Title: Testing the Cage Ch 4/4
Disclaimer: All standard disclaimers apply. They're not mine and I'm not making a red cent.
Summary: Kalasin has news for Kaddar. A marriage faces its most serious tests to date via a pregnancy and a miscarriage. Kalasin/Kaddar, or Kallydar
The morning after they made love for the first time in four months, Kalasin beseeched her husband: "Take me away from here. I think I can get better, if only I get away from this place and these memories."
Because he was willing to do anything to get Kally back (he barely recognized the frigid, fragile woman in the bed beside him when he compared her to his memory of the naive, sweet girl he had married), Kaddar agreed. "We'll go to our estate in Chelogu. You've never seen it before, but you'll love it. There's a palace overlooking the sea. We'll even arrange for you to go swimming, if you'd like."
"Yes, please." She said, hopefully, though tentatively. "Yes, if you think we won't repeat what happened on our honeymoon."
Kaddar chuckled then, and wished he felt free to tweak a lock of her wavy, lustrous black hair. She was looking more like herself these days—she'd gained back a little of the weight she had lost, and her skin was brighter, her hair less lank. Overall, she seemed healthy "Goddess, what I wouldn't give for a sketch of the Duke's face when he realized which selkie foreigner was taking the water without a veil to cover her face."
Kalasin tried to smile too, but her heart wasn't in it. "You didn't have to face the man across the dinner table that night. I think he managed three words, and those were spoken while he watched a point over my head."
"Only while you were looking." Kaddar told her. "Whenever you glanced away, he stared. Trying to figure out if I was bewitched or just damned lucky."
"I don't remember that." Kalasin yawned, rather like a cat.
Kaddar watched her stretch and arch, then grab a robe from the edge of the bed and pull it over her nightgown. It reminded him of the first intoxicating weeks after their marriage, when he and Kalasin spent mornings discovering each other's bodies the way a child discovers a new toy. He'd been sleeping like the dead after one of those nights (long days and long nights soothed him into the sweetest sleep he'd ever enjoyed as the Emperor), when Kalasin got the idea to run outside and get her feet wet. She had slipped past the guards—not deliberately, she swore, though he had his doubts—and ran down to the narrow strand. She slipped off her shoes, veil, and gown, and then the Empress dove into the water.
As if swimming alone in the predawn light weren't dangerous enough, the situation got worse.
As far as Kaddar could tell, around the time Kalasin began to come in, Zaimid's father, the brother of Kaddar's father, was outside for his morning walk. The elderly duke had been in bed by the time the Emperor and his bride arrived the night before, and his failing health prevented him from attending the wedding—which was one reason they were visiting.
So the duke had stumbled across the naked-by-Carthaki-standards Kalasin (she was wearing a chemise, but it was wet and didn't do much for her modesty), and been struck by her beauty (as almost every man was). The duke had seen that she was a foreigner, and decided that either she was a runaway slave washed ashore or a legendary sea goddess/Immortal, sent to lure landsmen to their deaths. Either way, the duke thought it meant trouble, so while he tried to menace her with a gnarled finger, Kalasin tried to reason with him over the waves and the duke's unfortunate humming (meant to block the sea witch's song, which would tempt the duke to his drowning death).
By then, Kaddar was used to Kally waking up and leaving the bed first, but he'd never witnessed her panic. He rolled out of bed, looking around the suite to find her. Failing that, he opened a window, and heard voices and the surf. Then, clear as day, and he never could explain how, he heard Kalasin's voice, as though they were side by side. At the sound of her raised voice, he'd run out to see what was the matter—but he was still wearing what he'd been wearing the night before—namely, his nose button, ring and earrings. Kaddar's most loyal guard followed the streaking Emperor to the beach, convinced that all Chaos was breaking loose.
On seeing the duke shouting a song, Kalasin crouching in the surf, and her gown and veil floating away in the wind, the Emperor had run down the beach to explain to his laughing bodyguard that summoning the house guard was completely unnecessary, because the new and jealous husband didn't want to gouge out the eyes of every man who saw his wife. And then Kaddar realized that he was wearing significantly less than his wife.
It was a moment Kyprioth, capricious trickster and god of the sea, could not have planned better. For all the Emperor knew, the god might have, though he was allegedly rather busy in the Copper Isles.
At the eye gouging, Kalasin had protested, the duke had turned his back, and Kaddar had thrown Kalasin's gown to her. He covered himself with her veil (it was a bit sheer for his tastes) and tried to look Imperial and dignified, while holding a piece of tulle over his manhood. Nothing like this had happened to him since his drinking days in the University, before he'd been declared heir. He felt like a fool. Kalasin covered herself and emerged, dripping and giggling, to make the honored duke's acquaintance. She curtsied to him, as regally as if they had been at court and her in her finest garb. At that point, the bodyguards had retreated, before they lost their positions for howling in mirth.
The poor Duke, who remembered well the fate of men who had committed far lesser offenses against Ozorne, his brother's brother-in-law, was flushed and trembling. The Empress apologized humbly for confusing him, thanked him for the use of his beach and his hospitality, and allowed her husband to hustle her away. The pair of them collapsed in their rooms, almost in hysterics about the disaster.
That night at the banquet, Kaddar's uncle had never met Kalasin's eyes. But when the ladies left the men to drinks and cigars, the duke clapped the Emperor on the shoulders and declared. "You're a lucky man. That's a damn fine woman." And Kaddar wasn't sure if Kalasin's physical attributes or her humor and poise had won the crusty duke's approval.
"I know." Kaddar had grinned wolfishly. The other men had nodded appreciatively; if the Emperor had had to sign a treaty that said he would only take one wife, there was little doubt that, based on looks alone, most of the men there present would've put up a good argument for Kalasin. There was something unreal in the union of that hair, those eyes, the exquisite facial features, and that figure… Not that many of them knew personally, but their active imaginations served up a host of possibilities for what lay under the robes and veils. The transparent veils were more a custom or a formality with her—and many of them had seen her face before she adopted Carthaki fashions. So there was great appreciation for even the hint of a ribald comment.
Kalasin hadn't gone swimming for the remainder of their honeymoon, which Kaddar thought was a real shame, because the moment he saw her in the surf, hair loose and wild, eyes alive with enjoyment, trying to reason with an (apparently mad) humming man, the Emperor felt the first stirring of love.
The emotion went deeper than the respect and admiration he had developed for her over their engagement, when he realized she knew her trade. It went deeper than the lust that seized him behind their locked doors at night. It united both, and added a mysterious element, an element of wanting desperately to know what this fascinating person would do next and pleasure in her company.
He was beginning to understand that love wasn't all ballads and beauty. Love was a choice, a habit, and a commitment. Love was a war, sometimes against the self and sometimes against the lover, often against boredom or wandering eyes. It was a struggle to keep something alive and growing when many forces sought to stunt it. It was a battle not for mere passion or happiness—overused words. Kaddar had realized that loving Kalasin was no longer a matter of emotional state; it was as natural and perfect as breathing.
"We can leave tomorrow." Kaddar told her, a bit sadly, because she wasn't the girl who laughed in the waves and she wasn't the girl who cried over letters. She was as good as a stranger to him. And he loved and would fight for the woman he had known, but he was still unsure about this stranger.
"That soon?" She looked mildly surprised.
"I've been thinking a change of pace would be good. Most of the nobles have left the capital for their summer estates—we might as well." Kaddar swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. "You planning to leave the room today?" The question slipped out with a bit more judgment than he intended.
"Yes." Kalasin found a cigarette (a dried leaf rolled in a paper) in a bedside chest and lit the end with her Gift. "You mother sent these as a present. I thought I would go and thank her and visit her. Briefly."
"Those things are awful." Kaddar wrinkled his nose and waved a hand at the smoke. He didn't mind the ritual of cigars after dinner (tobacco was a major crop this decade), but he hated to see a woman smoke and he hated the stench of the slender cigarettes.
She inhaled the smoke. "We have seven months to go before my womb can conceive anything. I think my body can deal with a little poison. Besides, it's relaxing."
Kaddar frowned and set his lips. "Do you mind doing that outside, at least? It's impossible to get the smell out. Trust me, I grew up with…Aaminah smoked. So does my mother."
Kalasin exhaled smoke, then stubbed out the cigarette without saying a word. Aaminah had died in childbirth. The four-month anniversary of her loss was approaching rapidly; Kalasin hadn't seen Aaminah's husband, Mbizi, since her own miscarriage. She looked at her husband.
"Mbizi lodged a petition. After his twelve months of grieving are over, he wants to take another wife." Kaddar looked disgusted, "My sister is barely cold…"
"I know." Kalasin said softly, looking at her feet. She paused, then tossed the unlit cigarettes to him. "I won't smoke anymore. Haven't had the time to get into the habit fully, anyway. Your mother gave them to me. Said they're more calming than healer's potions. And less addictive than that one that dulls the pain and makes you sleep. I've slept enough."
He couldn't disagree with that, but he still hated the cigarettes. "And they stink worse than a healer's tea, too. If she asks, tell her I forbade it. She'll respect that."
"And she'll think I'm a good, obedient wife, and exactly what she wants from a daughter-in-law, even though I haven't given you an heir and it's been longer than a year?" Kalasin said, a bit caustically.
"I'm going to bathe." Kaddar announced, rather than continue the conversation. Why was everything so difficult with Kalasin lately? Why couldn't they simply laugh together, like they did before?
He understood that marriage was a choice, deeper than their love, more binding than mere affection, in which it is necessary to support your partner even when you want to take the easy road and leave. That day, marriage was his prison and his order, his reason for being and his reason for doubting.
Kalasin returned to the bed for another half an hour after he left. Every interaction was draining. It had been awkward, but comparatively effortless, before, to wake beside him and to slip away to stretch and exercise.
Kalasin almost groaned at the thought of beginning her morning routine again—her out-of-shape body was going to protest, as it almost never had before. But what was the point of being in shape, really? She had bodyguards to preserve her life, and her looks were meaningless. Kaddar would leave if he decided leave, and stay if he chose that (she didn't really believe he would stay, because who wanted to be married to a failure?). Her subconscious hurled knives and stones at the raw and aching wound that had grown over the void inside her.
It takes another six months before Kalasin convinced herself that her husband really isn't going to leave her; that he wasn't having an affair with Varice Kingsford during Kalasin's depression, that he has forgiven her failure, that maybe he had never blamed her at all.
At that point, Kalasin embraced what she had thought of as her cage—accepted the bodyguards (keepers) and the heavy protective jewelry (shackles) and the clothing (a bird should be brightly feathered) and the Court (the aviary where people come to watch her). She feels glad to be Kaddar's bird rather than a bird during the reign of Ozorne. In Ozorne's aviary, the bars were less visible, so the birds almost forgot they were being kept to please a madman. In Kaddar's reign, the bars are visible, and the cage is gilded prettily, and she chose it. She entered into this captivity on the day the married the emperor. And though she can warble plaintively, she cannot complain. There is no escape from this marriage and this role. Even if the door to her cage opened, Kally would not recognize it, would not know how to exploit the opportunity for freedom.
The gods loved the birds, and so they created trees. Men loved birds and they made cages. She wondered what philosopher or priest or poet told her that, and realized it mattered little. She was not free, but there were no hunters inside her cage. She never went hungry and she did not have to search far and wide for her food. She is not always free to, but she is free from.
So she amuses the observers, as a good caged bird should. She makes pleasant sounds and she visits different perches and she preens her feathers. All the while, the Empress resolves that next time, next time she will protect her little egg and her little nest far, far better. She will keep it secret from the watchers, and she will revel in the safety of the cage, instead of raging at the events beyond her filigreed palace.