light and fragile the bones had become. The surgeons had warned them to expect her grandmother’s death within the next few months.
Already her grandmother had closed her eyes again, and her breathing turned soft and raspy, a sound like that of paper sliding over paper. Lisl’s knitting needles resumed their regular clicking. Therez gently withdrew her hands, thinking to let her grandmother sleep, when the old woman’s eyes fluttered open. “Tell me about the dinner party,” she whispered.
Therez suppressed a start of surprise. Of course her grandmother had heard. Probably from Lisl and Mina. “If you already know, Grandmama, what can I tell you?”
Her grandmother laughed softly. “Impertinent child. Tell me what these silly girls don’t know. What has your father planned?”
“He’s planned everything,” Therez said drily, which provoked another laugh from her grandmother. “But he’s left a few choices to me and my mother. We shall have Paschke for our music, if he has no other obligation, and I’ve written to Mistress Sobek, the theater artist, for advice on the decorations. I can tell you already that there will be flowers and sweet candles, dancing, and three courses of the finest dishes Mama could decide upon.”
“And the guests? Who are they?”
“Friends. Neighbors. He’s invited nearly all the chief merchants and anyone with a voice in the City Council.” She hesitated. “He’s even invited Baron Mann, if you can believe it.”
“Friends,” her grandmother said. “Those are not friends. Those are allies, rivals, partners. Sometimes I think your father—Well, never mind what I think. It should be an interesting evening. I wish I could watch. Pity. And with you the chief of everything. So big since last year. Soon you will find a husband.”
Not until Duenne, Therez thought, but she only smiled. “I’d rather wait another year, Grandmama. Sixteen or seventeen is old enough.”
A brief spasm passed over her grandmother’s face. “I was seventeen,” she whispered. “Saw your grandfather in his shop in the marketplace. He was young then, quieter, but that day he was laughing. Such a bright smile. Oh, I fell in love so quick, it hurt.”
Therez stroked her hands, not liking the quaver in her grandmother’s voice. “Maybe we should postpone the dinner party. It’s not right. Not with you so . . . tired.”
“Bah. Don’t be foolish. I’ll see more dinner parties. I dream of them sometimes. Strong dreams, too, and all of them in the same palace. And always in winter, far to the north. About scrubbing, if you can believe it. Floors and walls. Tin plates. Silver plates. Once a platter of gold that I polished until it gleamed like the sun. I did well, they said, for someone so young. I almost told them I knew the work from lives and lives before, but I didn’t. I knew they wouldn’t like it.”
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