He sighed, resting his chin on his knees. "I've a younger, too, but they'd have made Mahieu stay. Mother's comfort, the youngest; Father's strength, the eldest. It's the one born in the middle goes to Cassiel. So they say, in Siovale.
Infants. They all look the same - pinched faces, batting red paws, mewling little things that can't even hold up their heads.
Chevalier Millard de Verreuil has got the knack of holding babies. It's an art. He's practiced it on Jehane and Luc - by the time Joscelin is born, he's quite the experienced father who doesn't cower in fear before the midwives.
"Fancy him in vambraces," he says aloud.
Ges stirs, mumbles something. Plaintive. The de Champchervier line, of which she is a member, is not as old as that of de Verreuil. It does not hold up it's most hallowed traditions. Ges, as any fond and foolish mother, does not - cannot - understand. He does.
"We pledged him to the Cassiline Brotherhood," he says, steel creeping into his tone. "We were agreed on this - if it was a son, he would be for Cassiel." He hesitates, takes the newborn to his mother. "We will have other sons, love."
And that is my consolation? Ges thinks, but holds her tongue. Millard is only a father. He does not - cannot - understand.
My mother was cast true to the mold of her House, honey-skinned and ebon-haired, with great dark eyes like black pearls.
When there's gold in the purse and the wife's tucked away in the Siovalese chateau, there's much merriment to be found in the City of Elua. A cold, white lord from the north, he takes his pleasure among the most sensuous of the whores of the Night Court - the honey-skinned Bhodistanis of Jasmine House, with their supple, scented limbs and heated blood.
He takes a girl of sixteen - Liliane de Souverain. Sensual and indolent - a plaything made for a weak head and strong passions.
Spent, they lie on silken bolsters in all the colours of flame - coquelicot, tangelo, fulvous. It is the hour for the idle pillow-talk of the Night Court - though he, a country noble, can provide aught of interest. He talks of the fields - "a good pear crop" - and his children, and she suppresses her yawns heroically.
"A Casseline?" she murmurs, wide-eyed, feigning interest. "My lord, you are a harsh father!"
He pats her head. Pretty child. "A quaint custom of the oldest provincial noble houses," he says, with a touch of pride. "We seal our second sons in the chastity of the Brotherhood - lackland sons can get into mischief. You Servants of Naamah pledge your daughters to the unbounded license of her service from birth."
"Perhaps we are not so different in that, you and I, my lord." Her bistre-black eyes dance. "My firstborn shall be for Jasmine House," she agrees, and kisses him so prettily that he empties his purse so that she might put it towards the making of her marque.
I swear, I do not know why children adore him so. Most adults have the sense to find him distant and off-putting.
Squeals of laughter and the world tipsy-topsy-turvying around them. He throws Jossy up in the air again.
"Take care you don't get too attached to him." Her voice is like ice. "After all, he's not long for us, is he?" Ges - pale and pretty, like a snowdrop. And just about as arousing. She lingers on the jasmines he's carefully coaxed into growing in the sunniest nook of the chateau. She snaps them apart and scatters the petals in the dirt.
"Verreuil's a small estate, but it's been in the family for six hundred years. Shemhazai's line, you know. We kept up the library, sent one son a generation to the Cassiline Brotherhood, and served the throne of Terre d'Ange as need required."
"Imri, I am human. It's just..." He shook his head, searching for words. "I was a middle son, and my family keeps the old traditions. I grew up knowing I was meant for Cassiel's service. In my father's household, one's word of honor was a sacred bond. When I swore my oath to the Cassiline Brotherhood, I meant it, every part."
He always put his sons to bed. It is the pleasantest half-hour of his day - braiding their wheat-gold hair, so like his own, singing them to bed by Skaldic epics and Hellenic lyrics alike. Siovale, after all, is a treasure-trove of learning. As other D'Angeline children grow up on the tales of Elua the Wanderer and Naamah the Pleasure-seeker, his boys grow up listening to the stories of Circe of Aenea and Thor who chained thunder.
"You have a new sister," he tells three-year-old Jos and five-year-old Luc. "Guess what we've named her?"
"Freyja," Luc answers promptly.
He laughs. "Eh, she'd be stoned alive for bearing the name of a pagan Skaldic goddess! No, it's Honore, your mother and I have decided upon. Do you know why?" He pauses impressively. "Because, to our way of thinking, it is the greatest of our gifts - the honor we bear. The honor of our ancient name, the honor of our blood - boys, always remember this."
Luc will bear the family escutcheon in times of war, and the ploughshare in peacetime. Jos - Jos was chosen from before birth for Cassiel.
An honor. A curse.
Siovale is the name of this province, and it is a prosperous one with a great tradition for learning, for Shemhazai ever treasured knowledge.
"No, Jos, it's not a C - it's a K."
"No! How many times do I have to tell you?" Nine-year-old Jehane leans back on her heels, scowling at her little brother. She's trying to teach him to read. With mixed results.
"Yes, K! You're lucky you were marked out for Cassiel, y'know - you'd be hopeless if you stayed at Siovale! Then you'd have to be smart, but at the Brotherhood they won't care if you're as thick as the Skaldians!" Nine is not kind. Nine isn't always right either.
Somewhere, my Cassiline had missed his calling as a player of no little renown. Hyacinthe had guessed better than he knew, when he put a Mendacant's cloak on Joscelin Verreuil.
They teach the girls to strum the lute and play pretty airs on the harpischord, as accompainment to polite after-supper conversations. They teach the boys how to fight with staffs, in preparation for the day that they will take up swords.
Lute and staff, harpischord and cudgel, Jos is a natural. A flamboyant natural.
While Luc and Mahieu leave off promenading before the mirror in their mother's borrowed finery as soon as they are made to understand that it isn't manly, Jos continues to sashay forth in flounces and frills. Once, Ges catches him curtseying to his reflection, quite buried in ballgown of yellow brocade, a tiara perched lopsidedly on his head, lace shawl slipping off his arms to the floor. "Why how do you do, Princess Isabel?" he simpers, "And me, you say? Why, most fine, indeed, thank you!"
"You're too ladylike," Luc says sulkily.
"What d'you want with play-swords and shields? Art of war, my foot - they're toys made for boors," Jehane says disdainfully.
"Nay," Ges says and kisses her second son, after he enacts a mock battle for her with more drama than skill. "He's our player, and one of these days he'll make Cassiel's wisest choice and run off with a black-eyed Tsingano. Won't you, my precious?"
"A girl? You mean, like Jehane?" Jos sticks out his tongue. "Ewwwwwwwwwwwwww!"
"Boor," Jehane observes loftily.
The parlour of Verreuil had the gracious, lived-in comfort one finds in old homes. The furnishings were fine, but worn; the carpets threadbare in spots. Still, the wood was lovingly polished with beeswax and fresh flowers adorned the room.
"Wine!" Uncle Aubert crows. He toasts his elder brother, Millard. "Tisn't oft I have the pleasure of drinking it - grown men, as we are, they treat us like children at the Brotherhood. Milk, water, and they put his to bed by the tenth hour..." He shakes his head.
"Suitable for monks," Millard quickly intercedes. "Not children, Aubert. Besides, I've never liked the taste of these fine wines myself - serfs grow stout and hearty on fresh milk, better than those pallid lordlings..."
"I like milk too!" Jos chirps.
I suppose you were raised to, Aubert thinks darkly. But he holds out his hand and a smile for his nephew. "So you're to follow in my pawprints, shaveling? The middle son to carry on the family honor, eh? That's the catechism your Da's raised you by?"
Jos glances uncertainly at his parents, unsettled by the harshness of his uncle's tone. Sharp-flecked, flinty jealousy of the hearth and home that he cannot claim. Resentment. "I want to become a Cassiline," Jos says stoutly.
"Aye," Aubert says softly, sipping his wine. "So you do, laddie. Now."
"You have a terrible temper, Joscelin Verreuil. You've just buried it in Cassiline discipline. And not all that well. I've seen it, Joscelin, I've seen you lose it, against the Skaldi. I've seen you fight like a cornered wolf, when you had no chance of winning. What's it like, that instant when you let it go? When you lash out, with everything in you, knowing you're going to be beaten to the ground? Is it a relief, to surrender to that?"
"Take that back!"
The shepherd boy leers back at the lordling. He's three inches taller, considerably thicker and equipped with a staff to the seven-year-old child's ornamental little dagger. "Shan't. Tis true, every last word of it - you're a ladyboy. Cook told me that they put you in your mother's dresses and that's why they're sending you away, so people shan't find out about your-" He doesn't get any further. Like a little wildcat, Joscelin pounces on him and then no words are needed.
Millard, who prides himself on being an egalitarian at heart, holds by the same rules for all. He'll have his sons whipped as he would any of the serfs' lads if they fight without cause. Still, it would have taken a harder man than him to whip the bruised and battered little scrap of a boy who came home, after his fight.
"What made you do it, Jos?" he asks, as tenderly as Ges would, as he rubs ice on the child's head.
Jos glowers defiantly. "He insulted me," he says stiffly, with a seven-year-old's petulance. "You said we have to fight if our honor's at stake. Mine was."
"He was considerably larger than you, and you acted the fool. Prudence is the better part of valour, you must remember."
"Yes, father," he says dutifully. Inwardly he seethes. That's one lesson he'll never learn at his father's knees - prudence. It will be the task of the woman he loves to teach him that.
"Courteous." She pulled a wry look. "Yes. Father is that. Well, he had the sense to realize that fate will out in the end, after Troyes-le-Mont. Mother was glad, though. She always mourned losing her middle son to the Cassilines."
She's thirteen, part-girl, part-woman. Small, for a Verreuil. Clever as Shemhazai, her father brags to the parents of potential husbands. Catlike, she curls up into places where she doesn't need to be. Like in her father's private study, for instance.
"Madame, I pray you will lower your voice." His voice is like frost. Cold. Courteous.
Hers sears like flame. She swears a blue streak. "Selling your daughters like chattel, pricing them for the marriage market! Jehane is thirteen, Honore five! What will they do with husbands now? Will you seek bids for Esme too, not a year old as she is?"
Coarse. Crude. A damned shame to have to bring daughters of other families into his peaceable, perfectly-ordered domain, just to bring heirs into the world. A lusty scullery maid, who knew her proper woman's place, would have suited him better.
But she isn't finished. "And your sons too! Have you no compassion for them? Joscelin, we won't see Joscelin for fifteen years! Do you think of that? Would you sacrifice your son in the name of your blasted family honor?"
"I am a loving father-"
"Oh yes, a loving father! You show all the outward appearances of that very well. Jos and Jehane got their players' streak from you, indeed! You call yourself egalitarian too, don't you? The serfs and the lords to sit at one table at mealtimes, aye? And then you turn right round and betroth your daughters when they're still children, exile your sons!"
She storms out and Millard sighs and sags wearily in his chair. Then he brings out ink and parchment and proceeds to write a letter to the Prefect of the Cassiline Brotherhood, stating that his middle son will be of age to attend the brotherhood in two years' time.
It held, touchingly, some few items of Joscelin's childhood — a Caerdicci primer with a cracked binding, a book of verse by the warrior-poet Martin Leger, a child's miniature hunting-horn. Jehane lingered, picking up the horn and examining it. "I gave this to him," she murmured. "For his ninth birthday. I had to beg the money from Luc to do it. I knew he'd only have a year to use it, before he was sent to the Cassilines."
Jos comes back from his first eyed, shining-eyed, apple-cheeked and half-frozen to death. He'd been mounted on a real horse - as he proudly repeated to the suitably impressed Honore and Mahieu -, not a pony. He'd brought down a dove. Yes, a real dove, fancy that.
"Bloodsport," Jehane comments dryly, peering up from a genealogical table. "Myself I've never much fancied it."
"You're a girl," Jos patiently explains.
Jehane clucks her tongue. "That wouldn't matter much, in Kuseth."
Jos suddenly remembers his duty and says, abruptly, "Thank you very much for the horn. It was splendid." Then he proceeds to give a blow-by-blow account of how he, Joscelin de Verreuil, was going to be the greatest hunter of all time and cut down the bears and boars of the snows and mountains so that the poor villagers would write songs about him and remember him for centuries, and how he was going to rescue the most beautiful princess in the world from a fat, ugly, nasty chevalier and...
Enjoy it while you can, Jehane thinks, pretending to listen to him. Her heart fills with tenderness for her little brother - tenderness and sorrow. There won't be any hunting, or any princesses, for that matter, not where father's sending you.
"I missed him the most, I think." Jehane set down the horn. "Mahieu was too young, and Luc... Luc never said it, but I think he was glad it wasn't him.
Ges had kept her promise - at Jos's parting there had been no tears. Seven-year-old Honore had hazarded a sniff but at her mother's glare, she'd ducked her head a moment and finally looked up with a piercingly bright smile. "I know you'll do us proud, Jos," she'd said instead of plaintively repeating that she'd miss him. She'd hugged him around the waist fiercely and Mahieu'd piled in as well.
When Joscelin finally emerged, Luc had cleared his throat and with a touch of embarrassment, clapped his brother on the shoulder. "Maybe you'll even be half a challenge for me, next time I see you," he said in his half-broken adolescent voice. The air of forced merriment sat ill on him and he did not quite manage to meet his brother's eyes. "We'll spar, eh?"
"We will," Joscelin agreed, "and I'll beat you."
"I'd like to see that," Luc said.
Last, Joscelin turned to his Ges and knelt for her blessing. "You have it, my son," she whispered, resting a hand on his fair hair, curling a loose strand that had escaped from his tight-woven braids. She had braided his hair for him this morning, for the last time perhaps. When he returned to her, if he ever did, he would no longer be the child with the piping voice who filched tarts from the pantry and stood scarce as high as her shoulder. He would belong to Cassiel and the world of men. "Always and always."
In the shadows, Millard cleared his throat very quietly. Partings were hard on all. He had no wish to see this one drag on. Joscelin rose slowly and let his mother's arms encircle him, let her kiss his cheeks and his forehead. Then she released him abruptly. "Go, my heart," she said, turning her head away so that he might not see the tears that had filled her eyes, "you are no longer only mine, but Cassiel's too."
Millard put his arm around the boy's narrow shoulders. "Come," he said gently, "we have a very long ride ahead of us, Joscelin."
The others did not follow them into the stone courtyard, where the horses stood ready-shod. Joscelin clambered up and began to breathe out slowly when he noticed his sister.
Jehanne sat, with perfect composure, on her dappled mare, her sweeping skirts hiding her legs. "Jehanne!" her father said, with a touch of annoyance, "what are you doing here, girl?"
"Going with Joscelin," she said coolly, her eyes daring him to challenge her. "I mean to accompany you to the monastery and see my brother settled in."
His brows knit in disapproval. "It will be unnecessarily hard on the boy-"
"Jos," she said, turning to her brother. "Will it? If it will, I will leave at once."
"No," he said, beaming from ear to ear. "No it won't, Jehanne. Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Relief sweeps over him in a rush, he will not have to see goodbye, not yet. Millard scowls, but says nothing.
"Well then, father," she says, clicking her tongue to her mare, "what are we waiting for then? As you said, we have a long ride ahead of us." And behind his back, she gives Joscelin a teasing smile.