Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
“I HAVE TO wear this?” Against the warm light that floods from the open double-casement window through the thin, close-woven silksheen of the flimsy dark trousers, the young man can see the outline of the man who stands holding the garment at the foot of the bed. “Galen, you can’t be serious.”
The older, round-faced man shrugs helplessly. “The
The youngster takes the trousers and tosses them onto the bed next to an equally thin white silksheen shirt. His image- that of a slight, silver-haired youth in a light-gray flannel shirt and green leather vest and trousers-is framed in the full-length, gilt-edged mirror that hangs against the blond wood paneling. His eyes are a steady gray-green. The silver hair and fine features overshadow the wiry muscles beneath the flannel and the weapons calluses upon the strong, squarish hands.
“Why did she even bother to bring me? I’m no consort to be paraded around.”
Galen straightens out the clothes so they lie neatly upon the green-and-white-brocaded bedcover. “The
Marshall thought that you should learn about Sarronnyn firsthand. And like it or not, you ate a consort.”
“Ha. She has more in mind than that. Llyse will be the one who must deal with Sarronnyn.”
Galen shrugs again, almost helplessly, and his shoulder-length white curls bob. “Your grace, I can but follow the
The oak door connecting the spacious single room with the suite provided to the
Marshall by the Tyrant swings open. A tall woman, slender and deadly as a rapier despite the flowing green silks that cover her figure, steps into the room. A single guard, her short-cut brown hair shot with gray, followers the
Marshall, a pace behind.
The youth looks from the silksheen clothes to the
Marshall and back to the clothes upon the brocaded spread.
The woman smiles faintly, but her eyes do not mirror her lips. “Creslin, if I am wearing silksheen, then you certainly can. The garments are a gift from the Tyrant, and spurning them will only make the negotiations that much more difficult. Unlike you, I prefer to save my resistance for those times when the issue matters.”
Her blue eyes are as hard as the dark stones of Westwind. The contrast between their adamancy and the green silks that flow around the lithe muscles-muscles she has developed and maintained over nearly four decades of training and warfare-reminds Creslin of the snow leopards that skulk the edges of the Roof of the World.
He inclines his head as he removes his green-leather sleeveless vest and lays it on the bed. “I will be ready in a moment.”
“Thank you.” She steps back through the entry to her suite but does not close the heavy oak door behind her.
Creslin tosses his flannel shirt next to the vest, then strips off the leather trousers.
“Where did you get that?” asks Galen, pointing to a thin line of red down the consort’s left arm.
“Blade exercises. Where else?”
“Your grace, does the
“She knows, but she can’t object to my wanting to be able to take care of myself.” Creslin frowns as he holds up the dark green silk trousers, then begins to ease his well-muscled legs into them. “I keep telling her that if I’m too emotional I must need the training even more. She just shakes her head, but so far she hasn’t actually forbidden it. Once in a while I have to smile, but most of the time I can appeal to reason. I mean, how would it look if the son of the most feared warrior in the Westhorns doesn’t even know which edge of the blade is which?”
Galen shivers, although the room is not cold.
Creslin pulls on the shirt and arranges it as he looks in the mirror.
“Your grace…” ventures Galen.
“Yes, Galen? Which fold did I do wrong?”
Galen’s hands deftly readjust the collar, then add the silver-framed emerald collar pin provided by the
“Do I have to wear that, too? I feel like property.” Galen says nothing.
“All right, I am property, courtesy of the damned Legend.”
“Your grace…” mumbles Galen, his hands not quite going to his mouth.
“Are you ready, Creslin?” The voice comes from beyond the door.
“Yes, your grace. As soon as I retrieve my blade.”
“Galen, would not any eastern male wear a blade?”
There is no response, and a faint smile crosses Creslin’s lips as he buckles the soft leather of the formal sword-belt into place. The blade, the short sword of the guards of Westwind, remains securely sheathed therein.
Creslin steps through the connecting door. The guard follows him with her eyes, but he ignores her as he joins his mother the Marshall.
They walk out through the carved doorway of the guest-wing entrance. Creslin moves to the
Marshall’s left, a half-pace back, knowing that is as far as he can push.
“Creslin,” begins the
Marshall in the hard-edged soft voice that is not meant to carry, “do you understand your role here?”
“Yes, your grace. I am to be charming and receptive and not to volunteer anything but trivia. I may sing, if the occasion arises, but only a single song, and an… inoffensive one. I am not to touch steel unless I am in mortal danger, which is rather unlikely. And I am not to comment upon the negotiations. ”
“You did listen.” Her voice is wry.
“I always listen, your grace.”
“I know. You just don’t always obey.”
“I am a dutiful son and consort.”
“See that it stays that way.”
During their exchange of words, their steps have carried them down the hall and into a wider hallway leading to the dining room of the Tyrant’s palace. A herald, scarcely more than a boy, has appeared to escort them into the Tyrant’s presence.
As they turn into an even broader corridor, wide-glassed windows on the left show a garden with a hedge of short, green-leaved bushes cut into a maze centering on a pond with a central fountain. From around the fountain’s statue-an unclothed man well-endowed in all parts-shoot jets of water that arch upward before cascading into the pond.
The wall to the right of the two from Westwind is of pale pink granite, smoothed and polished. Gold-fringed tapestries depicting life in ancient Sarronnyn hang against the stone, a space perhaps equal to three paces between each scene.
Creslin, having studied the hangings earlier in the afternoon, ignores them, instead fixing his eyes on the doorway ahead, where a pair of armed women guard the entrance to the dining room.
Marshall waits as the herald steps into me hall. Creslin waits with her, still a half-pace back.
“The Marshall of Westwind!” announces the young herald. “Accompanied by the consort-assign.”
Marshall nods and they step inside, following the herald toward the long table upon the dais.
“… handsome lad.”
“…a blade yet… but can he use it?”
“… like to see his work with the other blade.”
“… too feminine. Looks like he trained as a guard.”
Creslin purses his lips, trying not to hear the whispered comments of the court as he trails the herald and the Marshall. Some of the comments are all too familiar. Two places are vacant at the high table: one next to the Tyrant and one at the end, between two women.
“Your grace…”A serving boy pulls out a chair for Creslin.
Creslin nods to the graying woman at his right, then to the girl at his left. The girl’s unruly and shoulder-length mahogany curls flow from a silver hair band, and she is the only woman at the table with long hair.
“Your grace,” begins the older woman.
With regret, because he understands the seating, Creslin turns to her. “Yes?” His voice is nearly musical, much as he rues it at times such as these.
“What might we call you?”
“Creslin, but no names are really necessary among friends.” His stomach turns at the lie, and he wonders if he will ever be able to twist the truth, as he has been taught, without paying his own personal price. His eyes flicker to the center of the table, where the man to the left of the Tyrant has raised his knife.
The others turn to the sectioned pearapples on the yellow china plates before them, and Creslin lifts his knife to pare the sections into even smaller slices.
“Do all men in Westwind wear blades?” asks the older woman.
“Your grace,” he defers, “Westwind is upon the Roof of the World, and all those who leave her walls must beware of the elements and the beasts that brave them. The
Marshall would leave no soul unprotected, but was generous enough to grant my request to be able to protect myself.”
“You appear rather… athletic.”
Creslin smiles, and his stomach turns yet again. “Appearances may be deceiving, your grace.”
“You may call me Frewya.” Her smile is only slightly less overpowering than her breath. “Would you tell us about Westwind?”
Creslin nods but first finishes a small section of pearapple and wipes his lips with the linen napkin before speaking. “I doubt that I am the most-qualified individual to describe Westwind, but I will do my best.” He turns to the red-haired girl. “I would not exclude you, your grace-”
“If you would tell us about Westwind…” Her voice contains a hint of laughter as she pauses in raising her goblet. She wears a heavy, dull, iron bracelet, almost as wide as a wrist gauntlet and set with a single black stone.
Creslin senses that the bracelet is not exactly what it seems to be before he quickly returns his glance to her face. Her hidden laughter has pleased him, and he bestows a smile upon her before turning back to Frewya.
“Westwind sits upon the Roof of the World, anchored in gray granite to the mountains themselves, walled against the weather, and armored against all assailants…” Creslin did not compose the words he employs, but calls them from his memory of words written by another silver-haired man, kept in a small volume addressed to him.
“… and during the storms, the great hall, with its furnaces and chimneys, holds all warm against the winter and worse. Outside the walls of Westwind and beyond the walled road that leads to the trade routes, near-unbroken whiteness sweeps from below the south tower and up toward the still-shimmering needle of Freyja.
“Freyja” Creslin explains more conversationally, “is the sole peak to catch the light of the sun at dawn and at dusk.
“Beyond the Roof of the World are the depths, the cliffs that drop more than a thousand cubits into ice and rock. Beyond and below them lies the darkness of the high forest-massive spruces and firs that march both north and south toward the barrier peaks of the Westhorns.” Creslin stops and smiles, then shrugs. “You see, I can offer you only images.”
“You offer them well,” responds Frewya.
The red-haired girl, or woman-for Creslin has perceived that she is somewhat older than he is-nods.
In the interim, his plate has been removed and replaced with a second and larger one, also of yellow porcelain, on which rests a slice of browned meat covered with a white sauce. To the side are cooked green leaves.
Creslin slices a presentably small section of meat. He ignores the spicy and bitter taste, although he calls the slightest of breezes to carry away the perspiration that threatens to bead on his forehead.
“How do you like the burkha?” The question comes from the redhead.
“It’s a bit spicier than what is served at Westwind,” he admits.
The woman laughs. “You’re the first outsider I’ve seen who didn’t totally burst into sweat with the first bite.”
Creslin smiles vaguely, wondering whether to feel insulted or complimented. “I take it that’s a compliment.”
“ Yes.” But before she can say more, she turns to the man on her left in response to a question from him.
Creslin realizes that she wears a second bracelet upon her left arm. Both bracelets are concealed by the flowing blue silksheen of her gown, except when she raises a hand to pick up a goblet or to gesture. The man on her left, who wears a laced and frilled shirt open nearly to his waist, displays a broad and tanned chest, although one which seems soft to Creslin. Still, the man is taller than Creslin, as are most of the Sarronnese men, and his laugh is easy and practiced. The tone grates on Creslin’s ears, as do all falsehoods-his own and others‘.
“What do you think of the progress of the negotiations?” asks Frewya.
Creslin finishes another bite of the burkha. “I trust that they are going as planned, but since the higher matters of statecraft are best practiced by those with their responsibility, I can but hope.” He takes another bite, this time of the mint leaves that help to cool the fire of the hot brown sauce.
“Are the guards of Westwind as fearsome as they are reputed to be?” pursues his tablemate, sending another gust of highly charged breath into his face.
“Fearsome? Certainly they are called fearsome. Their training is rigorous… that I have seen. But since I have not seen them in battle, only in practice, I might not be the best one to answer that question.” He cuts another slice of the highly spiced meat.
“You seem rather unable to comment about much, Consort-Assign,” breaks in a new voice, a deep masculine voice, belonging to the man on the other side of the red-haired woman.
Creslin lifts his head, takes in the artificially waved blond locks, the even tan, and the stylish shirt. “I’m afraid I have little practice in saying nothing, and perhaps my lack of training in the art of diplomacy shows through.”
A bemused smile appears on the redhead’s lips, but she says nothing.
“Your words belie your assertions, for again you have said little.”
“You are absolutely correct, but then, I need to say nothing. Nor do I have the need to prove anything by my words.” Creslin turns his head fractionally from the blond man to the redhead. “Your pardon, your grace, for such bluntness, but the Roof of the World is not a soft place, even for a consort, and I am not skilled at evasions.”