“He really said that? To you?”
“Well – not in such a bold voice as mine,” Aîchylos amended with a hearty laugh. He placed his feet on the table and tilted his head back to empty his tankard, balancing on the back two legs of his chair. Closing his eyes, he felt a hand on his chest and fingers running through his hair – which temptress they belonged to, however, he couldn’t tell. Someone grabbed hold of his foot, and shook him.
“Aîchylos! What happened then? Surely you hit him?”
“I won’t pretend it didn’t cross my mind,” Aîchylos said, and he smirked to himself as the group around him became restless with impatience for his story. He grinned and finished, “I told him he might ask the Masked Lords instead.”
The table exploded with laughter, and Aîchylos let all four legs of his chair clunk to the floor. He leaned to his left, wrapped an arm around the nearest woman’s waist, and his mouth around the corner of her jaw. A moment later, however, he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“Aîchylos, we should go.”
He groaned; “Should we?”
“You’re already late.”
“Sune’s tits,” Aîchylos grumbled, and he extracted himself with difficulty from the whores of the City of the Dead. He dragged his feet as he followed his friend, Huntlord, to the door, and once outside he muttered, “You are such a bitch, Huntlord; it’s like I’ve always got the Voice of Reason pulling at my elbow.”
“Considering you’re a man late for his own wedding, I’d say you probably need to hear the Voice of Reason on occasion.”
“It’s not as though this marriage was my idea.”
“Be that as it may, I’m bored of watching you tell old stories to fresh girls.”
“So you’d rather I was forced to tell them to the same girl?” Aîchylos asked with a sneer, wrinkling his brow, and while Huntlord laughed, he grumbled, “Besides, I have plenty of stories you haven’t heard.”
“Ha! Yeah, right.”
“What about last week when we – ?”
“Arrested the Halfling?” Huntlord guessed as they walked. “Oh yes – one of the Buckleswashers, wasn’t it? Everyone’s heard about that. It’s all exaggeration. In fact… I heard you weren’t even there.”
Aîchylos’ mouth fell open, but before he could get a sound out, Huntlord started to laugh, and slapped him on the back. Aîchylos glowered at him.
“Very funny. You’re an ass.”
“I think tonight will make a much better story,” Huntlord said, but Aîchylos shook his head. He wrapped an arm around his friend, and chuckled.
“I think tonight is a good reason for another drink.”
“You’ve had enough,” Huntlord laughed, and when Aîchylos leaned more weight on him he added with another laugh, “Depending on the wife your father’s picked out for you.”
Aîchylos cursed and shoved his friend away, and they staggered together along High Road before turning left on Vondil, right on Diamond and then dragging their feet through the alleys until they reached the Temple of Beauty. Aîchylos paused to stare up at three floors of immaculately-carved columns, incredible mosaics and stone mouldings. His awe, however, was interrupted by angry footsteps and the outrage of his father, Kanavant Artifice.
“Are you out of your mind?” the old man rasped as he made his way down the steps. His beard and his fine silks swayed as he made his way into the street; he had a bundle of clothes in the hand he wasn’t waving emphatically. “Have you any idea what time it is?”
“Not exactly,” Aîchylos admitted with a shrug. Kanavant didn’t think it was funny; he scowled, and plucked at the front of his son’s uniform. Aîchylos stepped back. “Father – ”
“If you do anything in the next few minutes, Aîchylos, you will be quiet and you will allow me to make you look presentable,” Kanavant insisted, already working his nimble fingers around the buttons of the Watch uniform. Aîchylos glanced at Huntlord, but his friend was no help: he grinned, lifted both palms and fled inside the temple. Kanavant spat, “We’ve been waiting nearly an hour.”
“Would you have waited longer?” Aîchylos wondered, but he fell silent when his father shot him the same warning look he’d had pasted on his face for years. He shifted his weight from foot to foot while Kanavant stripped him of his weapons – all but the knife he kept tucked in his boot – his armour and uniform, and replaced it with the softer, lighter material of a fine shift and long coat. He was careful to pull the sleeves straight, but failed to completely cover the scars and tattoos of Aîchylos’ left arm and hand.
“Must you be so disfigured..?” he muttered distastefully, tugging at the sleeve, but Aîchylos only chuckled.
“You tell your stories with paintings, father; I tell mine with my body,” he said, and he tilted his head back to expose the wide claw scar that trailed along the underside of his jaw and neck – his favourite. Kanavant frowned, then immediately reached up to tie a dark collar and laced ruff around his neck. Aîchylos sneered. “Ugh – what is that?”
“I could ask the same about your breath,” Kanavant said neatly, then he turned his back and headed into the temple. “Come inside.”
Aîchylos delayed for some time in the street, until one of his father’s servants came out to collect the discarded armour, weapons and uniform.
“They’re still waiting,” the boy murmured quietly as he crouched at Aîchylos’ feet, so the betrothed heaved a sigh and dragged his feet up the steps. He felt a nervous wriggle in his stomach as he passed the threshold, but when the golden light of the temple’s candles hit him, he stretched his mouth into the shape of a smile, and strode down the aisle between the seated guests. Most of them were looking restless, and all of them were looking at him. His smile became more and more real as he made his way past old friends and other members of the Watch; he shook their hands and delayed again until he caught his father’s eye from the altar. Nearby stood his bride.
She was short, and she had her back to him. She wore a dark dress, but it was mostly covered by long, red robes, trimmed in gold, and a deep hood was draped over her head. Aîchylos frowned, and walked up to stand beside her. He placed one hand on the altar, already littered with fresh flowers, coins, shells, jewelry, silks and other gifts people had deemed beautiful enough to leave at the altar of Sune. Aîchylos glanced sideways; he still couldn’t see her face, but her hand was strong and square – not feminine at all.
What followed was an eternity of long speeches filled with long words. Had it not been for the altar, Aîchylos thought it was likely he would have lost his balance and fallen asleep. He let his eyes and his mind wander, and by the end, he felt totally and unpleasantly sober – only then was he finally asked to turn. His feet complied. He stepped towards his bride, and when she turned towards him, he ducked his hands under her hood. Her hair was soft. He lifted the fabric – the hood fell away – and he laughed.
“Father, you have married me to a fish!”
The temple erupted. There was laughter, shouting and movement, and Aîchylos smiled. He felt the fabric of the embroidered hood between his thumb and forefinger, and the fish’s deep, black eyes widened. Her little eyebrows rose and her wide mouth fell open in horror. She jerked her hood from his hands and made to run off, but Aîchylos grabbed her wrist, and grinned.
“I’m afraid, my dear, that we are married now,” he said, then ducked to kiss her. Her lips were narrow but soft, and she smelled like something familiar, but he hadn’t figured it out before he was torn away by his laughing friends. He released his grip on his wife to receive their handshakes, and after that she was lost in the sea of guests – half of them outraged and half of them celebrating. Aîchylos moved with the latter half to the nearby park, decorated for the occasion.
Hours passed in celebration, as did innumerable bottles, before Aîchylos was interrupted from a game of knives by his father, who placed a long hand on his shoulder and spun him around.
“Walk with me.”
“Father,” Aîchylos began, but the old man was already walking away, and so Aîchylos waved to his fellows and followed along. “What is it now?”
“What happened to your fraise?”
Aîchylos reached up to touch his neck, but couldn’t remember where the ruff and collar had gone. He glanced about himself – as though peering at the other lantern-lit guests, half-eaten food and littered tables might help – but could only shrug in reply.
“It was bothering me.”
“Of course,” Kanavant grumbled. They walked to what felt like the opposite end of the park before the old man stopped near a table that was slightly larger than the rest – an area that was surprisingly peopled despite the fact that many guests had stormed off after the ceremony. He turned, and held out a tall glass of pale wine. Aîchylos, who had been drinking from bottles previously, studied the vessel briefly before taking it. His father folded his arms. “You were very rude.”
Aîchylos drank some wine and wrinkled his nose. It was watered. He swallowed and said with a grimace, “I was honest.”
“Her father isn’t very impressed,” Kanavant said next, and while he stopped there, the implication was that he wasn’t impressed, either. Aîchylos couldn’t help but chuckle.
“I wouldn’t be impressed either, if I had a daughter that looked like her!”
Kanavant put his face in his hands, and shook his head. While he seemed to be at a loss for words, Aîchylos took the opportunity to finish his glass, and poured himself another from a nearby bottle. Eventually his father said, “Listen, Aîchylos: I know you, and I know that you can see beauty in plenty of places even if you abhor art – in weapons, or battle, or dreary taverns, if you wish. I believe that if you look for it, you will find it here, as well. Look, I painted you this.”
He bent, uncovered and lifted a nearby painting; it was impressive work, as all Kanavant’s paintings were, displaying Aîchylos and his new wife outside the Artifice estate. Aîchylos frowned.
“I don’t remember standing for this.”
“Would you if you had?” Kanavant asked, and Aîchylos got the feeling it was a rhetorical question. His father went on to explain, “Your face comes quite easily to my mind, so I didn’t need you. Besides, I could never have had you sit still for as long as she did.”
Aîchylos finished looking at himself, then his eyes shifted to the cod-like creature next to him. She seemed somehow less pelagic in the painting, so he smiled.
“She looks much better here, in this light.”
“That isn’t the point, Aîchylos.”
“Mind you, I think you’ve taken some liberties – you saw fit not to paint some of my scars, I see.”
Kanavant sighed; “You, my son, are like a lion.”
Aîchylos finally looked up from the painting, lifting his eyebrows.
“Really, father? Thank-you; I don’t think you’ve said a word of praise such as that in years. You know, you don’t have to be kind to me just because it’s my – ”
“You are strong,” Kanavant interrupted quietly, but his voice filled the void between them, and was suddenly the only sound Aîchylos could hear. “And fierce.”
“Thank-you,” Aîchylos said again – less sarcastic this time – but Kanavant hadn’t finished.
“And proud,” he said, and he sneered. “But under everything, you are still nothing but a stupid animal.”
Aîchylos froze, and repeated, “An animal.”
“Yes; at least your ears are working.”
“Indeed!” Aîchylos growled, waving his glass. “An animal? This from the man who drove his own wife to drink? To dangle?”
“Aîchylos – ”
“Perhaps you don’t remember, wise one, that it was I who found her, hanging from the rafters of our – ?”
“No, it isn’t!” Aîchylos shouted, and he slammed the empty wine glass down onto the table. He felt the fragile blown glass break in his hand, but it was a minor detail compared to the crowd that was gathering around them, and the satisfyingly furious look on his father’s face. He spat and went on, “Not nearly! If I am a lion then you are a rat, sneaking ‘round in the dark with your whores and your lonely ladies – even if you paint the prettiest of pictures by day it is not enough to cover your filthy tracks. Mother knew it, I know it, and now, our friends know it as well! Everyone! Please – a round of applause for my father, who convinced me to wed despite his true treatment of marriage – what a tongue he must have in that wrinkled old mouth of his!”
“You little wretch,” Kanavant spat, but Aîchylos only chuckled.
“Oh, father; honestly, I will love my wife – faithfully – until the end of us,” he said, then added with a smile, “Even if you did drag her on a hook from the depths of the harbour.”
“You are an embarrassment, Aîchylos,” Kanavant hissed. “Were it not for those hideous scars of yours, I would hardly know my own son.”
“You never have!”
“You are a beast.”
“And you are no longer a guest at this party,” Aîchylos decided. “Guards! Remove him!”
It was long minutes before the general tumult subsided; Kanavant left peacefully, which was a bit of a disappointment considering how many helpful members of the city’s Watch were milling about the party. Aîchylos heaved a sigh and picked up a nearby bottle, but soon felt a hand in the small of his back. When he turned around it was to find his new wife, wearing only her dark dress and carrying a cloth. Wordlessly, she took his empty hand by the fingers and gently blotted his blood with the cloth.
“I can do that myself,” Aîchylos muttered.
“Sit,” was the fish’s reply, so Aîchylos sat. He drank, and he watched as she knelt before him and removed the cloth, then began to carefully pick the shards of glass from the pads of his fingers. Her eyes were red from crying; she didn’t look up at him, but asked eventually, “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“That you will love me?”
“I’m not a liar,” Aîchylos said, and his wife smirked.
“I have heard that.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I have heard, more precisely, that you’re not clever enough to tell a good lie,” she said, and when Aîchylos started to pull away, her fingers tightened around his hand, and she went on quickly, “No matter; I prefer to be called ugly than to have it whispered behind my back.”
“I never called you ugly,” Aîchylos said, and he felt his neck get hot. Still picking glass from his hand, his wife raised her eyebrows.
“You called me a fish.”
“Some fish are…” Aîchylos began, but he couldn’t think of a fish that wasn’t ugly, and he had seen plenty of fish before. He frowned, and changed the subject. “What’s your name?”
“Morganne,” she said, and laughed. “Weren’t you listening at the temple?”
“How do you know, then, that you are not my wife?” she asked, and Aîchylos glowered.
“That’s not really how it works,” he said, and Morganne finished picking out the glass. She wrapped the cloth firmly around his palm, and pressed his bloody fingers closed around it. Then she looked up.
“I want to hear you say it.”
“That you love me.”
“But…” Aîchylos hesitated, and he waited for his stare to scare her off, but Morganne was unfazed and unmoved. She touched his jaw, and swept his hair from his face.
“You see,” she explained slowly, as though to a child, “If you say it, at least I can hope you won’t make yourself a liar.”
She was staring at him, so Aîchylos looked away, and forced his most casual of shrugs.
“Very well,” he said, and rolled his eyes as he recited, “I love you.”