Prince Garric of Haft, Heir Presumptive of Valence III, King of the Isles--and already by any real measure the ruler of the kingdom--faced his Council of Advisors. Down the table from him were the chief nobles of the island of Ornifal, some of the most powerful men in all the Isles. They were waiting for him to make known his wishes as Lord Waldron, commander of the Royal Army, argued with Lord Attaper, commander of the Blood Eagles--the royal bodyguards.
Garric's wishes were to be back home in Barca's Hamlet, the village on Haft where he'd been raised for all but the first days of his eighteen years. Life was a lot simpler then, although it had seemed complicated enough at the time.
"You can't go back, lad," whispered the ghost in Garric's mind: Carus, the last king of the united Isles, whom wizardly had drowned a thousand years before. "Even if duty didn't keep you here in Valles, Barca's Hamlet isn't really your home anymore."
"May I remind both of you gentlemen that soldiers have to be paid!" said Lord Tadai, now Royal Treasurer in place of a well-moaning incompetent who'd held the position under Valence. Tadai wiped his round face with a hand-kerchief embroidered with the arms of his house, the bor-Tithains.
Everyone was getting to his feet and shouting. Royhas bor-Bolliman, Garric's chancellor and closest to being Garric's friend of the men present, snarled, "And speaking of money, Tadai, the honor of the kingdom is being tarnished by your failure to pay--"
"Gentlemen," Garric said in a mild voice. He knew no one would listen to him, but his father and raised him to be polite.
Liane bos-Benliman, a dark-haired girl of Garric's age, sat beside Garric and a half-stop back, making it clear that she had no right to speak during the deliberations. In this room she was acting as Garric's secretary. She met Garric's eye and smiled, but there was concern in her expression.
Liane was the only living person present who wanted the things Garric wanted and no more: peace and unity for the Kingdom of the Isles, which wizardry had shattered a thousand years before and which wizardry now threatened to crush to dust. In Garric's eyes Liane was the loveliest woman in the Isles, and a more neutral judge might have concurred.
"The money's there, you just won't release it as your duty demands!" Royhas cried, leaning over the table from his side. Tadai, leaning toward the chancellor with his face the color of his scarlet handkerchief, said, "If you're so set on finding jobs for all your relatives, Royhas, then I suggest you find the money for them as well!"
Garric's index finger touched the conference table. It was of burl walnut, polished to a glassy sheen that brought out the richly complex pattern of the grain. In Barca's Hamlet men shaped wood with an adze or a broadaxe. Garric had never seen a saw or a sawn plank until fate took him from him his home. A table like this was fit for the Queen of Heaven and Her consort, not mortals like Garric or-Reise.
"And besides that--" Royhas said.
Garric slammed his fist down. The table, large enough to seat twelve and heavy in proportion, jumped on the stone floor.
No one spoke for a moment.
Garric hadn't eaten since...Well, he'd had an orange and a roll baked from wheat flour at down, with nothing since. Maybe that was why he felt queasy.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I'm going to adjourn this meeting because I'm obviously not in condition to keep it under control."
"I'm sorry, You Highness, but--"
"I didn't mean to--"
"Of course, Garric, I'll--"
"Well, really, Pr--"
"Silence!" Garric bellowed. The conference room shutters were slatted to let in summer breezes while maintaining privacy from the eyes of folk wandering through the palace grounds. They rattled against their casements. Even Liane jumped, though she immediately grinned as well.
"Gentlemen," Garric continued in the quiet tone he preferred. "We'll resume this meeting tomorrow in the third hour of the afternoon. I know that some of you have written proposals. Leave them with Liane and I'll review them before that time."
Garric's eyes flicked from Royhas to Tadia. Both men had their mouths open to speak. They saw Garric's expression, as grim and certain as a sword edge.
"Quite so," the chancellor murmured as he took from his wallet a scroll of parchment bound with a red ribbon. He handed it to Liane with a courtly flourish.
Lord Tadai had a similar document, though his ribbon was pale yellow, dyed with the pollen washed from beehives. "There's an annex which one of my aides will bring you shortly, Lady Liane," he said in an undertone.
The conference room was one of the many separate buildings in the grounds of the royal palace in Valles. The councillors passed out one by one to meet their aides and bodyguards, the latter carrying ivory batons instead of swords. Only the Blood Eagles and folk the king particularly wanted to honor were permitted to go armed within the palace grounds.
The last councillors remaining were Attaper and Waldron. The two warriors stepped to the doorway together and halted. After a moment Attaper grinned tightly. "I trust you not to stab anyone in the back, Lord Waldron," he said. "Even me." He swept through the door ahead of the older man.
"Puppy!" Waldron muttered as he strode out in turn. He left the door open behind him: opening and closing doors was beneath the concern of a man of Waldron's lineage.
A servant peered into the conference room to see what those till within might wish. Liane shook her head minusculely and closed the door herself.
"It was perfect!" Garric said with a grin. "I almost broke out laughing when you cited Sourous chapter and verse about the worthless parasite he thinks is his friend. Ilna conldn't have done it better!"
Garric thought about the friends he'd grown up with: his sister Sharina, tall, blond, and (like Garric himself) able both to read the classics and to put in a full day's work at their father's rural inn; Cashel or-Kenset, an orphan since his father's early death, almost as tall as Garric and as strong as any two other men--
And Cashel's twin sister Ilna: dark-haired, pretty; a weaver whose skill passed beyond art to wizardry. Ilna's tongue was as sharp as the bone-cased knife she kept for household tasks and to cut the selvage of her fabric. Ilna might well have dressed Sourous down in that fashion, but--
"Ilna would've enjoyed it," Garric said sadly. "I enjoyed it while it was happening, but I shouldn't shouldn't have. Sourous is a fool, but that's not a crime. I liked to see him squirm because I'm tired and frustrated."
Garric slid his chair back to stand. He kept knocking his elbows on the chair arms of solid black wood. He wondered what people would say if he had the chairs in this conference room replaced with benches.
King Carus laughed at the unspoken thought. Garric echoed
laughter aloud; it broke his mood.
"I don't feel that I'm getting anywhere," he said in a more cheerful tone that he would have used a moment before. Having a companion who knew your every thought and who was always willing to laugh with you--or at you--was a good thing for a ruler. Garric knew both from Carus' memories and from his own experience that kings were generally lied to.
He was luckier than most kings: neither Liane nor the friends he'd grown up with would lie, to Garric or to anybody else. But he was lucky also to have a friend and advisor like Carus.
"You've done more in the past few months than any King of the Isles managed in his whole reign," Liane said with a hint of sharpness. "Anyone since the Old Kingdom, I mean. There's a Royal Army--and more important, there's a royal administration that does more than accept whatever pittance the local landholders claim they owe the state."
"We've got the start of an administration," Garric agreed, "but just a start and that's only here on Ornifal. The rulers of the other islands go their own way. The only reason the Earl of Sandrakkan and the Count of Blaise haven't proclaimed themselves kings of their own islands is that they both think that if they play the game right they can claim the whole Isles."
"And now that they see the king in Valles is't a weakling who can be pushed aside," said Carus, "they'll be thinking very hard about independence. We'll need to deal with that."
Garric patted the coronation medal of King Carus which he wore on a ribbon under his tunic. The king's presence in Garric's mind frequently laughed but was always alert. Carus was an older version of Garric himself, wearing flamboyantly colored clothing. The right hand of his image was never far from the hilt of his long, straight sword.
"When we have Ornifal organized, you'll be able to extend your administration right across the Isles. After all, it's not just the kingdom that's better for having fair taxation and honest justice, it's all the people of the kndgom."
Garric laughed. "All the people except the ones profiting by the present chaos," he said. "Which means most of the people in power already."
"In the long run--" said Liane. Emotion had raised spots of color on her cheekbones. Liane was so passionate about the plan to reunify the Isles that sometimes she couldn't see the problems for all her sharp intelligence. She couldn't bear to see obstacles in the way of what she knew with all her soul was right.
"People don't think about the long run," Garric said quietly. "They think about what they have in their hand today."
Liane started to speak, then swallowed the retort with a grimace. She was tired too.
"Remember, you and I know the dangers," Garric said. He put his fingertips on the backs of Liane's hands. She'd watched a demon disembowel her father. Magical forces were again rising to their thousand-year peak. No one understood better than Liane what would happen to the Isles if those forces were allowed to shatter even the fragile peace which had returned since the fall of the Old Kingdom. "Most people don't, and it's most people that we have to deal with."
Liane turned her right had and squeezed Garric's. "And some people, even if they did know what we know," she said, "would keep right on robbing their peasants instead of trying to build a community of honesty and justice. Well, you have the Royal Army too."
"And so you do, lad," agreed King Carus. "A good one, and getting better each day. Just don't be as quick as I was to use your sword instead of talking; and don't forget that however good my army was, there was a wizard who could sink it and me to the bottom of the Inner Sea."
Garric laughed. Liane smiled through her puzzlement: no one but Garric himself heard the words of his ancestor. "I'm reminding myself that wizardry is a danger no matter how good our army is," Garric said, to explain what he was thinking about. It took a particular kind of gallows humor to laugh at the thought, though.
Along the room's sidewalls were leather-covered benches where aides would sit during the meetings they were allowed to attend. Fro most of his life Garric had slept in a garret room with a bed even narrower than the benches. "What I need most now is a nap. Is there anything so pressing that...?"
"I'll tell the guards that you're not to be disturbed by anyone but me," Liane said as she rose, folding her travel desk with the same graceful movement. "And I'll be in the service building next door. There's a couch there too. I'm going to fall asleep on my feet unless I manage to lie down first."
"Things are bound to settle down someday," Garric said as he held the door for Liane. A servant tried to take the little desk from her; she motioned him away peremptorily and stepped toward the adjacent building, throwing Garric a parting smile.
Garric shrugged out of his vermilion robe of state. Underneath he wore a tunic of him wool rather than silk: wool felt right against his skin, because that' what he'd always worn. He settled on the bench, kicking off the silly-looking slippers of gilded leather that he had to wear with the heavy robe.
"Maybe things settle down for some people when they did," said his grinning ancestor. "Not for all of us, though."
And as Garric plunged into the darkness of sleep too long delayed, Carus added, "And besides, what would folk like you and me do if a miracle brought us peace, lad?"
* * *
Cashel or-Kenset was learning to dance in the city fashion.
It was a more stately business than what went on at weddings and harvest feasts in the borough.
"Oh, Lord Cashel, you are so masterful!" said his partner, Lady Besra bos-Balian--a womanCashel had at first through resembled his sister. Besra was as dark and petite as Illna, but she lacked Ilna's principles, her loyalty, and her wit.
In particular, Besra didn't have enough wit to know that while Cashel wasn't smart the way his friends Garric and Sharina were, he wasn't nearly stupid enough to be taken in by Besra's act. She liked to call herself a girl, but Cashel guessed she must be at least thirty--and by the lines at the corners of her eyes beneath a layer of powdered chalk, they'd been hard years most of them.
"No, Lady Besra," Cashel said patiently. "I made a mistake. I swung left when I should've swung right."
He turned his head and nodded to the dance mistress, Lady Kusha. She was, well, ancient.
Lady Kusha had been a maid of honor, whatever that was, to the wife of the first King Valence, grandfather of the man now on the throne. She had black eyes and always wore garments of stiff black linen as though she'd just been widowed. Sharina said that in fact, Kusha had never married.
"Sorry, Lady Kusha," he said sincerely. "I'll get it right the next time."
"I'm sure you will, Master Cashel," Kusha said. "You
have an instinct for the dance; it just needs to be tutored into the proper forms."
Unlike Besra and too many more of the people in Valles, Kusha never tried to flatter Cashel by addressing him as "lord," Cashel's father was a miller's son who'd drunk himself to death a few years after he'd come back to Barca's Hamlet with infant children and no wife to mother them.
False honor rubbed Cashel the wrong way, though he'd given up trying to train the Besras of this world out of using it. Cashel didn't set much store by nobility--he hadn't yet met a noble who was better at any of the things Cashel thought were important--but it bothered him to be given something that he knew he didn't have a right to.
There were three men in the marble-floored salon besides Cashel. Two were musicians playing a descant recorder and a kit violin, a tiny stringed instrument which was bowed instead of being plucked like the lutes Cashel was familiar with.
The third man was Lord Evlatun. All of Cashel's teachers seemed to be noble or claim to be, though they didn't have much besides the name and generally the attitude. Evlatun joined with Lady Kusha in measures which needed four dancers.
Evlatun was Besra's partner; whether the partnership was as formal as marriage, Cashel couldn't guess and didn't care. The blond, balding fellow smiled brightly whenever he was Cashel looking at him, but the times Cashel had caught his unguarded expression, well...
If Evlatun had been a snake, he'd have been poisonous. Cashel wouldn't have thought twice before breaking his back with a quarterstaff stroke.
There seemed to be a lot of people like that in Valles. Maybe it was just that the palace drew them, the way you found flies on a manure pile.
"You're the most graceful man I've ever danced with, Lord Cashel," Besra said. She laid her right hand on his biceps, sliding her fingers under the fringed sleeve of his embroidered tunic. It was a costume he had to wear for these sessions. Had to, because Sharina had to go through the same business and he didn't want to embarrass her.
Cashel turned slightly to rotate himself away from the woman. Evlatun watched, grinning like a man dying of lockjaw.
"Um," Cashel said. "We dance in Barca's Hamlet, it just isn't the same steps."
He was graceful, that he knew. Besra hadn't been the first person surprised at that, though. Cashel was big, so he moved carefully: big, strong men who aren't careful break things. He'd spent much of his life moving at the pace of sheep or a team of plow oxen, and he'd learned they get where they're going just as sure as more excitable animals do.
Folks tended to think that a bid man who counted on his fingers would be awkward besides. Awkward people don't work with axes and heavy weights, not and survive with all their limbs. Ever sine he got his growth Cashel had been the fellow folk in the borough called on when they needed a tree felled just right, or a boulder shifted from a space too tight for oxen.
He wasn't slow, either, not when there was need to move fast. Now and again a drover's guard had too much to drink at the Sheep Fair and challenged Cashel to a bout with quarterstaves or of all-in wrestling. The ones who were lucky staggered away from the flagged ring afterward; the others were carried by their friends.
Besra moved close to Cashel; he turned to face the dancing mistress, putting his back to Besra. He could swear he heard Evlatun's teeth grinding. "I'm ready to go on, Lady Kusha," he said.
"We'll start from the rigadoon," Kusha said. She tapped her fan toward the musicians; the folding tortoiseshell leaves made a muted clack. "Positions, please!"
The salon was the large central room of a building meant for entertainment. There were two-story wings on either end, providing separate suites for the male and female guests to leave their outerwear and their servants. Like the rest of the sprawling palace on the outskirts of Valles, the building had decayed badly during the last few yeas, but repairs were well under way. The crumbled stucco copings on the east end had been replaced, and a pair of workmen were repainting the gilt highlights on the coffered ceiling during the intervals between Cashel's dancing lessons.
There was a tap on the door from the men's suite. Kusha turned imperiously and said. "Begone! This room is engaged!"
The door opened anyway for a man wearing the bluegray robe of a palace servant. The tassel on his matching soft cap was gold as a sign of rank. He was the chamberlain, and Cashel knew well him well.
"Begone, I said!" Kusha shrilled. Her lanky body seemed to expand like that of a toad facing a snake. "I am Lady Kusha bos-Kadriman, here at the express request of the Lady Sharina. I am not to be interrupted by a mere hireling!"
It seemed to Cashel that being palace chamberlain was a lot more impressive than being dancing mistress, but that wasn't the pint. "Here, it's all right," he said. "Master Reise's a neighbor of mine."
The chamberlain bowed low and drew an S curve in the
air with his right hand. It had something or other to do with what they considered manners here. "I beg your pardon most sincerely, Lady Kusha," he said, "but a matter has arisen which I needed to communicate to Master Cashel as soon as possible."
"Did you hear the lady?" Evlatun said, his voice an octave higher than usual. He swaggered a step forward and put his hand on his sword hilt.
"Besides," Cashel added as an afterthought, "he's Garric's
father. Prince Garric, I mean."
"You're joking," Kusha said. She and all the other were staring at the chamberlain. "Surely you're joking, Master Cashel."
Reise surveyed the three noble with a sardonic expression. It was hard to connect this self-assured official with Reise the Innkeeper, henpecked, vaguely comic, and sourly angry with his life in a hamlet of sheepfarmers.
Of course, it was hard for Cashel to connect the simple shepherd he knew he was with the fellow who'd battled demons and beaten them...which Cashel had done also. Life was a lot more complicated than it had seemed when he was growing up in Barca's Hamlet.
"I was amanuensis to Countess Tera of Haft," Reise said to Kusha. Besra was staring at Cashel again. The pair of musicians were interested spectators of the whole business, pleased to be entertained instead of entertainers. Evlatun was pop-eyed with amazement.
"The countess gave birth the night of the riots which cost her life," Reise continued calmly. "My wife and I saved the infant, Garric, and fostered him along with my wife' daughter Sharina. So yes, I did have the honor of fostering Prince Garric."
"But you're servant," said Lady Besra. Her wondering tone sounded like she was saying, "But you have three heads."
"Prince Garric felt he needed someone trustworthy to run his household when...after King Valance adopted him," Reise said. His smile was as faint and cold as a curl of condensate on smooth gray stone. "He asked me to return to Valles, where I had at one time served in the palace; and of course I was duty bound to accept."
Kusha was motionless except for blinking twice. It was like watching the inner lids flick across the eyes of a lizard waiting for prey to come within range of a quick lunge. When she'd put the pieces of what she'd just heard into their places, she said abruptly, "Come, you lot, quickly! Master Cashel has private business to transact!"
Thrusting out her arms like a black-clad mantis, Kusha chivied the dancers and musicians through the ladies' suite ahead of her. The violinist bent to pick up his book of tunes picked out in shaped notes; he'd dropped it, likely in the commotion when Cashel was dealing with Evlatun. Kusha whacked the poor fellow with her fan and sent him off at a run. He'd have a welt for sure across the back of his things.
Cashel felt a sudden flash of concern. "Ah, Sharina's all right, isn't she, Reise? Master Reise, I mean."
"She was fine when I conducted a delegation to see her earlier this afternoon," Reise said as coolly as if he were only the chamberlain--not Sharina's father also. "She remarked that she was looking forward to seeing you when she'd heard the group out. They were landholders with concerns relating to taxation, as I understand it."
He changed the subject by clearing his throat. "I'm here, however, to tell you that your uncle Katchin would like to speak with you."
"My uncle?" Cashel said. He as amazed as Lady
Kusha had been when she learned who Reise really was. "Katchin the Miller wants to see me? What's he even doing in Valles?"
"I suspect he's trying to gain a position in the new government," Reise said. He gave Cashel a dry smile. "That's only an assumption; your uncle and I didn't exchange confidences even when we were neighbors in Barca's Hamlet."
Cashel nodded as he let the information sink in. The miller and the innkeeper were successful businessmen in a community where most everyone else depended on farming or sheep. Katchin was probably wealther; certainly he spent more on personal show. He'd also become bailiff for the Count of Haft's interests in the borough--not that the count had many dealings in an out-of-the-way place like Barca's Hamlet. Katchin treated Reise as his rival.
Reise hadn't seemed to give much though to Katchin one way or the other. Seeing Reise here as palace chamberlain, Cashel could understand why: the difference between the top and the bottom of society in Barca's Hamlet was too slight to notice for a man who'd served in the royal palace when he was a youth.
"And strictly speaking, your uncle didn't want to see you either Master Cashel," Reise continued. "He asked to see Prince Garric, whom he chose to call 'my old friend Garric.' I wasn't about to allow that, of course; hut when he asked for you as an alternative, I felt the blood relationship made it my duty to bring the matter to your attention."
Reise seemed calm here. Back home--back in Barca's
Hamlet--the innkeeper sizzled with frustration and an anger that rarely came to the surface. In another man it'd have been something the neighbors kept in mind. With Reise, though--well, everybody knew that if Reise started screaming and flailing abut with his meat cleaver, he'd manage to trip on a wash kettle and knock himself silly before he hurt anybody.
Funny how little you know about somebody you've known all your life. Funny how little you know about yourself even.
Cashel shrugged. "Sure, I'll talk to my uncle," he said. He guessed it was a duty, like checking the sheep each night for fly sores. "Where do I go?"
Reise nodded. "He's waiting in the male servants' room," he said, turning his eyes toward the door from which he'd entered the salon. "I'll him in, or you can see him there--or see him anywhere you please, of course, sire."
Cashel shook his head in amazement. Garric's father calling him "sir." "I'll go there," he said, walking toward the door.
Cashel had been a little surprised that his uncle hadn't come bursting into the salon if he was so close by. When he entered the waiting room he saw why. Katchin was there, all right, red-faced and puffing; but with him were two husky palace ushers carrying ebony staffs of office with silver knobs on either end. The rods weren't patch on a proper quarterstaff like Cashel's, but they were surely enough to keep Katchin in his place.
Here in the palace, Katchin's place was wherever the chamberlain said it was. No wonder the miller looked mad enough to chew rocks.
"God afternoon, Uncle," Cashel said. "I wasn't expecting to see you here."
And Duzi knew, that wasn't half the truth.
Katchin twisted his mouth into a smile. He had a flowing mustache, maybe to make up for the way the hair on his head had tinned to a speckly band above his ears on either side. He ate too much and drank too much; it showed in his face, in his belly, and most of all in the way the flesh of his fingers puffed up around the rings he wore on every finger.
"Well, my boy, you must have known I'd come as soon as I heard you and our Garric needed help!" Katchin said.
"Master Cashel?" said Reise in a voice as dry as a salt-cured ham. "I'll leave the ushers at the outer door. They'll guide your visitor to wherever you tell them at the end of your interview."
He bowed--to Cashel, not to Katchin--and stepped through a back doorway, drawing the ushers with him. One of them winked at Cashel as he left.
Cashel surveyed his uncle. Katchin's clothing was brand new: layered tunics, the other one striped beige and maroon crossway; a sash of gold brocade from which hung a had just bent double; and on his head, a peaked cap with a swan's feather dyes a sort of muddy purple. Katchin looked like a juggler come to the Sheep Fair, though Cashel knew the rig-out must have cost the price of a farm in the borough.
"I'm sorry you did that, uncle," Cashel said. "Garric hasn't said he needs your help, and I surely don't. You'd be happier back home, I guess."
"I can't believe I'd hear ingratitude from the child I raised!" Katchin said. He probably meant it, too. Katchin didn't exactly lie, but he managed to remember events in whatever way served him best. "Prince Garric needs trusted men to help him govern. I came to him as soon as I heard his need."
Cashel shook his head sadly. Katchin was such a little man. Cashel had never noticed it before. The bluster had made Katchin seem larger in Barca's Hamlet. Here he was just a buffoon come to the city from some sheepwalk nobody in Valles had ever heard of.
"Uncle," Cashel said, "you ought to go home. If you
won't do that, at least get rid of those silly clothes. Put on a clean wool tunic and be yourself, not a joke for the palace servants to laugh at. You saw how the ushers looked at you."
Katchin's face went dark with a rage he couldn't swallow down. "And who are you, beggar boy, to lecture on fashion to Count Lascarg's bailiff?" he shouted.
"I never begged," Cashel said. He didn't get angry over words, and those particular words were too foolish to get angry over anyway. "And as for what I know of fashion, well, I don't guess I could live with Ilna all these years and not know something. Merchants came all the way from Valles to buy the cloth she move, you know."
Katchin's mustache fluffed with the force of his breathing. He'd break something inside if he wasn't careful. "Look, Cashel, my boy," he said in forced jollity. "Just take me to see our Garric and he'll understand what he's being offered. You're a strong, honest lad, but this is a business beyond your understanding."
Cashel smiled. "I guess you're right, Uncle," he said. "But that's why you shouldn't have come to me. Garric has people to tell him who he's going to see. I don't know enough to go against what they decide."
He gestured to the door. "Go back home, Katchin," he said. It embarrassed Cashel to say things that shouldn't have to be said at all. "You'll like being a big fish in Barca's Hamlet better than you will being bait in Valles."
Katchin's mouth opened and closed, but fury choked his words for several moments. Finally he said, his voice breaking, "And I suppose you belong here, Cashel the Shepherd?"
"I belong wherever Sharina is, Uncle," Cashel said. A year ago he'd have been tense as a chain on a heavy drag if he'd had to talk about this sort of thing. "I guess I always did. It's just that now I know it."
He gestured toward the door again with a scooping motion, as though he was shooing a puppy out from where it didn't belong. Choking on bile, Katchin obeyed.
Cashel smiled at the though he'd just had: he knew he belonged with Sharina; and Sharina knew she belonged with him, too.
* * *
Sharina's meeting with the delegation of Western Region landholders had been moving along at approximately the speed of mortar setting on a humid day. Watching mortar set would have been a good deal more interesting.
"It's not that the assessor sent to my parish is a bad lad," the delegate now holding the floor said. Sharina had tried to memorize their names, but she just couldn't: she was tired, sick and tired, and they were all the same. It was like trying to make individuals out of twelve peas. "He doesn't understand us, is all. Why, it's hard for us to understand him with that twang of his, not that I have any quarrel with him being a Northerner born and bred."
A hummingbird whistle by, pausing to drink from the trumpet-shaped scarlet flower of a lotus. Another hummingbird whirred toward the first. The pair disappeared deeper into the gardens, chittering angrily at one another.
The delegation in the tiled gazebo consisted of eleven men and one woman--a representative of each parish of the three western counties of Ornifal. They wore high-laced boots and tunics with ribbon ties down the front so that the lower half could be cinched into breeches when work required it. The delegates wee substantial people in every sense--physically, they were built like so many tree stumps topped with gray moss--but the Western Region was a patchwork of smallholdings unlike the great estates of northern Ornifal. All the delegates had guided a plow themselves at some time in their lives, and most of them probably still lent a hand during the furious demands of the harvest.
The parishes of the Western Region were similar to the borough on the east coast of Haft where Sharina grew up, in fact. She could understand their concerns better than they themselves probably imagined.
The trouble was, the twelve of them individually were so like Katchin the Miller that he could have sat at the end of the row and no one would find him out of place. Puffed-up little people full of personal pride, with a vision as parochially narrow as that of the most mincing dandy among the palace courtiers.
A different parochial vision, of course.
"Just the same for us!" said the delegate from one of the coastal parishes: he had a rhomboid representing a turbot worked in silver thread onto the breast of his tunic, and a similar pin on his velvet cap. 'Where do I buy peat for my cook fire?' he asked me. Peat! And when I said we burn wood here, he looked at me as if I were mad! 'You can afford wood to burn, here' he said, and I could just see the silver eagles tumbling around in his mind!"
"Just the same!" echoed other delegates like you chorus of a play. Three then started to tell their own detailed version of the injustice of having outsiders sent into their parishes to assess the taxes.
Eight of those present had had their say thus far in the afternoon. The speeches could have been interchanged or even intercut sentence by sentence without making any real difference. It all boiled down to "Outsiders don't know how we do things here in the West."
A clerk brought down from an estate in the north whose waterlogged soil didn't support trees might very well be surprised that heat for homes and food came from dead limbs rather than bricks of peat cut from the bogs and dried under shelters. That didn't mean he wouldn't adapt to the new circumstances: tax assessments were made on the local value of produce, not what the produce might have brought if it were transported somewhere else to be sold.
The real problem--and the one that the delegates speaking so earnestly to Sharina, making broad flourishes with their arms to emphasize their points, had no intention of raising--was that because Garric's new assessors were from outside the local power structure, they were working for the government in Valles instead of on behalf of themselves and their cronies. Oh, they could be bribed--they were human, after all, and could be expected to have human failings. But district supervisors kept an eye on the assessors, comparing individual revenues against those of similar parishes under different men.
Besides, it isn't nearly as easy to bride a stranger as it is a man you've known all your life. Like any other criminal
conspiracy, bribery requires that the parties trust one another. How do you trust a fellow with a funny accent and weird ideas about food?
There was a faint chime from the nympheum in the center of the palace grounds, where the giant water clock stood. A bronze bowl had flipped on its axis, spilling into the pool the water that had filled it drop by drop. The servant watching it struck a turned rod. Other servants waiting at cross walks throughout the grounds called, "The fifth hour has sounded!" their voices seeming to echo as those farther away took their cue from the ones nearest to the nympheum.
Sharina rose to her feet. The three delegates who were speaking simultaneously fell silent, thought with nervous looks at one another. They were afraid--rightly--that Lady Sharina intended to end the audience before they'd had time to say everything they wanted. Sharina had learned from months of listening to similar representations that the thing all the delegates wanted most was a chance to hear their own voices. More than a reduction in taxes, more than better roads, more than a restoration of local tolls which they'd been pocketing to the detriment of trade and communication through their bailiwick...
"Mistress and masters," Sharina said, nodding to the woman and then to the eleven made representatives in a general sweep of her head. "During the past three hours, I have listened to your concerns. I sympsthize with you, and I'll discuss what you've said with the officials in whose charge these matters lie."
The truth was that after three hours with these people, Sharina wouldn't have been able to manage much sympathy for them if they were being boiled in oil. Sharina's maid had dressed her as a private citizen of high rank.
Chancellor Royhas had picked the outfit to emphasize that Sharina wasn't court official and therefore couldn't bind the government by anything she chanced to say.
Sharina understood the purpose. She even managed not to feel too insulted that Royhas was treating her like a silly girl who might want to remit a district's taxes or promise a governorship to some charlatan who claimed to be a royal bastard. Royhas was simply being careful, and it was to
the benefit of the kingdom that the Isles have a careful chancellor.
The problem was that the garments worn by a private Ornifal citizen of his rank were even heavier and more confining than court dress of beige silk robes with a stripe on the side to indicate the wearer's rank and position. Sharina's blond hair was teased up in a vast pile supported by ribbons and gold combs. Her tight-laced bodice was cloth-of-gold over a robe of heavy green silk, with appliqué panels showing the birth and exploits of the mythical hero Val.
For comfort, Sharina had decided to hold the meeting in a water garden of the palace. Cypresses shaded the slate-roofed gazebo; streams played from the mouths of stone dolphins to plash into the encircling lotus pond, cooling the air.
Nothing could make this clothing acceptably cool! Sharina had been more comfortable--less uncomfortable--tending the bred oven in the middle of the summer. The garb was as stiff as armor and as stifling as the steam baths that were a Cordin specialty which the elite of Valles had begun to take up.
"While I promise you consideration..." Sharina continued.
Royhas would be pleased at my diplomacy. "...I can't tell you that there'll be an immediate change in the principle that the government has instituted. You see--"
The one female delegate--Mistress Alatcha--said, "Princess, the king's your brother! Can't you tell him we deserve to be ruled by our own folk?"
Physically there wasn't much to distinguish Alatcha from her colleagues. When she was standing--she was seated now--her tunic fell to her ankles instead of being knee-height, and there was a narrow band of lace dangling from her hat brim to do duty for the veil of respectable widow. Her sex had emboldened her to interrupt with the protest that the male delegates were swallowing, however.
Sharina smiled to show that she'd accepted the interruption in good part. She nodded--very carefully, because the mass of combs and hair was heavy enough that she worried
what would happen if she leaned too far--and said, "I'll certainly discuss the matter with my brother Prince Garric, Lady Alatcha"--thank goodness she'd least remembered that one name out of the twelve--"though I hasten to remind you that Valence III is king of the Isles. Like your-selves, selves, my brother and I are the king's loyal subjects."
Mind as Aharina's statement was, the male delegates edged away from Alatcha as though she'd suddenly begun frothing at the mouth. Garrie and the advisors who'd helped make him the real power in the Kingdom of the Isles were extremely careful to maintain the fiction that Valence was still king. To do otherwise would stir up trouble on Ornifal as well as probably pushing the rulers of other islands to declare their independence.
Alatcha looked frozen with fear. To take the unmeant threat out of the correction, Sharina stepped forward and offered the woman her hand. Alatcha gripped it as though shd'd been drowning.
"But since you've raised the pint, I'll address it directly,"
Sharina said. She patted Alatcha with her free hand, then disengaged and stepped back to survey the entire delegation. "Your taxes are being levied by people you don't know, and perhaps you've head--I'll tell you now if you haven't--that within the year circuit courts under royal judges will begin hearing all cases of manslaughter and civil matters where more than twenty silver eagles are in dispute."
"Oh!" said one of the standing delegates. His colleagues, nodding grim-faced, had obviously heard the rumor al-ready. In embarrassment the fellow sat down. The two others who'd been standing to speak sat also. For the first time
this afternoon, the delegates were listening to something other than their own voices.
"The men who are coming to your districts were clerks in the households of northern landholders," Sharina said. "They're being paid by the treasury, though. Their loyalties, like their responsibilities, are to the whole kingdom rather than to one nobleman or another."
She paused, wishing she had a mug of the sharp, dark germander ale that her father had brewed in his inn. A swallow of that would cool her throat and clear the phlegm from it.
"But they don't know us," one of the delegates said, giving frustrated urgency to the point the speakers and been repeating with embellishment all afternoon.
"They'll geto to know you," Sharina said forcefully. "But
they'll serve the king. And if you thing you're unhappy at having to deal with folk from the North, you can imagine how those northern nobles feel about assessors who come from the commercial houses here in Valles. Can you imagine how many times I've heard, 'But you can't propose that Lord So-and-Which pay taxes like some plowman in West Bay!'"
The delegation broke up in guffaws of delight. "Is that so?" a delegate cried in wonder.
"Well, Prince Garric does expect all the fine lords to pay their taxes," Sharina said. "And he expects the Valles shippers to pay theirs as well, which they will since they're being watched over by some of your won sons and daughters. Isn't that true?"
Over the general murmur of agreement, a man whose mustaches divided his face into two florid parts said, "Aye, my nephew Esmoun's one of them, he is. The king pays him seventeen eagles a month, a month that is, and in cold, hard cash!"
During the crisis just past, when the queen strove through wizardry to gain the kingdom taxes due from the outlying regions had generally gone unpaid. There were two reasons the new government had money to pay its employees. First, the conspiratos who'd opposed the queen--when Kind Valence was too weak to do so him-self--were wealthy men in their own right. They'd backed the new government with their purses as well as their lives.
The second reason was that the queen had amassed enormous wealth before her defeat. Some had been looted, more was destroyed in the riot that made Garric the heir to
the kingdom; but a great deal of the queen's treasure remained, and Lord Tadai had been quick and efficient in bringing that wealth into the royal treasury.
It was an open question whether Tadai would have been quite so scrupulous to avoid further enriching himself in the process had he not known that chancellor Royhas was keeping very close track of matters. In the event, Tadai knew that he was being watched, so Tadai's worst enemy couldn't complain about the way he carried out his duties as treasurer.
"And Rohan, he's the second son of Robas, the miller in Helvadale, he went off to the king in Valles too," another delegate agreed. "Sharp as a bodkin, that boy, but what was there for him if he'd stayed in the parish? You can't split a gristmill, can you? Nor can you keep two families on what a mill brings in, not in Helvadale, you can't."
There was a pause for general consideration. Mistress Alatcha rose carefully to her feet. "Lady Sharina, you'll tell your brother that the Western Region is loyal, won't you?" she said. "I mean, we're used to the folk here in Valles treating us like we were scrapers to clean the muck from their boots--and we won't have that!"
Several representatives cried "No sir!" or something similarly agreeable. One launched into a story about an absentee landowner who didn't keep up his fences, but a pair of his fellows hushed him immediately.
"But we'll stand for the kingdom if the kingdom stands for us!" Alatcha concluded. The men around her bellowed "Aye!" and "Hear, hear!" in voices that threatened to rattle the roof slates. Servants and minor officials passing nearby craned their necks to see what was going on. Here in Valles, that many people shouting at the same time probably meant riot rather than cheerful enthusiasm.
Sharina sighed internally with relief. She'd gotten through to this group, at least. She felt a rush of kinship for the delegates, peasants like herself, who were satisfied to be treated fairly.
Most of the people who came to Lady Sharina--because Royhas and Tadai made sure they couldn't get to Prince Garric--didn't care about what was fair or even what was necessary for the Kingdom of the Isles to survive the crisis it was facing. They wanted more for themselves, and their concept of justice balanced on the belief that the world (and certainly the kingdom) should operate to give them everything they wanted.
"Mistress Alatcha," Sharina said. "Masters--I'll be glad to assure my brother that the Western Region is loyal. For your own part, feel free to communicate with your government either in person as today or by written petition. But I ask for your patience as well, and your awareness that the burdens you and your neighbors carry are there for the kingdom's sake."
Sharina thought about the way the royal income was spent. She suspected there might be a way to run the palace that didn't require quite so many servants standing around with self-important expressions...but maybe not. Her father had made a success of a rural inn where there was no margin for waste. Now he was running the palace, and she didn't imagine he'd changed his principles with his new position.
The palace had requirements that went beyond simple efficiency. It had to cater to the expectations of the people who came here, fold like this delegation and embassies from other islands as well. Maybe you needed a network of servants calling the time for the same reason that Sharina was wearing expensive garments when bare feet and a simple woolen tunic would have answered the demands of decency. How would Mistress Alatcha have reacted to Sharina looking like a peasant?
She grinned. The delegates thought she was smiling at them as they mouthed their goodbyes. Actually, she was thinking about how good it would feel to change into a tunic and take off the high buskins which encased her feet.
Ushers, summoned in some fashion Sharina didn't understand, stood ready to guide the delegates back to the palace entrance. She ought to ask her father how servants, discreetly out of sight, suddenly appeared when they were needed.
The delegates moved off slowly, murmuring among themselves. Mistress Alatcha turned and waved where the walkway swept around a bed of osiers in a flooded planter; all of her fellows had to stop and do the same. Sharina held a frozen smile and waved back until the last of the twelve had disappeared.
Sharina's maid Diora came up to her quietly. Sharina lowered her hand and said quietly, "I've never been so glad in all my life to see a stand of osiers."
"Milady?" said the maid, frightened because she didn't understand what Sharina meant. Servants could never be sure how their employer would react to ignorance. Even in Barca's Hamlet, an occasional merchant or drover would thought was proper.
That didn't happen twice. Not when the broad-shouldered Garric or-Reise was the innkeeper's son, and every man in the borough would back Garric if the guest's guards took exception to the way their master was being rammed face-first into the inn's manure pile.
"That's all right, Diora," Sharina said. "I was just talking to myself. Can you help me let down my hair right now?
I suppose I'll have to wear the rest of this ridiculous outfit until I get back to my suite."
She'd see Cashel as soon as she'd changed. She wished he were here already, not that there was anything he could really do for her. Sharina giggled, imagining Cashel carrying her to her suite like a woolsack. He was strong enough to lift two of her, even in the heavy garments she was wearing, but it would cause as much scandal as if Lady Sharina decided to strip down to her linen undertunic here in the gazebo. People--here and everywhere--worried more about the way things looked than the real decency or indecency of what was going on.
Diora plucked out combs with quick fingers. Sharinahad't liked the thought of having servants, but there wasn't any choice. She could no more have dressed herself in this garb than she alone could have rowed all hundred and seventy oars of a trireme.
Diora was quietly cheerful, good at her job, and--perhaps the most important thing from Sharina's standpoint--completely a child of Valles, so that she could pilot her mistress thought the shoals of palace culture. There were many times that without Diora, Sharina would have been as lost as, well, as the maid would be if dropped into the middle of the common woodland adjoining Barca's Hamlet.
"Ah, milady?" Diora said hesitantly as she removed the last few combs, twisting them slightly so that Sharina's massed hair fell loose instead of following the teeth. Bits of gold rang softly and sweetly against other bits. "I wonder if you might have a moment to talk to some...other people"
Sharina felt her stomach knot. She couldn't take more of this...
But she could. So long as she stayed in Valles, she had to. It was her duty.
"What other people would those be, Diora?" Sharina said in what she hoped was a tone of friendly curiosity. She started down the path toward her suite; the maid quickly stepped ahead of her and took Sharina's hand in the one that did't carry the bag of combs. Sharina couldn't see her own feet while wearing this stiff, puffed outfit, so she needed a guide to keep from falling on her face.
Newly hired gardeners were repairing the ravages of years of neglect, but there was a lot of work yet to do. The roots of a stately elm had grown across the walk. Workmen had stacked the flagstones on one side and dumped a load of gravel ballast to the other, but they hadn't gotten around to sloping the ballast over the humped roots and relaying the flagstones.
Up here, milady," Diora said. "Higher--there, now your left, and high again...There! You have it, milady."
Once they were past the awkward stretch, Diora released Sharina's hand. The maid continued to walk ahead as they passed between beds of zinnias flaring in vivid pastels, so that her mistress couldn't see her face. She said, "You see, milady, these are people from my old neighborhood. In the Bridge District, where I lived before I got my place here in the palace."
"Ah," said Sharina noncommittally. She didn't know where the Bridge District was--well south on the River Beltis, she supposed, because that was where the only bridge was. Valles had three districts on the west side of the river, she knew, but Sharina understood that only ferries and small boats connected them to the municipality's other fifteen districts.
"You see, milady, they can't get anybody to listen to them!" Diora said. "My mam's near out of her mind with it! I said that you were a real lady, not just a painted statue, and that I thought you'd maybe, you know, if you had a moment free...?"
The girl was speaking faster than she normally did and clipping her syllables. That was the way people talked in the streets of Valles, not here in the cultured sanctity of the palace.
Sharina smiled faintly. She was trying to avoid the Haft lilt that came into her voice when she spoke without thinking. The lilt made her sound different from everyone around her, though for course nobody would mention it to her face.
Her face sobered. The delegates from the Western Region would have gone away happy if Sharina had claimed that tomorrow the rivers would run with wine and pies would grow on trees. The important thing was that Lady Sharina had listened to them, had talked to them, and they could carry that memory back to their parishes with as much joy as if it had been a casket of golden crowns fresh from the royal mint. She knew that what she was doing was important, but it felt as empty as trying to sweep back the tide with a broom.
And now her maid was bringing a deputation to her. Well, Reise hadn't raised his children to shirk their duties.
Diora risked a glance over her shoulder; Sharina's silence had worried her. They'd almost reached the building that was Sharina's own, a suite of neat little rooms about a central atrium with a skylight over a little pool. The janitor had removed the glazed cover for this hot weather; rain sent the pool's lacy-finned carp scurrying about the lily pads.
Sharina thought of asking if she could change clothes first, but that would be an insult--a way of saying that Diora's kin and friends weren't as important as the delegates who'd just left. Sharina's job was to make people feel good about their government.
Anyway, she'd been miserable all afternoon. Being miserable for another hour or however long wasn't going to kill her.
"Of course I'll see your neighbors, Diora," Sharina said. "Will your mother be among them?"
"Oh, no, milady!" Diora said in amazement. "My mam wouldn't think of pushing in to a business like this. I said to send the leading men of the neighborhood, six of them, and that's who's waiting on you now...if that's all right?"
"Of course it's all right," Sharina repeated. Diora didn't seem to see anything incongruous about only men being fit to meet with the Important Personage...who happened to be a woman. She thought of what Ilna would say, and as a result Sharina was giggling as she entered the hall to greet the delegation from the Bridge District.
The delegates waited in the atrium with their backs to a mural. Sharina's doorkeeper watched over them with a carefully neutral expression, ready to bellow at them as intruders if Lady Sharina showed displeasure at seeing them. The men themselves couldn't have been more frightened if they were waiting to be thrown to real gryphons and chimeras like those painted against a black ground behind them.
"Good afternoon, masters," Sharina said with a smile. "I'm glad to meet friends of Mistress Diora. She's been a wonderful help to me since I came here."
There was a general sigh. Sharina thought the big fellow with welts burned into his forearms by flying sparks--a farrier, beyond doubt--might faint from relief.
"Master Alswind," Diora said. The oldest man nodded stiffly. He wore a purple tunic which might have fit him twenty years before, when the noble to whom he was in service gave it to him as a castoff. That had been a good forty pounds ago, and if Alswind made a full bow he or the garment would burst.
"Master Rihholf, Master Aldern, Master Dudo"--the farrier--"Master Demaras, and Underpriest Arpert."
Sharina made the slight bow that was all the movement her stiff bodice allowed. Alswind wasn't the only one here trapped by clothing. "I'm pleased to meet you gentlemen," she said. "Will you be seated?"
There were benches with zebrawood seats and legs of pierced bronze on either side of the entrance door. Sharina gestured to them.
The delegates looked startled. "Oh, we could never sit in front of you, mistress!" said Rihholf, a plump man wearing a shoulder cape which must have been very uncomfortable in this weather--and which didn't quite cover the awkwardly darned moth hole in the breast of his tunic.
"She's not a mistress, you pigeon-brain!" Dudo snarled at him. "She's a lady!"
Sharina pointed at the benches. "Sit!" she said. She'd handled unruly diners in the inn's common room. If somebody didn't take charge promptly, midnight would come and nobody would have explained why these men had come to her.
Sharina stepped aside so the delegates could get to the benches without stumbling over her. There was a brief hesitation while they decide which man would sit where. Diora solved that by pointing to positions, three to a bench, and announcing each sitter's name in a crackling whisper. The residents of the Bridge District might defer to the concept of maleness, but there didn't seem to be any nonsense about women waiting for the decisions of men who obviously didn't have a lick of sense.
"Master Arpert?" Sharina said. "Speak. Tell me why you're here to see me."
Arpert opened his mouth, closed it, and looked aside to his fellow delegates. "Speak, the lady says!" Dudo muttered. "Or so help me--"
"Right," said Arpert, suddenly focused. "We came to see you, lady, because we can't get anybody else to listen to us and Gunna's girl Ora here--"
"Diora," Alswind whispered. He'd managed to sit without splitting himself, but his back was as straight as if he'd been impaled.
"Diora, that's right," Arpert continued, "she said that you listened to people that nobody else would, and that you could maybe help. It's about the bridge, you see. It shouldn't be there, but it is again. At night. And there's the sounds, and it's getting worse."
"Folks're scared to death," said another man; maybe Demaras, but Sharina couldn't have sworn to his name if her life depended on it. She was tired, and there'd been so many names in the last three months. "I don't mean just the babies and the old women neither."
"The City Watch, they say it's no affair of theirs and they just stay away," said Arpert. "Which is what they mostly do anyway. Who cares if somebody's robbed in the Bridge District? That's how they feel about it."
The men nodded gloomily to one another. Sharina bit her tongue to keep from shouting in frustration. If these dimwits had gone into a Watch station mumbling nonsense the way they were doing here, she didn't blame the Watch officers for brushing them off!
But that wasn't fair. Arpert and his fellows weren't the poorest of the poor--they probably didn't think of themselves as poor at all; for that matter, they probably had as much ready cash as folk whom Barca's Hamlet considered prosperous farmers. Still, they were frightened and knew they were badly out of place here in the palace. Sharina was seeing them at their most flustered.
Which meant she'd have to help them if she wanted to complete the interview before dawn broke. "You say the bridge shouldn't be there," Sharina said. "Why not? You live in the Bridge District."
"Oh, not for hundreds and hundreds of years, mistress," Rihholf said, repeating his error of a moment before. Dudo, wrapped in greater worries, didn't correct him this time. "There was a bridge from the Old Kingdom, but it fell back nobody knows how far. There's still the abutment on our side, but on the left bank even that got swept away in the floods when Isnard the Bold was city proctor and tried to make himself king."
Three generations ago, Sharina translated mentally. For the most part the library Reise brought to Barca's Hamlet was of Old Kingdom classics, written a thousand years and more in the past. There'd been a few volumes of contemporary Ornifal history, though, since Reise was an Ornifal native and had been a palace steward before he fled to Haft for reasons he'd never made clear to his children.
"But the bridge is back now at night," maybe-Demaras said earnestly. "Or something is, all blue light that doesn't look like anything on this earth!"
"One moment, please," Sharina said. "Brogius"--her doorkeeper--"would you send an usher to Mistress Tenoctris and tell her there's a matter on which I would appreciate her counsel immediately? In fact, will you go yourself? I want Tenoctris to hear what these citizens have to say."
"Yes, milday," Brogius said. He paused only to put down his ceremonial axe--the double bitts were pierced brass and shaped like eagle heads, the symbol of Ornifal--and trotted off on his errand.
People spoke just outside the doorway. The door reopened and sandals whispered on the mosaic floor of the anteroom. Sharina turned with an angry expression. If someone had decided to walk in on her unannounced because her doorkeeper was temporarily absent, that person was going to learn that Sharina didn't need servants to get rid of unwanted intruders.
Brogius stepped back into the atrium, followed by a birdlike woman in green silk robes. "Milady?" he said. "She was coming--"
"To see you, Sharina," Tenoctris said, stepping past the doorkeeper with her usual bright smile. "I was hoping you and Cashel--and perhaps your brother as well--might join me while I look for the source of a disruption."
Tenoctris was tiny and seventy years old in terms of normal aging--but cast into this era from a thousand years in the past. The sparkle of her personality lit up any gathering of which she was a part. She looked at the men on the benches to either side of her and added, "But I didn't mean to intrude. Let me wait--"
"No, no," Sharina said, taking the old woman by the hand. "Masters?" she said to the expectant men. "This is my friend Tenoctris the Wizard. She's the person I was bringing here to listen to what you have to say."
She cleared her throat, drawing warmth from the older woman's hand. Sharina had gone cold when she heard Dudo's description.
Because that bridge of shimmering blue light could only be the result of wizardry; and Sharina had seen enough wizardry to know the terrible dangers it could pose for the Kingdom of the Isles.
* * *
Ilna os-Kenset stood in her garden, weaving a memorial for those whom wizardly had killed at her side. Her fingers moved the shed and the shuttle of the double loom, quickly and absolutely without error.
Another weaver would have to concentrate her whole being to work on a design as complex as this arras. Ilna let her fingers choose the wrap threads while she thought about the path which had brought her where she was.
A thread could go as many different places as there were cords in the weft, but there was only one correct choice for each pattern. Ilna supposed that was true of lives as well. She didn't complain about that; but occasionally she wondered what life would have been like if her pattern had been a little different.
Her fingers flew. The tapestry grew with the steady ease of a tide rising.
Ilna was dark-haired and petite. From a distance she looked pretty. Close up, especially if you looked into her eyes, she was beautiful; but Ilna's beauty was that of a sword edge.
Ilna's eyes were as clear as pools mirroring Truth. If you didn't want to hear the truth as Ilna saw it, you'd best go elsewhere--quickly.
She'd been a skilled weaver before she surrendered to evil and gained inhuman abilities. Ilna had escaped from evil in the end; but she couldn't escape knowledge of the things she'd done, and she still had the skills she'd learned in Hell.
Each strand had a story that Ilna absorbed much the way that her nostrils drew in the perfume of the flowers about her in the garden. Lambs gamboled on a slope overlooking a pond whose margin had been trampled to mud. A shepherd bowed a three-stringed rebec and sang to his flock...
Garric had played the pipes. Ilna, standing at her loom in the dooryard of the mill, had often heard the clear sweet notes soothing sheep in the meadow.
That was in another life, gone now for both of them. And even if the tides of time and space hadn't thrown the wizard Tenoctris onto the shore of Barca's Hamlet, the future wouldn't have gone the way Ilna had dreamed it would. Garric, strong and handsome and educated by his father to a level few youths in the great cities could reach, would never have married an illiterate peasant like Ilna os-Kenset.
Someone knocked imperiously on the door of Ilna's bungalow. A guard opened the barred eyeslit and spoke to the visitor.
Her house in the palace grounds was three rooms off a tiny atrium--plus the gorgeous garden where Ilna worked while the weather allowed. It was more space than she and Cashel needed here; but Ilna by herself had kept their half of the millhouse in Barca's Hamlet clean, and that was larger yet.
From what Ilna had seen, the maids available in Valles were mostly slatterns; and if they weren't, well, she didn't want them in her home anyway. She and Cashel had no servants here.
Ilna did have guards, though. At Garric's personal orders a pair of Blood Eagles stood watch at all times, changing shift at every fourth hour.
Ilna had protested. Garric had listened politely, then told her that while his friends lived in the palace, they were in danger because they were his friends. Ilna--and Liane, Sharina, and Tenoctris--would have guards, however they felt about the matter. He had guards himself.
Garric hadn't assigned guards to Cashel. A smile wasn't the most frequent expression on Ilna's face, but she smiled now at the thought of a couple of Blood Eagles trying to protect her brother better than he could protect himself.
The argument at the door continued; loudly on the part of the men outside demanding entrance, quietly but with increasing harshness from the two guards within. Ilna could have let the Blood Eagles handle it, but the intruders' business was properly with her, and she'd never been one to leave her tasks for others to do.
Ilna closed the shed of her loom and stepped through an aisle of twisted columns into the atrium. "I'll handle this," she said to the guards.
The Blood Eagles wore helmets and breastplates of iron scales cushioned by quilted leather vests. The armor was hot, uncomfortable, and probably unnecessary; but the guards were there in the first place in case the improbable happened. One of them was grizzled and in his fifties, but his younger companion seemed to be in charge.
Instead of stepping aside, the younger man closed the eyeslit with a bang and said to Ilna, "The president and two councillors of the Temple of the Protecting Shepherd are here to see you, mistress. How would you like us to deal with them?"
If I said that I'd like them disemboweled here in the garden, would you do that? Ilna wondered. She found soldiers disquieting not because they were capable of doing terrible things, but because they might do terrible things if somebody else told them to.
The Blood Eagles provided both to royal bodyguard and a pool from which junior officers were drawn for the regular regiments. The older man of this pair would never go anywhere: he wore the black uniform because he was brave, loyal, and a good soldier, but he had no more brains than a large dog.
The younger man was of another type: a veteran, because he'd had to prove himself to be enrolled as a Blood Eagle, but alert and clearly ambitious. With Garric's expansion of the Royal Army under way, this fellow would be promoted in the near future.
Different as they were, they shared a willingness to kill people they'd never met, simply because they were ordered to do so. Perhaps there was a need for such men just as there was a need for sharp knives, but Ilna would have preferred not having them around.
"I'll take care of them myself," she said calmly. She slid the bar aside and pulled the door open.
And if I really thought they should be disemboweled, I could manage that myself also.
Ilna was accurate to a hair in judging strangers' wealth and social standing by their clothes. The three men on her arched porch were wealthy businessmen, but not of the highest class. They dressed in Valles fashion with layered tunics and sashes of colored silk, but only the pale, cadaverous man at the head of the trio was born on Ornifal.
"I am Velio or-Elvis, president of the Temple of the Protecting Shepherd," he said. He spread his right arm in a rhetorical gesture. The stocky man to his right had to jump back to avoid being struck; he muttered and glared at Velio.
"My companions are Councillor Casses and Councillor Ermand," Velio continued in a slightly chastened tone. "We're here to discuss with you the arras which you're providing to screen the image of the Protecting Shepherd."
Ilna's face didn't change as she decided how to deal with the intrusion. "Come in," she said after a moment, stepping back to pull the door fully open, "but you've wasted your trip. I told your temple clerk that I'd finish the cloth tomorrow. You can save yourself a lot of trouble in the future by assuming that I mean what I say."
The stocky councillor, Casses, wore a long-sleeved tunic to minimize the tattoos on both arms. He'd been a sea captain at one time, though now he must have a shoreside business in order to sit on a temple council.
Ermand was a much more polished sort. He held his right hand out palm down in a courtier's gesture, offering it for Ilna to touch lightly with her fingertips.
Ermand oozed a sort of charm that would have floated on water. No question how he came to his present affluence.
Ilna ignored the hand. "Come and sit if you must," she said, turning away from the trio. "I can offer you water or good ale. There's bread and cheese as well, and I suppose we can find something fancier in the palace if your tastes demand it."
Ilna had to live in a society of human beings who didn't listen and who wasted their time in foolish ways. She was trying to train herself to be a part of that society, but it was very hard. Generally she felt like a shuttle in a world of warp and weft: acting on the pattern, but never really a part of it.
Sometimes Ilna wondered how it would feel not to be lonely, but she didn't expect she'd ever learn.
The councillors entered, looking puzzled. Ermand laced and unlaced his fingers in a nervous gesture. The guards closed and barred the door, then stepped discreetly through the bead curtain into a darkened side room. They could watch and listen unobtrusively to what was taking place under the skylight in the atrium.
But the only furniture in the atrium was a pair of wicker stools. There was a stool in each of the bedrooms as well, but--
"Come out into the garden," Ilna decided aloud.
"There're benches set into the wall under the colonnade."
They trooped out through the back of the atrium, Ilna leading the three men. She didn't know what they were doing here, but she understood who they were.
When she'd decided what sort of memorial would be appropriate, Ilna had gone to Liane bos-Benliman for advice. Others could have told Ilna how the bureaucracy of a temple in Valles was organized. Asking Liane, Garric's Liane, for advice was Ilna's way of apologizing for the unjustified anger she felt toward the other girl. It wasn't Liane's fault that she had the culture and education a peasant like Ilna lacked....
The councillors seated themselves carefully. Pear trees planted at either end of the masonry bench had been espaliered flat against the wall. Their branches interlocked in a network too spiky to lean against.
Ilna stood with one hand on the frame of her loom, eyeing her guests. Temple councils provided status for people who lacked it by birth and breeding, and who didn't have enough wealth to buy their way into the real upper circles. Councillors were responsible for upkeep of the building itself and the cult statue it housed. In exchange, they wore ornate costumes to major ceremonies and had an annual banquet in the temple precincts.
"Will you have refreshments?" Ilna repeated. At one time she would have been irritated at losing daylight to a foolish interruption. Since she returned from Hell, though, she could weave in the dark if necessary.
She was still irritated, but she was determined not to let it show. Much.
Velio stared at the loom. This panel, the last Ilna was completing, would form the center of the three-part hanging. Only a small portion of the design was visible from where the councillors sat.
"But you're weaving the arras, mistress," Velio said.
"Yes, of course," Ilna said. "I arranged it with your clerk last month: a screen for the Shepherd's image, to commemorate the salvation of Valles from the Beast. That's what you're here about, isn't it?"
The councillors goggled at her, and she wondered if her own face didn't wear a similarly stupid expression. What did they think they were getting if not a--
"We thought you were hiring people to weave the arras, mistress," Councillor Casses said. "We didn't know you were going to weave part of it yourself."
Ilna smiled coldly now that she understood the confusion. "I'm weaving all of it myself, Master Casses," she said. "I assure you I'm qualified. I told your clerk that I would provide your temple with a hanging like no other you will ever see, and so I shall. I'll have the panels joined when you return at the time we've arranged tomorrow. The completed work will speak for itself."
Casses frowned and sucked in his lips. It struck Ilna that the former sailor was probably the smartest of the three. He was watching her as he might in other times have eyed a cloud on the horizon, wondering if it was going to grow into a life-threatening storm.
Velio cleared his throat and said, "Well, it's not who makes the hanging that brings us here, mistress. You see, it's traditional that the sponsor of an offering to the temple provide a trust to maintain the gift in perpetuity. We haven't heard from your bankers as yet."
"A large cloth like this requires expensive care, you understand, Mistress, Ilna," Ermand put in unctuously. He was beaming at her with the false smile that he must have practiced on scores of wealthy women over the years. "Of course you want the best f--"
Ermand broke off in midsyllable; his expression changed. He must actually have looked into Ilan's eyes for the first time.
"I don't have a banker, Master Velio," Ilna said pleasantly. "Not here in Valles, at any rate. There are sums--people--I could call on in Erdin, but that's not the point."
Ilna really was trying to avoid the anger that was the only thing in the world she feared, but her voice still hardened as she went on, "My offer was to provide your temple with a hanging that would remind all who saw it of the city's salvation and of the sacrifice of those who made that salvation possible. If you misunderstood my clear words, I regret it. Now, masters, I wish you good day, because I have work yet to accomplish on my part of the bargain."
She gave a quick flip with two fingers of her right hand as if she were hooking the councillors to their feet. They stood up obediently, but Velio continued to frown.
"Mistress," he said, "you live in the palace. I understood that you may not have money of your own, but--"
Casses gripped the president's elbow in a vain attempt to stop the fool before he blurted, "--won't your protector--"
The analytical part of Ilna's mind had foreseen the question just as Casses had done. She reached into her left sleeve and brought out the clutch of cords which she kept there at all times. Her fingers twisted them into a pattern with the same cold certainty as water flows through rapids.
"--provide the endowment if you ask him in the right--"
Ilna stepped forward and drew the cords tight in front of Velio's face. He started to scream, but even that sound choked in his throat.
Bubbles formed between the president's lips. His eyelids couldn't blink. Neither of his companions spoke or moved.
Ilna collapsed the design with a shudder and drew back. She was shivering in summer sunlight. She heard Velio gag as he started to recover.
To the loom--she didn' dare face Velio for a few moments yet--Ilna said, "I have a terrible temper, Master Velio. I'm already doing penance for the evil which my anger drew me into in the past."
She cleared her throat and turned. Casses was holding Velio to keep the president from slumping onto the ground.
"I've just shown you the sort of place to which my anger would consign anyone who called me a whore," Ilna said. "I no longer let my anger rule me, so there was no danger of that happening."
She cleared her throat again, swallowing the lie she'd just spoken. "And anyway, you didn't really mean the insult, did you?"
Velio shook his head. He couldn't speak, and he finally had to cover his eyes with his hands before he could blink away the dryness.
Casses gave Ermand a nudge, starting him off toward the atrium with a spastic jolt. He guided Velio in the same direction.
"We'll leave you to your work, mistress," Casses said in a voice as polite and careful as that of a shopkeeper to a wealthy client. "The endowment won't be a problem, I assure you. We'll have no difficulty finding a patron to sponsor work that you do."
"I'll expect you tomorrow," Ilna said. Her throat was dry. She felt dizzy with reaction to what she hadn't permitted herself--quite--to do.
She didn't belong in this world! She had to stop acting as if she had a right to correct people who behaved badly. She had power, but using her power on ordinary people was like using a hammer to fix everything that breaks. Sometimes a hammer's the right tool, but more often it makes the problem worse.
The guards had returned to the atrium when Ilna led her guests out the back. They opened the door for the councilors without expression. If the Blood Eagles had an opinion of what they'd seen happen, they kept it professionally to themselves.
"Why didn't somebody warn us she was a wizard?" Councillor Ermand wailed to his fellows as they stepped off the porch. Though she was still standing by her loom, Ilna had a view through the axis of her house. She watched the backs of the shaken men as they went down the path bowered by peach trees.
A servant with the ebony staff of an usher trotted around the trio on his way toward Ilna's dwelling. The Blood Eagles saw him also; the younger man turned to catch Ilna's eye.
"Yes, of course I'll see him," she said, answering the guard's unspoken question. She walked into the atrium. The few people who might send a palace usher for her all had a claim on her time.
The usher reached the porch. He hadn't brought a message to Ilna before, so he'd expected to find a doorkeeper. He hesitated, not sure how to proceed when faced with two Blood Eagles and an intense young woman dressed too simply to be a palace servant.
Focusing his eyes past Ilna's shoulder to the empty interior of the house, the usher announced, "Lady Tenoctris requests that Mistress Ilna os-Kenset join her and their friends in Prince Garric's apartments immediately, if it is convenient for her to do so."
Ilna nodded. The words "if it's convenient" meant that Tenoctris didn't see whatever was happening as an immediate crisis. On the other hand, the old wizard wouldn't have bothered gathering Ilna "and their friends" for a merely social occasion.
Ilna smiled faintly. Tenoctris was if anything less given to socializing than Ilna herself.
"Yes, of course," Ilna said. "While you're here, you can help these men and me bring the loom inside in case it rains. It's double width, so it's awkward."
The usher opened his mouth, perhaps to protest. The older Blood Eagle put an arm around the usher's shoulder and squeezed him with a hand callused from wielding a sword. "Sure, it's your job, boy," he said with a nasal accent from the north of Ornifal. "Just like it's our job. You put that pretty stick down and come help us so you can get right back to sitting on your fanny for most of the day."
Ilna stepped briskly back to the loom to tie off the shuttle before they moved it. Behind her the old soldier added in a husky whisper, "You'll like it a lot better than you do hopping like a toad for the rest of your life; and that's not the worst might happen if you got snorky about helping the lady. Understand?"
Ilna shivered, but she pretended she hadn't heard the comment.
Copyright © 1999 by David Drake