Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
With a smile that is half-bemusement, half-laughter, she responds with a tilt of her head. “I accept your bluntness, Creslin. It is a shame that you will not be here much longer. Some… could learn from your words.” She turns from him to her companion and adds, “Dreric, I am certain that our guest would have more than enough to say in a less formal setting.”
Dreric nods, then turns to the woman to his left and asks, “Your grace, have you heard the Sligan guitarists before?”
For all the politeness, Creslin suppresses a wince at the iron behind the words of the red-haired woman and at Dreric’s reaction.
“What do you think of Sarronnyn? That should be a question harmless enough,” laughs the redhead, whose name Creslin has not yet learned.
“I don’t know what to think,” he begins, “except that it appears prosperous. Certainly the roads are well maintained, and the people we passed on the way scarcely looked up from their work. Some even waved, and that would indicate general contentment.”
“You are cautious, aren’t you?”
“One learns a certain caution upon the Roof of the World.”
“And as the only male of standing in a garrison of the Westhorns’ most fearsome fighters?”
“Standing?” Creslin laughs, and the laugh is not forced. “Your grace, I have no standing, save by the
“You are the consort-assign?”
Marshall holds Westwind.”
“I fail to see the distinction.”
Creslin shrugs. “Given the
Marshall, and given my sister Llyse, there probably isn’t one. But the succession isn’t automatically hereditary. The guard captains can theoretically chose another
“Is that likely?”
“Now? Hardly. I suppose the tradition is a protection in case there should be a weak
Marshall. Those who live by the Legend hold to their strength.”
Thrumm. A single note hums from the platform to the side of the high table, where sit three musicians in bright-blue tunics and trousers. Two are men, one a woman. Each cradles a guitar, but the three instruments vary in size and shape.
Creslin can see the faint golden-silver of that single note as it ascends toward the high, dark-timbered ceiling.
“The guitarists from
Sligo are supposed to be rather good,” he ventures.
“Yes. Although that is like saying that Werlynn was good.”
“The music-master of South wind. Did you ever hear him? He spent some time at Westwind, they say.”
“More than one musician has spent time at Westwind. The
Marshall is fond of music. I do not recall a man named Werlynn.”
“You might not. He disappeared somewhere in the snows of the Westhorns years ago. But the older folk still mention him. He had silver hair like yours, and not many people do.”
“That is true,” Creslin responds, “and I may have heard him if he had silver hair. His notes were true.”
“True? That’s an odd comment. Some time, perhaps you could explain.”
While her words invite a comment, their tone is perfunctory and vaguely threatening, as if discussing the trueness of notes were a subject better not mentioned at table. Creslin takes the hint gratefully, for to explain would reveal too much, and to lie would hurt even more. Instead he shifts his eyes to the guitarists as they begin to play.
AFTER WHAT SEEMS the hundredth look out the open casement windows at the formal gardens below since his breakfast, Creslin snorts. “Enough is enough.”
“Enough what?” asks Galen.
“I’m going out.”
“Creslin! But the
“She didn’t say I had to stay in one room. She said I had to stay out of trouble. Walking in that garden down there isn’t going to get me in trouble. It’s entirely inside the palace.”
“Let me at least get you a guide.”
“I don’t need a guide.”
“Not for that reason. A guide will signify that you’re a visitor.”
“It will take only a moment.”
“A moment’s about what you’ve got.”
Galen scurries through the connecting door to the
Marshall’s suite, returning even before Creslin finishes adjusting the formal sword-belt over the silksheen trousers that slither against his skin.
“Creslin, is the sword-”
Beside Galen is the young herald who had escorted Creslin and the Marshall the evening before.
“I feel undressed without it. Wearing this… bordello outfit is bad enough. Besides, it’s not in a battle harness.” Creslin turns toward the boy. “Is there any reason why I can’t walk through the formal garden there?”
“Many of the… men of your situation do, your grace.”
“A diplomatic answer, young man. Well, there’s no one there anyway. Lead on.” Creslin ignores the fretful look on Galen’s face and opens the door to the hallway. Clunk. He has not meant to shut the heavy oak door so firmly, but the hinges are well oiled.
For the first dozen steps, neither Creslin nor the herald speak. At last the youth asks, “Is it true that you wear battle leathers, your grace?”
Creslin laughs softly. “I wear leathers, but so does everyone in Westwind. You’d freeze in silks like these. Our summers are colder than your winters.”
“But how do you grow crops?”
“We don’t. We have some mountain-sheep herds for milk, cheese, and meat. We trade for the rest. We pay for it by maintaining the western trade roads clear of bandits, and-”
“-and hiring out to the western powers?” asks the boy. “Are the guards as good as the Tyrant says?”
“Probably,” admits Creslin, as he follows the herald down the wide stone steps. “But I don’t know what the Tyrant said about them.”
“She said that even the wizards of
Fairhaven could not stand against them.”
“I don’t know about that. Wizards don’t like cold steel, but the eastern wizards are supposed to be able to split mountains.”
“Each year they move a little closer, they say.”
Creslin shrugs. The affairs of a kingdom ruled by wizards on the eastern side of the Easthorns-two mountain ranges east of the Roof of the World-scarcely seem urgent. “Is this the entrance to the gardens?”
“This is the east door. There’s another door from the men’s quarters.”
“The men’s quarters?” Creslin steps onto the white gravel path. The shadow that has darkened the garden lifts as a small white cloud drifts away, revealing the white-gold sun, and as the blue-green of the sky brightens like a fire emerald.
“You know, where the unattached consorts and the other… male guests…”
Creslin raises his eyebrows. “Hostages for good behavior? Sons of suspect houses?”
The herald looks down at the fine and polished white pebbles.
“Never mind. Tell me about the garden.”
“It’s nearly as old as the palace. The tales say the second Tyrant built it in memory of her consort. That was Aldron, the last consort to ride in battle. He was killed at Berlitos when the Tyrant crushed the Jerans.”
“Jera is southern Sarronnyn now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, your grace. Very loyal. This maze is sculpted from just one creeping tarnitz.”
“That’s right. If you look down, you can see how the roots intertwine.”
Creslin kneels to study the base of the tarnitz.
“Very clever gardening. We couldn’t do this sort of thing at West wind.”
Creslin laughs briefly. “Only the evergreens grow there, and not well. Show me some more of the garden.”
The herald leads Creslin around a series of turns through the maze until they emerge near the statue in the midst of the marble-walled pond.
“Aldron?” asks Creslin, gesturing toward the well-endowed male figure.
“So it’s said, your grace, but no one knows for certain.”
Creslin turns at the sound of footsteps and a voice saying, “Ah, I do believe it is the honorable consort-design of Westwind. You know, Nertyrl, the one who had nothing to say at the banquet.”
The speaker is Dreric, the broad, blond companion of the unnamed redheaded woman. He wears matching royal-blue silks that under the white-gold sun set off his tan and his flowing golden hair. Beside him is an older man, wearing gray silks, a pointed and drooping mustache, and a long blade.
Although he smiles faintly, Creslin has nothing to say to either man, particularly since he has no doubt that any wit he might display would be far less practiced than that of two men who have spent a lifetime mastering the innuendo.
“Good day, I say.” Dreric’s voice oozes from his lips, honey-coated.
“A pleasant day, indeed,” agrees Creslin, knowing that he cannot refuse to respond to a direct greeting.
“He wears a blade, you see,” comments Dreric, with a pronounced look at the older man. “Perhaps because his other blade is less than adequate, you think, Nertryl?”
“That would be for the… women… to decide, your grace.”
“Ah, yes… assuming that women are even-No matter…”
Creslin swallows as Dreric halts perhaps four paces away. Dreric turns his back on Creslin and begins to study a miniature pink rose set in a waist-high box of white marble.
“Your grace,” whispers the herald, tugging at Creslin’s sleeve.
Creslin remains immobile.
“Do you think he really merits the title, Nertryl? Grace? Ah, well… what we must put up with to obtain a little more security. We could do him a favor, I suppose. Maggio likes boys, the thin ones like this mountain… lordlet. Do you suppose we could manage an introduction?”
Creslin can feel his face flush, not from the direct sunlight.
“I do believe he shows some interest, your grace.” Nertryl’s voice is simultaneously flat and languid.
“One must be so dreadfully direct with… mountain… nobility.”
Creslin turns to the herald. “It is truly amazing to hear such vulgarity posturing under polite language. I would like to see an area of the garden not spoiled by…” He cannot finish the sentence.
There is a moment of silence.
Creslin turns as a hand touches his sleeve.
“I do believe you have slighted my lord. Grievously,” admonishes Nertyrl. The smile on his face is not mirrored in his eyes.
“One cannot slander a toad,” snaps Creslin. “They live in the mud.”
“Your grace…” whispers the herald.
The long blade clears the scabbard.
“Well… do you wish to beg his grace’s pardon… humbly, and upon your knees?” Nertryl’s voice remains hard and languid.
“I think not.” As he speaks, Creslin steps back, and his own shorter and fractionally wider blade is in his hand.
“Well, well… he has some nerve, if not much in the way of intelligence…” The grating voice is that of Dreric.
Nertryl says nothing, his eyes fixed upon Creslin’s.
Creslin smiles, remembering the sessions with Aemris and Heldra, and his blade moves without his eyes moving.
Nertryl steps back, involuntarily, at the nick on his forearm, then moves forward.
Creslin’s blade flashes, almost faster than his thoughts, and the long blade lies upon the white gravel.
Nertryl holds his right arm as heavy red wells through his fingers and over the gray silks.
Dreric’s mouth is still open as Creslin steps forward, blade flickering.
“… you wouldn’t… barbarian…”
The sword caresses the blond man’s cheek, and two thin lines of red appear.
“That should be enough, Lordlet Dreric, to remind you that insulting one’s betters is dangerous.” Creslin bows to Nertryl. “My apologies, of a sort, to you. You might also remember that the Guards of Westwind are far better at this than I am. I am merely a poor Consort-Assign.”
Creslin turns to the open-mouthed lad. “Let’s go. I detest the stench of blood.” He swallows as he thinks about the
Marshall’s reaction. She will not be pleased.
“Which way?” Creslin starts toward the path by which they had entered the garden.
The herald shrugs and leads him back along the white-pebbled stones. Behind him, Creslin can hear the rapid crunch of footsteps grow fainter. He forces himself to walk slowly after the herald, wondering where Dreric is heading in such haste.
His own steps are deliberate. He will not be stampeded by any male harlot, especially one without enough nerve to handle his own dirty work.
“Are you all right, your grace?”
“I’m fine. Just thinking.” In silence they approach the golden-varnished door leading from the garden into the palace proper. The herald opens the portal, which swings wide on the same well-oiled hinges as had the door in Creslin’s room. Still wondering about Dreric, Creslin steps into the relative gloom of the stonewalled corridor.
Darkness swirls around him, as though night had descended from nowhere. His hand darts for his blade. Before his fingers reach the hilt, they are jarred loose as he finds himself slammed against the granite wall, with more than one pair of arms trying to pin him.
His thoughts reach for the winds, and the bitter gusts of winter suddenly swirl silks and scarves, lashing them toward faces and eyes. A line of cold stabs at his arm even as he falls away from the blade. The darkness lifts, and the winds depart, and he stands alone-except for the herald, his eyes downcast.
“What… was… that?” Creslin gasps.
“What, your grace?” asks the boy, his eyes clear. “Someone called, and you stopped to talk with her. I didn’t see who. Since you stopped, I thought you knew her.” The boy looks at Creslin’s disarray. “Are you all right?”
“You didn’t see who it was?”
“No, your grace. I mean, not clearly. She was in the shadows.”
Creslin looks back at the door. Although not as bright as the garden, the corridor is well lit by the windows several paces away. There are no shadows. “Oh, well. I wish I knew who she was,” he temporizes.
“She must think a lot of you, to be so open,” marvels the herald.
Creslin smiles falsely, and his stomach turns again. Dreric’s doing? But why would anyone start an attack and then leave as soon as they she pinked his arm? Creslin does not look at his arm, although his senses tell him that it bears a needlesized hole, and the slit in his silks is so narrow that it cannot be seen.
Compared to the mess in the garden, the incident in the corridor is mild, best forgotten, and quickly.
Still, he wonders.