I think the rain's going to hold off after all," said Garric, eyeing the sky to seaward where clouds had been lowering all day as the royal fleet made its way up the western coast of Haft.
If it didn't, well, he wouldn't shrink. For most of his nineteen years he'd been a peasant who herded sheep and worked in the yard of his father's inn, often enough in the rain. But now he was Prince Garric of Haft, making a Royal Progress from Tisamur, through Cordin, and to Carcosa on Haft. He was here to convince the folk living in the West that there was a real Kingdom of the Isles again and that they were part of it. It's hard to impress people in a downpour; all they really care about is getting under cover as soon as the foreign fools let them.
"Ah, you can believe that if you wish, your highness," said Lobon, the sailing master of the Shepherd of the Isles. His voice mushed through a mouthful of maca root, which oarsmen claimed gave them strength and deadened the pain of their muscles. "What I say is that we'll have a squall before we've settled half so many ships into their berths."
He nodded glumly toward the harbor mouth ahead. "That's if Carcosa even has berths for a hundred warships. We're at the back of beyond!"
"Carcosa can berth a hundred warships," Garric said, a trifle more sharply than the sailing master's comment deserved. "A thousand years ago when Carus was King of the Isles and Carcosa was his capital, the harbor held as many as five hundred."
Lobon was a skillful judge of winds, currents, and the way to get the best out of even a clumsy quinquereme like the Shepherd, but he'd been born on the island of Ornifal. He was just as much of an Ornifal chauvinist as a landowning noble like Lord Waldron, commander of the royal army.
Garric came from Barca's Hamlet on the east side of Haft. All the time he'd been growing up, Carcosa was the unimaginably great city that held all the wonder in the world. And besides Garric's own background--
"Aye, lad," said the ghost of King Carus, alive and vibrant in Garric's mind. "Five hundred ships in harbor--but only when I wasn't off on campaign with them, smashing one usurper or another. And that was most times, till the Duke of Yole's wizard smashed me instead and the kingdom with me. But you'll do better, because you know not to solve all your problems with a sword!"
Garric smiled at the image of his ancient ancestor. He and Carus could have passed for son and father: tall and muscular with a dark complexion, brown hair, and a quick smile unless there was trouble to deal with. Carus had never fully mastered his volcanic temper, a flaw that'd proved fatal as he'd said. But--
If I'm doing better, Garric said in his mind's silence, then in part it's because I have your skill to guide my swordarm when a stroke is required.
"I wouldn't know about what went on before my time," muttered Lobon. He spat over the stern railing, threading the gobbet between the helmsman at the starboard steering oar and one of Garric's young aides. The helmsman remained unconcerned, but the aide jumped and smothered a curse.
Generally an aide was somebody's nephew, a second son who could run errands for the prince and either rise to a position of some rank at court or be killed. Either would be a satisfactory outcome, since a family of the minor nobility couldn't afford to support another son in the state his birth demanded.
This youth, Lord Lerdain, was an exception. He was the heir presumptive of Count Lerdoc of Blaise, one of a handful of the most powerful nobles in the kingdom. Lerdain's presence at Garric's side made it more likely that Lerdoc would remain loyal.
Lobon understood Garric's glance toward Lerdain. He scrunched his face into a smile and said to the aide, "Don't worry, boy. I've been chewing maca root since before your father was born. I won't hit you less I mean to."
His face shifting into a mask of frustration, he added, "Not room to swing a cat aboard this pig, there's so many civilians aboard. Ah--begging your pardon, your highness."
"I understand, Master Lobon," Garric said with a faint smile. "We'll be on land shortly...and I fully appreciate your feelings."
The Shepherd of the Isles was as large as any vessel in the royal fleet. She had five rows of oars on either side and a crew of nearly three hundred men. Despite the quinquereme's relative size, she was strictly a warship rather than a yacht intended to carry a prince. Garric's personal bodyguard, twenty-five Blood Eagles, took the place of the Shepherd's normal complement of marines, but he and the dozen members of his personal entourage were simply excess baggage so far as the ship's personnel were concerned.
"Though as for being civilians..." Garric added mildly. "I think you'd find I could give as good an account of myself in battle as most of the marines the Shepherd's shipped over the years."
For his formal arrival in Carcosa, Garric wore a breastplate of silvered bronze and a silvered helmet whose spreading wings had been gilded. If the sun cooperated, Prince Garric would be a dazzling gem in a setting formed by the polished black armor of his bodyguards.
Garric's armor this day was for show, but the sword hanging from his belt had a plain bone hilt and a long blade of watered steel. There was nothing flashy about the weapon; but swung by an arm as strong as Garric's, the edge would take an enemy's head off with a single stroke.
"Yes sir, your highness!" Lobon said, looking horror-struck to realize what he'd said to his prince. To avoid a further blunder, he stepped forward on the walkway and bellowed through the ventilator, "Timekeeper! Raise the stroke a half beat, won't you? This is supposed to be a royal entry, not a funeral procession!"
Obediently the flutist in the far bow of the oar deck quickened the tempo of the simple four-note progression on his right-hand pipe; the other pipe of the pair continued to play a drone. The rate at which the oars dipped, rose, and feathered forward increased by the same amount. In time the Shepherd would slide marginally faster through the water, but a quinquereme was too massive to do anything suddenly. Even the much lighter triremes, which made up the bulk of the fleet, accelerated with a certain majesty.
"The trouble is, lad," said the image of Carus, "you don't act like a noble and they treat you like the folks they grew up with. Then they remember who you really are and they're afraid you'll have them flayed alive for disrespect to Prince Garric of Haft."
I'd never do that! Garric thought in shock.
"No more would I," Carus agreed, "though I showed a hard enough hand to enemies of the kingdom. But there's some in your court who'd show less hesitation over executing a commoner for disrespect than they would over the choice of a wine with their dinner."
"I don't belong here," Garric whispered, but he didn't need the snort from the ghost in his mind to know that he did indeed belong. The Kingdom of the Isles, wracked by rebellion and wizardry, needed Prince Garric and his friends more than it needed any number of the courtiers and Ornifal landowners who'd claimed to be the government of the Isles for most of the thousand years since the Old Kingdom collapsed in blood and chaos.
Thought of his friends made Garric look toward the bow where his sister Sharina, his boyhood friend Cashel, and the wizard Tenoctris leaned against the railing. Like Garric they were mostly concerned with keeping out of the way. This was a particular problem for the women since they'd dressed for arrival in Carcosa in spreading court robes of silk brocade: cream with a gold stripe for "Princess Sharina," sea green for the aged wizard. In a manner of speaking, Tenoctris was much older than the seventy years or so she looked: she'd been flung a thousand years into the future--and onto the beach at Barca's Hamlet--by the same wizard-born cataclysm that had brought down the Old Kingdom.
Sharina wore a fillet, but the golden flood of her hair streamed out beneath it. She was tall--taller than most men in Barca's Hamlet--and blond unlike anyone else in the community. Her mother Lora had been a maid in the palace in Carcosa when tall, blond Niard, an Ornifal noble, had been Count of Haft through his marriage to Countess Tera....
Even a brother could see that Sharina's willowy beauty would be exceptional in any company. "But I know a prettier woman yet," whispered Garric, and smiled wider to think of Liane bos-Benliman. She'd be meeting him here in Carcosa for their wedding.
Sharina felt the weight of her brother's glance. She turned and waved, her smile like sunlight.
Tenoctris and Cashel turned with her. The old wizard was cheerful, birdlike, and as doggedly determined as any soldier in the army. Cashel was almost as tall as Garric, but he was so broad that he didn't look his height unless you saw him with ordinary men. Mountains would crumble before either Cashel or his sister Ilna, aboard the two-decked patrol vessel following the Shepherd, ever failed their duty. Sharina was fortunate to love a man so solid and so much in love with her.
There's never been a man luckier in his friends, Garric thought as he smiled back. Then he turned and waved to the small woman in the stern of the patrol vessel astern.
"And never a better time than now," Carus said, "for the Kingdom of the Isles to have friends--and luck!"
* * *
When Ilna saw Garric wave, her first thought was, What does he mean by that?
Then, feeling foolish--feeling more of a fool than she usually did--she waved with her right as her left held the cords she was plaiting. The movement was polite and a little prim, the way Ilna os-Kenset did most things.
Garric didn't mean anything by it. He was just making a friendly gesture to a childhood friend who didn't, after all, mean very much to him.
Near Ilna--and on a deck-and-a-half patrol vessel like the Flying Fish, anyone could be described as near everyone else aboard--Chalcus talked with Captain Rhamis bor-Harriol, a nobleman younger than Ilna's nineteen years. From what Ilna had seen of the captain during the voyage up the western shore of the Isles, he was a complete ninny.
That didn't matter, of course; or at any rate, it didn't matter any more than if Rhamis was being a ninny in some job on shore. The Flying Fish's sailing master took care of navigation and the ordinary business of the ship, limiting the captain's responsibilities to leading his men in a battle. In Ilna's opinion, ninnies were quite sufficient for that task.
"Is something wrong, Ilna?" Merota asked from Ilna's elbow, unseen till the moment she spoke. The nine-year-old was, as Lady Merota bos-Roriman, the orphaned heir to one of the wealthiest houses on Ornifal. Ilna was her guardian, because...well, because Ilna had been there and nobody else Ilna trusted was available.
The girl was related to Lord Tadai, who acted as chancellor and chief of staff while Garric was with the fleet and those who held the posts officially were back in the palace at Valles. Tadai would've taken care of Merota, but to Tadai that meant marrying the child to some noble as quickly as possible. Merota was young? All the more reason to pass the trouble of raising her on to somebody else.
Ilna and her brother Cashel had been left to raise themselves after their grandmother died when they were seven. Their father Kenset had never said who their mother was; he'd kept a close tongue on the question of where he'd been when he went off adventuring. The only task Kenset applied himself to after coming home with the infants was drinking himself to death, and at that he quickly succeeded.
Ilna and Cashel had survived--survived and prospered, most would say. They were honored members of the royal court, after all. But Ilna wouldn't willingly see another child deal with what she'd gone through herself. If that meant she had to take responsibility for the child, well, she'd never been one to shirk responsibility.
"Nothing's wrong with the world, Merota," Ilna said. She smiled faintly and corrected herself, "Nothing more than usual, that is."
Which is enough and more than enough! she thought, but it wasn't the time to say that, if there was ever a time.
"And as for myself, I'm in my usual state," she continued, still smiling. "Which is bad enough also, I suppose."
When Ilna had last glanced at Merota, the girl was amidships with Mistress Kaline, the impoverished noblewoman who acted as her governess. Mistress Kaline was still there, lying flat over the ventilators--the Flying Fish had no amidships railing--and looking distinctly green.
Ilna's stomach flopped in sympathy, but she'd learned early in the voyage not to eat until they'd made landfall for the night so that she could digest on solid ground. The patrol vessel was agile and quick in a short dash, but it pitched, rolled, and yawed in a fashion that Ilna didn't have words to describe. It wouldn't have been her choice for the ship she wanted to travel on, but she'd never wanted to travel in the first place.
The rest of Garric's staff was aboard quinqueremes or the three-banked triremes that made up most of the fleet. The bigger ships were equally crowded, but they were a great deal more stable. Chalcus had picked the Flying Fish because it was similar to the pirate craft he'd commanded in the days before he met Ilna; and since Ilna had picked Chalcus, that was the end of the matter so far as she was concerned.
Chalcus caught Ilna's eye; he bowed to her and Merota with a flourish before resuming his conversation. Chalcus was no more than middling height. He looked slender from the side, but his shoulders were broad and he moved with the grace of a leopard. If you looked closely at his sharply pleasant features, you saw the scars; and when Chalcus was stripped down to a linen kilt like the sailors, you could see he had scars of one sort or another over most of his body.
From taste and habit Ilna dressed plainly, in unbleached woolen tunics and a blue wool cloak when the weather required it; Chalcus by contrast was a dazzle of color whenever circumstances permitted. Today he wore breeches of red leather, a silk shirt dyed in bright indigo, and between them a sash colored a brilliant yellow with bee's pollen that matched the fillet binding his hair. Ilna knew that the nobles gathered on the quay to meet them would think Chalcus looked like a clown; but they wouldn't say anything, at least not the ones who took time to note the sailor's eyes and the way use had worn the hilt of his incurved sword.
"I do hope Mistress Kaline won't still be sick when we're introduced to Count Lascarg," Merota said in a carefully polite voice. "She'll never be able to live down the embarrassment if that happens."
Ilna looked sharply at her ward, thinking for a moment that she was serious. Then Merota's angelic expression dissolved in a fit of giggles.
"Yes," Ilna said, allowing herself to smile minusculely before her face stiffened again into its accustomed sternness. "But if necessary we'll both help her stand. I've found it settles me to hold on to others."
She didn't care for Mistress Kaline as a person; but then, she didn't care for very many people. Ilna had continued to employ Mistress Kaline after Merota became her ward, in part because the stern old snob did in her way truly love the child, but also because Ilna was more afraid of her own power than she was of anything else in this world or beyond it. It would be easy to dismiss the governess who'd sneered at Ilna as an orphan with no culture and no forebears...but for Ilna, it would have been equally easy to weave a pattern that would rip Mistress Kaline's soul straight to Hell.
That way lay damnation. It was a path Ilna had once traveled, and from which she would never fully be able to return.
"You're really all right, Ilna?" Merota asked softly.
Ilna reached down with her right hand and squeezed the girl's. Sometimes Merota acted younger than her nine years, but at others it seemed that she was taking care of Ilna instead of the other way around.
"Yes, child," Ilna said, deliberately resuming the pattern she'd been knotting from the hank of short cords she kept in her sleeve. "I've made some bad decisions in the course of my life, and I'll probably make more mistakes as I get older. But in the main, the pattern's not one anyone has a right to object to."
Ilna glanced at the fabric her fingers were knotting while her mind considered other, less pleasant, things. Her pattern in coarse twine would calm those who looked at it, raise their spirits or cool their anger. Ilna didn't weave charms any more than the sun was a charm because it warmed those on whom its rays fell. What Ilna wove had the same natural certainty as the wind and the rain, as daylight and death.
She put the finished fabric in her right sleeve, then took a fresh hank of cords out of her left and began again. The patterns were just a way of occupying her fingers; the work didn't calm her, exactly, but her irritation was more likely to come to the surface if she wasn't doing something.
A trumpeter signaled from the flagship, the five-banked monster to the right of Garric's. Captain Rhamis looked as startled as a mouse surprised in the pantry. "What's that?" he cried on a rising note. "What're we to do, Plotnin?"
Before the sailing master could answer, Chalcus laid a hand on the nobleman's shoulder and spoke reassuringly. A trireme pulled ahead, but nothing else about the fleet's stately progression changed. Rhamis bobbed his head, rubbing his hands nervously together.
Ilna smiled at an idle thought. She gave her completed patterns to oarsmen and soldiers, common people. She'd been around the rich and powerful enough in recent days to know that they had problems also, but somebody else could worry about them. Ilna would take care of her own first.
She'd always had a talent for fabrics. As a young girl she'd woven so skillfully that the other women in the borough surrounding Barca's Hamlet brought Ilna the thread they'd spun and instead of weaving themselves took a share of the profits from the cloth she finished. That as much as her brother's early strength explained how two orphans had survived in a community which, while not unkind and fairly prosperous as peasant villages went, had no surplus for useless mouths in a hard winter.
Ilna's talent was natural or at least passed for it, but when Ilna left Barca's Hamlet she'd taken a wrong turning that had led her to Hell. She'd met what looked like a tree there. The skills the tree had taught her gave Ilna the power to let or hinder souls, to change a heart or steal a life. She'd used her new abilities for what she thought at the time were her own ends but which she knew now were the purposes of Evil alone.
While Evil ruled her, Ilna had done things that she couldn't forgive and which couldn't be put right. She knew that she'd never be able to make amends for the evil she'd done casually, callously, if she spent the remainder of her life trying.
So be it. Ilna would try anyway, in small ways, in all the ways that she could. Eventually she'd die with her job undone. She assumed death would end her responsibilities. If it didn't, well, she'd deal with what came then.
Chalcus sauntered back from where he'd been talking to the captain. His stride anticipated the deck's motion with the same unconscious ease that Ilna's fingers demonstrated when weaving. The Flying Fish was short, narrow, and relatively high. She carried fifteen oarsmen in the upper tier on either side with ten more below them in the center where the hull was wide enough--barely--for them to work. Chalcus said the design made the patrol vessel nimble and fairly fast, but she wobbled like a slowing top.
"There's a shipload of Blood Eagles gone ahead to make sure things are safe for Master Garric," Chalcus said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the trireme that was already driving through the harbor entrance. "Not that the lad showed much need to be protected the times I've seen him with a sword in his hand."
Ilna wasn't a seaman, but she could judge patterns like few other people: the men on the trireme's flashing oars were strong and willing, but their timing wasn't as smooth as that of other vessels in the fleet. The bodyguards were picked men, but they weren't picked oarsmen.
She smiled again, recognizing a familiar truth. Every task has its special skills, rowing and weaving no less than the sweep of words that poets use, or that wizards speak for other purposes.
Merota took Chalcus's left hand in hers and began to sing in her clear soprano, "Lord Lovel he stood by his ship so fine, a-rigging her snow-white sails..."
The sailor himself had taught Merota the ballad along with many others. For a wonder this one wasn't as bawdy as those the child usually chose to sing in public. Perhaps she didn't think any of the folk aboard the Flying Fish would care; except for Mistress Kaline, perhaps, but as sick as the governess looked, probably not even her.
At another time Chalcus would have joined in with the child, singing about the nobleman who came back from a long voyage just in time for his true love's funeral, but the admiral's trumpeter sounded another signal. "Chalcus!" Lord Rhamis called, trotting up the deck toward them. "What do they want us to do?"
Chalcus slipped his hand from Merota's, tousled her hair, and gave Ilna a quick nod of regret before turning back to the dithering captain. Chalcus was determined that the ship he'd brought Ilna and Merota aboard should proceed smoothly, or at any rate without needless embarrassment. It was a responsibility he'd accepted without having sought it, much as Garric was ruling a kingdom though Ilna was sure that he'd have been happier helping his father run a village inn and reading the verses of Old Kingdom poets in his free time.
Garric's big ship began to draw ahead of the other vessels. Prince Garric of Haft would enter the harbor in solitary state, with the rest of his mighty fleet following at a respectful distance.
Ilna's fingers wove twine. She knew that Merota was speaking, but for the moment she didn't have attention to spare for the child.
Being a prince was a great burden, she was sure. Ilna didn't care about "the Isles" as a thing in itself; but she cared about people because it was her duty to care about people, and she knew that the people of the Isles were far better off with Garric ruling the kingdom than if he hadn't been.
A prince deserved a wife worthy of him; a well-born, well-educated, beautiful woman like Liane bos-Benliman. It was far better for everyone that Garric should marry Liane than that he throw himself away on a peasant girl who couldn't write her own name; even if the peasant happened to have a talent for weaving.
"Ilna?" called a child's voice from far away. "Please Ilna, what's wrong?"
And Ilna's fingers knotted a pattern that would bring warmth and calm to the man she offered it to.
* * *
"It's more like standing on the seawall at Barca's Hamlet than it's like being in a boat," Sharina said, looking down at the sea almost a dozen feet below the level of the deck on which she stood to the left of Cashel and Tenoctris. Foam boiled back as the Shepherd's bronze ram dipped and rose minusculely at the thrust of the oars. The water was gray today; all Sharina could see in it was an occasional bit of weed churned up as the quinquereme's huge weight slid past.
"We're moving," said Cashel simply. "I don't think I'll ever get used to that. I don't mind, but it's not like being on solid ground."
Sharina laughed. "Cashel," she said, "so long as you're around, everything seems solid."
She hugged herself to him, a great, warm boulder. He didn't respond--they were in public, after all--but he smiled as he continued to watch the approaching shore. The long stone moles that extended Carcosa's fine natural harbor had survived the thousand years of neglect following the collapse of the Old Kingdom. One of the lighthouses that originally framed the entrance remained also, streaming a long red-on-white pennon to welcome the fleet, but the other had fallen into a pile of rubble.
The lighthouses had been built in the form of hollow statues: one of the Lady wearing the crescent tiara of the moon, the other of the Shepherd holding the sun disk. Celondre had written a poem when the lighthouses were dedicated, likening them to the children of King Carlon, the hope of the Kingdom's future.
Sharina's arm was still around Cashel's waist. She felt it tighten involuntarily, drawing her to Cashel's solidity in an inconstant world. She'd first read Celondre's verse as a child in Barca's Hamlet where she and Garric were tutored by their father Reise. The twin statues, decorated with gold-washed bronze, had seemed the most wondrous objects in the world, and the kingdom when Celondre lived and wrote was the next thing to paradise. She'd never dreamed that some day she'd see the statues herself.
But these weren't the shining triumphs of a child's imagination. One had fallen and time had so worn the other that Sharina couldn't be sure which deity it was meant to represent. The twin children Celondre praised in the same lyric had both died within a year: the boy had drowned on a sea voyage, while the girl was carried off by a fever. Carlon had died old and bitter, withdrawn from the world and his duties to the kingdom; and a generation later, when the forces that turned the cosmos rose to their thousand-year peak, the Golden Age had fallen in mud and slaughter.
And those forces were rising again....
"Is anything wrong, Sharina?" Cashel asked. He'd felt her tremble, so he shifted his quarterstaff to his right hand in order to put his left around her. His strength was more reassuring than stone walls or a sheet of iron.
"No, nothing that we can't take care of," she said, sorry to have caused the big man to worry. "I was just thinking about a poem Celondre wrote a thousand years ago."
Cashel nodded. Sharina knew that he wouldn't understand what she meant, but now he knew that it wasn't anything he needed to be concerned about. If it was about books, then there were plenty of other people around to take care of it. "Well," he said, "that's all right, then."
In Barca's Hamlet, few people could read or write well. Reise came from Valles on Ornifal, the royal capital, and had been unusually well-educated even there. He and the children he'd taught were unique exceptions. Cashel and Ilna were almost completely illiterate--able to spell out their own names, and that with difficulty. As best Sharina could judge, Cashel regarded books much as he did the depths of the sea: they were vast, hidden reservoirs of the strange and wonderful.
Tenoctris glanced at Sharina, leaning over the bow railing to see past Cashel's bulk. The old woman raised an eyebrow in friendly question at the concern she'd heard in Sharina's voice.
"Celondre wrote a poem about the lighthouses," Sharina explained, embarrassed to have brought the matter up. "And now they're, well..." She waved her hand at the timeworn figures.
Tenoctris nodded, seeming to understand more than the younger woman had actually said. "I never visited Carcosa in my own day," she said. "It must have been marvelous. But what I think is important, dear, is the direction of things. A thousand years ago Carcosa and the kingdom were greater than either is now, but they were on the verge of ruin. Today we're rebuilding. It'll be a long time before we--"
She gave a quick, flashing grin.
"--before your children's children will have built a city as great as Carcosa was when Carus reigned, but we're going in the right direction."
So far we've been going in the right direction, Sharina thought, because that was the whole of her fear. But she didn't say that aloud, because as soon as the words flashed into her mind she saw how silly she was being. So far was all you could say about anything, ever. Life was temporary; sun and rain and the seasons came and went and returned. Sharina's task was to help Garric and all the other people on the side of peace and order to succeed for as long as she lived.
Wizards like Tenoctris directed onto human affairs the forces that turned the very cosmos and which waxed and waned on a thousand-year cycle. Their peaks were neither good nor evil in themselves, but they gave greater scope to wizards who attempted evil--and greater effect to the mistakes of wizards whose pride was greater than their knowledge.
As if responding to Sharina's thought, Tenoctris smiled wryly and said, "If all we had to worry about were a handful of conscious evildoers, life would be much simpler than it is in the present world of fools, wouldn't it? Though--" she frowned at her own comment "--I'm being needlessly unkind."
Tenoctris was the first to admit that she wasn't a powerful wizard, even now when powers were far greater than they'd been for a millennium. But she didn't make mistakes; and so far as Sharina was concerned, Tenoctris had every right to condemn the powerful fools whose blundering imperiled the kingdom.
A sailor--a petty officer wearing a broad leather belt over his kilt instead of a rope tie like the common seamen--ran out on the jib, shading his eyes with a hand as he peered into the sea ahead of them. He rode the ship's dips and risings with the practiced grace of a courtier making gestures in accordance with palace etiquette. He must have seen--or not seen--what he expected, because he turned and bellowed sternward, "Aye, we're clear, Master Lobon!"
"Such a lot of people," Cashel said, shaking his head in pleased amazement as his eyes swept the moles. "I never knew there were so many people in all the world."
The wealthy nobles of Carcosa would be on the quay to greet Prince Garric formally, but the common people had come out also. The nobles' retainers would keep them away from the quay, but by standing on the long, curving arms that enclosed the harbor they got an earlier view of the visitors. There were thousands of them--many thousands. Even as a shade of its former self, Carcosa remained a great city.
"Waiting to see us," Cashel marveled aloud. He grinned broadly. "Well, waiting to see Prince Garric. And that's just as amazing a thing as, well, all the rest."
He gestured clumsily with the arm that encircled Sharina, indicating the pomp and glitter of the royal fleet: flags and bunting, soldiers in gleaming armor; a hundred bronze rams glinting across the western horizon as the ships approached the harbor, and the sea running in jeweled droplets from the blades of thousands of feathering oars. The commander of the Shepherd's Blood Eagles was trying to array them, though the deck even of a quinquereme was so narrow that only two could stand abreast. Sailors hopped over the ventilator gratings above the oarsmen, cursing the soldiers but going on about their tasks regardless.
The spectators started to cheer while the fleet was still a quarter mile from the mole. The sound was faint at first, from only a few throats and attenuated by distance; but it built, and soon the whole crowd was cheering. Scarves and sashes waved, improvised flags to greet the prince.
"I wasn't sure they'd be glad to see us," Cashel said. "An army coming, after all; an army from Ornifal."
"They're cheering for Prince Garric of Haft," Sharina reminded him. "The people who've held power in Carcosa, Count Lascarg and his cronies, may not be happy to see us, but the common people are proud that a man from Haft rules the kingdom for the first time in a thousand years."
"I guess the count'll keep his mouth shut if he has a problem," Cashel said. He spoke with a hint of quiet anticipation. Cashel was for the most part a gentle man; Sharina didn't remember him ever having started a fight. But he'd never quit one either while there was an opponent left who wanted to keep going.
"Yes," said Sharina, thrilled to be reminded of the other side of her fiancé, the part that was never directed at her. "I think he'll be very quiet."
She cleared her throat, then added, "And I think that the people cheering know that even if Garric were a tyrant, they're better off ruled by a bully who's in Valles most of the time than they are with the gang right in their midst."
"Prince Garric..." called the crowd on the mole. They were shouting in unison now so that Sharina could make out their words. "Prince Garric..."
"Garric's not a bully," Cashel said, his voice a soft rumble. His muscles had stiffened, and his thick hickory quarterstaff quivered slightly in his right hand. "And if the people running Carcosa are bullies, well, so much the worse for them now."
Sharina felt a surge of pride: in her brother, in her friends, and in the Kingdom of the Isles that they and she were bringing back to life, so that there would be peace and justice for people like the ones cheering them on; peace and justice for the first time in a thousand years.
No matter what wizards or usurpers tried to do to stop them!
"Prince Garric of Haft!" the crowd called.
* * *
Cashel stood by the forecastle rail, careful not to rest his weight on it. The hoardings were canvas over a wicker backing, and salt had dried the wood of the frame timbers, leaving long splits. The structure was meant to keep head seas from combing over the prow, not to support the weight of a man Cashel's size.
Cashel could no more swim than he could fly. If he fell overboard he'd try to grab an oar as the ship drove past him, but he'd just as soon not put the question to the test.
For display when they entered Carcosa, the fighting tower was set up in the bow. Its walls were canvas-covered wicker--they were painted to look like stone--but the cross-braced frame was of timbers as sturdy as any to be found on the ship. It had to be to take the recoil of the balista mounted on top.
Today the weapon wasn't cocked, of course. Instead of serviceable iron the head of the bolt in the weapon's trough was of brass polished to look like gold. The four crewmen wore plumes on their helmets and dangled silver gorgets across their linen corselets. The padded linen gave them some protection but was flexible enough they could crank the windlass to draw back the balista's arms.
Sharina seemed cheerful again. Her hand was on Cashel's left shoulder as she stood in companionable silence, which suited him fine. Until he'd left Barca's Hamlet less than a year ago, he'd spent more time with sheep than with humans. Since then he'd learned that many folks thought that unless people were talking there was something the matter. For the life of him, Cashel couldn't understand that.
Cashel was pretty much pleased with the world and with his part in it. That was mostly the case with him. He supposed that was because he didn't have big problems like Garric, who had to keep the kingdom from crashing into ruin and taking everybody's lives and hopes with it.
All Cashel needed to do were simple things like keeping safe whatever he'd been told to take care of. Once that'd meant sheep; now as apt as not it was a person, and that was all right too. He squeezed Sharina gently with his left hand, just reassuring himself that she really was there.
The only trouble that Cashel'd ever found too big for him was when he'd fallen in love with Sharina os-Reise. She was beautiful, a scholar like her brother, and she'd inherit half the inn--making her by the standards of the borough a wealthy woman. Cashel had known that she was far too good for him.
And so she was: he remained sure of that, as sure as he was that she loved him anyway. Cashel couldn't imagine why, but when he woke every morning he thanked the Shepherd for granting him a gift greater than any he would have dared to ask.
Sharina leaned forward slightly, lost in her own reverie; the railing creaked. Wicker alone would be strong enough to support her weight--though tall, she wasn't a blocky mass like Cashel--but his grip tightened reflexively. She patted his hand reassuringly and eased back to humor him.
Thought of the way salt dried wood made Cashel glance at his quarterstaff, a wrist-thick shaft of hickory, seven feet long and as straight as a sunbeam. He'd made the staff himself as a boy, taking one perfect limb as his payment for felling the tree for a neighbor. He'd shaved and polished the wood, and in the years since he'd continued to wipe it down with wads of raw, lanolin-rich wool whenever he had the opportunity. The staff had taken hard knocks and given harder ones; but today its surface remained as ripplingly smooth as a wheel-turned jug.
Sea air had painted a tinge of rust over the quarterstaff's black iron buttcaps, but that could wait till they were on land again. If Cashel wiped them now, they'd rust over again in less time than it'd taken him to clean them. He'd have liked to rub the hickory, though, but doing that would've meant taking his arm from around Sharina's waist. The quarterstaff, trusty companion though it was, didn't need his attention that bad.
Cashel looked past the girl nestled against his shoulder. Their ship--Garric's ship--was two full lengths ahead of the rest of the warships. Following them was a second line, of light craft like the one Ilna traveled on with her beau Chalcus and also of triremes used for transport. Those had only one bank of oarsmen with the rest of the space in the narrow hulls given over to cargo and soldiers who hadn't been trained to pull an oar--another kind of cargo so far as the sailors were concerned.
To count the ships Cashel would've needed a bag of dried peas, like he'd have used to tally a flock of sheep. There were many times more ships than he had fingers, though. Sharina was right: if Garric said jump, Count Lascarg would ask "How high?"
He felt his skin prickle; an itchy feeling like the first hint of sunburn after a day's plowing. Cashel's brows knitted in a frown. It wasn't sunburn today; and the other thing that gave him that sort of feeling was wizardry close by.
"Tenoctris?" he said, disengaging himself from Sharina without bothering to explain. "Are you working a...?"
But he could see that she wasn't, so he didn't bother to finish the question. If not Tenoctris, then...?
The wizard sat down cross-legged more forcefully than could've been good for her old bones. She had a satchel of books and the paraphernalia of her art--Cashel carried it for her when the two of them were together--but she didn't bother with it now. Instead, she took a split of bamboo from the sleeve of her court robe and drew a pentacle with it on the soft pine deck between her knees.
Using the bamboo where a less-cautious wizard would use a specially forged athame, she tapped the flats of the pentacle murmuring, "Cbesi niapha amara..." in time with her beat. A spark of crimson wizardlight winked into existence in the center of the symbol, waxing and waning as she spoke.
Cashel shifted his body slightly to hide Tenoctris as much as possible from the sight of nearby sailors. He trusted the old woman's skill and instincts both; but for most people, wizardry was as surely to be avoided as the plague. Nobody'd object aloud to what a friend of Prince Garric was doing, but the business would make people who saw it uncomfortable or worse. Cashel didn't want that if he could help it.
Sharina spread her court robe with both hands, providing an even better screen than Cashel's bulk. Her eyes looked questions, but she didn't speak. She knew that Cashel or Tenoctris would tell her if there was something she needed to know, and she didn't want to distract them from what might mean everybody's life or death.
"I don't see anything," Cashel said quietly. "It just doesn't feel right."
"Ialada..." Tenoctris said. "Iale."
The spark suddenly cascaded into a shape or series of shapes, like a wall of damp sand shivering to repose; an instant later it blinked out. Tenoctris dropped her wand and swayed, her frail body drained by practicing her art. Cashel steadied her with his left hand.
Some people believed that wizards merely waved their wands and their wishes took form effortlessly; those folk had never seen real wizardry. Cashel's muscles allowed him to lift weights that few other men could manage, but his feats didn't become easy simply because they were possible. Similarly, a truly powerful wizard could move mountains or tear chasms in time--but that work had a cost.
Tenoctris looked up. "Garric's in danger," she said, forcing the words out in a whisper. "I can't see what--there's a wall my art can't penetrate. But it's something terrible, rushing toward Garric."
"Sound the alarm!" Sharina called. Her clear voice rang over the grunt of hundreds of oarsmen and the thump of their bodies slamming down on their benches at the end of each stroke. "We're being attacked!"
"Watch her!" Cashel said, releasing Tenoctris so that he could grip his quarterstaff in both hands. Sharina would hold the old wizard if she still needed help to keep upright. As for Cashel himself--
He stepped past the women and leaped outward to the long wale supporting the rowlocks for the uppermost banks of oars. The narrow deck was clogged with Blood Eagles slipping the gilt balls from their spearpoints, turning them back from ceremonial staffs into weapons. Rather than force his way through the soldiers, Cashel was going around.
"Keep clear!" he bellowed, running like a healthy young ox heading for water after a day of plowing. The wale creaked, and the quinquereme itself wobbled as Cashel's weight pounded along so far outboard.
The young aide at Garric's side began to hammer on the rectangular alarm gong set in a framework on the stern railing. The boy's eyes were open and staring.
Copyright © 2003 by David Drake