Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
CRESLIN SHAKES HIS head, realizing from the light that it is well past dawn, well past the time he should have risen.
Megaera? Where is she?
He sits upright, looking from the low pallet on the stone floor toward the closed door between their unfinished rooms. Only the two bedrooms at the seaward end of the holding are done, and the partial roof would let in rain, should it ever fall on the northern end of the desolate island. Through the unglassed and unshuttered window, he can see the high, hazy gray clouds that promise yet another hot and rainless day.
“Put on your leathers, Creslin.” Klerris’s voice penetrates the closed door to the hallway.
The silver-haired man stretches and stumbles to the door, opening it. “Where’s Megaera?”
“Outside in the washroom.” As usual, the Black Wizard’s faded robes are dustless and clean.
“Why are you here so early?” Creslin wears only ragged undershorts. He looks back at the pegs in the stone alcove that will be a closet someday.
“To tell you that your ship’s coming in.”
“I don’t have a ship.” The co-regent of Reduce struggles toward the outside washroom. A shave will make him presentable, and the cold shower might restore some of his energy.
“It’s a Suthyan coaster flying the banner of Westwind. She’ll make
Land’s End by mid-morning.” Klerris looks happier and more alive than Creslin can recall; the Black Wizard matches the younger man’s steps.
“All right. Just let me gather myself together.”
“Not that much to gather together…”
He ignored Megaera’s whispered mumblings from behind the shower screen and begins to shave. Before he has finished, the redhead, her hair wet and plastered away from her face, has retreated, wrapped in a damp robe that barely conceals her shapely thighs.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d stop that, too…”
The shower is stone-cold-the sun-warmed water has already been used by Megaera-and Creslin shivers through it, too tired to feel virtuous.
“You’re pushing yourself too hard.” Klerris turns and studies the sky to the east, above the sea.
“Why not? At least I can collapse and not dream. At least I can point to another field, another orchard, another line of dressed and mortared stone. Even to another tiny bit of understanding the great and massive forces of order.”
“You need to talk to Lydya.”
“All right, I’ll talk to Lydya. Where is she?”
“On the ship. How do you think I knew when the ship’s coming in?”
“Hadn’t thought about it.” Creslin gathers up his razor and shorts, wraps his single threadbare towel around his midsection, and marches back toward his near-empty bed chamber.
Shortly Klerris provides each of them with pearapples and bread, which Creslin eats while sitting on the only completed terrace wall, the waist-high barrier that will flank the walkway to the guest house that may never be built.
Megaera eats as silently as Creslin, taking slow, small bites.
He does not look at her, for he can no longer afford such glances, not when each glance reminds them both of how lovely he finds her.
The walk down toward the pier is equally silent, although Klerris points out the sails of the coaster from the hillside. “We should make it to the pier before she clears the breakwater.” Creslin watches as an escort boat is dropped and precedes the ship toward the pier. The Suthyan coaster-its three masts making it the largest ship Creslin has ever seen- waddles across the harbor in the light wind, winching itself along on the escort’s cable made fast to the heavy stone bollard on the pier.
Creslin lifts his senses into the winds, searching the seas out beyond the small harbor, but finds no other ships, no feeling of the chaos-white that marks the wizards of
As he returns to full possession of his body, the coaster eases up to dock. Two seamen leap ashore with a second mooring line.
The three wizards walk toward the gangway that is being lowered. At the end of the pier, armed, stands a squad from the keep, led by Joris.
Creslin finds himself leading the way.
A balding man in a worn gold vest thrown over a sailor’s blue trousers and shirt greets Creslin and Megaera. “The co-regents? You look just like the sketches, except younger. There’s a lot here, and we’d like to get it off-loaded. This harbor’s small for us, and the winds tell that the storms will be sweeping in ‘fore long. Not before tonight, you understand, but it’s going to take some time-”
“What do you need from us?”
“Your seal, something, on the ladings once we get everything off. Maybe your clerk could do it for you. Understand the business of ruling-”
“We’re shorter on clerks than on regents at the moment. Once you unload, we’ll handle your documents.”
Before Creslin completes his sentence, the nervous captain is halfway back aboard his ship, and a muscular, black-haired woman, with a familiar smile that he cannot place, has stepped before them.
“Guard Captain Shierra, Regent Creslin, Regent Megaera.” The inclination of her head is as much a salute as either is likely to get.
“Did you have any trouble with the wizards?” Creslin asks.
“No. But then,” the woman’s face crinkles into a smile, and she gestures to the mid-mast, “we insisted that the captain fly our banner. One war schooner did follow us. It left halfway across the gulf.”
Creslin’s eyes note the crossed black-and-silver lightnings on the azure, and he returns the smile. “You seem to have a full group.”
“Two and a half squads, actually.”
“There are your quarters, rough as they are. We’ll discuss other needs once you look things over.” Creslin gestures up toward the newly completed walls of the addition to the keep. “We might as well get whatever you brought offloaded.”
“Some horses or carts would help. The… healer… was apparently quite persuasive. We brought field rations sufficient for nearly a season, medicines, seeds, and enough weapons-older, but serviceable-for another two squads.”
Creslin keeps his lips closed, but Megaera smiles as she senses his amazement.
“The healer also purchased a range of woodworking and stone-handling tools in Suthya. The forward hold is half-filled with surplus timber owed the
Marshall; it was unsuitable for cold weather, or so the Marshalle claimed when she sent the voucher.”
“Now that is true wizardry.” Creslin finally laughs.
Shierra shares the laugh for a moment, then turns toward the guards lining the deck. “Let’s off-load!”
Creslin looks beyond the guards, in full war packs, beyond the consorts and the handful of children, less than a half-dozen, and sees the figure in green he has half-expected. Klerris stands on the coaster’s deck embracing Lydya, and Creslin’s eyes burn for an instant. He shakes his head, returning his attention to the guard captain, whose back remains turned to him and who reminds him of someone.
“That’s more than statecraft or duty, Creslin.” Megaera has moved close to his shoulder. “Maybe it’s the only way your mother the Marshall can declare her love.”
Creslin says nothing. What can he say? Instead, he swallows and watches as the two Black Wizards separate, wearing near-matching smiles. Klerris and Lydya do not hold hands, although they might as well, for the closeness between them is obvious.
His heart pounds, and somehow he almost wishes that he were Klerris, and he wonders if no matter what he does, or what he becomes, Megaera will always be forever beyond his reach.
The forward hatch cover is coming off, and two sailors are beginning to rig a pulley attached to a geared hand winch.
“Megaera, would you like to escort Guard Captain Shierra?” His question is not rhetorical, for he is not certain whether he or she would be better in dealing with the Westwind contingent.
“I think that might be best, since she would prefer to deal with women and since the captain clearly prefers not to… although-” and her momentary smile is like the clear noonday sun “-we could make them both uneasy.”
Creslin smiles, without strain for one of the few times in recent days. “We could… but then I’d have to explain how a mere man managed to escape from Westwind, and you’d have to fry something or other to assure the captain that you meant business.”
“I’ll take the Westwind troops.”
Creslin wonders, once again, what he has said to upset her.
“A woman can be competent without using force or wizardry.” Megaera looks past him and toward the pier, where the Westwind captain is marshaling her guards.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Creslin apologizes.
“Oh… best-betrothed…”She shakes her head.
Creslin feels like shaking his head, too. Instead, he waits for the two Black Wizards who are making their way off the ship. Lydya is carrying a black leather case that appears familiar.
“Creslin, I’d like you to-” Klerris begins.
“We’ve met,” Creslin interrupts gently. “Lydya is the one to whom I owe my life, and perhaps more.” He bows, the first bow he has made since he has left Westwind, but the Healer Wizard deserves that respect. He straightens to find her blushing, to find Klerris with a bemused expression.
“That’s quite an honor, Creslin, from a… regent yet.” Lydya’s tone reveals thoughtfulness, and something else.
“It is a signal honor, indeed. There may be hope for him yet.” Megaera’s words are not quite humorous, nor yet etched in acid.
“Lydya, might I present you to my co-regent, Megaera, also sub-Tyrant of Sarronnyn?”
“I am pleased to meet you, Megaera. The Tyrant seemed most helpful.”
“Sister dear? She did? And how did she manifest her graciousness?”
“With a pledge of grains and olives, and some timber… to be sent after the fall harvests.”
“I will look forward to that shipment with pleasure.”
Creslin nods. So will he, although both he and Megaera understand the timing of the pledge. If they survive the wizards and whatever other hazards await them in the summer and early fall, such a shipment will be more than worth it to Ryessa.
“I must be going, Lydya, to deal with the arrangements for the Westwind guards,” Megaera says. “I look forward to talking with you later.”
As Megaera makes her way toward Shierra, who still appears familiar to Creslin, Lydya bends down and picks up the black leather case she has carried. “This is from the Marshalle.”
Creslin frowns, wondering what Llyse could possibly have sent. As he takes the case, he suddenly knows. His guitar. But why?
“There’s a note inside.”
Creslin decides not to look for the note while still on the pier. Then he sees the captain looking toward him. “It appears that I have a few more duties.”
“If you wish, Lydya and I can take the guitar back to the keep,” Klerris offers.
“Regent Creslin? Regent Creslin?”
Creslin smiles at the healer and at the Black Wizard, then turns toward the nervous ship captain, who bears a stack of parchment in his hands.
“YOU’VE MADE A good start with the physical conditioning. But…” Megaera raises her eyebrows, waiting for the guard captain’s next words “whether you can master a lifetime of training in a season or two is another question.”
Megaera shakes her head slowly. “There’s no choice.”
“Creslin’s not that hard, is he? My sister felt that he was a good man at heart.”
“It’s not that at all. Against him, I need no defenses. Besides, from what I’ve seen, I’m not sure that I’d ever prevail by force of arms.” She lifts the white-oak wand. “Where do we begin?”
The guard captain raises her eyebrows in response. “At the beginning, with the way you hold a blade.”
The redhead smiles faintly but allows her fingers to be repositioned.
“… and in the way you stand…”
The sorenesses she will receive cannot be as bad as the burning that has created the scars across her wrists. At least that is what she hopes.
“You may regret this, lady…”
She may indeed, but the time for regrets is past. Instead, she concentrates on how the older woman places the blade within her fingers, on how she should grip and wield the weapon.
THE MAN WEARS gray leather trousers and a faded green shirt with sleeves trimmed short above the elbows. For a long time he stands at the end of the pier studying the long, slow swells out beyond the breakwater, watching as a few higher waves surge white over the rocks. The pier is shadowed by the western hills, by the shadows just preceding sunset.
He turns westward, where the high, hazy clouds begin to glisten orange and pink to herald the sun’s disappearance into the sea beyond the western slopes. With a last look at the skies, at the towers of the sunset, he turns.
His scuffed boots carry him from the pier toward the half-built inn, where the walls and the roof are in place for the public room. The walls for the guests’ sleeping quarters lag behind, partly by design and partly because the troopers have diminished enthusiasm for the section of less immediacy to them. Strangely, some of the Westwind detachment have begun to help with the co-regents’ holding on the cliff, so much so that they have completed the exterior and interior walls, doing more in a few eight-days than Creslin had done in nearly a season.
Those working on the keep with Megaera have accomplished even more, and whatever Megaera is doing- beyond her determination to master a blade-she is developing a increasing bond with the guards. Creslin shakes his head.
Two fishermen are folding nets left out earlier to dry as he leaves the end of the pier. “Evenin‘, ser,” the gray-haired one offers, barely looking up from the cording.
“Good evening,” Creslin returns with a smile. “Are you heading out early in the morning?”
“Always early… leastwise if you want to catch anything.”
The other fisherman, younger and darker, with a welt across one shoulder, nods his bearded face but says nothing as Creslin continues toward the building under construction.
“… new regent, hear tell, him and the redheaded woman.”
“… witches, both of them.”
“… better a witch who’s here to look after…”
Creslin hopes that he can fulfill the faith of the one and gain the confidence of the other. He pauses by the unfinished inn, glancing at the nearly completed split-stone roof tiling over one end. Then he makes his way between the piles of rough-cut stone. Inside the public room, the hearth is completed, and the stone flooring slabs have been set but not grouted. The windows have, as of yet, neither shutters nor glass, but neither are necessary in the heat of the summer to come.
Klerris feels that a cloudy glass can be made from the sand of the beaches that lie beyond the low hills to the east of
Land’s End. The glass will make the inn and the keep more livable year ‘round.
Erecting three buildings, trying to grow a few crops, and encouraging a few old orchards are taking most of Creslin’s time, time that isn’t spent in trying to get back into shape and in talking with Shierra, Hyel, Megaera, Lydya, and Klerris in figuring out what else he should be doing.
With a deep breath, he steps out into the shadows and starts uphill toward the cool, black-stone house of the co-regents. He thinks again about the short note from Llyse, the note whose words could mean anything… or nothing. The words he has shared with no one are burned into his thoughts:
Some things cannot be won with cold steel or black storms. This might prove helpful. We are well, but I still listen in the night for the words you are not here to sing. If the angels are merciful, we will send another shipment in the fall, after the winter stores are reckoned.
“Some things cannot be won with cold steel…”he murmurs. “Like Megaera?”
Now that he thinks about it, he has never even mentioned to Megaera that he plays the guitar and sings. But… he really has never played, except in the privacy of his room at Westwind. And for Lorcas, the trader’s daughter, who insisted that a princess was waiting for him. His lips twist. Waiting, yes, but not exactly as Lorcas pictured.
A time will come when he needs the guitar. He has needed every other skill or understanding he has obtained. Why should music, no matter how private, be any different?
Something deep-toned sounds in the darkness by the road, then falls silent as his footsteps echo.
In the near hush of twilight, the murmur of the surf drifts up the cliffs’ facade from the narrow beaches under the black-rock walls of the eastern side of Reduce. Creslin stops and listens, but there is only the sound of the waves on the sand.
Ahead he sees the glimmer of a lamp, perhaps of two lamps. Megaera is in the house. He takes a deep breath and strides forward until his boots scrape in the darkness on the black stone of the terrace.
“Megaera?” He opens the main door into the roofed, but otherwise unfinished Great Room. There is no answer as he eases the door back into place behind him. Crossing the unlighted room, he steps onto the stones of the corridor leading to their bedrooms. He stops at her door.
“Come on in.”
The redhead sits cross-legged on the quilt covering her pallet. Also in her room are a small stool and a narrow, ladder-backed chair. A single bronze lamp, cleaned and polished, throws light across the spotless stone tiles and the woven grass rug that covers the space between the chair and the pallet.
Creslin eases onto the small but sturdy stool. “How was your day?”
“A bit wearying.” She wears a robe that he has not seen before; it is buttoned to her neck and has voluminous sleeves that cover her arms, even down to her wrists. “When you have to make charcoal before you can even start-”
“For the glass?”
Megaera nods. “It works, but it’s slow. Once we get the furnace working, some of the guards can take over. What about you?”
“We could use the glass. The public room’s done, and most of the kitchen. Not the lodgings or the entry hall.” Even as he responds to her question, he wonders what she is hiding. “What else have you been working on with Shierra?”
“Not much. I’m trying to learn how the guards operate, how I can help.”
Creslin grins. “What are you hiding?”
“Damn you! Damn your puking guts, and damn your order-infested honesty! I hate you! Get out of here!”
“What did I do?”
“It’s not what you did. It’s what you are, sitting there and looking so smug. You’re so twisted that you don’t even know you’re dishonest. Now get out of my sight.”
The silver-haired man retreats, closing the door behind him. He hears the bolt shoot into place as he enters his own room, empty except for the unlit lamp and the pallet with the plain quilt.
In the darkness, he stands by the window for a long time, listening to the sound of the surf and the whisper of the sea breeze long after the light in the adjoining room has been snuffed, long after clouds have covered the diamond-sparked band of sky that contains the north star- supposedly Heaven itself.
In time, he sleeps… but not well.