The Gods in the Jungle - online reading


'She always refused to wear tambelskein cloth, though people swear it is the most effective ward against memory-loss,' her mother said. 'She told me once it was textured too rough for her taste!'

Delesse agreed with a nod as they walked together past the shops and stalls that lined the elegant course of the Street of Horizons. 'Has Aunty Moesser settled into her new apartments?'

Temis paused to consider a collection of amber beads displayed in a jeweller's window. 'We shall find out soon enough. Devisek has invited us for lunch.'

The mention of food prodded Delesse's stomach to a low grumble. Dutifully, she ignored it.

They had been shopping for cloth, decorations, wards, jewels and beads, boots, awning mounts and centrepieces for close on two hours now - though they had nothing more than paper receipts to show for their efforts.

More accurately, decided Delesse, her mother had been considering items and bargaining prices with nervous shop owners as she stood by her side, forcing herself to look interested in the proffered goods and services. Normally the shop keepers came to Temis, not the other way around, but the novelty of seeing her mother operating in the wild had soon worn thin.

'You're being too quiet, dear. I was hoping you'd show more interest in your contract feast.'

'I didn't think you'd approve of my choices.'

She could tell her mother was smiling by the wrinkling of skin at the edge of her eyes. The Governor's wife rarely smiled with her mouth while she was on public display.

'You don't care for my taste?'

'Oh, I've no complaint about your eye for quality materials and craftsmanship …'

'And yet?'

Delesse sighed. 'Why does everything have to be yellow? You always tell me yellow doesn't sit well on me.'

'Don't be silly, dear. That dress material wasn't yellow. It's much creamier.'

'It reminded me of goat's butter.'

'There was a certain sheen to it,' agreed Temis. 'But with the right makeup, and possibly dying your hair …'

'And Velledue will insist I wear some vile grease potion that will clash with any cloth we choose.'

'Velledue will not be a problem, dear.' Delesse could as much feel the undertone in her mother's voice as hear it; Temis rarely agreed with the family astrologer's decrees. 'But you know the theme has to be yellow …'

'… Because of the dye.'

'Yes, because of the dye. The guests will expect us to flaunt our wealth.'

Delesse could not deny the truth of her mother's words. Her father was the Governor of one of the richest cities in the Empire, and her mother was a Courtesan in her own right - though only distantly related to the Emperor. Clansfolk and commonfolk alike would demand pomp and pageantry to mark the start of her marriage, whatever her own feelings about the whole enterprise might be.

'Sometimes,' started Delesse.

Temis glanced over, eyes level with her own, inviting her to continue.

'Sometimes I wish Grandfather Rollusek had never worked out how to make dye. No,' she corrected herself to block her mother's obvious response, 'that's wrong: I'm glad I'm not poor. But if he hadn't become so wealthy, if he had never become a Favoured Courtesan and turned the family into a Clan …'

'Then you wouldn't be marrying the heir to Clan Arallo, dear. Do you think God is cursing you?'

'He's an Honoured Courtesan - the first rank! Everything he does will be the gossip of the court. God Himself knows I don't like people staring at me - of course it's a punishment!'

Again the smile at the edge of the eyes. 'Many would go down on their knees and beg for such a curse. By all accounts, he is an attractive man.'

Delesse had spent many, many days learning to control the spread of her blush, and sometimes - like now - she liked to believe that willpower alone was enough to stop the darkening heat rise past her neck to her face, though the heat of the day caught on the worn cobbles of the street wasn't helping her cause.

'What's the good of an attractive man if it means having to leave here to enjoy his company, mother?'

Temis turned her head away to look in the window of a well-regarded accessories shop.

'We'll need new gloves to go with the dresses, yes?'

'If you say so.'

'It's the thought of change that scares you. I remember you made such a fuss when your sister was born: you sulked for weeks.'

'I've never left this place before. I don't know anyone in the Old City.'

'You were born in the Old City, dear.'

'I have no memory of it!'

Delesse knew she had raised her voice, shown a taint of emotion through pitch. Thankfully her mother chose to ignore the fault.

'I've told you what it's like, though. I've taught you all the courtesies and routines, the politics of the Court, yes? Though I ought to go with you, at least for the first few months; I can understand your - your reservations, let's say - about life at Court.'

'You cannot leave Igell, mother; he's not yet four years old. I know this. I worked it out for myself the evening I was told about the marriage.'

'The risks would be fearful,' Temis agreed. 'Thank you for understanding. I hope Clan Arallo appreciate what an insightful woman they're aquiring.'

Delesse smiled - as much as she tried, she had not yet gained her mother's ability to mask all emotion from her face.

'They see me as a big fat purse, I expect. I hope they like yellow.'

'Everybody likes yellow, dear, almost as much as they love gold and glitter. I think we ought to investigate the gloves in that shop.'

Delesse checked the sky for clouds as they emerged. The summer solstice was less than a fortnight away, making the afternoon rains a daily affair as the season's heat sucked moisture from the surrounding jungles to build bruised anvils, then lacing the clouds with lightning as they hammered free their wet loads.

Her mother was still thanking the shop keeper as she backed out into the street, dousing his enthusiasm with short nods. Many people had reason to be grateful for the business the marriage would bring to the city, Delesse realised.

'I think we should walk near the trees, dear,' said Temis, grasping her arm. 'My desire for trade is just about spent and,' she glanced briefly above her, 'Devisek is expecting us, yes?'

Delesse agreed, placed her own hand over her mother's. They walked along the Street of Horizons in a companionable silence, keeping to the welcome shade of the mametaa trees set along the length of the strangely quiet road.

'How many guards has Tuuke assigned to you today?'

'Hmm?' said Temis. 'Oh, I've noticed three: two ahead of us and one behind. He's probably put guards at the side-roads, too. Why do you ask?'

'That man ahead of us seems to be herding people into the shops. The Guardsman worries too much: who would attack us here?'

'You'd be surprised, Delesse. Though not so much attack us as crowd around us. You've become very interesting to others since the contract was announced.'

Delesse scowled, her annoyance overcoming the strictures of face etiquette. 'Is this the way things are going to be for me now? Always a guard, always someone watching me?'

'It's been that way for quite a while, dear. Tuuke's been assigning guards to you since the beginning of the year.'

'Really? Why haven't I noticed them?'

'He uses you as a training exercise, I believe. "Unobtrusive guarding" he calls it. They seem to be getting very good at it, too.'

'I'm not sure I like it, people spying on me.'

'Would you prefer it the other way, people crowding around you all the time? Bothering you? Demanding your notice, your business?'

'No,' Delesse conceded. 'Is that what it's going to be like in the Old City?'

She felt her mother squeeze her hand. 'You'll probably be given a bodyguard once you reach Stal - possibly a detachment of Imperial Cladesmen, if your Aunt Feyn has any say in it.'

'No peace, no privacy! I'll … I suppose I'll just have to make the most of these last days of freedom.'

Temis slowed her pace, tugged Delesse to a halt. 'Is that why you fear this marriage? No, don't shake your head: I know something is worrying you. Something more than your normal fear of change. If it was your sister getting married I'd have a hard job keeping her here - she'd be in Stal already!'

'Demanding her rights as a wife,' agreed Delesse.

'Ah,' said Temis. 'It's the ceremony itself you fear.'

Not until her mother spoke the words did Delesse realise the truth in them. This time there was no controlling the blush.

'Why does it have to be so … so physical?'

'It's the custom. You know this.'

'But other people don't have to endure it. Most people can get by with just one blessing, without having to perform - that - in front of strangers.'

'Things are different for us. You're a Favoured Courtesan, soon to be an Honoured Courtesan …'

'A courtesan who's never even been to Court. It'll be humiliating!'

'It'll be a few moments of nakedness, and then it will be done.'

'Did you do it, with father?'

'Of course. He was more scared than me; remember, it's worse for the man. Anyway, what made you say such a thing about Arbelle?'

'Arbelle,' her sister, younger by three years, 'dreams of nothing except becoming someone's wife. She obsesses about it, mother! Do you know she measures the width of her hips every morning and moans about her lack of growth at every opportunity?'

'She always was slimmer than you, dear.'

'It's - unbecoming.'

Her mother looked at her strangely, making her wonder if she had been speaking too loudly; a quick check assured her that nobody was close enough to overhear them. The prickles of blush about her neck was becoming unbearable.

Then Temis smiled at her, properly, allowing her lips to move.

'If it worries you this much, Delesse, there's things that we can do, maybe, that will make the ceremony a little easier for you. Come now, walk with me. Let's see if we can reach your uncle's house before the clouds burst open.'

Uncle Devisek lived in the midst of the Upper Quarter, where mansions dressed in their polished stone cladding snuggled around spacious courts, none more than three stories tall and each displaying wide, glazed windows to the streets, quietly signalling their owner's wealth to the world around.

The clouds had broken as the two women arrived at their destination. The required greetings had been quickly dispensed with and lunch served under an awning in the oblong courtyard; Devisek had no great love for formal dining arrangements.

Delesse slipped the last slice of her garfruit into her mouth and tried to concentrate on the conversation, ignoring the shatter of raindrops on canvas and cobbles.

'You must not hesitate to insist on our help,' Temis was saying.

'I appreciate your offer, though I only do as I must.' Devisek was leaning back in his chair with both hands over his small-but-growing gut. 'You know if I did not collect mad relatives, I'd have to collect dogs from the street!'

He laughed at his own joke, intelligent eyes half-lidded, as if judging his guests for discomfort. But Temis had been too long a courtesan to show any loss of balance, and maybe her smile was genuine. Even Delesse, after seventeen years' daily contact, had trouble judging her mother's real emotional state at any given moment.

'Dogs would be cheaper to feed, dear cousin,' said Temis. 'Our family has always had a taste for the better cut of meat. This is not charity we are discussing, but honour. Would you at least consider a contribution in kind?'

'I would accept your contribution with speed, my Lady, please believe me. I am a businessman before I am a Clan leader in most issues, and I have yet to feel shame for overcharging. But on this particular matter I am on the losing end of the contract! Mother is adamant that none of her old staff enter the compound. She's convinced they were draining her blood every night for cursing rituals.'

Delesse was proud that she managed to maintain an interested-yet-distant look on her face. She and her sister Arbelle had decided that Aunty Moesser was mad beyond distraction many years before.

'You have an alternative solution, surely?' asked Temis.

'I have been thinking, my Lady.' He reached for his cup and drained the last of his wine. 'I could ask you to take mother in - that is the prize she's fishing for, I'm sure. But the Governor's House is too public; I don't want her decline to be common gossip! No, best to keep our embarrassments corralled within high walls, I say.'

'You do make a strong argument. And we would be happy to accommodate some of your other guests to give Moesser the space that is proper to her station.'

'It is, my Lady, nothing less than I would have expected of you.' He waved towards Delesse: 'Help yourself to another drink, young Honoured Courtesan-to-be.' This smile was genuine.

'Even though you will soon have more than enough spare room,' he continued. 'I'm certain there will be a flood of young bucks from the Imperial Court, each come to the jungle in search of a wife as beautiful as your eldest child.'

Delesse managed a correctly uninterpretable smile, winning her mother's approval. 'Arbelle will be pleased to hear such rumours,' she said. 'She much prefers to negotiate contracts in person.'

She had always admired her uncle's ability to ignore the rules of decorum: he laughed out loud. Temis waited a moment, before pressing him again. 'You do have a solution, though?'

'Indeed - but it will cost more coin than I have spare at this time. There is a compound behind this one. A sad story: both sons killed in a boat accident two years ago, and the parents are growing older. The family was once a force in the city - they were in business with Grandfather Rollusek for a while, and profited from it, too - but they attracted a nasty set of demons to their hearth. The parents have been offered shelter by cousins living in Towes Whate; they're willing to sell me the property. With a little inventiveness the two compounds could be joined …'

'For you to fill with more ailing relatives?'

'Not at all! More space is what we need! Mother would be content with a small suite of private rooms which can be locked against the marauding bloodsuckers!'

'It is an intriguing idea, dear cousin, one that Gelleris will find interesting.'

Delesse watched her uncle nod: for Devisek, Temis's words were as good as a sealed agreement. If her mother said yes, her father would not think to disapprove.

With the main business settled, Devisek called for the traditional farewell steam - an expensive tea grown in cultivations high on the slopes of the Loa Vreski mountains. Conversation fell again into gossip, this time surrounding Delesse's forthcoming exchange of contracts - the first, less worrying part of the marriage ceremony - and the list of guests likely to attend from the jungle cities and Stal, the Old City.

After the steam was served, Temis cocked her head slightly to one side, inviting her cousin-by-marriage to engage once more in business. He lifted his oiled eyebrow to start the conversation.

'Your businesses go well, you mentioned,' said Temis.

'I will not complain, my Lady. Fingers on fruits, and all that. A small gain here balances a small loss there.'

'I shall pin a special warding stone to the Clan emblem to encourage the gains for you.'

'That is indeed a kind and unlooked for gesture! I must hunt out an heirloom ward for your eldest to wear on her contract day.'

'Such generosity from our Clan leader does not come as a surprise.'

Devisek smiled, as Temis continued. 'Would you indulge a mother in an additional gesture of kindness for her daughter?'

'If it is in my power, my Lady, consider it done before you speak the words.'

'Tell me: do you still have a shareholding in Varoul's business?'

'Varoul's business?' Devisek opened his eyes wide in surprise. 'But that's a …'

'… A good place to learn, yes? Delesse has some concerns, don't you dear, that a few practical lessons - in a discrete establishment such as Varoul's - may help allay.'

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