Harry's Spring Break Ch. 5bySabledrake©
When he went downstairs the next morning, he was half-convinced that everyone would know, they would just see it all over him no matter how carefully composed he kept his features.
They'd be horrified, disgusted, his mother would weep and wail and wonder how on earth she had raised such a vile and despicable son. Maybe Anson Byrtwold would call him out, or, more likely, the horse-lord would take after him with an axe.
He walked into the sunlit dining room with some trepidation, and found only cheery greetings from Mother and Aunt Pigeon. They were the only ones in attendance, poring over a book of dressmakers' designs.
"Good morning, sleepy-head!" his mother trilled. "We weren't sure if we'd see you before lunch."
"Nothing like the country for a good night's rest," Aunt Pigeon said. "Here, Joanna, what do you think of this one? With a three-quarter sleeve, maybe, and a fuller skirt?"
"Did I miss breakfast? Where is everyone?"
"There are some muffins and fruit on the sideboard, dear. I think, Pidge, that I like this one better, though I'd do away with that ghastly collar."
"Anson took Charles and the boys out to the foreman's office, on the west end of the ranch," Pigeon said. "Rheda is showing Diana around the gallery; Diana was interested in her collection of Glantrian ceramics."
"And what are you two lovely ladies up to?" He selected a chocolate-swirl muffin and leaned over to look at the design book.
"Rheda's seamstress is coming tomorrow to measure Othelia for some summer frocks," his mother explained. "We thought it might be fun to have some Southern Barony styles to take back to the city."
"This one would be very flattering on you, Mother," Harry said, tapping one of the pictures. "In a nice soft pink, nothing too bright, and the trim in cream. It would be perfect with that shawl you have, the one sewn with the tulips."
"He's right, Joanna!"
"Harry's always had an eye for fashion," his mother proudly replied. "Oh, it makes his father tear his hair out sometimes, the money this boy would spend on clothes if he could get away with it, but I have to admit, he dresses much more nicely than any of his friends."
"If only I could get my two to care about how they dress! They're as bad as Charles, I swear; they get out of bed and put on the first things they see in the wardrobe whether they match or not. Their minds are always on business."
"So Othelia's coming back today?" Harry started to sit, found a binder of fabric swatches on the chair, and moved it. "I know I must have met her at the wedding, but I can hardly remember what she looked like."
"I remember," his mother said dolefully. "The poor child! I almost didn't let Diana be a flower girl, because I was so worried she'd outshine little Othelia."
"Yes, she was a bundle of sticks, wasn't she?" Aunt Pigeon clucked as she shook her head. "And that hair, my word!"
Mother nodded. "Like she'd been struck by lightning. They'd tried to control it with a bow, but all through the ceremony, strands would keep coming loose. Still, a very sweet girl."
"Very sweet," Pigeon agreed.
"Was she the one that knocked over the punchbowl?" Harry asked, a fragment of memory coming back to him.
"I'd forgotten that!" His mother rolled her eyes skyward. "And it couldn't be just any punchbowl; it was one of the magical ones they'd rented. Why it wasn't Shatterproofed, I'll never know."
Aunt Pigeon took the binder of swatches and began flipping through. "How about this blue?"
"Too greenish," Harry said promptly. "It wouldn't work with your skin tone at all. You'd want something with a richer shade... more like this one."
"Oh, Harry, I don't know, it's awfully bold."
"For a whole gown, maybe," he allowed, sliding the design book over. "But if you had something like this, you could use the blue for the panels here and here, and these parts in another fabric. A subdued flower print, maybe, or one of the new patterned silks."
She considered it, and tittered as she turned to his mother. "Joanna, you're wasting this boy having him trained for the Academy; you should get him his own shop! The richest women in Andur would be flocking to him!"
They both laughed then, and Harry half-heartedly joined in, because it was such a rollickingly good joke, an Ethelbald in the clothiers' business? Unforgivable! Inexcusable! Wouldn't matter if he was a merchant-baron and a Guildmaster, with a thousand employees and a fortune so vast it would make the Emperor blanch. He would still be -- gasp! -- a craftsman!
He finished his muffin, dabbed his lips with a napkin, and stood. "I think I'll go see what Diana's up to. Glantrian ceramics? Sounds interesting."
"It's just a light lunch on the back terrace today," his mother reminded him.
"Dinner will be early, and Rheda's promised us entertainment after."
Harry hid a grin, last night's entertainment still very fresh in his mind. "Thank you, Mother."
He left them with their design books, though it seemed likely that they were both going to take his suggestions. Maybe his tastes did occasionally run to the extravagant -- he would give his eyeteeth for a cloak of purple estincloth, say, or a dragonsuede jacket, but he knew that if he dared broach either matter with his father, Harold the Second would age twenty years right in front of him.
The gallery was a long room on the second floor, overlooking a narrow balcony over the porch. Its floor was gleaming hardwood in an intricate herringbone, the walls covered in understated tan flocked paper. The shelves and glass-fronted caged were of rosewood, and contained Glantrian pieces ranging from antique cosmetic pots to painstakingly detailed sculptures and figurines.
Diana and Rheda were at the far end, in front of a shelf holding a dozen or more jars. Each was about a handspan in height and painted with colorful coats-of-arms; the lids were carved from semi-precious stones into the shapes of people or animals.
They heard him come in. Rheda, in a lemon-yellow dress with off-the-shoulder puffed sleeves, turned and smiled at him. "And here's your brother! Sleep well, Harry?"
"Harry, come and look!" Diana beckoned. "These are actual Glantrian death-jars!"
"Death jars?" he echoed, wrinkling his nose.
"Lady Byrtwold was just telling me how they're used... each Glantrian household has one, and when a member of the family dies, before they're entombed, the closest relative severs the right forefinger of the corpse!" Her eyes were wide with morbid fascination. "Then they wrap it in twine and keep it over the fireplace for ten days, right there in the house, Harry, can you imagine? And then, when it's dried, they put it in the jar with the others, and keep using the same jar until there are ten fingers inside!"
"That's positively... C'laani," Harry said.
"No it isn't," Diana said seriously. "It's not like the use the fingers to summon up the spirits of their relatives, or as if the fingers creep about at night to strangle people. Honestly, Harry!"
"It's gruesome. If one of our parents died, would you want to do that?"
"We're not Glantrian," she said as if that was that.
Rheda picked up one of the jars and objects clattered inside. Harry could all-too- easily envision the dry brown twiglike contents. He saw that the lid was sealed in place with a thick coating of wax. She held it so he could see the back, where the names and dates of the deceased were listed neatly.
"The ones we have are all over a hundred years old," she said. "This one is the oldest; it dates back almost four centuries."
"Isn't it incredible?" Diana reached, then hesitated. "May I?"
"Help yourself, just don't open them." She winked. "Some say that the last thing they do after sealing the jar is put a curse on it!"
Serious, studious Diana wasn't impressed. "I'm not detecting any enchantments."
Harry had given up trying to spook her with ghost stories years ago, but he added with a sly grin, "There are more kinds of magic than can be explained in Pandathaway, sister dear."
"Nothing cannot be explained."
"The stories from Krudanga --"
"Oh, stop it, Harry, next you'll be telling me about Grandfather and the Bee People."
Rheda laughed, and it was smoky and deep and sent a pleasant tingle down Harry's spine. It was nothing at all like the girlish giggles of his mother and aunt. "I don't think your brother much cares for this part of the collection. I'll show him our prize. This way, Harry, I'll introduce you to King Calvin."
"I didn't think Glantri had ever been a kingdom," Harry said, accompanying her to the other end of the room. "Just independent principalities that have been at war with each other since they discovered they had neighbors."
Diana remained where she was, carefully taking down one jar after another to read the writing on the back. It disturbed Harry a little, made him wonder if his innocent- looking sister was leaning toward a degree in necromancy. He could just see her as one of Master Aravan's terrified and overworked apprentices.
"Quite true," Rheda said, coming to a halt before the crowning glory of the collection. It was on a marble pillar draped with black velvet, and cordoned off with brass-topped posts and heavy gold bellpull ropes. "This is King Calvin the First, Unifier of Glantri."
The statue had been broken on an angle, so Calvin was missing his right arm -- the set of his shoulder suggested that it had been upraised, possibly with the short cavalry saber so popular in Glantri -- and his chest and belly were split at a diagonal. But his upper torso, left arm to the elbow (this one made Harry surmise that it had been outstretched to hold reins), and his head were all intact.
"Never heard of him," Harry said.
"I'd be more surprised if you had."
He twitched as she idly reached behind him and patted his rear. With a small, impish smile, she left her hand where it was as she spoke.
"Calvin here was the prince of House Chimera. He had a large army and larger dreams, and set out to conquer all of his neighbors." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Do you remember agreeing to do a favor for me?"
Her hand was still on his backside. Across the room, Diana was engrossed with the death-jars, and Harry realized that Rheda had positioned them so that the pillar blocked them from the waist down so that her actions would be hidden even if Diana turned.
"I remember," he murmured.
"He was remarkably successful," she continued loudly. "So much so, in fact, that soon he had taken over all but one principality." Whispering again: "Your grandmother warned me about you."
"What did she say?" He almost forgot to keep his voice low, so added in a more normal speaking tone, "What happened then?"
"It was winter, and Glantri gets very muddy in the winter. To pass the time, Calvin started making arrangements for his coronation. He commissioned his crown, his new castle, and of course several statues of himself in heroic poses." Whisper: "She told me you were a lecherous young rakehell, overly charming, and the only course of study that really interested you was the bedroom arts."
He huffed disparagingly, which applied to both Calvin's presumptive pride and Grandmother's fairly accurate assessment.
"Then Calvin led his armies onto the field..." She paused, or would seem to from a distance as she whispered, "She wanted to warn me so that I could protect my servant girls."
"And he lost?" Harry asked, adding, "I'll just bet she did."
"Oh, he lost. He was trounced, chased halfway to the sea, and then cut down. With Calvin dead, the conquered princes or their heirs demanded that everything he'd left behind be destroyed. His flags were burned, his statues smashed."
Diana stepped out onto the balcony, and Harry dared speak normally.
"She never lets up. But... if she told you all that... why...?"
"Because, dear Harry, it was the best news I could have heard! Your grandmother's error was the same as yours -- she assumed that I would be just like Joanna and Pigeon. A fussy, slightly daffy middle-aged lady."
"I've never been more glad to be proved wrong," Harry said.
"Yes, it was wonderful news. Anson is an excellent provider, but his appetite has diminished while mine has increased. A healthy, lusty young man paying me a visit... how could I resist such a gift? And I thought it might also provide the solution to another problem. That's the favor I'd like to ask of you, Harry."
"What is it? I'm at your service, completely."
"It's my daughter."
"Yes, Othelia. She's nearly Diana's age, and I'm worried about her. When a girl is a little girl, no one pays her any mind. But when she starts to become a woman, things change."
"And as she's returning today, with Grandmother's warning well in mind --" he began sourly.
"Simply put, I want you to bed her."
His brows rose sharply. "Excuse me?"
"It's only a matter of time before someone does. I'd much rather have Othelia taken into womanhood enjoyably than rudely poked by a rancher or one of the servants, or even, gods help us, that slackjawed stepson of mine."
It wasn't often that Harry was struck speechless, and on the few occasions he was, it never lasted long. "Gods, am I hearing this?"
"You're young, handsome, experienced, and the sample I had last night tells me that you'll be an instructive and considerate lover to my Othelia. You won't be using her for your own selfish pleasure."
"But... sorry, this is all a little strange! Being asked to stay away from someone's daughter, that I could understand!"
"Think of it as a good deed. In olden days, the Dorianites used to make sure that all virgins were properly initiated, but times have changed and now we just have to make do."
Harry stared into the white marble orbs of King Calvin the First, but the long- dead Glantrian's expression of purposefully regal arrogance wasn't helpful.
His thoughts flashed back to what his mother and Aunt Pigeon had been saying. Now he could call up a mental image of Othelia as she'd been at that wedding, a homely, scrawny, gamin-faced child with an uncontrollable mass of hair so tightly curled it looked kinked and frizzed. All knees and elbows and lines and angles, nary a curve to be seen.
He'd always prided himself on seeing beauty in many different types of women. His tastes were not limited to a certain sort, not like Cray's consuming interest in only blondes. He had acquaintances who were drawn irresistibly to specific features like legs or breasts or bottoms, but Harry himself couldn't be classified by those means. Simply put, he liked beauty, in all its myriad forms.
His memory of Othelia, therefore, didn't much encourage him. He opened his mouth to suggest that her mother might be worrying needlessly, then closed it partly out of politeness and partly out of his knowledge that some men wouldn't care whether a woman were plain or homely or downright revolting so long as there was a receptacle they could fill. Drefan Byrtwold was probably one of those.
Rheda was watching him with impatience-tinged amusement. "If it's taking you this long to make up your mind, perhaps your grandmother was wrong about you after all. I didn't think I'd have to talk you into it."
How could he tell her that it wasn't any moral reservation that had him stumped, but the worry over whether or not he'd be able to go through with it once he got a look at her? Howie's adage about cats at night clanged in his brain like a bell. With the lights out, did it matter? An offer like this surely didn't come along often in a man's life. Turn down the chance to bed a virgin with her mother's full knowledge and permission? He'd be crazy to refuse!
"I'd be honored to do this favor for you," he said as modestly as he could manage.
She leaned close to kiss him, brushing her breasts against his chest. "Thank you."
"Though I'm not sure how I should go about it," he admitted. "Flirting with her in front of my family --"
"Oh, goodness, Harry, there's no need for that. You don't have to seduce her! Leave all the arrangements to me."
He goggled at her. "I don't think I'm following..."
"I'll explain everything to Othelia. Then, when the time is right... one of Anson's mares is due to foal soon and he and Drefan usually spend the night in the stable when that happens... I'll bring you to her room."
"You mean... just go to her, no romancing, no courting, just go to her in the night and... and..."
"And fuck her," Rheda said bluntly. "If it would make you more comfortable, I could stay."
"Ah... no... I don't think that would help, honestly. It's going to be odd enough without having her mother sitting there watching! For Othelia as well as for me. We'll muddle through somehow."
"You're such a darling, Harry! Just promise me you'll be as kind and gentle as you can."
"You have my word."
* * * * *
Concluded in Ch. 6