Read The Towers Of the Sunset Online

Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.

The Towers Of the Sunset (5 page)

IX

IN THE SPACE before the largest window, Creslin strums the small guitar, cradling the crafted rosewood and spruce firmly in fingers that feel too square for a master musician, though he knows that the shape of his fingers has little enough to do with skill.

The room contains a narrow desk with two drawers, a wardrobe that stretches nearly four cubits high-a good three cubits short of the heavy, timbered ceiling-two wooden chairs with arms, a full-length mirror on a stand, and a double-width bed, without canopy or hangings, covered with a quilt of green, on which appears silver notes. The heavy door is barred on the inside. The door and the furniture are of red oak, smooth with craftsmanship and age but without a single carving or adornment. The only reminders of softness are two worn green cushions upon the chairs. Thrum.

A single note, wavering silver to his inner sight, vibrates in the chill air of the room, then crumples against the granite of the outer wall.

Never can he touch the strings so that the music appears golden, the way the silver-haired guitarist did, the one whom he is forbidden to mention. Even the autumn before the fabled Sligan guitarists had not played solid gold, but only touched upon it.

For the time, he places the instrument on the flat top of the desk and walks to the frosted window, touching his finger to the glass until the rime clears, melting away as though spring had touched the frozen surface of a lowland lake.

Outside, the snow dashes against the gray walls of Westwind and strikes at the window, the window that is opened seldom, even if more often than most windows within Westwind. As the glass refrosts, he picks up the guitar.

Thrap!

With a sigh, he places the instrument in its case and slides it under the bed. While his mother and Llyse must certainly know about the guitar, neither of them ever mentions it. Nor does either mention music, for that topic is forbidden at Westwind, for all that it is a talent best cultivated by men.

“By men!” he snorts softly. “Coming.” His response is soft, like the green leathers that he wears within the castle, but it carries.

Thrap!

He frowns at his sister’s impatience, lifts the bar, and opens the door. Llyse stands there.

“Are you ready for dinner?” Her hair, silver like his, dazzles, though it barely reaches the back of her neck, a brief torrent of light flashing even in the dimness of the granite-walled corridor. Only by comparison to his short-cropped head does her hair seem long and flowing.

“No.” His smile is brief, lasting only the moment before his guts warn him of the dangers of even flippant untruths.

“You never are. How you can stand to be alone so much?”

He closes the heavy door as he steps out onto the bare stone floor.

“Mother was not pleased-”

“What is it this time?” Creslin does not mean to bark at his sister, and he softens his voice. “About the time alone, or-”

“No. If you want to be alone, that doesn’t bother her. She makes allowances for men being moody.”

“Then it must be the riding.”

Llyse shakes her head, grinning.

“All right. What is it?”

“She doesn’t think your hair is becoming when you cut it that short.”

Creslin groans. “She doesn’t like what I wear, what I do, and now…”

They pause at the top of the sweeping circular staircase, comprised of solid granite blocks that would carry the weight of all of the
Marshall’s shock troops. Then they begin the descent to the great hall.

“Really,” begins Llyse, and her voice hardens into an imitation of the
Marshall’s voice, “you must learn the proper manners of a consort, Creslin. You may simper over that guitar if you must, but riding with the guards is not suitable. Not at all. I am not pleased.”

Creslin shivers, not at the words but at the unconscious tone of command that already pervades his sister’s voice, beyond and beneath the imitation of their mother.

“She’s never pleased. She wasn’t pleased when I sneaked out and went on the first winter field trials with the junior guards. But I did better than most of them. At least she let me go on the later trials.”

“That’s not what Aemris told her.”

“Aemris wouldn’t cross her if the Roof of the World fell.”

They both laugh, but furtively, as their feet carry them into the main entry way of the castle.

“How is the blade-work going with Heldra?” Llyse asks as they reach the bottom of the stairs.

“I get pretty sore. She doesn’t care how much she hurts either my pride or my body.”

Llyse whistles softly. “You must be getting good. That’s what all the senior guards say.”

Creslin shakes his head. “I’ve improved, but probably not a lot.”

A pair of guards flanks the archway to the main hallway. The one on the left Creslin recognizes and nods to briefly, but she does not move a muscle.

“Creslin…” reproaches Llyse. “That’s not fair. Fiera’s on duty.”

Creslin knows his informal greeting was not fair. He shifts his glance to the far end of the great hall. The table upon the dais is vacant, except for Aemris, unlike the tables flanking the granite paving stones upon which the Marshalle and consort walk. At the lower-level tables have gathered most of the castle personnel, the guards, and their consorts. The children are seated to the rear with their guardians, near the doorway through which Creslin and Llyse have approached.

Creslin concentrates on walking toward the dais, knowing he will hear too much as he nears the forward tables of the guards, the tables frequented by those yet unattached. “My, we are grim today,” prods Llyse. “You aren’t the one they examine like a prized stud,” he murmurs between barely moving lips.

“You might as well enjoy it,” comes back her calm reply. “You don’t have much choice. Besides, it’s honest admiration.”

In the beginning,it might have been, when he insisted on joining the sub-guard exercise groups and on learning blades, and when he stole rides on the battle ponies. He knew, because he could not spend as much time at it, with all the demands for writing and logic placed on him by the Marshall, while he had the strength and basic skills, most of the guards he once held his own against could probably outride him in the field. Only with the blade could he continue to hold his own. Even Llyse, now, was receiving that concentrated field training he envied.

He almost shrugged. Then again, that was the point of it. The guards of Westwind could outride, outendure and outfight virtually anyone. They were why his mother the Marshall ruled the Roof of the World and controlled the trade routes connecting the east and west of Candar. “… still a handsome boy.”

“… sharp like a blade. Cut your heart and leave it bleeding.”

“… not soft enough for me, thanks.”

Creslin can tell that Llyse is having trouble in refraining from smiling at his discomfort, and he tightens his lips.

“I’d still try him…”

“The
Marshall would have your guts for breakfast.”

As they step up to the dais, Aemris rises from her seat at the far right end of the table. Four places are set.

“Your graces…” The guard commander’s voice is low and hard.

“Be seated, please,” indicates Llyse. Creslin only nods, since any words from him are merely decorative.

Llyse raises her eyebrows. Neither she nor Aemris will seat themselves until he does. Then everyone will rise when the
Marshall arrives. Creslin could keep all three of them standing. He has done it before, but tonight it is not worth the effort.

He sits at the end opposite Aemris, and Llyse lets out her breath slowly, in turn sitting next to her brother but in one of the two chairs facing the hall and the tables below.

Aemris turns to Llyse. “The winter field trials start the day after tomorrow.”

Llyse nods.

Creslin had hoped to participate in the trials, using the skis and holding to the winds that howled off the Westhorns-those winds that might give him an edge-but Aemris is saying that Llyse will be there and he will not. Still, he looks toward Aemris.

The Guard Commander ignores his glance, instead turning to the curtains behind Llyse and rising. Creslin and Llyse follow suit as their mother steps forward, raising her hands to prevent the assemblage from rising.

The dark-haired woman in the black leathers with the square face and well-muscled shoulders that belie the intelligence behind the dark flint-blue eyes glances at her guard commander, her son, and her daughter. Then she sits without ceremony.

A serving boy springs forward with two trays, and Creslin begins to pour the lukewarm tea from the heavy pitcher into the tumblers.

“Thank you.” His mother’s voice is formal.

“Thank you,” echo Llyse and Aemris.

He nods in return, pouring his own tea last and setting down the pitcher.

A low, roaring whisper rises from the guards and those below as they are served the same food as that of those on the dais.

Creslin’s eyes flicker down to the front tables, glad that the meal has stopped the ogling for the time. Llyse holds one of the platters. He spears three thick slices of meat from one end of it and a heavy roll from the other.

Another platter contains various honeyed and dried fruits and pickled vegetables. Though scarcely fond of the vegetables, Creslin takes his share, even if he will have to wash it down with tea.

“Creslin?”

“Your grace?”

“Aemris has doubtless indicated in her best manner that it will not be possible for you to participate in the field trials. That was my order.”

“I’m sure you had the best of reasons.”

“I did, and I do. Which I will announce shortly. Do you know the Tyrant of Sarronnyn?” The
Marshall waits.

His stomach tightens as his mother speaks, but he keeps his gaze level upon her face. “We guested there last fall.” He remembers most of it all too well, including the incident in the formal gardens, the one which the
Marshall will not let him forget.

The
Marshall smiles. “Your expertise with a blade was noted.”

“I remember.”

“At the time, not much was said,” she adds. “Apparently Ryessa was quite impressed. The negotiations were rather involved, since a proposal from the Marshall of Southwind had also been considered.”

Creslin does not understand. Throughout the fall and early winter, he has heard of how his rash action has destroyed any chance of his becoming a respected consort outside of Westwind. And he cannot stay much longer in the citadel of the winter. For his own sanity, at the very least, he must depart.

Beside him, Llyse draws in her breath, like the whisper of the winds just before the mistral.

“I’m somewhat in the dark. Are you indicating that-”• “Not exactly. You will be the consort to the sub-Tyrant, Ryessa’s younger sister. Offhand, I cannot remember her name.” A signal passes somewhere, and the serving boy brings forward a tray to Creslin. On the black enamel tray lies a sheet of blue velvet, and upon the velvet is a golden frame. Within the frame is the portrait of a red-haired woman, handsome despite the extraordinarily short-cut hair, the piercing green eyes, the strong, straight nose. The corners of her lips are upturned slightly with the same cynical smile as he had seen displayed by the Tyrant throughout the eight-day stay in Sarronnyn. She looks vaguely familiar, but Creslin knows he has seen no woman with red hair cut that short. “I see.”

“You will indeed. You could not have done better, and you’re lucky that she prefers feminine men over the more traditional western man. She was intrigued after hearing of how you insisted on undertaking the field trials, and pleasantly amazed at your standing. She even applauded the… incident in the formal garden, the
Temple only knows why.”

Creslin swallows the sick feeling in his stomach as the
Marshall stands. A silence radiates from her out into the great hall, a darkness sweeping from her proud, pale face and black working leathers.

“We have an announcement.”

She waits.

“Our consort-to-be has been honored, highly honored. He will be leaving Westwind within the eight-day as the consort-intend of the sub-Tyrant of Sarronnyn.” A half-turn and a gesture toward Creslin follow.

A pale smile pasted upon his face, he rises.

“Creslin… CRESLIN… CRESLIN!” The chant builds as he stands there acknowledging it with a hand that turns the winds back, though gently, and waits for the words to fade away.

As the sounds trail off, he sits down, wanting to wipe his damp forehead but refusing to show any weakness, other than the stiffness of his jaw caused by his clenched teeth.

“Very nice, brother, considering you’re ready to dispatch the sub-Tyrant with your blade.”

The breath hisses from him at Llyse’s whispered remark.

The
Marshall indicates that all should resume eating, and most do, save the handful of single guards in the front tables, who regard Creslin directly.

He takes a sip of tea, then refills his tumbler. He has not finished the last slice of meat upon his plate, and now he has no desire to. How can he escape becoming little more than a prize stud?

His mother has reseated herself. “It might have been nice to have had a bit more warning,” he tells her.

“The sooner, the better… for your own protection.”

“My protection?”

“Your peers-those who would consider you a consort- are scarcely appreciative of one who is both skilled in arms and tumbled by the most attractive guards of Westwind.” Her laugh is throaty, the real laugh he has heard so seldom. The laughter leaves him speechless for a moment. “And, as you well know, you cannot stay here, not unless…”

He shivers, knowing what she has suggested.

“I really didn’t think that would meet your approval. And Ryessa’s sister is handsome, perhaps too gentle… too masculine.”

The Tyrant’s sister? Had he met her? He takes another gulp of tea.

“Is she as… does she look like this?” asks Llyse, studying the portrait.

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