When Chudara took over, they installed a county governor. He ruled over every village Zusan had ever heard of, and then some. He had a house built for him and his household in the foothills overlooking Quan, where she lived, and when the house was built, he announced that he meant to take a local wife.
Zusan had seen Chudaran men seldom, in the past. Mostly soldiers, and those only peeking through the neighbor's shutters. When there was fighting near Quan, sometimes one army, or the other, would come through and ransack the village for provisions, kicking half the families into the homes of the other half so they could sleep in their houses, and leave the next morning, all chaos. The Chudaran men were darker, and cut their hair short, and of course spoke only Chudaran, communicating their demands with gestures.
But other than that, they weren't much different from the emperor's army. The emperor's army was made up of men who could have been Zusan's older brother, himself a soldier, but his division never passed through Quan. He was a real archer, snapped up by the army for his telltale ability to hit a bird in flight with a thrown stone, and they kept the archers in action. There was no sparing someone who could place an arrow like her brother could. When the war ended, the money stopped, and when he still didn't come home she thought probably he was dead.
Regardless of who won, the people of Quan, Zusan included, were glad the war was over. Some of them grumbled, of course. The governor's house up in their hills was both good and bad: good, because it would soon be easy to get all kinds of things he'd have brought to his home, and he would have to hire locals for servants sooner or later, and this would make all the families of Quan richer. Bad, because with the governor right there, they would have a lot of trouble holding back anything he wanted to tax without being noticed, and if he were a bad governor, it would go badly for them to be right under his eye. Not just his eye, even; everyone knew that Chudarans could sometimes read minds.
Most everyone felt it was encouraging that he did not mean to install a wife from Chudara. Zusan heard people gossipping - this means he wishes to rule gently, they said, this means he will learn our ways before he lays down Chudaran laws.
He had some requirements for his wife. He wanted a girl old enough to bear children, but not older than himself at twenty-two winters. He wanted her fresh, not a widow or one with a baby pretending to be her little brother mixed into the jumble of her family. He wanted her pretty - actually, the rumors Zusan heard suggested that, if you spoke Chudaran, he'd meant something like "not disfigured", but everyone assumed that he meant pretty. He wanted her not already promised to some boy, presumably so the boy would not try to assassinate him for the slight.
Now, there were plenty of pretty young girls, but most of them were promised. Most particularly the pretty ones were. Elders noticed which little cousins played nicely together, threw them into pairs whenever circumstance permitted to confirm their amiability, and formally sewed things up by the time they had thirty winters between them. The occasional alliance between families was usually even more premeditated. Zusan's mother, in the general sense if not as an individual, had been intended for Zusan's father before either of them were born.
Zusan herself was the only girl born to her parents. Their match was a great success, yielding eight living sons including an archer, and just the one girl. The seven brothers who hadn't been snapped up by the army to pincushion the enemy were all paired off with girl-cousins already, of whom Zusan had many.
Actually, there were very few boy-cousins her age in her family, and those were all promised to better-suited girls. It had seemed likely as not that she'd step into the place of an older relative when someone died giving birth or caught the flu, but all the likeliest someones had been rather fortunate in recent years.
All of which meant that when the governor announced that whichever family produced his bride would be exempt from taxes for as long as she lived, her family put her in the family's finery and packed her off.
Zusan did not want to be an aging spinster, waiting for the death of an auntie who'd brushed her hair and teased her and snuck her sweets, so she could marry the poor woman's husband. But, as alternatives went, this was intimidating. She walked with a brother along to chaperone, up the hill, and he presented her, asserted that she was unattached and as young as she looked and hiding no hideous malformation.
The governor from Chudara did not really speak Quan's dialect, nor the city tongue that traders and travelers spoke. When he came to have a look at her he uttered just a couple of words, so thick with accent that she had to guess from context that he meant "thank you, welcome" and not "a green cow dances". When he pointed at himself and said "Siandar", Zusan presumed that was his name. She made her prettiest bow, pointed at herself, and said, "Zusan," in return. Properly it would have been Nian Zusan but she didn't want him to call her Nian, like he was a stranger from the next village who recognized her only as specifically as which house she lived in. Either he'd marry her, in which case he'd have the right to her personal name, or he wouldn't, and they would never speak again.
He didn't seem to know how to signal to her that she'd bowed for long enough. That, or he thought a county governor warranted as much backache as a king. When he started to reach for her as though to tip up her chin she straightened of her own accord and his hand fell. "Zusan," he repeated carefully, as she looked him in the eye.
She nodded. "Yes, my lord." Probably he knew those words. They were what she'd prioritize if she were a governor.
Siandar looked her over, assessing. Looked over at one of the men in his livery and said something in Chudaran. The man said to Zusan's brother in his choking accent, "His lordship accepts. They will be married before the gods of Chudara. Please give me the name of the family."
"Nian," said Zusan's brother, and he accepted the papers that exempted her family from taxation as long as she lived.
Zusan hugged her brother goodbye, and he told her that he could see her new home from his window, it wasn't so far after all. And down he went.
"Zusan," said Siandar, and he held out his hand.
Zusan placed her palm in his.
In Quan, a wedding was done in the family's ancestral chapel, but while Siandar probably had ancestors, they were not in attendance. Instead his house had a roomful of little statues, some the size of Zusan's thumb lined up on shelves, some nearly as tall as she was, made of stone or wood or metal. One looked like it was solid gold, though it was a smaller one. The servant who spoke city tongue explained to her that the figurines were gods, those favored by his lordship's line - which implied that these dozens weren't even all of them. Zusan, in fairness, had more ancestors than Siandar had gods, but at least all of her ancestors had had two arms, two legs, zero tails, and completely human heads. Though perhaps the queer features helped him tell them apart.
A different servant was called in to perform a ceremony, entirely in Chudaran. Zusan studied her husband-to-be while the words washed over her. He wore blue, embroidered in more blue, trimmed in gold. It must have taken someone a year to make - someone skilled. And he hadn't even known someone would come bringing him a wife today! Zusan's family could have dithered for a week. He could have rejected her. It had to be that he dressed like this all the time. He must put an apron on just to eat his breakfast, and sleep naked to avoid rumpling it -
Zusan's thoughts skipped like a lost heartbeat for a moment before she caught up with the relevance of his possible tendency to sleep naked. He might sleep naked next to her, as soon as that night, and most likely only after he benefitted from having married her. Perhaps if she had known since she was eight that she was going to marry her second cousin once removed when they were both grown she would have gotten used to the idea gently. As it was she would have to accustom herself very fast. She had looked at the swirls sewn into his exotic outfit enough - it was blue and gold, fine - she looked at the rest of him, attempted to rehearse her best guess of events to follow in her head so she would not be caught too much by surprise.
Siandar started kissing the various gods after what felt like an hour of ritual had gone by, and gestured for her to do the same - she wasn't sure, at first, that this was what he meant, but when she leaned toward the first one he smiled and waved encouragingly. And so she planted her lips on the little ones in gold and jade and amethyst, and the medium-sized ones in quartz and marble and iron, and the big ones made of wood, just like he did, till every god had been visited. The celebrant droned on. Zusan's lips were chilly from the cold smooth sculptures, but soon - or not soon, she did not know how long Chudaran weddings took -
Not too much longer, it turned out, and then he did kiss her, cupping her face in his hands and waiting for her to look up at him before he leaned in to close the distance. Zusan was not sure what she had been expecting. In hindsight of course if a person put his lips on her lips it would feel just like so: what, had she thought he would be some inhuman temperature? Be made of wood, like the god-statues? That he would bite? No.
He took her hand and tugged her out of the room of gods. The celebrant bowed, a tassel on his hat bobbing, and departed. The translator followed, but Siandar waved him away before they went through any doors, and then they were alone. Siandar found the room he wanted, and pulled it open.
It was, Zusan concluded immediately, his bedroom. She had a moment to look around - the bed itself was bigger than the one she shared with her favorite cousin at home, and there were two fireplaces, both empty at the moment in the summer warmth but ready to keep even such a large space toasty when winter came. There were more doors, implying a whole suite sectioned off here for him, separate from the god-room and the receiving hall and the servants' quarters and the places he'd do his governing and entertaining and dining. She hadn't been sure if she'd get a separate room, as some rich people were understood to do for their wives. She supposed, as he tugged her toward the bed, that she still was not sure. He might shoo her off to another part of his enormous house after - this train of thought was not going to keep her from making embarrassing noises of startlement, she decided -
He sat her down, and sat beside her, and said her name, looking in her eyes again. "Zusan?" he said.
"Siandar?" she replied. He couldn't ask her any questions and if he did he wouldn't understand the answers. Presumably they would learn each other's languages eventually but for the time being she was just coasting on the assumption that a marriage was a marriage and she was here having married him with the hopefully mutual understanding that they would then do marital things.
Whatever he derived from looking at her eyes like that satisfied him, it seemed, because he kissed her again and peeled off all her pretty wedding clothes and, when she made embarrassing noises, Siandar did not seem in the least troubled about them.
Zusan woke in her marriage bed alone, sunshine streaming through the windows. Siandar was an early riser, it seemed, and without anyone knocking on her forehead to remind her to feed the chickens, she was not. She got up and put back on her wedding clothes. She would need to find a servant at some point and have her normal dress brought up the hill so the wedding things could be brought down for the next Nian girl to be married. But there was no urgency, because the cousin she'd shared her bed with would be the next in line and was not yet fifteen, so for the time being she'd wear them for everyday. She got up and went to explore her new home.
He had a lot of people in his house. They were mostly staff, men and women both in the same uniform, distinguishable by how recently they'd chopped off all their hair and by whether they were a little or a lot taller than her, bustling around with papers and trays and cleaning-rags. They all nodded to her politely when she went by and didn't try to steer her away from her gradual mapping of the house: here was where she'd come in, there was the gods' room, there a closet, there a guest room mid-sweep. There was a courtyard, there the stable, there the dining room - when she stepped in a maid asked her "Breakfast, lady?" in paint-peelingly awful renderings of consonants, turning into six syllables what should have been three. It was like Chudarans didn't have voices, just accents.
"Yes, thank you," Zusan replied, without trying to correct her pronunciation, and she was presented with some strange variant on congee, which looked as though there were milk in it and tasted spicy and tart, and she discovered that it had nuts in it by nearly swallowing one unchewed. Once she was used to the flavor it was delicious, if foreign.
She was halfway through her bowl when someone not in servant's livery entered the room. He was dressed in a green Chudaran-style tunic, black on green, as fine as Siandar's blue, and spoke to the servants and got his own bowl of congee just like hers. Sitting down across from her, he smiled, said, "Zusan" and something in his own language. Maybe it was "good morning".
Zusan repeated it back, the presumable good morning, and his smile broadened and he nodded at her, so probably she'd gotten it right. He pointed at things, at the food and the spoons and the table and chairs, and told her their names. A voice called what must be his title, from another room, and he looked at her apologetically and left without even finishing his serving. He'd taught her a dozen words but she hadn't learned his name.
Oh, well. Most likely he lived in the house she now called home. She would learn the names of all of her brothers-in-law (or whoever that was) in time.
She spent the day practicing the words, self-conscious that her accent in Chudaran was quite as bad as the one that encrusted everything the Chudarans said. But if she could understand them when they ventured to speak her language they'd probably do just as well the opposite way. She learned all the corridors and poked around in the suite she was apparently meant to share with Siandar. It had a little dining nook, in case he ever preferred to take his meals in more privacy than the dining hall, and she also found a bathtub and a sitting room with plush chairs and some books.
Zusan could write her name, but not read fluently, and she certainly couldn't decipher Chudaran. She took down a book and paged through it anyway, pretending, looking at the woodcut illustrations and maps tucked in between the mesmerizingly opaque characters.
When she was sure she'd been to every room in the house, she asked servants for the translator - she would have to learn his name - until, whether due to their understanding or their incomprehension, she was ushered to his office.
"I need to send for my clothes," she told him, "and then return these - they're my family's wedding things."
He puzzled over the sentence a bit, and replied, "I'll send someone down."
"I may not go?"
"I've had no word about it. You can ask, of course."
"Thank you," Zusan said, bowing, and the translator did know how to tell her that was enough. She straightened while he summoned up a runner to make the exchange of outfits.
"Is that all?" he asked her.
"Do you know when I will next see my husband?"
"I will not - presume," he replied, with a great pause before "presume" as he fished for the word.
"Do I have - duties, chores -"
"I have not been told of any. Some ladies take up instruments," he added, helpfully, "until there are children."
"Instruments," said Zusan. Everyone sang, sometimes, while they were working, and her family owned a drum that some of her relatives tapped out rhythms on in idle moments, but no one in Quan was a musician.
"I believe there is a flute somewhere in your chambers."
"I see. I should - learn more Chudaran," she said, "how shall I do that?"
The translator sighed. "I can send one of the maids to try to instruct you. I do not have the time."
So Zusan went back to her room, and looked around until she found the flute in a drawer. She made clumsy sounds with it till a maid came by, introduced herself as Jaruti, and began to offer Chudaran words. They began with the ones the maid could render into the local tongue, which Zusan appreciated, since it was impossible to point at a "hello" or a "thank you".
Eventually the girl ducked out to fetch Zusan lunch. She didn't bring any for herself, and Zusan reflected that having servants might have some drawbacks, like the fact that now she had to interrupt her language lesson to try to convey across the remaining gulf that Jaruti was free to go have her own meal. It took nearly ten minutes before Jaruti managed to get across that she'd eaten already and would stay, by which time Zusan's flat bread and sauced meat were getting cold. But Zusan did feel some of her new words solidifying in place as they were used in terrible awkward strings to try to have an actual conversation, so she accounted for that as a positive.
Jaruti stayed all afternoon. She knew the numbers one to ten, and yes and no, and "my lord", which suggested Siandar meant to be addressed in local parlance rather than importing whatever the Chudaran title would be. Zusan drilled and drilled and made silly little phrases with the words her brother-in-law had taught her over breakfast - two spoons, thank you for the chair, good morning my lord. Jaruti suppressed giggles, but Zusan could hardly hold it against her.
Zusan's clothes arrived right before she meant to go to the dining room for supper. She shooed Jaruti and the runner who'd brought them, changed into her comfortable old blue hemp, and folded up the bridal things to be toted back down the hill for the next Nian girl's wedding. Siandar ought to have no trouble recognizing her, even having known her for only a day, since she was the only non-Chudaran who'd be eating with him unless he'd invited guests.
There were guests, but no Siandar, just the man in green from breakfast and some representatives from a merchant family from two villages down. It was a husband and wife, and they introduced themselves and Zusan recognized the surname. They spoke some Chudaran, but talked to Zusan too, and the wife sometimes translated jokes this way and that. She would be able to have a real conversation with her husband soon, she thought. When he was around. Maybe he was out on some sort of business. It took hours to walk to the next village but he had horses and could get there and back and be only late for dinner.
She ate what she was served - it was all so tasty once she got used to the spices - and retired to her room. She didn't have room in her head for more new words; she thought of them as lyrics, while she piped odd puffy shrieks on the flute and tried to find enough different notes to make a tune. Hello one table, thank you bowl, yes my lord, welcome to the ceiling...
The door opened, and Zusan looked up from her consternated musical attempts, smiling, only to see the man in green smiling back at her. She set the flute down, trying to compose a question out of dishes and furniture, but came up empty. "My lord," she said.
"Zusan," he replied cheerfully, and he shut the door behind him and crossed the floor to kiss her.
She knew the words "no, my lord", Zusan reflected later while she watched the low, banked firelight throw shadows on the walls. She could have said "Siandar", softly to remind this person of her husband who she did not mean to betray, or loudly to bring Siandar running if he were anywhere in the house. She could have started babbling in Quan dialect and hoped he assumed that this constituted some suitably dire warning. She could have flung herself toward the door, run out of the room, burst into the translator's office and hoped he was still at work. She was not sure why she had not done any of these things.
She supposed it would be abstractly interesting, if it was the way of Chudarans to promise a family no taxes as long as their provided daughter should live as the wife of the governor, and then arrange to loan her to a brother or a friend and put her to death for the infidelity. It was the sort of thing that would be half-discounted as wild rumor. People as far away as the Imperial capital would be arguing with each other about whether she had really met such an end or if actually that was a slanderous exaggeration of a simple encounter with the pox.
It could be less dire than that, of course. Perhaps Chudarans were accustomed to sharing wives between brothers, and she'd thought she'd married just the one but this other, or a whole pack of them, were likewise entitled. She had not received much detail on matrimonial expectations in Chudara beforehand. This could be completely normal, which would explain why he hadn't acted like he was doing anything that was likely to wind up with anyone dead.
She could just imagine the translator responding to a question on the matter with I will not - presume. Maybe it was not a typical Chudaran behavior but one that nobody would dream of denying to Siandar's brother, who might well be important in his own right.
She fell asleep, after she knew not how long, waiting for Siandar to come home and catch her in bed with this person. When she woke in the morning, though, neither he nor anyone else was there.
At breakfast Siandar was still not home and the man in green did not attend either, though there was someone in yellow, who attempted to teach her the word for what the kitchen was serving but stopped trying when she stared at him blankly. She wondered how many brothers there were, and where Siandar was. It was a little silly of her to miss him. They had not had twenty years to fall in love over their mutual delight in a passel of children, they had not grown into shape around each other like two adjacent trees. She'd barely met him. But she did miss him, or at least her folksong idea of him, the exotic gentry taking one look at her and deciding she'd be his bride and live in his beautiful house.
Apparently the folksong had a few verses about other people in his beautiful house and their designs on his bride. Apparently he himself barely lived in his beautiful house.
Zusan wished she could ask - if she waited till she had enough Chudaran, it would be too late to earn any mercy for a quick confession, but if she tried to go through the translator now - she was not sure exactly how this would go wrong but it seemed like it might be the sort of thing which would manage to violate six taboos at once. Perhaps she ought to do it anyway before she'd borne a dubiously legitimate child into the line of fire, though.
When Siandar came home she would try, she decided. It would be very plain when she threw herself on his mercy that something was the matter, and then he could bring in the translator that would be his decision, not hers.
That night the brother in yellow came to the room, and Zusan held herself very stiff, and watched him approach. He slowed down, stopping before he reached her, and cocked his head. "Zusan...?" he said.
She wrapped her arms around herself, not quite meaning to, and met his gaze. He looked at her, seeming confused somehow, and finally sighed and shook his head and shrugged off the yellow jacket. He tossed it to the floor and tucked himself under the covers without touching her.
Zusan was still for a minute or two, and then tucked herself in on the other side of the bed. There was so much space that she could imagine she was alone. And when she woke up the next morning, she really was, once more.
At breakfast, there was Siandar, blue-clad, pensive. He must have gotten in early, and had been on an errand that troubled him. She wished she could ask what it was. But she had something else she needed to ask, much more urgently, words or no words.
She swept past the bowl placed for her on the table and collapsed to her knees besides Siandar's chair and began, in all her pent-up fear and upset, to try to explain what had happened. She spoke Quan dialect; being understood in exact content was not the main point. All this needed to do was put him in a gentle mood when he had her before the translator.
Siandar looked down at her in absolute bafflement. She ran out of new ways to apologize, and trailed off rather than have further hysterics about how you really need to tell people if they are also marrying your brothers, and dropped her forehead onto his thigh.
"Zusan..." he said. "...what?" he went on, which was very fair as his progress in her language was not much faster than hers in his, but was not what she'd envisioned as the next step here.
"I'm sorry," she said, for the tenth time, without looking up.
His hand touched her cheek and he tipped up her face and stared into her eyes, for a long moment, and a longer one, staring and staring. She dropped her eyes down to the floor, but he said, "Zusan, please," and she looked back up at him again. She had no idea what he wanted from her - if he had any idea what she'd been trying to convey - but every time she glanced away he repeated her name, so she looked and looked and looked.
At long last he made a distressed noise, seized her hand and tugged her to her feet. Pulled her out of the dining room and down the hall and - not to the translator's office, but - to their bedroom. He released her hand as the door swung shut behind them and she watched him - he looked confused, but more than that troubled, like he'd learned that the moon was falling from the sky: a bewildering fact, but moreover one that presaged a colossal crash.
There was, it turned out, a drawer under the bed. Her explorations had not apprised her of this. Siandar pulled it out with a thump and plunged both hands into it and drew out fancy bright Chudaran jackets, two of them - one green, one yellow.
Zusan blinked. Those were the outfits belonging to the people she'd been assuming were his brothers. Since they also slept in this room it was not so odd that they'd have stored their clothes here - maybe they wore something less fine to go traveling or whatever it was they were doing -
Siandar was staring at her eyes again, and she understood now what he expected when he did that and stared back. At length he shook his head and tossed the jackets on top of the bedspread and unbuttoned his blue one. And then he picked up the green one - seemed to think better of it - put on the yellow one, half-fastened it, spread his arms.
"Siandar," he said, gesturing at himself, and then, wincing, he waved his arm at the green jacket too. Repeated: "Siandar."
Vaguely aware that her mouth was hanging open, Zusan attempted to make some sound of comprehension.
Siandar shrugged off the yellow garment. Started to put the blue one back on.
Zusan took six steps forward and - did his buttons for him, by way of apology. No one had ever pointed at a "sorry". Her head was ducked low, embarrassed. Of course he was rich! Of course he had three sets of clothes! Maybe he had even more! Of course with his accent she hadn't been able to learn his voice - but then what had he expected her to do? He cut his hair the same as all the other Chudarans, even the servants; he was not some seven foot tall mountain of a man she could identify by the crick in her neck; he did not have a mole affixed to his chin -
He tipped her head up again and she pouted up at him, indignant, and this time it seemed to take him fewer seconds to see what he wanted to see in her eyes. He sighed, and tugged her out of the room again when the last button was done.
Back in the dining room, he summoned servants out of the kitchen, and sent them to find more, all in their livery, and with a few sentences of Chudaran had them all line up, and, while he covered his eyes, rearrange themselves in the line until they were placed at random. He pointed at one, and said a name. The servant bowed and left. He pointed at the next, said another name - Jaruti was third, Zusan hadn't been sure she was in line - one by one he identified them all, though they were all in uniform.
Oh, of course, Chudarans could read minds sometimes, he'd been demonstrating - but surely he knew that the local gift, which was rare anyway, was archery -
"No!" Siandar said, frustrated, and he dismissed all the servants, and this time he brought her to the translator's office.
Some ten minutes of rapid Chudaran jabbering later, the translator stiffly informed her that Siandar had not expected her to be able to read his mind, but that it was usual for people to be able to distinguish one another by face, even if the faces were similar enough to belong to brothers, so long as the brothers were not twins.
When this explanation had been delivered Siandar made sure it had landed, looking again at her eyes, and decided that it was done to his satisfaction. Less urgently, he led her back to their bedroom, and pulled her to sit beside him on the edge of the bed, and he held her. "Zusan," he sighed.
"Siandar," she said, leaning on him. It was a palpable relief to know it had been only him all along, that no one was going to behead her and fraternal betrayal was not going to provoke a family feud and she had not been married to a pack of different men as a surprise custom. It was disconcerting to find that she had, all her life, lacked a typical non-magical ability, and was only now learning of its existence. But compared to what she had feared, that was welcome news.
They sat there, and then Siandar's stomach rumbled.
"Food," Zusan said in Chudaran.
"Food," Siandar agreed, and they went together to the dining room.
And that evening, Siandar found in one of his drawers a silver chain with a pendant, and he put it over his neck, and left it there even when he was wearing nothing else. And when Zusan looked him in the eye in the dim firelight and wondered if he would leave it there always so she'd know him, he smiled and said, "Yes," and kissed her.