Snap son, this looks like a job for NaNoWriMo.
I can't promise it's fabulous (or even grammatically correct), but I can promise it's fantasy with sufficient gayness and vague Chinese undertones. Also, political intrigue in lieu of quests. Also, arranged marriages. Also, possible sexy times but whoooo knows.
One day in spring, the Farmer Brade loaded his only son onto an oxcart and sent him away. Seandri sat amidst what was supposed to be his dowry — if such a meager showing of pottery and blue carrots could be considered a dowry — and bounced along the unpaved path, swathed in a yellow blanket against the chill. The broad-shouldered oxcart driver counted the smudged copper coins and dropped them into his rucksack with a clink.
All of this had been so sudden. Seandri remembered the first conversation well: they'd been sitting around the wooden table in the dim oil-lamp light of winter, and his father had announced that he'd secured Seandri a marriage to the second son of the duke of Hare province. "You will never get another opportunity like this," he had said. "This is a great honor."
Stern-faced Laudia, his nearest sister, had smiled and taken his hands in hers. "Hare's magical line is unrivaled," she whispered, her hazel eyes wide with awe. "You will inherit all of that."
True, Hare could still claim their line as vital, just as they could claim a bankrupt aristocracy and scandalous court. Seandri would enter the fold, marry an unremarkable wayward son, and spend his life in a distant desert. Of the twelve provinces, Hare was among the smallest, second only to Rooster in the west. It boasted almost no military, except for an elite guard of elemental magic users, but even those had become a farce, a collection of mercenaries and out-of-work wardens.
His other sallow-cheeked siblings peered at his as if he were some foreign creature, eyes mistrustful and curious at once. Even as he balked at the idea of leaving his family so early, he imagined their cheeks growing lustrous as wild mushrooms. Honor indeed, paid in gold and rice.
And so he had gone.
The oxcart bumped down the road, rattling the sacks of plates and dishes against each other. Seandri watched the mountains level and felt the air grow warmer around him. By the end of the first day, ibex no longer dotted the steep path, replaced by mangy coyotes and greasy ravens creeping from the smothering shroud of night. He shut his eyes against the darkness and let the rhythm of the oxen's hooves lull him to sleep.
Days began to blur into one another. The driver made good company, and he knew a lot of war stories to match his many scars. "When I was in the army," he said, leaning against his bench and swaying with the oxen's steady gait, "we had to spend weeks on these things. I never thought I'd be driving one."
On the short, sticky nights, Seandri dreamed fitfully. The images came in bursts of color and form, indistinguishable from one another as sunrise rivers, yanking him from one half-formed fantasy to another. Try as he might, he could not stitch together the many threads of dreaming. Instead, he rolled over on the wooden platform, improvising a pillow from a sack of lumpy potatoes.
When he woke, his eyes met the pinkish-gray light of dawn. His neck ached. They had stopped beside a pond shaded by cricket trees, and the unhooked oxen drank greedily from the blue-green water. The driver sat on a flat stone, smoking heady tobacco from a wooden pipe with a chip in the bowl.
To the north, mountains dipped on the horizon, purplish and hazy in their distance. To the south, the path twisted through acres of golden hills and grassland. "Where are we?" Seandri asked, sloughing off the blanket and rolling his shoulders out experimentally.
"Maybe ten kilometers from the House of Hare," said the driver. A stout man with determined, chiseled features, he scowled from beneath his beard and drank from a flask at his hip. "Will you need help carrying all this in from the road?"
Seandri bristled and squared his shoulders. "No," he said. After all, he had carried them out to the cart when they left his family's house. "I'll just make two trips."
The driver dumped out his pipe in the pond and settled back atop the cart. He urged the animals forward and they complied, lumbering over the gravel road. It bumped significantly less than it had the day prior, and Seandri was grateful to be able to sit up without having to clutch the railing for anchor. The stark landscape sprawled around them, all cliffs and shades of brown. Half-hidden buffalo grazed on the high grass.
Seandri caught the smell of chili peppers and seared meat on the south wind long before the house rose out of the earth like a great monolith. His eyes and mouth watered. The oxcart driver paused before the great iron gate and waited patiently for inquiry.
"Who are you?" asked the towheaded gate guard. He held himself with the canniness of youth, and Seandri suppressed a wistful sigh, although he dismissed the sensation quickly. Not very impressive, for a grand entrance: just a little guard's box and a marble statue of a round, smiling woman. Beside her, a cricket cage housed a single, flickering candle.
"Lan Kai's betrothed," the oxcart driver said. He twirled his mustache between two fingers, which Seandri through made him look thoroughly untrustworthy. "He has just arrived from the north."
"We've been notified of your arrival." The guard motioned Seandri off the cart and over to the box. "You have to swear an oath of identity." Vapid up close, tired and pale. "Let me see your palm."
Seandri reluctantly complied. The guard withdrew a thin silver scalpel from one of his pockets and slashed it across Seandri's palm, drawing a thin line of scarlet blood to the surface. Seandri bit the inside of his cheek so hard that bled too, but at the driver's stern expression, he let the guard press his bleeding palm against the statue.
For a moment, they stood in silence, waiting. The candle twitched a little and the guard stared at it intently. The light dimmed and the guard examined it critically. The oxcart driver's shoulders tensed. Seandri squirmed, watching the wick burn. The flame hesitated a moment before bursting back to life in a fit of orange.
Satisfied with the result of the oath, the tawny boy cranked open the great metal gate. "You're free to enter," he said.
Seandri sat beside the oxcart driver, nursing his bleeding hand. "What was that?" he asked, glancing reproachfully over his shoulder at the gate.
"Blood magic. If the candle stays lit, it proves you are who you said you are."
"And if I hadn't been?"
"May the goddess strike you down."
They wove through the cinnamon-spiced corridors of the walled village. Thin-faced merchants sold their brightly-colored wears, calling out in Cant. "Potapples! Gem whilst thesh!" they beckoned. "Mo' delucious non." Seandri could make out some of it, although the dialect sounded a little different than the one the transients back home had spoken. Grubby hands offered him trinkets.
"You'll have plenty of useless toys when you get there," the driver growled. He smacked a spindly man who touched one of the oxen. "Get your greasy paws off my animal, you beast."
Seandri breathed a sigh of relief when they began the long trek down the road to the House of Hare. It loomed on the apex of the hill, looking down on its subjects from behind a second set of white walls. Roses and orange lilies sprung up along the path. A hundred austere stairs lead up to the wooden gate.
"This is as far as I'll take you, then," the driver said. He bowed his head politely.
Seandri shouldered the carrots and pottery and found himself able to carry the load without too much trouble. "Thank you," he said, offering up a wide-mouthed grin and his own small bow.
The oxcart driver's scarred mouth moved likewise. "Good luck, Lord Seandri."
He had gone to court once before, a year prior.
"You're of age now," his father had said as he saddled up the three tired mares in the stable and packed them with turnips and hard biscuits. They had had money enough, then, before the drought worsened and the last of their crops had failed. "It's time for you to start thinking about having a family."
As many acres of land as they owned, they lacked both surname and magic, a dilemma solved with an auspicious marriage to a noble family. Out of all his children, the Farmer Brade thought Seandri and Laudia the most pleasing, intelligent and well-mannered as they were, and so brought them to court when he visited that summer.
The house looked much the same as it had then, although without the swarms of foreigners that accompanied the summer festival. Seandri stood in the cavernous room with its teak beams and vaulted ceilings. Candles in a range of pinks and purples cast flitting shadows on the walls.
"You must be Seandri. Welcome."
Servants surrounded him as ravenous vultures. Although he relinquished the hefty sacks of cookware and tubers, he held tight to his personal baggage and refused their offers to carry it for him— he didn't trust the pleasantness with which they smiled or the coyness with which they whispered behind their hands. "I can carry these myself," he said, balancing one of the sacks on his hip. "That was just my dowry."
"I didn't know we still required dowries," the tallest one said. She had the thin eyes of an westerner and black hair plaited in a braid that hung down her back. The paleness of her skin rivaled his own, and she stood out among her southern peers. "We've prepared temporary quarters for you. Perhaps you'd like to rest before we reconvene for dinner?"
She spoke with an affected polish, a carefully constructed politeness that Seandri had encountered only in novels. Perhaps everyone associated with nobility spoke like that, he wouldn't know, having visited the court but once previously. He followed her down the alabaster hallways to a great staircase made of bamboo and stone, but they didn't climb it: instead, the servant lead him away from the vaguely familiar and through the steaming kitchen. Throngs of white-clad chefs crowded around the iron stoves, pausing just briefly to gape at Seandri as he passed. The sharp tang of oranges and chilies permeated the air.
The hallways thinned and darkened. "Servant's quarters, we're afraid," the tall servant said. "Obviously, once you're married you won't be sleeping down here."
Seandri considered what his married life would look like. He'd never imagined himself as married, as half of one whole, as bound in something as permanent as matrimony to someone who might make only a mediocre match. He'd stood in line for ale behind Lan Kai, second son of the Duke Lan Brenjam, and that was as far as their interaction had gone. He knew that Lan Kai smoked tobacco and had a thin, silvery scar that sliced across his eyebrow, that he bet on horses but preferred cards, that he'd fathered more illegitimate children than a homeless dog. And yet, that was all he knew: rumors and superficial observations.
"The wardrobe should have something suitable for you to wear," the servant said, snapping him out of his reverie, when they had reached the third to last door in the easternmost corridor. She fished a slender silver key from one of her apron pockets and pressed it into his hand. "Dinner will commence at seven this evening."
"Thank you..." Seandri groped for her name. He'd never been much good with them.
She turned on her heel, leaving him before the burgundy door. He unlocked it and pushed into the room— an austere outfit with minimal decorations, painted the color of spring buds. The window, partially obscured by a lace curtain, looked out on the overgrown garden of summer. A few children wandered down the gravel paths, chasing various short-legged dogs and slinky cats. Seandri shut the door and set his bags on the floor. A cloud of dust rose from the mattress as he flopped back onto it, but it wasn't nearly so dusty as his father's house. Laudia could grasp only the most basic components of housework and they had never been well-off enough to afford a maid or set of servants.
The sun's position in the sky told him it was almost six. Seandri surveyed the room again, noting the seven pointed star that hung above the door— the symbol of the goddess, a passing homage. Had he been religious, he might have prayed, but he'd never put much stock in esoteric magic. His two elder brothers had joined the priesthood young, at the first sign of a gnostic talent, and they had thrown themselves into the ideal life of the gnostic man: chaste and faithful and reliant completely on his powers. The day the monastery had swathed his second brother in those familiar vermilion robes, Seandri had sworn off prayer and incantation completely.
The nagging persisted.
"May I present Seandri, son of Farmer Brade."
Seandri stepped in the well-lit dining room. The teak tables sat a dozen places each, and five of them stretched from one end of the room to the other. Viridian everywhere: the carpet, the drapes, lotus-folded napkins settled in the center of those round white plates. The color seemed to permeate everything.
Many pairs of eyes turned to look at him, wide at first before narrowing to critical. Seandri squirmed uncomfortable and stood in the doorway, waiting for some greater instruction or introduction or something, anyway, that would guide in away from the faux pas building around him.
"Come sit over here, son," a voice beckoned from one of the closer tables. A dark haired man stood and motioned him over with one willowy arm. He seemed unperturbed by the expression on the noble's faces— what did the duke care if they thought he was being overly familiar with his future son-in-law? He was, after all, the duke. "There's a place for you right here."
For a moment, Seandri found himself unable to move. He stood still, overwhelmed by his audience and the confusion that gripped him. Finally, he took a few mechanical steps towards Lord Lan Brenjam, who promptly sat down, although the excitable grin did not fade from his royal face. Seandri stumbled down the carpeted stairs and across the aisle; the nobles chattered amongst themselves in their strange, polite speech, following his halting trek with their eyes.
He found his place and when he looked up for the first time, he met a set of eyes just vaguely familiar.
Lan Kai's angular features sharpened into a scowl on recognition. Seandri did not squirm or falter beneath the scrutiny— he had composed himself over a sip of weak ale and now waited in silence, biding his time. He recognized disgust and disappointment, but that was to be expected. He did not anticipate his marriage with any eagerness, and somehow he felt relieved, knowing that his fiancé felt the same way.
"Have you two met?" the duke asked, tilting his head to one side and blinking owlishly at his second son.
"Last year," said Seandri. A few of the other occupants of the table turned their gazes on him, and he got the distinct impression that he had spoken out of turn.
The duke did not appear to mind. Instead, he clapped his hands together gleefully and took a celebratory sip of wine from his silver cup. "Splendid," he chirped. "If you are already acquainted, many introductions will be skipped. Perhaps this is a more auspicious occasion than I previously anticipated."
Seandri took a bite of the familiar blue potatoes on his plate. The cooks in that metal kitchen had chopped up onions and peppers and blended them into the mash. He wondered, briefly, if everything served in the House of Hare could peel the paint off a house.
"It was brief," Kai said, pretending to examine his hands, then his fork, then his pheasant. He didn't touch the potatoes, and Seandri felt a stab of indignation. The province of Hare didn't have many potatoes to go around. "I didn't remember your name."
Unapologetic to the core. A certain authenticity made his arrogance bearable, but Seandri hardly considered it an admirable quality. While the rest of the court seemed humble to the point of insolence, Kai made no effort to spare tact or grace.
"Seandri," said Seandri.
"Of course I know it now," said Kai. A triumphant smirk curled at the corner of his mouth and he took another bite of fowl. Seandri studied his mouth as it twisted and stretched, but soon different features caught his attention: Kai's amber eyes, the smooth sweep of his chin, a second scar etched over the bridge of his nose. His father could have done worse, marrying him off an old man or a bucktoothed girl with no limbs too long. At least Kai was pleasing to look at.
"He doesn't know all of our names," the duke pointed out. He patted Seandri on the back, between the shoulder blades. "I suppose you could do with a basic introduction or two. This," he gestured to the man beside him, who was engaged in a conversation with a squirrelly-looking redhead, "is my first son, Adamie."
Adamie, a lankier, more polished version of Kai, tipped his head at Seandri in greeting. The redhead craned her neck to examine the newest addition to the table, but quickly lost interest. Her mouth went slack and her gray eyes darted to their next target and she began another conversation, boisterous as the first.
Seandri swallowed, although his mouth had been sufficiently empty. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Lord Lan Adamie."
"Just Admie. You're family now, you know." He beamed, an expression that looked out of place on the stoic faces all nobles seemed to share. He gesticulated with his fork between bites and words, all flurries of motion. "We're so glad you arrived safely. My father was worried you'd be carried off by the oxcart driver we had sent."
"He's quite attractive," the duke pointed out. He sipped delicate crimson wine from a goblet set with opalescent stones. "But far too honorable to snatch up another man's betrothed. He's been in our service many years, you see, which is why we sent him to retrieve you."
Seandri recalled his father's grumbling at having to pay the driver despite his contract with the king. "For expenses," the driver had said. He accepted twelve copper coins, which bought but a single gluttonous meal, or perhaps three days of food for the more modest man. Absently, Seandri wondered the payment for collecting fiancés from distant mountain villages.
"It wasn't as far as I thought it would be," he offered lamely. "The scenery of our province is very beautiful."
Kai snorted, a habit unbecoming on even the most charming individuals. "The mountains are too cold, and the lowlands are all one color." He pushed the lump of mashed potatoes to one side of his plate, mostly untouched, having wagered a single bite at his father's subtle insistence. "If anything's beautiful, it's the seashore in winter."
Although he had never visited the ocean, Seandri had seen his fair share of elaborate paintings. The eastern coast of Hare province stretched for miles, all the way to the edge of the taiga that dominated the landscape of Dog province. No other ocean thrashed against such distinctive rocks, black as the night sky and polished to a sheen by the persistent pounding of waves. On canvas, by candlelight, the many smooth faces of the rocks reflected the stars even on a moonless night, but Seandri had long suspected that to be a painter's trope.
Servants laid out a second course of food on a new set of plates. Gold ones this time, laden with spiced acorn meal. Seandri took an experimental bite and found that his mouth burned so intensely that even the sharp tang of alcohol provided welcome relief. He had grown up on a steady diet of potatoes, berries, and pond fish in the summer. Peppers refused to grow in the thin mountain air, and his tender mouth was unaccustomed to such assault.
"Is it to your liking?" Alizabe hovered near his elbow and spoke in a moment of distraction.
Seandri nodded, swallowing another spoonful of acorn. "Of course."
"He thinks it's too spicy," said Kai from across the table. He had devoured his meal without hesitation. "Your face is turning red. I thought it polite to point out."
"We can notify the cooks," Alizabe said quickly. Her head swiveled around, eyes searching, until they fixated on whatever it was that she had been seeking. "Lord Seandri prefers milder food?"
"No, it's fine..." Seandri pushed a bite-sized lump of acorn meal into his mouth. He chewed. His skin flushed an even darker shade of red until he was the color of a skittish bride. "Spicy food contributes to longer life, I thought."
Alizabe tilted her head back and laughed. "Perhaps," she said, taking a step back and turning to disappear into the ever-rotating throngs of her peers. "You needn't live forever."
Seandri took a contemplative bite.
"Don't become to familiar with servants," Kai advised, when Alizabe had gone. His narrowed eyes surveyed Seandri with unabashed scrutiny. "You're too altruistic. Some of them would just as well stab you as serve you breakfast."
When no immediate response jumped to Seandri's lips —he had never had a servant, let alone a murderous one— Adamie cut in. "Kai would just as well stab you as serve you breakfast too, and you'll be all too familiar with him soon enough." His mouth split into an easy grin, and Seandri found himself wishing he was engaged to this brother instead. He entertained the thought briefly, but the sensation passed in the next moment. Facades seemed common here. What good would it do to be engaged to someone well-mannered and polite if it were simply an act? A marriage was a marriage, unsavory but unavoidable, rife with as many benefits as pitfalls.
Besides, that redheaded woman kept clinging to Adamie's arm, pressing her chest against his shoulder insistently as if to remind him of her presence. The first son stroked her arm indulgently, although he did not spare her even the briefest glance.
Kai ran his hands through his hair, a gesture that earned the scowls of a few of the stiffer nobles. "I require my fiancé alive," he said, much to the amusement of the other diners.
A third course of meat, served on bejeweled platters decorated in green peridot and yellow topaz, streamed from the kitchen. After pushing the black peppercorns to the edge of his plate, Seandri took a measured bite. Tasted like ham, and though his tongue protested, he finished the entire plate.
Queer? In my fantasy?
I've never written serious fantasy before, so I'd like opinions on it and some such.
Thanks for reading.