"What a strange lad you are!" exclaims Marcus Galingale to his son, Cyrus, late in the morning of the day before Cy's wedding.
Father and son are hard at work on a cabinet commissioned by a vizard from Quoz who will slash his price in half if the piece is not delivered on time, wedding or no. Putting aside his bevel square, Marcus regards the steadily working Cy with a mixture of pride and bafflement.
"Cy, listen to me," he says. "What is it that troubles you? Confide in your father."
"I'm fine, sir."
"Fine? You call it fine the way you mope around, with that long face and those endless sighs, as if some horrible fate were about to befall you? Who would guess the most beautiful girl in all of Jubilar is your chosen bride? It makes me angry to see you like this; people are starting to talk. What is it? Doesn't Rose please you? Do her kisses lack ardor?"
Cy ignores his father's questions. The only sounds are the scraping of his plane across the board over which he bends and the lazy drone of fireflies through the fragrant air of the shop.
Marcus sighs, fingering his throat plug; the plug is carved in the shape of crossed hammers and notched with the sigils signifying husband, father and unwed son. "The days before and after my wedding were the most carefree of my life. Your mother might not be much to look at now, but she was a pretty thing once, full of life and high-spirits, always ready with a kiss. And what a cook! I didn't know if she would please me more in the bedroom or the kitchen; beauty fades, my boy, but a good cook is forever!"
His sharp blue eyes narrow shrewdly. "Is that it, lad? Can't she cook?"
"She cooks well enough."
"Then, by the Wheel, what is it? I charge you to speak the truth!"
With a resigned shrug, Cy puts up the plane and looks at his father. "You'll think I'm crazy."
"That is already my opinion. Now speak!"
"It's true I'm not happy. But it's not Rose."
"All of this." Cy nods disparagingly at the pieces of the cabinet scattered about the shop. The design, as with much of the furniture sold under Marcus's name, is his own. "I can see so clearly in my mind how everything should look, but something always goes wrong."
"You're a perfectionist."
"No; a failure."
Marcus shakes his fist: "If it was anyone else who said so, I'd give them a taste of this! Just look at you: seventeen, your throat plug unadorned, and already your skills are valued in lofty Quoz. Do you know what kind of work my father had me doing at your age? Spice-racks and footstools!"
"You don't understand."
"A father not understand his son? It's you who don't understand! In this family, I am sovereign!" Quickly, with the economy of movement practice brings, Marcus slaps Cy across the face.
Cy bows his head, seething. Oh, it's hard to be a son! he thinks. To have to swallow and swallow and smile as the gall goes down! But as the Blessed Sovereign to the Hierarchate, so the father to his family. An unfilial son tips the natural order of things. His example might spread to other sons, or to women, in whom the ashes of rebellion are always smoldering. The wise son submits to even the most tyrannical father, knowing that he, too, will one day be a husband and a father, with a family of his own to rule.
Marcus pushes his silver curls back from his forehead. "You've been praised too much, Cy. It's made you impatient and despairing, caused you to set goals you can't help but fall short of. Believe me, every worthwhile thing takes time; only bad things happen quickly. The key is patience. Plan for the future, but live in the moment. You're fortunate to have a bride as lovely as Rose Rubra. Enjoy her beauty. Drink deeply of it now, enough to last for the rest of your life! A woman's beauty is the briefest of seasons, my boy. Once gone, it does not return again, ever."
"I'll try," Cy says. "But it's hard."
"Did anyone say it would be easy? Are you a woman to want it so?" Marcus bangs his big fist on the wood for emphasis. "Turning after turning our family has clawed its way back to the city of Peripety, where our great ancestor Celtis Galingale moved as freely as a firefly through the Court of the Plumed Serpent. If not for the cursed Intricatas, our family would dwell in Quoz by now!"
As far back as Cy can remember, he's heard the tale of his family's disgrace: how the beautiful Sersis Intricata seduced Celtis Galingale only to betray him to the shrives by the command of her father, Malus. It's always seemed more fairy tale than history to Cy, as far removed from his life as the lives of the saints and martyrs. But the hatred he feels at the mention of the name Intricata is immediate and strong, fueled by a rage lacking all other lawful expression. "We'll have our revenge, father," he says now. "I swear it!"
"Good lad!" Marcus claps him on the shoulder. "You do yourself credit. But you see what I mean about impatience. The road to revenge is a long one. It must be traveled with care and cunning. Remember, Celtis fell all the way to lowly Arpagee. In all the time since, more than three hundred turnings, we've barely come half way back. Your great-great-grandfather was born in Hent and died in Inction. My father's hard work and sacrifice lifted the family to Jubilar. It's our duty to continue advancing until we've won back all that was stolen from us, even if another three hundred turnings must go by before a descendant of Celtis enters Peripety.
"To advance is all, Cy. If Rose's beauty doesn't excite you, consider her dowry. Her father, Cerasus, may be a witless ox, but he's a rich witless ox. With his wealth added to our own, and with a son to carry the Galingale name forward -- as I have every confidence you'll beget on Rose, for vengeful thoughts breed sons -- you'll be able to advance to Kell, one step nearer Peripety and revenge. That's how the race is won, my boy: step by step, not in a single leap from start to finish! Give me your hand! There! You shouldn't provoke an old man so!"
Cy clasps his father's hand, glad of the reconciliation but still, in his secret heart, gloomy and rebellious. He scorns the patient revenge that Marcus counsels.
Each turning on All Saints' Eve, to mark the ascension of Saint Ixion Diospyros, the Blessed Sovereign elevates a handful of worthy men. Some rise to the next town or city. Others leap all the way to lofty Quoz, Apex of Existence, the crystal city where Azedarach LXIV rules in majesty and power from the Serpent Throne. Thus each man, however humble his station, has at least some chance of advancement. Cy dreams of the day that one of his designs will catch the Sovereign's eye and lift him to Peripety or beyond. It's been his secret dream for turnings.
Yet now, at the ripe old age of seventeen, Cy is having doubts. Once again, All Saints' Eve has come and gone with no word from Azedarach. Cy feels doomed to finish his days in Jubilar, a disappointment to his father. Everyone praises the genius of his designs, but Cy sees only the gulf that separates what he imagines from the clumsy accomplishments of his hands. It's a gulf that seems to grow wider, not narrower, with the turnings.
This is the shadow that has fallen over his life. And not even the prospect of marriage to Rose Rubra, daughter of the blacksmith, Cerasus, can cheer him.
Cy admits she's the most beautiful girl in Jubilar. He takes pleasure in her smile and her company, and her kisses, while they last, are almost enough to make him forget about Quoz. But kisses don't last forever, and a woman's beauty is quick to fade.
Cy wants a beauty that never fades. If such a beauty exists anywhere in the Hierarchate, it's not in lowly Jubilar, or in Peripety, but in Quoz.
Father and son have hardly resumed their work when there comes a timid knock at the shop door.
"Enter," calls Marcus. "Ah, Rose! Cy and I were just speaking of you."
Rose Rubra stands on the threshold, blushing with her shy smile and luminous green eyes. A slight young woman of fifteen turnings, Rose wears a white blouse and a pale blue dress whose yellow-fringed hem hangs below her ankles. Her black hair is set in the style of a bride-to-be, with two long braids twining about her shoulders and arms like bands of lustrous ivy only to end in bracelets at her wrists. A red hibiscus blossom is tucked above her left ear in token of fidelity; for the past month, as is the custom, Rose has worn a different flower every day to symbolize the virtues she'll bring to her husband.
"Ixion grant the day finds you well, father-in-law," she says.
Marcus smooths his silver hair. "Your beauty cures me of all afflictions, daughter-in-law: even age. At the sight of you, I'm made young again as if by vizard's craft! Why not marry me, and not this dullard of a son?"
Rose laughs nervously. "I don't think your wife would approve, father-in-law."
"How you women stick together! It's a wonder we poor men aren't kept in chains the livelong day, eh, Cy?" He nudges his son and winks.
"Don't mind him, Rose," says Cy. "My father likes to pretend women secretly rule the world."
"And don't they?" Marcus demands. "Each night, when we are chained to our beds, our nostrils plugged, aren't we wholly in their power? Rose, I ask you: what husband would dare anger his wife, knowing all she need do to revenge herself would be to remove his nose plugs and loosen his bonds. The potent scent of Beauty would do the rest, deranging his reason and seducing him into Herwood, never to return!"
Rose puts her hands together in the sign of the Wheel. "What wife could conceive such a terrible sin? It's every woman's loving duty to husband, son and father to guard their sleep against Beauty!"
"Yet you can't deny the power you women wield," Marcus persists. "Surely the thought has crossed your mind, daughter-in-law, if only for a second -- when Cerasus has angered you by some petty refusal or chastisement, for example -- how easily you could be rid of him! Ixion himself says that evil thoughts sprout from women's hearts faster than men can weed them."
Rose grows paler and paler, pressing her hands to her heart. "Let me rot forever with Maw and her Furies in the Pit of Damned Souls if I ever presume to judge my father's judgments or seek a wicked revenge!"
"You raise your voice to me? You have a touch of the Fury in you, daughter-in-law!"
Rose turns paler still, trembling at how her words have run away with her. "I beg pardon, father-in-law."
"Peace, daughter, peace," laughs Marcus. "By the Wheel, your fear becomes you more than any blossom! You take my jests too much to heart, I assure you."
"I have offended you."
"On the contrary, I'm pleased to hear you defend the virtues of your sex with such pretty vehemence. Only practice them as vigorously and we'll have no quarrels."
"With your help, I will."
"That modest answer becomes you better still. Come, let me give you a kiss!"
Rose goes to Marcus, who kisses her loudly upon the lips. Taking her by the hand, he spins her once around as in a dance, her tiny feet kicking up sawdust, then passes her blushing and laughing with embarrassment to Cy. "What a treasure you have here, Cy! A paragon of wifely virtue!"
Cy frowns. "How like you, father, to swell Rose's pretty head after rebuking me for pride."
"Why, that's a father-in-law's privilege, like spoiling a grandson! But you'll excuse me, Rose, I'm sure: I've got work to do for tomorrow. Cy, I want you to clean up here before you visit the Church. Mind you don't distract him, Rose."
In Jubilar, as in every village, town and city of the Hierarchate, couples engaged to be married must visit the local church on each day of the week before the ceremony. There they kneel and light candles to Saint Viridis Lacrimata, Our Lady of the Perpetual Sacrifice, Patroness of Holy Patrimony, beseeching her for the blessing of a son.
Cy rolls his eyes as his father leaves the shop.
"How funny your father is!" says Rose.
"I know he frightens you."
"Sometimes I think it must be sinful to listen to him, the way he goes on! What would the Mouth of God say?"
"Try not to take him seriously, Rose. Laugh at his jests, but only in seeming. Inside, pay no heed."
"I want to be a good daughter-in-law, Cy. And a good wife."
Rose's green eyes shine with excitement and -- Cy sees it clearly -- love. Suddenly Quoz seems far away. What had Marcus called her? A paragon of wifely virtue. But she's a paragon of beauty as well: her scent as mysterious and compelling as any that baits the nighttime air, her hair a forest in which he longs to become lost. He trembles to think that in a day's time her body will be his to command, his to explore like an unknown country: her riches his to claim, his all her blushing secrets.
His father was right, Cy realizes. He is lucky in Rose. He swears to himself now that once they are wed he will not just drink deeply of Rose's beauty, he'll drain it to the very dregs, until all that remains is the wrinkled shell of virtue like an empty wineskin.
Cy lowers his lips to hers as if to begin the drinking now.