Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
“A bit softer than that,” comments Aemris. “She’d do well to have a strong consort like Creslin. Sarronnyn’s strictly by lineage, and Ryessa already has two daughters. A strong consort like Creslin,” Aemris nods toward him as-though he could not hear the conversation, “protects her from those who would use the men’s quarters against her.”
Marshall looks at Creslin. “Tomorrow you need to consult with Galen to determine what you will take with you to Sarronnyn.” She smiles. “It’s for the best.” Then she stands and is gone before Creslin can respond.
As soon as she is past the hanging tapestries, Creslin stands, nods, and departs. His steps carry him through the back entrance and to the narrow old stairwell, the first one built within Westwind, the one with the hollowed stone risers and the rough edges of the outside wall stones. Upward he climbs, one quick step upon another, until he stands on the open wall and stares southward.
As cold as the gale makes the parapets of Westwind, they are warmer than the atmosphere within the great hall. A thin line of white rises from the tall chimney set squarely at the north end of the hall, the smoke bending eastward into a flat line as it clears the shelter of the castle walls.
Creslin looks out at the near-unbroken whiteness that sweeps across the snow bowl below the south tower and up toward the still-shimmering needle of Freyja, the sole peak yet lit by the sun that has already dropped behind the Westhorns. Even in the twilight, the snow glistens, unbroken, untouched except for the cleared gray stones of the high road leading to the forests below, and to the east.
He wants to sing, or to scream. He will do neither, the former because now is not the time for song, and the latter because he refuses to give either Aemris or the Marshall any satisfaction, any hint that he might be a weakling like the other men.
Instead, he reaches for the winds, weaves them and hurls them against the walls until his face smarts and sweat flows from his face to freeze upon his leathers. Until the walls are coated with a layer of ice as hard as rock. Until his eyes burn and he can see only with his thoughts. Until the winds slip from his thoughts and go where they will.
Then, and only then, does he slowly trudge back toward the warmth of his room, ignoring the pair of guards who have watched, wide-eyed, as the consort of the sub-Tyrant flails against the destiny that others have arranged for him.
CRESLIN’s STEPS CARRY him along the east wall to the covered passageway leading to the tower, called Black for all that it was built of the same gray granite as the rest of Westwind. Within the
are the fallback winter stores and spare equipment, the not-quite-discarded packs and oil cloths and old winter quilts. They will have to do, for the newer equipment is within the guard armory below, where is posted a live guard.
His short silver hair blows away from his unlined face, and his strides are quick in the darkness of morning just before dawn. The gray-green eyes are set above dark circles, for he has not slept well, not after learning his future. Despite the snow film on the stones, his steps are firm, his boots clearing the risers mechanically.
Creslin glances at the narrow white expanse that drops off into the sheer cliff defining one edge of the Roof of the World. Beyond the thousand-cubit drop, beyond the jumble of ice and rock below, the darkness of the high forest thrusts through the deep snow, massive spruces and firs that march both north and south toward the barrier peaks of the Westhorns, those peaks that separate the eastern lands from the civilized west. Between and upon the high forest giants, the snow glistens, untouched. Beyond the high forest lie the unseen trade roads.
Creslin looks away from the dim vista, turning the corner into the darker shadows, more preoccupied with the past than the present.
He staggers from the impact and finds himself half-falling, half-drawn against a blond guard, nearly as tall as he, nearly as strong.
Her lips burn his. Then they are standing separately, thrust apart by the practiced motions of her training as a Westwind guard. Creslin is sorry to lose the warmth he has so briefly held.
“Greetings, honored consort.”
“I’d rather be a guard.”
“Everyone knows that, including the
Marshall. It doesn’t change things.”
Her eyes are level with his. “I could be sent to North-watch for years for what I just did.”
North watch? For a kiss?
“Yes,” she answers, her narrow face severe in the shadows. “For daring to kiss the
Marshall’s son, for leading him on.”
“What difference does it make? Llyse follows the Marshall, not me.”
Fiera frowns, but the expression is gentle. “Men. It matters. And the sub-Tyrant would not be pleased either, though a one-time love would be difficult to prove.”
Her words are meaningless, and Creslin has no response.
“Good day, sweet prince.”
He reaches out but she is gone, battle jacket and sword, cold cap and helmet-down the inner staircase to the barracks below.
Again he shakes his head.
The covered section of the parapet is empty, and he fingers the key in his belt pouch. Fiera will not speak of their meeting, and he must obtain what he needs from the storeroom and return to his quarters before the day’s formalities begin.
He steps toward the lock. Better old supplies than none.
“SEE? LIKE THAT.” The arms-master adjusts Creslin’s formal sword-belt. “It did some good to let you learn the basics. The
Marshall should have stopped there. All you needed was enough to put up some defense.” Her voice is impartial, stating facts.
“Defense? Just defense?”
“I’m not fond of armed men. The Legend dies hard, your grace. But I can’t grudge you the right to take care of yourself. And the
Marshall can’t either, once you leave, you know.” The arms-master’s mouth puckers as if she has swallowed a bitter plum.
Creslin has heard rumors about the western rulers and their stables of men and boys; he has even seen the men’s quarters in Sarronnyn. But he has never considered that he might become part of such a stable. “Perhaps I should have learned more about knives.”
She says nothing.
“How might I do against the easterners?”
“You’d be a good blade there, maybe better than that. With their wizardry, they don’t hold much stock in blades. If you ever go there, keep the cold steel blade. It’s twice as strong as theirs.”
Since Creslin has had drummed into him the reason that no one wears steel in the eastern reaches-cold iron binds chaos-he only nods. Fairhaven may be his goal, but kays indeed, as well as the winter itself, lie between him and the White City, not to mention his mother’s guards, and the Tyrant of Sarronnyn, whose sister’s consort he will be, like it or not. The redhead in the miniature portrait within his pack, as striking as she appears, bears at least a half-decade more experience than he.
“In the east, it’s said that men-”
“Barbaric.” The arms-master steps back. “A patriarchal empire is what they’re building, based on wizardry.” The revulsion in her voice turns her formerly impartial tones acid. “They’ll recreate the Legend, but worse. The whole western continent will look like Reduce.”
He has heard the same bitterness from his mother, and indirectly from most of the other western rulers.
“You’ll do,” declares the arms-master, studying him. “A little too feminine probably, with your sword. At least it’s not in a battle harness.”
Creslin keeps his expression polite. The battle harness is in the pack he has switched for the one that Galen packed.
“You still ride like a trooper, not like a consort, but that’s probably what intrigued the Tyrant. She doesn’t care much for soft men, that one, and she’s the one who asked for you. Someone was needed-”
“For what?” Creslin has not heard this before.
The arms-master’s face closes like the castle gate before a storm. “I’ll see you below, young Creslin. Her grace will see you after you pack up the sword and finery.”
Creslin is less than certain that he wishes to face his mother-or Llyse-right now. But he has little in the way of choice, not since his mother is the Regent of the Western Reaches and the ruler of Westwind and of all the peaks that can be seen from the high castle, not to mention the dozens more that cannot be seen.
At the same time, he is more than eager to escape from the soft silks and leathers that have been fitted for him. Everything has been packed, including his guitar, except the sword and the last ceremonial outfit he wears. He has saved the Guard blade he has practiced with for the trip. His mother would not deny him the right to a solid blade for self-defense. He hopes.
Even before the arms-master has left his room, he begins to strip off the green cotton shirt and matching thin leather trousers, ignoring the lingering look from Heldra as he flings them upon the green-and-silver coverlet and begins to pull on the guard leathers. Glancing up, he catches her stare.
She turns brusquely.
Creslin shakes his head. “Even Heldra… was Fiera right?” He does not wish to consider the tightness of his mother the Marshall’s words, but he stuffs himself into the heavy leathers more violently than necessary.
Then he starts to fold the ceremonial outfit before dropping it on the bed. Galen will scuttle in and pack it while he talks with his mother.
His head still shaking, he opens the door and leaves it open, walking toward the opposite wing of the quarters, past Llyse’s closed door. His sister will not be there but in the field, deep within the winter of the Roof of the World, trying to prove her right and skills to succeed the
Marshall-a test she must undertake and overcome each and every year.
Creslin must worry only about palace intrigue, and about pleasing the sub-Tyrant. He snorts. Not if he can help it. Yet he knows so little about real life beyond the guards, beyond the Roof of the World.
Before the sound of his knock dies away, the door is opened by a guard, gray-haired and muscled. She lets him enter, glancing at his guard blade.
He makes his way into the study.
Marshall stands. “Even with those leathers, you look good. Except for the hair. Sooner or later you’ll have to let it grow.”
“Perhaps. Then again, things may change.”
She laughs, her manner less formal in the study with only a pair of guards, and those a room away. “Still fighting destiny?”
Creslin grins ruefully. “Since I have no idea exactly what my destiny will be, I couldn’t say what I’m fighting.”
She touches his shoulder, then withdraws her hand. “You’ll do well in Sarronnyn, son, if you remember that you can run to destiny, but not from it.”
“That sounds like a rationalization of fate.”
She shakes her head. “You need to be off. Shall we go?”
They proceed back out into the hall and down the stairs. Outside the castle’s front entry, an honor guard awaits.
The consort swallows. An honor guard? Not including the armed-escort squad? He steps away from the
Marshall and toward the single riderless battle pony. The parka he has not worn lies across the saddle, with the cold cap and gloves. Galen has forgotten nothing, except that being a man means more than expertise with domestic details.
“Have a good journey.”
Creslin inclines his head as he pulls on the parka. The cap and gloves follow, and he swings into the saddle. The
Marshall, in her normal black leathers, stands at the top of the stairs, the wind ruffling her short, gray-streaked black hair.
Creslin raises his arm in a farewell salute, then flicks the reins.
The sound of hooves is the loudest noise as the cavalcade heads out through the open gates onto the high stone road across the corner of the Roof of the World and toward the nations below.
“NOW WHAT ARE you going to do? The last thing we need is an alliance between Westwind and Sarronnyn. It’s bad enough that the Black weaklings are muttering again about our abuse of the Balance. With Ryessa’s power and hold on the southern trade routes, and that mad bitch Dylyss and her guards-”
“You still don’t understand, do you?”
“What is there to understand? Ryessa needs some way to keep that… that abomination, her sister, under control, and both Creslin and Megaera need the appearance of being forced into the alliance. We need to keep them apart, and you need a lever over Montgren. That’s the clear part. But how on earth this mad scheme will promote anyone’s ends but Westwind’s and Sarronnyn’s, or your feelings about…” The heavy, white-clad man continues for many elaborate sentences.
“Enough. Your words are interesting. You feel that Ryessa’s sister is an abomination because she was born to the power and chose the White route. Yet the White is right for you? Or is that because she is a western woman who was born to the Legend?”
“The Legend, that involuted rationalization!”
“Who had the idea for the betrothal insinuated?” The older and thinner man cuts off the intricate phraseology.
“And what will happen if the boy never makes it to Sarronnyn?”
“Accompanied by Westwind guards? Who’d be fool enough to tackle them?”
“You’re assuming that the boy will go along with the bethrothal. That is a rather large assumption. What happens if he flees to escape his well-planned destiny?”
“The Westwind guards will chase him and capture him.”
“And if he won’t be taken, or if he dies? Or if the Black ones attempt to help him?”
“Can you be sure of that?”
The thin man shrugs. “The seeds have been planted. Carefully, and he’s good soil. After all, Werlynn’s music was never chained. That was too bad; no one could sing like he could. He was a Black, I’m certain, but too smart to admit it.”
“This is far too theoretical…”
“No, it is very practical, because our success rests on the failure of the improbable alliance. When it fails, the Tyrant will have to destroy the… as you call it, the abomination. Either that or recognize the White way, and she and Dylyss will be at each other’s throats.” He laughs softly. “The Duke already has pulled some of his garrison from Recluce. None of them can win… no matter what happens now.”
“I would still prefer something more direct.”
“Like chaos against cold iron? Be sensible.”