Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 8
Next: CHAPTER 10

I advise you so that you may decide the advantageous time to report the news to your court…
So Emuin had written.
There was no advantageous time to report such news to his bride of not many weeks. Cefwyn was painfully conscious of Ninévrisë beside him, in this intimate grouping in the Blue Hall, in privacy even from the pages. She listened as Idrys read the letter aloud. Her face grave and pale, her eyes no longer dancing, but set on her hands in her lap.
"Forgive me," Cefwyn said, taking her hand in his. "Nevris,—I did a great many things in those days, and always escaped the consequences. This one… this one… with Tarien Aswydd, of all people… gods save me… I can't explain it to you."
"She has the gift," Ninévrisë said in low voice, and as if she could no longer contain herself, disengaged her hand, rose from her chair, and walked briskly away to a place remote from him, from Idrys, from Annas, whom they had gathered to share this calamity.
There was no real privacy for a reigning monarch. In very fact, there was nothing he did that failed to impinge on others' lives and fortunes, and gods knew he had not done wisely in this.
"She has the gift," Ninévrisë repeated, and turned to face him, fingers laced together before her. "As will our child."
In the depths of self-accusation Cefwyn heard it, and heard it twice, and rose to his feet, asking almost silently: "Our child?"
"I don't know," Ninévrisë said. "I've wished. What more can one do with the gift? A great deal more, it seems."
What more might Tarien Aswydd have done? What might you have expected of these women, fool? Those questions she kindly held unasked.
"At that hour, in those days," he said quietly, not knowing how to interpret her wounded silence, "I had no good appreciation of what wizardry might do or not do. I was used to Emuin. He worked tricks.
He refused to do magic. I didn't know what I was dealing with.—And, no, damn it all, that's not true, either. I knew. In my heart I knew. I didn't believe it would come near me. Nothing else did. I was young and damnably foolish, a year ago."
Her face was a regal mask. Did a guilty heart only imagine the sheen of tears in the candlelight?
It was after the festivities, late. All fires in the hearths should have burned down and the servants should be down to one candle, '
replacing the old ones upstairs and down.
But for this late conference, on his order, the servants had built up the fire in the little hearth and lit every sconce, so pretense and falsehood should have no place to hide, and so that afterward he could not hope he had dreamt this night. It was bright as day, and neither of them were likely to sleep afterward.
"I was a fool," Cefwyn repeated heavily. "There's no more to say for it."
Ninévrisë gave a great sigh and looked elsewhere for a space, then lifted her chin and looked at him squarely.
"We'd not even met," she said.
"You're far too kind."
"Can I be otherwise?" Ninévrisë said sharply. "And can I not pity the child? No one loves it. Its mother has no heart. How will it fare in the world?"
"I don't know," he said. Her question struck memories of his own severance from his father, who had never loved him, his mother, who, dying, had not had the chance.
He had not even thought of that burden, had not, in that sense, thought of the child at all, beyond an embarrassment and a disaster.
"And what will be his inheritance?" Ninévrisë pursued him relentlessly. "And who will be his father?"
"I don't know," he said again, left with no other answer. He found himself with no pity to spare for another boy with no father and no hint of a father's love.
"Folly, to give his first years to Tarien Aswydd," Ninévrisë said, counting the difficulties of a child's existence before he was born.
"And yet what shall we do? Bring him here? Let your gods-fearing Guelenfolk see a son of yours with wizard-gift… as Emuin and Tristen alike think he has? Tristen has no doubt at all it's a son." She folded her arms beneath her breast, hugged tightly. "I have only a suspicion and a hope of a child, as yet, one I can't even tell you is real, and now he'll not be your firstborn."
She had told him they were to have a child, and he had let that precious moment slide by in an argument over a royal bastard. It was an unforgivable, irrevocable lapse.
"Our child. To me—"
"Don't disallow this child of the Aswydd woman! He exists!"
"It's none I care to acknowledge!"
"Yet he exists."
"If I could undo it…"
"There's no undoing it. My father used to say that if and could and wish have no effect outside philosophy. But they do in wizardry, and I won't wish this child harm. I will not!''
He was shaken to the core, confronted by an iron determination, news he was in no wise prepared to have twice in a night, and his lady's unanticipated defense of her rival's child. He had no notion which direction to face, and knew Idrys witnessed his discomfiture— no advice from that quarter, not a word.
"I ask your forgiveness," Cefwyn said. "It's all I can say. It's my fault.
And hers."
"But none of the babe's fault. And she will teach him to desire the throne and to hate me, and perhaps hate you."
He could not deny her fears. They were his.
"There is a remedy," Idrys said, intervening at last, grim master crow, reminding a king with a threatened kingdom what terrible, unspeakable deeds he might command, at the lightest word.
And did Idrys dare bring that darkness into Ninévrisë's hearing? He found himself all but trembling.
"Don't disallow him," Ninévrisë repeated.
It was not hers to command the Lord Commander. It was his, and he drew a long, steadying breath.
"He's all but born," he said, "considering the time it was possible. The very limited time it could have happened." It was not the Privilege of a king to sink his head into his hands and shut the world out of his ears. "He's with Tristen, and Emuin. That's something." Tristen's letter said be and a son. He fell into it unthinking, and then realized he had admitted it.
"And with his mother," Idrys said, "who is a sorceress. That's also something to consider, my lord king."
The Marhanen temper rose up on his next breath, silently railing on fate and wizardry. But his heart refused to lead him where Idrys advised him to go… and he knew whom he had made keeper of his heart, and his gentler nature. He knew what terrible, unanswerable force he would contend with if he attempted the babe's life— and knew that he would himself bring prophecy down on his head.
"Tristen wouldn't countenance it," he said with a sense of relief, and then knew his own bearings, as if he had found the daylight in this night. "And gods help me, I won't."
"Both Emuin and the Lord of Amefel are potent barriers to a boy,"
Idrys said, "but when this seed casts a shade, my lord king of Ylesuin, what shape will it have? And, pray,—" It was one of Idrys'
most detestable habits, that pause before his worst remarks: "—what heritage and inheritance will this boy claim?"
Cefwyn bit back an angry request for silence: Idrys' value was precisely that he would say what he thought, whether or not it pleased him; and do what had to be done, at times, whether or not his king had the will to act.
But was Idrys to rule Ylesuin, or was he? And were the decisions to be decisions not to decide, and to rein back Idrys?
And should Idrys say such things to him in Ninévrisë's hearing?
He found he was as shaken by that as by the facts themselves, and discovered in himself a sense that Tristen had found and Ninévrisë had tended, until he did not know who was master of his opinions, or where he had passed beyond Idrys' dark counsel, but he knew he had never made a decision he was surer of. He thought how Emuin, when he entertained notions of being rid of Tristen, had counseled him very simply, and in the face of all the danger Tristen posed him: Win his friendship.
And was that it now?
Win this unintended son? Acknowledge a bastard and create a claimant when the barons' damned haggling over the marriage treaty had left Ninévrisë's son no more heir to the throne of Ylesuin than Tarien's son?
He was mad.
He had gone quite mad, and went to his unresisting lady and took her hand, and looked at her eye to eye, no easy deed.
"I don't know what I can do," he said. "I don't know. I only know Tristen has the situation in his hands. And I know what he won't do, and won't countenance, and I know you're right."
"I don't," she said. "I don't know that I'm right. But I know what's not right."
"He'll have his mother," Cefwyn said. "And gods save him, his aunt.
But at Amefel now he has Tristen and Emuin, and the Aswydds won't have their way, will they?" He wished Idrys would leave. He longed to gather his bride against his heart and attempt to mend things—to talk about their son, and make the moment what it ought to be. But no such gesture would mend what now was.
He tried. He extended a hand. Ninévrisë stood with arms tightly folded, protecting her heart, gazing somewhere that was not this room.
"Go," he said to Idrys, trying to signal him that he wanted rapid, silent departure. "I think we know all we need to deal with."
"There is one other letter," Idrys said, ignoring his king, and drew a second folded, sealed missive from his coat.
And what other, more disastrous missive could have arrived, and from whom, and on what damnable misreading of him had Idrys held it back? The anger all but strangled him.
"For Her Grace," Idrys said, "from Lord Tristen."
It was unprecedented that Tristen write to Ninévrisë. But of course—of course, Cefwyn thought, it was a separate consolation from Tristen, and he was a dog to resent it, even with Idrys'
abominable timing; even with his own pain and Ninévrisë's. It came, he was sure, out of the devastating kindness Tristen had, so often timed to wring the temper out of him and drive him to distraction. It was, as much as Tristen understood this matter of children and the getting of them—utterly well-meant, and completely upsetting.
Ninévrisë took it, read what seemed only a word or two. Her hand flew to her heart, and, clenched, lifted to her lips.
Then she said to Idrys, "It's nothing. There's nothing here. Please leave us." The last was sudden, anguished, more plea than order, and with only a glance at him to confirm it, Idrys silently bowed and left.
Ninévrisë ebbed into a chair and held the small paper close against her heart, and Cefwyn held his breath, trying with all his might not to pry into what was, until she willed otherwise, her business.
Then Ninévrisë released the paper to her lap, and to his eye there was nothing written on it, nothing at all.
"He's afraid for you," she said in a trembling voice, and a tear traced a path down on a face otherwise tranquil. "And afraid for me, and would defend us both with all his heart. He wishes us both well."
He could only be one man.
But he still saw nothing to tell him those things. Or he saw nothing he wanted to see… for he knew Ninévrisë had wizard-gift, a gift kept small and quiet and never wizard-taught, except what she had learned of her father. And if there was something magical written on the blank paper that only wizards could see, then she had just used it.
He forgave. Against the evidence of his sins of the flesh, her good use of the gift she was born with could hardly weigh at all. He was still her debtor: she at least was true as gold to her promises, all of them.
"Do you read something there?" he asked, and dropped to a knee beside her chair, to gaze at a paper as blank as the day it was made, save only Tristen's signature and red wax seal.
"I know his heart. I know what he wishes me to know, as surely as if I read it."
"We can trust him." That was true, no matter what in the world changed, and the remembrance of that warmed his heart to a stronger, steadier beat. "I do trust him, Nevris. He's scared me at times beyond good sense. And he does, now. What does he say about this?"
"That he loves us. He loves us so much, so kindly… no one could deserve it."
"We can contest for deserts," he said, "and you would win." He was grateful, desperately so, to find hope of affection and forgiveness in this blank paper, and in her glance. "If anyone can care for Tarien's baby, do you think, it would be Tristen. He won't harm it. It's not in him to harm it. But he won't let it do harm, either."
She gave a desperate small laugh. "Tristen? Gods, to care for a baby?
So much comes through. I don't know how." She placed a hand over the paper and inhaled deeply, several times. "It's as if I was there!
Emuin's upset with you."
"Gods, upset. Far too small a word."
"And Tristen's confused."
"Tristen's always confused." His spirits soared in this exchange of breathless probabilities, almost as if she could see through a window into Amefel, one shut to him: but he saw it through her eyes, almost now as if he could see it, and could say that it was true. What she saw gave her courage, and she lent it to him. The relief was so great he could all but laugh. "Tell me all you know."
"There's a boy," Ninévrisë said. "Emuin's found a boy to help him. I don't understand his name. But there's some sort of boy."
"I could be jealous," Cefwyn said fervently, who had been the boy in Emuin's care, in days of climbing trees and skinning knees. "But I'm glad for Emuin, and the boy."
"Uwen's well. So are all the others. Captain Anwyll's off at the river and the weather's been wretched, the same as here. I think… I think Tristen's doing very well, except for Orien Aswydd and Tarien."
"That's a large exception." The flood of information after Tristen's lamentably terse letters both cheered him like the voice of a friend and then gave him pause, as if perhaps Ninévrisë added to her guesses to please him. "Does he true say all that?—Of course he does. How could you make all that up?"
Ninévrisë pressed the sheet to her heart. "I hear him say it, or I don't hear, but it's like a dream, and I'm sure what he meant. He's done so much… the changes, and building the walls and the fortresses up, and he's built up at Althalen…"
It should be a lance of ice to the heart… the Marhanens had risen to power at Althalen's fall: the condition of his dynasty depended on Althalen's ruin.
But he heard it only half-alarmed, for Tristen did it, and he refused to think evil of his friend—least of all for the consolation he had given Ninévrisë. "I don't think the Quinalt will like that," he said, "but damn them."
"He had to have it for the people, for all the people running from Tasmôrden." Her voice was unlike her, trembling. "And he's saved some of them. He's made them welcome in his lands. He's settled protection all up and down the river, despite the snow. And the lords have come to him, Aeself, and others: a cousin of mine is alive!"
"He's done well," Cefwyn said. "He's done very well. But no matter how Tasmôrden provokes him, he mustn't let those folk start fighting on his land. He mustn't attack from there." And on a sudden thought and a soaring hope: "Can you use that paper and talk to him?"
She shook her head, dashing the hope before it reached any height at all. "No. I can't. It doesn't work that way. He cast a spell on the paper.
I couldn't do it."
"But don't lose it," he said. The hope, however uninformed, modified itself to the thought that the letter might be bespelled to go on spilling things to them as they happened. He longed to touch the paper himself, wondering whether a man as deaf to magic as the nearest ox could possibly gain some sense of Tristen's presence from it. He knew acutely what he had lost when he had had to send Tristen away: that sense of things possible and magical that had lent him courage to fight all his battles, that sense of a friend at his back that no one but Tristen had ever given him.
And now that steady, reassuring presence came through his lady's voice, and gave him an absurd confidence that they were not alone, no matter how things seemed to close around them.
But he forbore to touch it, in case the enchantment might die in his hands, and thrive only in Ninévrisë's.
"Thank you," he said. And added, "I love you," as he said often: but now he felt constrained to say it in apology for irrevocable and damaging acts. "I love you for your forbearance. I love you a hundred times more now than at the first. And if you still love me through all this, I'll be so far in your debt a hundred years won't see me clear.
Once and for all, I had no idea, when I exiled the Aswydds. She may have known. But I didn't."
"Why Tarien?" was the sole unkind question, and he could only shrug and force himself to look straight into her eyes.
"I ask myself that question, I assure you. I'll ask it so long as I live.
And I can't answer it."
"I answer it. Sorcery led you. You couldn't be so foolish."
"I wish that were so," he said, and bowed his head. "I have been that foolish, and was that foolish, and generally I needed no great help at it."
She embraced him where he knelt, leaned her head against his, all the soft perfume of her hair, and the random hard edge of pearls wound into her braids.
"The news of this will get out," she said, her hand against his cheek.
"You know you have to deny this son or acknowledge him in some fashion."
"Let Emuin prove what he is first. Then I'll know what to do."
"Word might already have gotten out. If the men who were guilty of the raid on the nunnery didn't know, the nuns might have. She's near her time. They must have seen. And if they missed it, at least everyone in Amefel must know by now, and there might be spies: in everything else we think there might be spies. Wouldn't they report this back to Guelessar?"
The Aswydds were not a presence one could slip unknown into the town, or keep close in a house where every servant knew them. It was a surety that someone would talk. "It's too much to hope Ryssand doesn't learn it within the week, and will bring it into the open at the worst moment."
"If," she said slowly, "he doesn't already know. She is Cuthan's cousin. Might that not be the arrow they're still holding in reserve?
Might Tasmôrden know and be conspiring with Cuthan on behalf of that child, price for price, for the next step in their plan?" Her fingers sought his on the arm of the chair. "Peace with Tasmôrden. Peace with him. I can't grant this. It's a barbed hook. Everyone of sense has to know it. It's not even to Ylesuin's advantage, let alone yours."
All she said was true, the depth of his betrayal of her had filled his heart and warped his thinking, and he grasped at her logic as a drowning man to a life rope.
"When a battle begins," she continued, "the archers go first, don't they?"
"So as not to hit their own men, yes, commonly they go first." He knew it was not archers she meant, but he followed her where she led, and answered honestly and soberly, looking into gray eyes that hinted, to his mind, of violets.
"I think," she said, "I think we are seeing the archers of this spring."
"Precursors to the attack?"
"I think sorcery's not done with us. Lewenbrook was the beginning of it. After the archers, what would you look for?"
"The flying attacks. The cavalry."
"And the battle line behind that. Well screened, not evident."
"Archery," he echoed, thinking that it was like that, bolts seemingly random, but to the advantage of Ryssand, all to Ryssand's and Tasmôrden's advantage. Except Ryssand had lost his son, and perhaps suffered doubts in Efanor's approaches, as if perhaps there was advantage he could gain. His enemies were not unscathed, so not everything had gone their way.
But right now Ryssand hoped only to confuse matters and gather power into his hands in the confusion. Even if he had won the encounter with Ryssand and cast doubts on the offer, his lords were surely still tempted by this peace, this offer of dividing Elwynor into parcels one of which would be theirs, new lands, new honors, new titles. It had been hard enough to lead men to war with no promise of gain… and now if their enemy offered peace and a third of the contested lands, the only barb in the bait his own men would see was the fact Tasmôrden was akin to the hated Bryalt and probably employed sorcery.
He had hit that point hard tonight. He had, he hoped, made them see it.
But that meant that his own likeliest allies against this damnable treaty Cuthan brought were, ironically, the same orthodox Guelen priests that had opposed Ninévrisë's marriage in the first place. The orthodoxy that so narrowly had voted to confirm his nomination of Jormys for Patriarch were more than unlikely bedfellows for him: they were snakes in the sheets. Snuggle close to them, and he was sure they still could bite, and would, irrational in their abhorrence of all things foreign… and would they find tolerance for foreignness across the river to be rid of foreignness in the royal bed?
And now, at the moment when all these things were true, when he needed be Guelen to the core and most needed to be able to restrain these skittish, volatile barons from a headlong rush toward Tasmôrden's lure of profitable peace, lo!… he had a half-sorcerous son about to be born, and rumor about to break forth in Amefel, of all places.
Give it a fortnight, and Ninévrisë was right. If the rumor needed walk barefoot from Amefel, it would reach Lord Ryssand.
Thank the gods he had the letter, he thought. And then, Thank Tristen. They were ahead of the rumor by some few days, if the gods were good; and Ninévrisë had not had to hear the news first in hall, to be assailed by that on Ryssand's lips.
"There's one thing I can do," he said, "that will dash cold water on this peace."
"Attack?" She looked at him in puzzlement. "The snow's not stopped."
"The snow will keep my contentious lords busy… or have them forsworn, Ryssand with them. I'll have the army on the march and damn the weather, damn the ice, and damn the opposition."
"The loyal will go and suffer. Ryssand and his allies will dispute you, and if you've sent the like of Panys and the loyal men to the river, and have only Ryssand and his friends in court…"
There was such shrewd judgment in so sweet a face. He gazed at it in deep consciousness of his good fortune.
"I can deal with Ryssand," he said. "Only so my friends stand by me."
"That I will," Ninévrisë said, "to the gates of Ilefínian."
"No!"
"To my capital."
He had met the Regent of Elwynor at his gates when first he laid eyes on her, muddy-skirted, leading men to conference or to certain death, and it was that look she had now. His better sense wanted to deny her, the more so since she spoke of carrying his child. His better sense ached even at the thought of her riding, in the winter, and in hardship, and into war.
But she was no fool: she had proven that at Lewenbrook, obeyed orders like a soldier and kept her post; and could any man who had been on that field deny any heart that had known that danger, no matter the fear he had for her?
"To your capital," he said. "To the promise I made you." He had kept that, at least, and meant to keep the rest he had sworn to her, if it cost him a son.
But Ryssand would do anything to prevent him.
And he was within a very little now of calling Idrys and bidding him do that which he had resisted doing: arranging Ryssand's lasting absence. But he did not.
But now, considering his grandfather's example, a man who had died abed and at an old age, with a kingdom at peace… he was not sure whether, in a king, it was not a mortal sin to refrain from that order.
Previous: CHAPTER 8
Next: CHAPTER 10