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The Silken Introduction

The Silken Introduction
By Anne Karppinen

Ardelei sets down her bag, and drawing a deep breath, looks around her. The sun is at its zenith: the day is calm and cloudless. Bees sail from flower to flower, drunk on warm pollen. She can hear running water nearby, insistent birdsong, and the distant clank of a hammer on metal – a rare human noise in the otherwise deserted landscape. The bridgekeeper’s hut is gone, and the signal drum has lost its skin; the empty barrel has been rolled on its side, and has a family of wild cats living in it. 

The last time she set foot on the main island, the field ahead was full of cattle, and the road running past the bridge was chock-full of carts, wheelbarrows and pedestrians. Now, the road itself shows signs of neglect: long grass grows in the middle, and its sides are beginning to melt into the surrounding vegetation. Although she has been forewarned, it’s not easy to get used to the absence of human life. The song the earth hums is the same as it’s always been: yet, many voices are missing. She shoulders her bag again, and starts towards the nearest village. 

She doesn’t have to travel long to see the first memorial stones by the roadside: some are elaborate, erected in the early days when people still had time for decorating, and a need to remember. When there were still enough people. Most of the stones are small and without markings. There’s a distressing number of small memorials – round stones often gathered around a bigger one. Death doesn’t discriminate: it takes all ages with the same ruthlessness. 

Ardelei takes a moment to touch all the stones in turn, and begins a mourning song that takes her to the village gates. Most of the fields around her are fallow. Yet, the houses she sees are intact, and their kitchen gardens, windmills and long-armed well poles perfectly sound. In a few years, these farmyards will be full of life again; the weeds will be beaten back, the hinges oiled, and the descendants of the wild-roaming cattle driven back to the pens. 

She’s travelling openly, wearing her short hair and Arrikan clothes for all to see. Before, Arrikans were welcomed but not encouraged to stay: now, it’s obvious that she’s one of the safest types of visitor. All bridges have been closed for nearly three years, with only songs and drum messages travelling across the Strait. Gradually, these grew few and far between, and then stopped altogether: there was little to say that hadn’t been said before. 

Before she can reach out her hand to open the gate, something stops her. Perhaps it’s the rather too insistent beat of the hammer – the clear, hard sound that jars against her teeth. Perhaps it’s the memory of the village as it used to be, its cacophony of everyday noises, sights and smells. It could just be that she’s grown timid and overly cautious. It could be that the village is actively pushing her away.

Whatever it is, the message is clear enough. Although she could try to heal some of the emptiness, to pour living notes into the discordant silence, the place itself is resisting her. The village doesn’t need a mage: it needs families to populate it.  

Ardelei doesn’t think she’s been seen. Humming the subtlest of spells under her breath, she turns around, and starts following the road west. 

* * *

As she walks, she ponders on her decision. If she were superstitious, she would take such hesitation as an inauspicious omen for her journey. Yet, as a person trained in sorcery, she’s above such fantasies; she knows that the future is literally unpredictable. It can’t be read in tea leaves, clouds, or the number of broken eggs in a basket. Omens would have been useful three years ago, but none arrived. 

Jittery with the unexpected turn of events – and the rather insistent magic of the old houses – she keeps a good pace. If she can keep it up, she’ll make it to the next village before sunset. It’s a road she knows well, and in other times there would have been a good chance of meeting friends on the way, or at least joining a company of merchants on their way to the capital. Of old, Sendal has been a hospitable country: its wealth depends on trade and the movement of people, and it can’t afford to scare anyone away. Yet, there’s a brooding tint to the air around her. Nothing is as it once was: nothing can be taken for granted anymore. 

Ardelei stops to fill her water bottle from a small rivulet. Having drunk her fill, she stands listening to the open land around her, waiting for it to reveal the cause of her unease – and sure enough, there’s a faint noise, approaching from the east at an unusual pace. She crouches down instinctively, but quickly realizes the ridiculousness of the action: the landscape is flat, and there are no buildings or tall trees anywhere in sight. She’s chosen to travel conspicuously, and has to bear the consequences of that choice. 

The noise, a low rumbling to begin with, grows louder and more raucous. Soon, she can make out a speck in the horizon that grows larger by the second. She takes a deep breath in preparation for a spell – and stops. "Horses," she says aloud to herself, just to calm her thundering heart. "Horses and carriage, nothing more."

Yet, this is no everyday sight, the thing that comes hurtling towards her along the deserted road. The two horses are small and brownish in color; the carriage, however, makes up for the lack of ostentation. It’s an egg-shaped vehicle, painted emerald green, with huge yellow wheels that chew up the dry road, conjuring clouds of dust. The closer it comes, the louder grows its pained creaking, as if it’s being dragged along against its will. 

When she was a girl, horses were rare. Even today, they are usually owned by those who desperately want to impress – or have a steady supply of goods to move overland and find oxen too slow and dogs too old-fashioned. As Ardelei watches the approach of the emerald egg, she has an idea of the kind of people who travel in it, even before she’s had the chance to sound them out. 

The horses slow down; a purple handkerchief hails her from the window of the vehicle. "Excuse me! Excuse me?" The voice tries a couple of languages before settling on Sendali. 

"Yes?" Ardelei replies in the same language, keeping her own voice light. The undertone she can sense is somewhat distressed, but in no way threatening. 

A flushed face peers out at her. The woman can’t be more than twenty summers old; her attire matches the flamboyance of her means of travel. She’s tried to darken her eyes with kohl, but the color has gravitated towards her chin in the heat. "Are you a local?" she asks.
"You could say that," Ardelei hedges. Have Arrikans been so quickly forgotten?

"Excellent. Is it far yet to the city?" Someone inside the carriage hands her a glass, and she drinks deeply. "We have been travelling since dawn, and there is absolutely no one here. We are getting rather ravenous." She giggles in response to an unheard remark from her companion. 

"There used to be a village nearby," Ardelei gestures along the road. "I doubt you’ll make it to the capital tonight. The roads are rather poor in this part of the world."

"You can say that again," says the girl. She leans back, conferring with her companion. "I say," she continues out of the window, "Would you like to join us? There is plenty of room. We would be grateful for a guide."

Ardelei exchanges glances with the glamourous footman on the driver’s seat. The servant shrugs at her; his music is smooth and reassuring against her senses. "Very well," she says. 

The door opens, and she climbs in gingerly. The interior of the carriage takes her to a completely different world: the walls are papered turquoise, and the seats are of smooth green velvet. A pungent aroma of incense clings to the furnishings. The notes she can pick out from the two people are tense, but not overly hostile. Still, an uneasy harmony overlays their apparent friendliness. Ardelei modulates her magic to appear as unthreatening as possible. 

As soon as she sits down, the young woman hands her her introduction – a meticulously embroidered coat of arms the size of her palm. On the other side are the arms of her mother and grandparents. 

Ardelei looks up at her. "My lady, you’re Gesaian? What brings you north?"

She smiles, showing a row of perfect teeth. "Marriage. What else? I have waited these three years to come and join my husband, and it is finally coming true. I wanted to land in Virda just to see more of the land I am to live in."

The person next to her gives a light nod. They’re slightly older than their charge, olive-skinned, and dressed in full Gesaian court dress, complete with embroidered sandals. They hand over their introduction as well – a sage-green emblem of the Rettimiso family worked onto immaculately white silk. On the reverse side there’s only a blood-red diamond. A courtier through and through: not giving too much away, apart from their obvious loyalties to their island’s ruling family. 

"Pleasure to meet you both," says Ardelei. From the introductions, it’s impossible to tell which of them is of higher rank. Thus, she hands hers to the lady first. 

The Gesaians look at her introduction, turning it over in their hands, their fingers caressing its smooth surface. Most introductions are made of fine but perishable materials: silk or linen in the case of aristocrats, leather for merchants and sailors. Some time back there was a fashion for metal introductions – gold, even, or silver – but those were seen as tempting fate. A person’s introduction, just like their life, is mutable, and eventually disposable. 

In Arrika, there are more subtle ways of working introductions. Ardelei’s current one is a solid spell: a song which tells of her life, but only to those who have the ears to listen. The rest will have to rely on their other senses. To the eye, it looks like a smooth stone which changes color ever so slightly from deep blue to radiant purple. In the hand, it feels pleasantly cool. It gives off a subtle scent of pine which lingers in the air for a few moments. 

The young noblewoman finally looks up at her; her companion is still riveted by the solidified song. "This…" she tries. Then, "You are – "

"I live in Arrika. You might have heard of our community."

Her forehead wrinkles with the effort of remembering. "I think so. I mean, yes."

"Ondala din Rettimiso certainly has," Ardelei says, holding out her hand until she gets her introduction back. "It’s against our rules to work for foreign governments, but a mage can be helpful in other ways, when friends are concerned."

"I – yes," says the woman. 

"As a matter of fact, just today I was wondering how she was," continues Ardelei in a conversational tone, adding a few notes to her protective spell at the same time. "We go way back, Ondala and I. We met unofficially last year; since then, she’s been too busy to write to me, apparently. I hear only third-hand news of her, and was thinking of contacting some of our mutual friends to find out how she truly was. And what do you know: here you are, straight from the Gesaian court. I’d love to hear the latest." She leans back on the comfortable seat, her face a mask of good intentions. 

It's in her best interests to keep the pair talking. Some people are natural liars; others take to deception with some practice. The rest betray themselves time and again – with gestures, with nervous blinking, with false tones of voice. Ardelei is particularly tuned to the latter.

"Such an impressive woman, Ondala," she goes on, as if she hasn’t noticed the lack of response from the pair. "It’s not easy to run a country as unruly as Gesaia, with her ministers opposing her at every turn." She’s bouncing her introduction from hand to hand, giving its magic some time to warm up.

The pair only blink at her. Then their eyes focus on the song-spell again. 

"You see," says Ardelei in a friendly voice, "When you’re pretending to be someone else, it really helps if you’ve done your research beforehand. If you just steal someone’s carriage, their clothes and their introduction, you don’t just magically become that person." She adds some harmonics to the spell. "I wonder what you did to that poor girl and her companion."

Many things happen within the space of a few seconds. The carriage stops with a violent jerk; the driver wrenches the door open. He’s holding a pair of gilded pistols, their barrels aimed at Ardelei’s heart. The two other passengers try to reach for her, grabbing at her hands, her hair, her clothes – but under the spell as they are, their fingers only grasp at the air around her. They have no weapons, and no magical training to counter hers. 

Ardelei focuses on the footman. He’s well-built; his skin is midnight-dark, and his greying hair is gathered in a queue at his neck. "Can you actually shoot those?" she asks in the same soothing cadence she’s been using all along. 

"Oh yes," he grins back at her. The man’s own song is steady and deep – not easily manipulated or even deciphered on the first hearing. 

"I usually find that the fussier the weapon, the less dependable it is." She draws a deep breath, changing the direction of the spell. "Why are you here? Where are you really headed?"

He only leans forward to bring the pistols closer to her face. 

"It can’t be me that you want. You see, we Arrikans might not be immune to diseases, but we carry many other kinds of immunity. They’ll be very disappointed in the capital if I don’t turn up tomorrow."

For the first time, uncertainly flashes in his eyes. "Arrikan?"

She can’t help but sigh. "Goodness me, it’s only a couple of years the bridges have been closed, and already we’re dead to most people. Look," she holds up her introduction. "What does this look like to you?"

The footman lowers his weapons and bends closer to the spell. "I see," he says at length. The undertone of his song changes ever so slightly, but he’s proving surprisingly resistant to Ardelei’s magic. Glancing at his companions, he says, "Let them go. They have done you no harm."

Ardelei weighs her options. Alone, she can do very little against the three travelers, apart from distracting them at the cost of her own strength. Still, her sense of justice is far too strong to let things slide that easily: after all, that is one of the uses of an Arrikan mage – to deal out impersonal judgements when everything else fails. "Why are you here?" she asks. 

"That does not concern you," he says, smoothly.

All the while she’s been trying to place his accent; suddenly, it all clicks into place. She switches into Hallerian. "What are you fleeing from? Or who?" Knowing now the base notes of his song, she uses a part of her spell to push him into a more malleable state of mind. 

He takes another step back. "You know Daurbar?"

"Well enough." The capital of Heller boasts the most impressive fortifications on all of the island: it’s difficult to enter, and even more difficult to leave. Ardelei, through years of hard diplomacy, has forged a working relationship with its isolationist lord, Reutel Stainerau. 

"Lord Stainerau, as you know, likes to run the lives of his family members just as he runs his realm. Inniz here," he gestures towards the young woman, "was betrothed to a southern nobleman – regardless of the fact that she has been secretly promised to me for years. When we got our chance, we eloped, with the help of our friend here. The horses and the carriage are mine; the clothes and the introductions we bargained for in the first town we passed through. Things like that are cheap nowadays. We tried to find a ship that would take passengers, but most captains are still cautious, or charge outrageously for a passage. We were told to try our luck here in Sendal."

"Why would lord Stainerau waste his time chasing you? It’s not as if he can marry Inniz off to someone else now," Ardelei says; the footman only shrugs elegantly. "But in case he tries, I’d stay away from the major ports if I were you. Lie low for a few months, then take a ship to wherever you want to go." She deliberates for a moment; decides. "If you turn back, there’s a village not far from here that’s been completely wiped out of people. You’d find shelter there, and safe drinking water. The villagers are bound to have left some stores behind, and there’s easy prey in the woods if you’re so inclined." She nods at his lowered pistols. 

The man gives her a slow look. "What is your connection to the village?"

"I used to visit it, on my way to and from Arrika. I used to have friends there. There was nothing special about the place – apart from the fact that it was always hospitable to strangers."

* * *

She watches the carriage disappear eastwards. "Have I done the right thing?" she asks the empty air around her. 

There’s no answer, but at least for now, the oppressive feeling has abated. It’ll take a while for her to learn to read the new music of the land, and to attune herself to its slow rhythms. This means that her own song will change as well, eventually, as is right. She shoulders her bag, and continues on her way west. It’s a peaceful evening; the scent of ripening corn hangs over the road. Life will triumph over death, every time – only the form varies. 

* * *

Anne Karppinen says: I’m a university teacher, musician and writer based in Finland. My short stories have recently appeared in Tales from the Moonlit Path and Not One of Us; “The Lamplighter’s Daughter” was chosen for the Best of Wyldblood anthology in December 2022. My book, The Songs of Joni Mitchell, was published by Routledge in 2016.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

Fantasy fiction is great for exploring new ideas and concepts, but it’s also a way of looking at our own world through defamiliarizing lenses, and thinking about questions that are relevant to us as well.