Court of Fives
Little, Brown and Company, 2015
|Series:||Court of Fives: Book 1|
1. Court of Fives
|Avg Member Rating:||
In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott's first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.
Jessamy's life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom's best contenders. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between two Fives competitors--one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy--causes heads to turn. When Kal's powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes's family apart, she'll have to test her new friend's loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.
We four sisters are sitting in the courtyard at dusk in what passes for peace in our house. Well-brought-up girls do not fidget nor fume nor ever betray the least impatience or boredom. But it is so hard to sit still when all I can think about is how I am going to sneak out of the house tomorrow to do the thing my father would never, ever give me permission to do.
I say to my elder sister, Maraya, "What are you reading, Merry?"
She hunches over an open book. Its pages are bathed in the golden light of an oil lamp set on an iron tripod. The words so absorb her that she does not even hear me.
I say to my younger sister, Amaya, "Who are you writing to, Amiable?"
She flashes a glare from her heavily kohl-lined but nevertheless lovely eyes. "I am writing poetry, which I am sure is a sophisticated and elegant skill you have no acquaintance with, Jes. Now hush, I pray you, for I just thought of the most pleasing way of describing my eyes."
She pretends to brush a few letters, but instead she retrieves a folded note from its hiding place beneath the table. I happen to know it contains execrable love poetry smuggled in from a secret admirer. As her poem-worthy eyes scan the words she blushes prettily.
I glance at my twin sister, Bettany, thinking to share a joke at Amaya's expense, but Bett sits in the shadows with her back to us. She is weaving string between her fingers, muttering words in a rough undertone. I do not wish to know what she is saying, and I hope she does not intend to share it.
Mother sits on the marriage couch, the plushly cushioned double-chair that she and Father share when he is home from the wars. A gauzy silk gown spills over the huge expanse of her pregnant belly. Her slightly unfocused stare might in another woman be described as vapid, but in her it simply means she is thinking of Father. All is harmonious and peaceful, just as she likes it.
I want to get up and race around. I want to climb the walls, which is the plan for tomorrow when Bettany has agreed to make a screaming diversion during which I will clamber up one of the sturdy trellises and escape unseen over the roof.
Instead we will sit here until the Junior House Steward comes in to announce supper. Girls like us have to be more decorous and well-mannered than the daughters of other officers because our father is a lowborn army captain fighting to make his fortune through valor and bold leadership. Which one of us would dare jeopardize his steady, hard-fought climb through the ranks by indulging in disreputable behavior?
"You are restless, Jessamy," Mother says in her sweet, pleasant voice. "Is something troubling you?"
"Nothing," I lie.
She examines me a moment longer with her soft gaze. Then she picks up her embroidery and begins to stitch with the easy patience of a woman who is accustomed to waiting for the reward she loves best.
The handsomely decorated courtyard gleams in lamplight. In his last campaign, Father won enough prize money from his victories that he had the courtyard repaved with marble. We now sit on carved ebony-wood couches with silk-covered pillows, just as highborn people do. What matters to Father is that the courtyard has become a respectably fashionable setting in which Mother can entertain without embarrassment those wives and mothers and sisters of army officers who will accept her invitations.
I turn my thoughts again to the forbidden thing I am going to do tomorrow. I have it all planned out: how to get out of the house, how to be gone from midmorning to midday without anyone except my sisters knowing, how to bribe Amaya to keep my secret while finding a way to repay Maraya and Bett for all the times they have helped me sneak out without Mother becoming suspicious. I've done it a hundred times.
Everything is set for tomorrow. It will all go exactly as planned, just as it always does.
And that is when disaster strikes.
Mother looks up as an eruption of voices and clattering footsteps rises from the front of the house. Out of the clamor we all hear a man's robust laugh.
Another woman might gasp or exclaim but Mother calmly sets her embroidery wheel onto the side table. The smile that paints her mouth is gentle, yet even that mellow touch of happiness makes her beauty shine more brightly than all the lamps and the moon and stars besides. I hasten over to help her rise. Amaya hides the note under the table.
Even Maraya looks up. "Has Father returned home early from the wars?" she asks, squinting in a way that makes her look bewildered.
Bettany shouts, "How I hate this false coin and the way we all lie to ourselves!"
She jumps up and rushes into the kitchen wing, pushing past a file of servants who spill out into the courtyard because they have heard the commotion. Just as Bett vanishes, Father appears. He is still wearing his armor, dust-covered from days of travel, and holds his captain's whip in his hand. It is how he always arrives home, wanting to greet Mother before he does anything else.
"Beloved," he says.
He passes the whip to the Senior House Steward who dogs his heels, then strides across the expensive marble pavement to Mother. Taking her hands, he examines her face as if to assure himself that she is well and healthy or maybe just to drink in her remarkable beauty. His gaze drops to the vast swell of her belly and he nods, acknowledging the obvious.
She says, "Welcome home, my lord."
Her tone is as unruffled as the sea on a windless day. She is the ocean, too deep to fathom.
Father releases her hands as he turns to address the Senior House Steward. "I require a bath, after which the Doma and I will dine in our private rooms."
Then, of course, he walks back to the entrance and sweeps the curtain aside to go in.
Mother says, "My lord, your daughters await your greeting and your blessing."
He blinks, as if he has just remembered that we exist. After a moment's consideration, he walks over to us. We line up in order of age.
He kisses Maraya on the brow. "Maraya, you are well?"
"Yes, Father. I have memorized the fifth set of Precepts for the Archives exam. Do you think the Archivists will allow me to sit for it? Can it be arranged?"
He glances down at her feet. His eyes almost close as he fights off a frown.
Of all of us girls, Maraya resembles Father most in looks except for the one accursed flaw: every other Patron man would have smothered at birth an infant born with a clubfoot. When he is not home she wears only a light linen sock over the splint.
"I always wear my boots when I go out. No one will know as long as I hide the foot in public." I admire Maraya for the way she reminds him of her deformity to make him uncomfortable enough to actually listen to her. She never shows the least sign of resentment. "No suitable man can offer to marry me. A position as an Archivist at the Royal Archives would be both respectable and secure."
"True enough. You have studied diligently, Maraya. I will think about it."
With that, she wins the first round.
He moves a step on to kiss me, his lips dry against my forehead. "Jessamy, you are well?"
He pauses, waiting for me to say something more.
Of course I am glad he is safe and alive, but I cannot believe the ill fortune that has brought him home early.
"No questions about the campaign?" he asks with the faint half-smile that is the closest a somber man like him ever comes to affectionate teasing. "I had to devise a new formation using the infantry right there on the battlefield because of the peculiar nature of the enemy tactics."
What am I going to do? I have never tried to sneak out while Father is at home. His entourage of keen-eyed, suspicious, and rigidly disciplined servants runs the household like an army camp, in a way quite unlike Mother's relaxed administration.
"Jessamy?" He raises an eyebrow in expectation of my response.
Realizing I have no more to say, he frowns at the empty space where Bettany should be standing next to me.
"Bettany is ill," says Mother.
"Has the doctor been called?" He sounds puzzled.
"It is her usual affliction," she answers, her voice as placid as ever. "Do not concern yourself, my lord."
He glances again at me. When I say nothing, he kisses Amaya's brow and takes one of her hands in his. "Well, kitten, you are looking well."
"I have missed you so dreadfully, Father. You cannot know!"
He chuckles in that way he has when one of us has pleased him. "I have a special treat for you, something I know you have been hoping for."
She glances past him as if expecting one of the servants to walk in with a suitable bridegroom whose status will vault her into a better class of acquaintance. "Whatever could it be, Father? For you must know that your return is what I have been hoping for most!"
I glance at Maraya, thinking to share an eye-roll, but she stares steadfastly ahead into the middle distance. Probably she is running Precepts through her head and isn't listening anymore.
"Better than all that, I promise you." He releases Amaya to look toward Mother, for it is obvious that the "treat" is an offering he places at Mother's feet. "Our army has won a crucial victory at a village called Maldine. I have received a commendation and will be honored with a place in the victory procession tomorrow morning."
"Esladas!" She forgets herself enough to use his name in front of others. "At last your courage and service are recognized as they ought to be!"
Her pleasure makes him glow.
I envy them sometimes, so complete together. We girls could as well not exist, although it would be different if we were boys.
"It will take some days to set up proper victory games, so tomorrow's procession will finish with the usual weekly Fives. Lord Ottonor has requested our family's presence in his balcony box for the occasion."
Amaya shrieks. Even Maraya is surprised enough to gasp.
I shut my eyes as the full scope of the disaster blows down over me. My plans, my hard work, and the scraps of money I have saved for months: all washed away. If I had Bettany's temperament I would rage and stomp. Instead I fume, thoughts whirling. It's as if I am two people: dutiful, proper Jessamy on the edge of bitter tears, and confident, focused Jes determined to find a path through what looks like an impossible Fives maze.
"I know you all know how to behave in public from our various excursions," Father goes on. "Furthermore, an official royal victory Fives games will follow in eleven days at the Royal Fives Court. If you girls make a properly good impression, Lord Ottonor may invite you to attend him there as well."
"Oh, Father! I have so often dreamed of having the chance to attend the games at the Royal Fives Court!" breathes Amaya so ecstatically that I wonder if she will wet herself from sheer excitement.
Mother examines Father with a furrowed brow. "You are not one to boast, my lord, so this must be much more than an ordinary victory. It is unexpected indeed that we here in this house should be invited to Lord Ottonor's balcony at the City Fives Court. For us to also be allowed to attend the games at the Royal Fives Court is extraordinary."
"It was no ordinary victory, that is true." Like Maraya, he assesses himself and his situation with clear eyes. "In his own way Lord Ottonor is a fair man and means to see me rewarded for my achievements."
"Are you saying his star will rise in court because of your victory?"
"He has long hoped the king will give him the title of lord general. It would be a signal honor."
"Especially since Lord Ottonor isn't even a soldier. He sends his officers into the field to win glory for him!"
"Kiya, that is how it has always worked. Bakers' sons do not become generals. Or even captains. I have done exceptionally well for a man of my birth and situation. You know that." He glances at us girls and then at her pregnant belly.
A shadow chases through her eyes. "Is it wise to bring your family into such public view, Esladas?"
"I am not ashamed of you!"
All three of us girls startle. He never raises his voice at Mother.
"You are tired and dusty from your long journey, my lord." With a gracious smile, she takes his hand. "A bath and supper will restore you."
He leaves without a backward glance at us. Mother casts one last look over her shoulder as she follows him through the curtain. Then they are gone.
All the breath goes out of me like I've been punched.
Amaya whoops. "Lord Ottonor's balcony box tomorrow at the City Fives Court! Oh, I will die of joy! Wait until I tell Denya that she and I shall stand at the balcony rail and watch the Fives together!"
I sink onto the couch, hitting my fists repeatedly against my forehead. "What a disaster! I'll plead illness and stay home. Then I can sneak out once you're all gone."
Amaya flings herself down beside me and grabs my arms. "You have to come, Jes! Bettany won't go, and who would want her to, anyway? Father won't let Maraya attend lest someone notice her accursed foot." She gestures toward Maraya's splint. "Father will never let me go alone with him and Mother. Highborn people never bring a daughter alone. They bring a daughter only if they also bring a son."
"Which Father cannot do, as he has no sons," remarks Maraya.
"Oh, I hope Mother does not talk him out of going!" cries Amaya, wringing her hands.
"No chance of that," says Maraya. "She will wish him to receive all the accolades he deserves. You have to go, Jes. Think of all the slights Mother has endured over the years. Think of how Father has been loyal to her despite everyone telling him he should marry a Patron woman to advance his career. He wants to honor her by showing he is not ashamed of her and their children on the day of his extraordinary triumph."
I think of what he said about devising a new infantry formation and how he wanted to share the story of his victory with me. I'm so proud of him and so angry that he came home today of all days. But I can never tell him why.
So I snap at Maraya. "You just think if he gets a promotion and reward he will agree to you sitting for the Archives exam."
She shrugs, my ill temper rolling right off her. "I like the thought of sorting through all those dusty old books looking for arcane references to ancient oracles."
Amaya wilts against the couch, pressing a hand to the back of her forehead in a pose copied from the theater. "I would weep and wail every day if I had to suffer that. As I will for the next year if I can't go tomorrow," she adds threateningly. "Every day."
"You couldn't pass the exam anyway, Amiable," says Maraya with one of her rare thrusts. Yet her gaze fixes on me. "What else do you suggest I do, Jes? No Patron man can marry me, not even if he is the lowliest baker's son from a humble hill-country town back in Saro-Urok. Furthermore, Father cannot let any of us marry a Commoner. It would be illegal, even for us."
"I don't want to get married," I say, crossing my arms. "I don't want to live Mother's life."
"Don't be selfish, Jes. Father would marry Mother if it weren't against the law. Think of how much easier and more secure that would have made her life. So don't sneer at her and the choices she's made. We live because of her."
I look at the ground, scraping a heel over the marble.
Maraya goes on in her relentlessly calm way. "I do not want to be trapped in this house for the rest of my life. My point is that if Father feels his position is strong enough despite his domestic arrangements, he'll let me become an Archivist. So if you won't do it for Mother and Father, then I pray you, do it for me."
"I saved for a year to get enough coin to pay the entry fee for this week's trials at the City Fives Court! I chose this week because none of us heard anything about Father coming back so soon. If I'm trapped on a balcony box the whole time, I can't run. That's a forfeit. I'll lose my coin."
Amaya throws her arms around me, burying her face on my shoulder, her voice all weepy. "We've never been invited to Lord Ottonor's balcony before, Jes. Never. The other officers already look down on Father. This is his chance to shove us in their faces. Not that you care about that."
I push her away and jump up to pace. Frustration burns right through me. "How do you think I feel, training for years without ever having a chance to actually compete in a real trial? I have run the Fives a hundred times--a thousand times!--on practice courts and in practice trials. Now my one chance to experience a real trial is ruined. My one chance!"
"Please, Jes. Please."
The stars must hate me, having fallen out in this illomened way. I walk with Mother every week to the City of the Dead to make the family's offerings to the oracles. Can the oracles read my angry thoughts, as rumor says they can? Is this their punishment for my not being content with my lot? For my not being a dutiful-enough daughter?
"It just isn't fair! We have to pretend to be proper officer's daughters even though no one will ever believe we are. It's Father's reputation we are protecting, not ours!"
Yet alongside my furious ranting, my mind races, assessing options, adapting to the way the situation has just changed. None of their arguments matter anyway. With Father in residence I have no hope of sneaking out when his aides and servants are looking for the slightest break in the strict routine they impose.
I circle back to the couch. "Very well. I'll accompany you, if you'll cover for me."
Amaya grabs my wrist. "You can't mean to sneak out of Lord Ottonor's balcony to run under everyone's noses! In front of Father! What if he recognizes you?"
"No one will recognize me, because Fives competitors wear masks. It's just one run."
Maraya pries Amaya's fingers off my arm. "Jes is right. No one ever knows who adversaries are if they don't win. It's only when they get to be Challengers or Illustrious that people can tell who they are by the color of their tunic or by their tricks and flourishes. No one will guess it is Jes because they won't think she's out there."
I grab Maraya and kiss her. "Yes! Here's how we'll do it. There's bound to be small retiring rooms for the women at the back of the balcony. Mother won't use the one assigned to her because she'll think it her duty to remain out on the public balcony the entire time so everyone knows Father's not ashamed of her. I can claim to have a headache and pretend to rest in the retiring room. Amaya just has to make sure no one goes back to see me."
Amaya's eyes narrow as she works through her options.
"You can wheedle Father, Amiable," I add, "but you can't wheedle me."
She grunts out a huff of displeasure. "Very well. But you owe me, Jes."
I tap my chest twice, which is the command Father has always used when he wants his soldiers, his servants, or his daughters to obey without question. And when he lets us know we have fulfilled his orders to his exacting specifications.
She straightens into the stance of a soldier at attention and taps her own chest twice in answer. Then she ruins the martial posture by jumping up and down with her arms raised.
"Thank you, Jes. Thank you! Wait until Denya finds out we get to watch the trials together and practice flirting."
She scrawls out a note to her friend and calls for a servant. A boy hurries out from the kitchen wing. His mouth is smeared with honey from a sweet bun he has sneaked off Cook's table. He's a scamp of a boy, maybe ten years old, one of Mother's rescues off the street. My father gave him the name Monkey because Father names all our Efean servants after plants or animals. But when Father is not home Mother calls him by his Efean name, Montu-en.
"Run this over to Captain Osfiyos's house at once, Monkey," declaims Amaya in her best Patron voice, all condescension and clipped-short words. "Give it into the hands of the personal maidservant of Doma Denya, no one else."
"Yes, Doma." The boy takes the folded paper and dashes off. I envy his freedom to race through the streets of an evening and loiter on his way back.
Amaya seals away all her writing things, then pauses to look at Maraya, who has gone back to reading. "Merry, I don't think your foot is cursed and Mother doesn't either. I'm sorry. That was mean of me." She grins, mischief lighting her face to its prettiest. "Not that I mind being mean, but I like to save it for times when it will improve my social standing."
Maraya laughs, and so do I. All my pent-up frustration spills into a river of expectation, a rush carrying me into this new scheme.
The maidservant assigned to serve us girls appears at the curtain, looking curiously toward us as if wondering what we have to laugh about, the daughters of heroic Captain Esladas and the beautiful woman he can never marry.
Maraya closes her book and signals that the maidservant, whom Father named Coriander, may approach and speak.
"Doma Maraya." Coriander uses the formal term even though we can't actually claim the right to be addressed as Doma, for it is a term properly used only for women born into the Patron class. It is not meant for girls whose father is a Patron but whose Mother is emphatically a Commoner. Yet inside our house Father insists the servants call us by the title. "Doma Jessamy. Doma Amaya. Your supper is ready for you in your rooms. Will Doma Bettany be joining you?"
Maraya glances toward the sky. "Only the oracles know."
As we leave the courtyard with its bright lamps, I smile, eager for tomorrow.
Copyright © 2015 by Kate Elliott
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