Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
“YOU TOOK A considerable risk, Creslin. What if he had been a master-blade?”
“He wasn’t. He wore the silks too well.”
Marshall shakes her head. “You realize that this will make your life much harder?”
“My life? I was more worried about your negotiations.” He glances toward the window, where the silken curtains billow in the wind preceding the rain clouds yet on the horizon.
“You couldn’t have helped me more.” The
Marshall steps toward the window, then stops and fixes hard blue eyes on her son.
Is she jesting? He waits for her to continue. For a time, the sitting room of the suite is silent.
“A consort, scarcely more than a boy, disarms one of the most notorious blades in Sarronnyn. Nertryl has killed more than a score of blades, male and female.” The
Marshall laughs harshly. “And you apologized because you weren’t up to the standard of the guard. Your friend, the herald, had that all over the palace within moments of the time you were back in your room.”
“I fail to see the problem,” Creslin admits.
“What ruling family would willingly accept a consort more deadly than any man west of the wizards and more dangerous than most of the fighting women in Candar? It doesn’t exactly set well with those who respect the Legend.” The
Marshall smiles. “That artistry on the other fellow’s cheek was also a bit much. Oh, I know it was justified, but it also shows that you don’t play games. Then, we all learned that a long time ago.” She looks to the window. “In a way, it’s too bad we didn’t get along better with the Suthyan emissary last spring. We’ll do what we can…”
Creslin suppresses a frown. At least he hadn’t killed anyone. In view of the
Marshall’s mood, he decides not to mention the strange episode in the corridor. The wound in his arm is no more than a pinprick, and his senses and his health tell him that no poisons were involved.
The guard in the doorway shakes her head ever so slightly, mirroring the gesture of the Marshall of Westwind, until Creslin looks in her direction.
Ask not what a man is, that he scramble after flattery as he can, or that he bend his soul to a woman’s wish…
After all, he is but a man.
Ask not what a man might be, that he carry a blade like a fan, and sees only what his ladies wish him to see…
After all, he is but a man…
The chuckles from the guards at the tables below grate on Creslin’s nerves, but the minstrel continues with his elaborate parody of the frailties of man. With each line, Creslin’s teeth grate ever tighter. The
Marshall’s face is impassive. Llyse, on the other hand, smiles faintly, as if not quite certain whether the verses are truly humorous.
The minstrel, dressed in shimmering, skintight tan trousers and a royal-blue silksheen shirt, flounces across the cleared end of the dais, thrusting-at times suggestively-a long fan shaped as a sword.
“… and, after all, he is but a man!” The applause is generous, and the minstrel bows in all directions before setting aside the comic fan, retrieving his guitar, and pulling up a stool on which to perch and face the crowd as the clapping and whistling die down.
Creslin listens, watches as the silver notes shimmer from the guitar strings and observes the guards’ reaction to the more traditional ballad of Fenardre the Great. The silver-haired young man recalls hearing the words from another silver-haired man.
The minstrel is good, but not outstanding. Creslin is nearly as good as the performer, and he has no pretensions about being a minstrel. The applause is only polite at the end of the ballad. The minstrel inclines his head toward the dais with a wry smile, then turns back to the guards below and begins to strum a driving, demanding beat.
Several of the guards begin to tap the tabletops to match the rhythm as he leads them through the marching songs of Westwind.
Even as he enjoys the familiar music, Creslin feels that he does not belong on the dais, or even in the hall. The refrain from the comic song still echoes in his thoughts: “After all, he is but a man…” His lips tighten as he becomes aware of the
Marshall’s study of him. He meets her dark eyes. For a time, neither blinks. Finally Creslin drops his glance, not that he has to, but what good will it do?
The thought comes to him, not for the first time, that he must leave Westwind, that he must find his own place in the world. But how? And where? His eyes focus, unseeing, on the minstrel.
At the end of the dais, the singer is standing now, bowing, and nodding toward the table where the Marshall, Llyse the Marshalle, the consort, and Aemris, the guard captain, are seated.
As the whistling again dies down, the
Marshall leans to her left and murmurs a few words to Aemris. In turn, Aemris’s eyes flick to Creslin and then to the approaching minstrel. She shakes her head minutely.
Creslin strains to bring the words to him on the wind currents generated by the roaring fire in the great hearth, but can catch only the last few murmured by the Marshall: “… after Sarronnyn, he’ll always run the risk of being challenged. He has to be as good as he can be.”
“As you wish,” affirms Aemris, but her tone is not pleasant.
Creslin wishes he had paid more attention to the first words between the two.
Marshall stands as the minstrel approaches. “Join us, if you would, Rokelle of Hydlen.”
“I am .honored.” Rokelle bows. He is older than his slender figure and youthful voice, with gray at his temples and fine lines radiating from his flat brown eyes.
Creslin suppresses a frown at the wrongness of the eyes and smiles instead.
In turn, Rokelle takes the empty chair between Llyse and Aemris, reaching for the goblet that Llyse has filled for him. “Ah… singing’s a thirsty business, even when you’re appreciated.”
“And when you’re not?” asks Aemris.
“Then you’ve no time to be thirsty.” Rokelle takes a deep pull of the warm, spiced wine.
“Any news of interest?” asks the
“There is always news, your grace. But where to begin? Perhaps with the White Wizards. The great road is well past the midpoint of the Easthorns, and now they are building a port city on the Great North Bay, where the town of
Lydiar used to be.”
“What happened to the Duke of Lydiar?”
“What happens to anyone who defies the White Wizards? Chaos… destruction.” The minstrel takes a smaller sip of the wine and reaches for a slice of the white cheese on the plate before him.
“And those who supposedly revere order? The Black ones?”
Rokelle shrugs. “Who can say? Destruction is so much easier than order.”
A number of the older guards have left the tables below, but the younger women at the front tables continue to pour from the wine pitchers. Creslin glances across the tables, hoping for a glimpse of Fiera’s short blond hair, but he does not see the junior guard. His ears miss the next few sentences, until he realizes that Fiera is no longer in the hall, if indeed she has been there at all.
“Ah, yes… well, the wizards and the Duke of Montgren seem to have come to some sort of agreement, now that the Duke has completed his fortification of Vergren and Land’s end-”
Land’s End? Out on Reduce?” asks the
Marshall. “Montgren has claimed Recluce for generations, your grace.”
“An empty claim,” snorts Aemris. “A huge, dry, and forlorn island. Just right for a few coastal fishing villages.”
“It’s easily ten times the size of Montgren,” observes the
Marshall. “But neither the Nordlans nor the Hamorians were able to make their colonies pay. Montgren’s claim was never disputed because no one ever wanted the place. The fact that the Duke has committed anything there is…” She breaks off the sentence.
“I thought the Duke of Montgren was connected to the Tyrant of Sarronnyn,” Creslin volunteers.
Aemris and the
Marshall rum toward him, both sets of eyes cold at his statement.
“He is, lad,” responds the minstrel, “but Sarronnyn looks down on him because he’s a man with a tabletop kingdom, and he’s angry because the Sarronese won’t give him more than token support against
Fairhaven. He claims that he’s the only one left who hasn’t caved in and joined the White Wizards.”
“Is that true?” asks Creslin.
“Ah…” smiles the minstrel, with an odd and wrong smile, “he is but a man, and who is to say what exactly is true? It is certain that he pays Sarronnyn no tribute, and it is also certain that he has increased his army and the tax levies, to the point that his peasants, those who can, are leaving their fields for Spidlar and Gallos.”
“It’s that bad?” asks Aemris, turning her eyes from Creslin to Rokelle.
The minstrel does not answer immediately but instead takes another long sip of the lukewarm wine. Llyse refills the empty cup. “Is it that bad?” repeats the guard captain. Rokelle shrugs. “You know what I know.” The
Marshall nods slowly and looks toward Aemris. “What about Jellico?” asks Llyse. “Last year a traveler said that the city was being rebuilt.”
“It is not as grand as
Fairhaven, but far more welcoming to those who sing,” observes Rokelle, between mouthfuls of cheese. “You should see the stonework…”
Creslin lets the man’s words drift by as he considers what he has heard this night: the guards laughing at the frailties of men; the Duke of Montgren standing alone against the White Wizards and being mocked by his female relatives; the Black Wizards silent; the Marshall and Aemris displeased with his questions. Under the cover of the table, his fingers tighten on the carved arms of the chair even as he leans forward with a pleasant smile on his face.
In time, the conversation dies and Creslin leans back, although the
Marshall has already left, her face as impassive as Creslin has ever seen it.
Aemris turns toward him. “You start working with Heldra tomorrow. With blades.” Her voice is short, and she stands as she speaks. “You’ll need it all.” She bows to the minstrel and to the Marshalle.
Llyse turns with a puzzled look toward her brother.
Creslin shrugs. “You think they’d tell me? After all, I’m but a man.”
The minstrel sips the last of the wine as the consort and the Marshalle of Westwind rise. Llyse gestures to the guard at the end of the dais.
Creslin takes the inside stairs to his quarters, leaving the sleeping arrangements for the minstrel to his sister.
THE RED-HAIRED woman wearing the iron bracelets glances into the mirror, her lips tight. The surface wavers, but no image appears. In time she loses her concentration and plunges her wrists into the bucket beside her chair.
The hiss of the steam mingles with her sigh.
Later, after pulling the combs from her long red hair, she looks over at the miniature portrait of herself where it rests atop the ornate wooden desk. Ryessa had insisted that the artist paint her hair short, even though she has never bowed to the military fashion sweeping Sarronnyn. Her sister the Tyrant has never let reality interfere with the images necessary for a successful reign.
The redhead’s fingers stray toward her left arm. She wills the itch to depart, as she has willed for too long. Imagination? Her blood swirls with the roar of the winds.
“Still getting stronger, isn’t it?” The voice coming from the woman who has just entered is cold, as cold as though her ice-blond hair were indeed fashioned partly from the winter ice.
“I don’t feel much of anything,” the redhead lies.
“So I’m lying. Hang me. You’d like to. You’re just offering me another form of bondage… maybe one that’s even worse than these.” She holds up her arms, letting the silks draw back. The iron slides away from the welts and scars. She lowers her arms, and the silks again conceal the marks.
“You still don’t give up?”
“How can I?” The redhead looks down. There is silence before she looks up. “I was thinking… remembering, really, back before… Anyway, you and I used to play in the old courtyard, and you used to get so mad because I could always find you, no matter where you hid. But then you’d laugh, at least some of the time-”
“That was when we were children, Megaera.”
“Aren’t we still sisters? Or did your ascension make me illegitimate?”
“The White has never been legitimate under the Legend.”
“Am I any different now, because my talent is classified as White?”
“That was never the question.” The blonde shakes her head. “In any case, the negotiations with Westwind may offer you a way out.”
“A way out? By enslaving me to a mere man? How could a real sister do that?”
“You think my choice is unfair?”
“When have you ever been fair, Ryessa?”
“I do what is best for Sarronnyn.” The blonde shrugs. “In any case, this is fairer. I don’t trust Korweil, and I especially don’t trust Dylyss.”
“You don’t trust the Marshall, deadliest fighter in Candar? How skeptical of you.”
“Not skeptical. Just practical. Dylyss fights hard, and I’ll bet she loves as hard as she fights. He is her son.”
“You think she will turn you down?” Megaera laughs harshly.
“After the way you set up Dreric? And Creslin’s reaction?”
“Creslin is good, almost as good as a guard.”
“From what I saw, he’s better than some.” The Tyrant smiles.
“He doesn’t think so.”
“You think Dylyss would let him know? It doesn’t make any difference. From what I hear from Suthya, Cerlyn, and Bleyans, they’re not likely to welcome such a wolf in lamb’s clothing. They’ll use the Legend as an excuse.”
“You believe it’s only an excuse? You’re a bigger hypocrite than Dylyss, or Korweil.”
“None of us were alive in the time of Ryba.”
“How convenient for you.”
The Tyrant smiles. “It’s convenient for you as well. If I really believed in the Legend and the demons of light-”
“Please don’t remind me again.”
“Can you sense what he feels?”
“I sense nothing. I told you that. Just go back to your scheming.”
“It’s for your benefit too, sister. Who else could stand to your fury, to the power within you, bracelets or not?”
“And how long will either of us last once I’m with child?”
“You with child? Without your consent? Spare me.”
“Against a blade better than your best, sister dear? You act as if I really had a choice.”
There is no answer, for the blond woman has left.
The redhead looks at the decorative but solid iron chair molding that encircles her quarters. Then her eyes flicker to the iron-bound door.
Should she call for Dreric? That, at least, is within her purview. At the thought, her blood seems to storm, and she shakes her head. Two tears fall like rain from the storm within.