Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 1

First it was the kitchens, down in the warm, firelit domain of baking bread and wash water: Cook's maids were scrubbing away flour when Tristen arrived, the scullery lads washing pots, while the open door, braced with a bucket, only gave a welcome, snow-flavored draft to the hardworking staff. Daylight shafted through a haze of steam in an amazing glory of white and old, scarred surfaces. He could not but give a glance to it, despite the sober purpose of his visit.
"M'lord," Cook said, not surprised to find him in the kitchens, or his four day guards outside her domain, finding converse with the maids.
The kitchens were one of his favorite places from summer. Cook was one who had been kind to him before others had, and among the very first acts of his rule here, he had set Cook back in her domain. He took tribute now and again in the form of hot bread and the occasional sweet.
This time, however, he was straight from a good breakfast, had delayed only to toss the remnant of bread to the pigeons, and had come down here on matters he hoped Cook had observed last night.
"Seven, eight months along," Cook said to him, confirming Uwen's guess, and added with a shake of her head, as she folded her stout, floury arms: "And wandering in the storm, they say, clear from Anwyfar."
"Lady Orien said they began with a horse and lost it.—But might they have walked that far, do you think? Orien might. But Tarien—"
Cook set her hands on her hips and wiped a strand of blowing hair.
They stood in the draft, and Cook was sweating, even so. "To tell the truth, m'lord, I hain't the least notion where Anwyfar is, except it's in Guelessar, which is far enough for a body in high summer and with the roads fair and dry. With the storm, and the drifts and all…"
"Was it impossible for them, since, say, Midwinter Eve?"
"I don't know as to impossible, m'lord, but…" Cook had an unaccustomedly fearful look, and added with a shift of her eyes toward the upstairs, and back again: "Their ladyships has a gift, don't they?"
"They do," he said. "Both.—So it had to be before that."
"I don't know," Cook said. "I've never traveled by horse. I hain't the least idea. Was it Midwinter, m'lord?"
"Or before. It might have been before. They might have tried to be here on Midwinter, and come late."
"For wizardous reasons, m'lord?" Cook's eyes narrowed. Little frightened her, but she ventured her question in a hushed and respectful tone.
"I don't know," he said.
Cook said not a thing to that. She was a discreet soul, in her way, and not a word would she say to the maids that she knew she was saying, but the gossip was bound to fly, and had already flown. He saw the looks from the staff all about them. At a certain point the rattle of a spoon sounded like doom, and swiftly hushed.
"Get back to your work!" Cook said sharply, and: "M'lord, there's sweets, there."
He took one. It was honey and fine flour, and stuck to his fingers.
The lord of Amefel licked fingertips on the way out, and then turned back and took two more, which he saved as he climbed the rebuilt scullery stairs.
He ascended to the west stairs, and up to an area of the Zeide which had had a very different feeling for him this summer past, when Cefwyn had been in residence.
Not Cefwyn's bodyguard, now, but Guelen guards from the town garrison stood at that door, and more in Guelen colors stood down the hall. Guards guarding the guards: that was the seriousness of Uwen's precaution where it regarded Orien Aswydd and her sister.
The guards on watch opened the foyer door for him, not advising those within; and at a wave of his hand, he set his own watch on that threshold, a ward, a pass of his hand, and a wish, whether the guards knew it or not… but Orien knew it. He felt her attention, and her anger: she had set her own ward on the door, and he violated it with hardly more than a chill.
Her precaution was reasonable and he was hardly angry, but he was sorry not to have set his own last night, for the guards' safety.
His two nunnish guests, clad all in gray, sat at the snowy window, and as he entered, Orien rose straight as a candleflame to defy him, gray habit, red hair unveiled in its cropped despoilment. She had been a lord's sister, accustomed to luxury, sought after for her beauty, her birth, her access to power, even before she had been duchess of Amefel.
Now instead of the glittering court gowns, the velvets and jewels and the circlet on her wealth of autumn hair, she wore a travel-stained gray robe. They had both cast off the nun's wimple, and the red hair—that she had cut to spite Cefwyn—stood in stark, untidy disorder. It was her twin sister, seated in the white window light, who still kept that glory about her shoulders.
From a lush, luxurious woman to this lean, harsh creature that was now Orien—it astonished him how dreadfully the more powerful of the twins had changed, even while the white light that fell on Lady Tarien's seated form found softer edges. Tarien's pale face lacked any of the anger that suffused Orien's: a young face, a bosom modestly robed in gray, a body grown strange and potent with the child inside.
Orien stood with her hands on Tarien's shoulders, as if her sister were some sort of barrier to him—and for the first time without the cloak and in the daylight from the window he faced a woman far along with child. He saw in her not one change but an alchemy of changes, the scope of which he did not clearly imagine, and which spun wildly through the gray space, fraught with possibilities. Power was there, power over the powerful, in the hand that rested on Tarien's robed belly.
"How may we please your lordship?" Orien asked, and, oh, there was thick irony in that salutation, to the lord who had title now to all that had been hers and her sister's.
"I came," he began, "to see how you fared, and whether you needed anything." He proffered the sweets. "From the kitchens."
He knew Orien would not take them. He saw, however, that Tarien wanted them, and he set them on the table near him. "At your convenience," he said.
"Where are our servants?" Orien asked in ringing tones. "Surely the great Marhanen won't have been so petty as to harm them. Where are my sister's maids?"
"Most of your servants fled across the river when Cefwyn came. The others are my servants now… or the gods'."
"I demand my servants!"
"And I say they aren't here any longer."
"And our gowns?" Tarien asked. " Surely Your Grace has no use for our gowns."
"I've no idea where they are." In fact he had never wondered where the ladies' wardrobe had gone: he had supposed it had gone with them to Anwyfar, in all the chests. The gowns they had worn in their days of power here had been gloriously beautiful, and with all the jewels, he supposed they were as valuable as Lord Heryn's dinner plates—which he had in the treasury. "I've seen no store of clothes, not a stitch of them."
"And our jewels?"
The whereabouts of certain of the Aswydd jewelry he did know, and was sure in his heart that the province's need for grain was far greater than their need for adornment. But he regretted the beauty and the sparkle of the stones, too, all shut up in the dark treasury.
"I shall send up some of the jewels," he said, and then added, because they took every gift as their right: "I lend them, understand, until we need them for grain."
"For grain!" Orien cried. "These are the history, the glory of Amefel!
These are the treasure of the Aswydds, my property! How dare you sell them for grain?"
"If you were duchess of Amefel, I would agree you own them. But you aren't. And I give them to the treasury."
"I am still duchess of Amefel, and damn the Marhanen! If you hold me here prisoner in my own hall, then look to yourself, sir!"
"I'm sorry about the gowns. I don't know where they went. I'll ask; and if I can't find them, I'll find you others. It's all I can do."
Orien drew a deep breath, and perhaps reconsidered her position.
"You were always good-hearted, always kind to us before. I see you still have a kind heart."
"I wish you no harm, and ask you wish none."
"Harm to the bloody Marhanen!"
"I ask you not do that." He felt her anger in the gray space and rebuffed it strongly, refusing to encounter her there. In the world her face seemed all eyes, and the eyes a window into a place he chose not to go. He remembered how Cefwyn had wished to kill the twins, at least Lady Orien, and he had pleaded otherwise—not even so much out of mercy, although that had been in his heart—but rather the fear of Orien's spirit let loose among the Shadows in the Zeide, set unbarriered within the wards and the Lines of Henas'amef, in those days when the sorcerous ally she had dealt with still threatened them.
Now they had defeated that ally of hers, at Lewenbrook. And if Cefwyn had now proposed it, he did not know whether he would have been so quick to save her life, or Cefwyn to hear him: to that extent they both had changed.
—Is it so? Orien asked him, a voice as sharp and cold as a dagger. Is it so? Did you save us? And had the bloody Marhanen not a shred of remorse?
"Can you keep us in this prison?" Tarien asked, assailing him from the other side. "We have nothing, not even a change of clothes. My sister is the aetheling. Whatever else, she is the aetheling, and no one should forget it, least of all under this roof!" Tarien's eyes glistened as she confronted him. A handkerchief suffered murder in her clenched hands.
"Aethelings, yes," Tristen corrected her gently. "Both of you. But Crissand of Meiden is the aetheling now, and there's no changing that."
Orien's eyes flared. "By whose appointment? Cefwyn's? He has no right!"
"By mine, lady." He could be obstinate. He had learned it of Emuin.
And he had every right, beyond Cefwyn's grant of power to him. He was suddenly as sure of that as if it had Unfolded to him: their power had ebbed here, and ebbed further as he gave it away to others.
More, Orien knew it, and fear insinuated itself into all her dealings.
"For my sister's sake," Orien said, past tight lips, "we require a lady or two—a lady, mind you. Shall a lady of our rank give birth with the cook and the scullery maids in attendance?"
That was unkind. Cook had never affronted Orien that he knew of.
But he had no wish to provoke a quarrel that might bring harm to someone. "If you object to Cook, I might ask Lord Drumman's sister to assist you."
"Lady Criselle? That preening crow!"
Now it was Crissand's mother Orien slandered. "Lady Orien," Tristen said with measured patience. "No one pleases you. You may not have your servants. You refuse all others. I don't know what more there is."
"I wish my own nurse," Tarien cried, and burst into tears. "They murdered her, at Anwyfar. They killed all the nuns, and Dosyll with them. She was sixty years old, and she never threatened them!"
"I'm sorry." He was honestly afflicted by her report. "Who did it, and why?"
"Brave soldiers of the Guelen Guard," Orien interposed harshly.
Heroes of the same company the bloody Marhanen garrisoned in my town, the same company as these hulking men you post at my door!
The Marhanen's best bandits! Murderers! Mercenaries!"
"Are you sure they were of the Guard?"
"And should I not be sure, with the Guelens garrisoned at Amefel all my life? I know what I saw. I know their badges and their ranks and of one of them I knew the face!"
"Do you know the name?" he asked, with a sinking heart recalling the men he had dismissed home because of their discontent in his service, men guilty of malfeasance and murders that should have sent them to the hangman, if they had not acted under Crown authority, in the person of Lord Parsynan.
"Essan," she said, and he had to bow to the truth.
"I doubt your eyes deceived you, then," he said, "since I dismissed him, with a handful of others, for crimes here. The others, I sent to Cefwyn. He and his sergeant slipped away rather than answer my summons to accounting."
"Gods bless the Holy Quinalt, then! They shouted that, you know, while they burned down a Teranthine shrine, and murdered old women! I don't know what they were looking for besides the wine and the treasury, but they weren't shy about their cause."
"No," he said, "clearly not. I'm sorry for your nurse and I'm sorry for the nuns. And I know Cefwyn didn't send them."
"You know nothing. You said yourself, you sent these murderers to him! He sent them back again, to Anwyfar!"
"Not Captain Essan. He and his sergeant took shelter in the Quinaltine, so I understand."
"Oh, so it was the Patriarch himself who sent them to burn Teranthine nuns!"
"I doubt it, and you doubt it, lady. And if you'll give me answers, I can send to Cefwyn. I know he'll find these men. Can you tell me any reason for what they did? Were they looking for you? Were they angry with the nuns?"
"Look to yourself, Tristen of Ynefel! Look to yourself! Yes, it was us they wanted, and do you think common soldiers imagined this? Do you think the drunkards and ne'er-do-wells of the garrison traveled all the way to Anwyfar to raid the wine cellars in the nunnery and assault old women? It was hate for us, and these were soldiers!
Someone sent them! Someone put the idea in their heads, and it was the hate they bear all of us who have wizard-gift—it was fear of my sister and me! So look to yourself, Tristen of Ynefel. If they hate us, a hundred times more they hate you, and now you shelter us!"
"That may be true," he said. "But Henas'amef is stronger than Anwyfar."
"A great deal stronger. And have they come for you? Is that the cause of the army outside these walls? There were Ivanim we spoke to last night. I saw Sovrag's pirates."
"You did see Olmernmen," he said, letting her shafts rain about him, none landing, for she knew nothing, and struck none home. "And Ivanim. But none of these have to do with the nuns and Essan's men."
"The rumor reached us," Orien said haughtily, with her hands on her sister's shoulders, "even in our rustic exile, it reached us— that Cefwyn has married the Lord Regent's daughter and intends war against Elwynor this spring. And is that what we see outside the walls? Will you wage his war for him? Tristen, the innocent? Tristen, the wizard, Tristen, Mauryl's heir, the defender of the king? Does the Marhanen not wield his own sword, these days?—Or does he wield magic, through you? And is that what came down on us at Anwyfar?"
It was a fair question, however unkindly put.
"What he calls on me to do, I'll do. And I've wished nothing against you."
Barbs had flown. Now Orien seemed to pause for thought, and heaved a sigh and walked a few paces from Tarien's side. "And do you wish anything against us?"
"Not for yourselves. Not except as you wish harm here, or to Cefwyn."
"Have we sanctuary here?"
Sanctuary was a Word. It meant safety no matter what, justice and all other considerations notwithstanding. It was a strong Word, and Unfolded with magical force.
"Do you wish harm to Cefwyn?"
"Am I required to wish him well?"
"No. Nor would I ask it, nor would he. And I don't offer sanctuary, but if you deserve safety, I promise you'll be safe in this room." A coldness wafted to him out of the gray place, fraught with time, and change. "No more can I do."
"What? You have limits?" Scorn edged her voice. "Or do you set them for yourself?"
"If you work mischief here or anywhere, Lady Orien, I will prevent it. If you work any mischief against Cefwyn or anyone else, you won't be safe here, or anywhere."
"I am your prisoner."
"I demanded my rights of my liege lord, my rights by oath, and Cefwyn denied me them and sent me and my sister away in a common cart in the mid of the night, like offal from the kitchens!
Was that just? Was that justice? Better he had killed us!"
"He thought it mercy," he said in all honestly. "And said it was a risk."
"And how long will this arrest go on?" Orien cried indignantly. "Are we to live here forever?"
"As long as you wish to oppose Cefwyn. I won't ever permit that.
And I know that you do."
Clearly this had taken a turn the ladies Aswydd did not like. Tears brimmed in Tarien's eyes.
"And shall we never leave this room? Shall we not at least have the freedom of the halls?"
He had pity on them in that regard, if not his sense of the danger in them were not so great. He had had his own fill of locked doors and silent guards.
"Not while you intend harm. Think and change your minds if you can. Intend better if you can."
There was a moment of silence, in which Lady Orien gazed at him with heaving breast and fire in her eyes. But then the glance lowered, all but a bowed head, a meek clasping of hands—an implied acceptance he did not trust.
"We have no choice," Tarien said in a low voice. "And we have no chance if we go on as we are." Orien's anger flared, scenting the very air of the room, but Tarien persisted: "Good sir, we did hear in the convent that you had been given Henas'amef, else we wouldn't have dared come here. You were the kindest of the Marhanen's friends. I expect nothing good of him, but you would never harm us."
"Cefwyn didn't harm you," he returned. "And you tried to kill him."
"To win him," Tarien said, but he knew that for a lie, and Tarien perhaps knew he knew, for the gray space grew dark and troubled.
"Emuin's here, too, isn't he?" Orien asked. "I heard him quite clearly."
"He's here."
"Dry old Emuin," Orien said. "Hypocrite."
"He says very ill things of you, too," Tristen said, "and I regard his opinion as far more fair."
It was perhaps more subtle a sting than Orien had expected. Her nostrils flared, but she did not glare. Rather she seemed to grow smaller, and more pliant.
"We shouldn't quarrel. I never held any resentment for you, none at all. You never had a chance but to fall into the Marhanen's hands, the same as we, and you have far more right to be here: I shouldn't chide you."
He felt a subtle wizardry as she said it, and he wondered what she was attempting now.
He broke off the blandishments and the weaving of a spell with a wave of his hand, and she flinched. So did Tarien, for that matter.
"Don't," he said, to Tarien as much as to Orien. "Don't press against the walls. You're in danger, and you're far safer here than anywhere else if you'll accept it."
"Accept it!" Orien said in scorn.
"Accept safety here. It's my best advice."
"I need nothing from you or that dry stick of a wizard!"
"But you do," he said. "You need it very much." Orien turned her shoulder to him, but he went on trying to reach her, in the World and in the gray space alike. "Lady, you didn't only open the wards and the window, you opened yourself and your sister to Hasufin. You thought it might give you a way to rule here and be rid of Cefwyn, but all Hasufin wanted was a way inside the wards."
"And an end of the Marhanen!"
"Lady Orien, the truth is, if you had died and if everyone had died, Hasufin didn't care. It didn't matter to him. It doesn't matter to him now—if there's anything left of him. If sorcery finds a way inside the wards, it won't give you back what you had. Cefwyn might have, but Hasufin Heltain never would and never intended to. If you don't know that, you don't know what he was."
She was angry at what he said, but she might think on it. Perhaps she had already thought on it. Doubtless she had had ample time to think, sitting in a Teranthine nunnery in Guelessar with no fine gowns, no servants, no books, and no one who cared to please her.
And in this moment of her retreat, he pursued, with a question which had troubled him since summer.
"You tried to kill Emuin," he asked her, for someone at summer's end had attacked Emuin and left him lying in a pool of blood. He could think of no one more likely than Orien Aswydd, who had commanded all the resources of Henas'amef. "Didn't you?"
She gave him no answer, but he had the notion he had come very near the truth: Orien or someone sworn to her. And he could think of many, many connections she had had among the servants and the nobility of the province, one of whom had perhaps stayed more loyal than most.
"Lord Cuthan's gone to Elwynor," he said. "Did you know that?"
Perhaps she had not known it. Perhaps she was dismayed to learn that particular resource was no longer within her reach, when he was sure Cuthan had something to do with Orien Aswydd. Perhaps through Cuthan she had even known about the proposed rising against the king, and the Elwynim's promised help.
But she said nothing.
He tried a third question. "Did you bring the attack on the nuns?"
It was as much as if to ask: Did you wish your freedom from the nuns, and, Did you grow desperate because the plan had failed?
And: Did it work finally as you wished?
It all might have shot home, but Orien never met his eyes, and he somewhat doubted she heard… or that she knew any other thing. He only wished that if it were possible she could find another path for her gift, she would do differently. He wished it on her with gentle force, and with kindness, and she stepped back as if he had grossly assaulted her. The white showed all around her eyes.
"I wish you well," he said in the face of her temper, and included Tarien in the circle of his will. "I assure you I do, as Hasufin never did."
"You take my lands," Orien cried, "and wish me well in my poverty!
How dare you!"
It was a question, and he knew the answer with an assurance that, yes, he dared, and had the right, and did. The gray space intruded, roiled and full of storm; and in it, he did not retreat: Orien did. In the World, she recoiled a step, and another, and a third, until she met the wall. Tarien rose from her chair, awkward in the heaviness of her body, and turned to reach her sister, still holding to the chair.
"If Aséyneddin had won," Orien said. "If you had died—"
"You promised Cefwyn loyalty," Tristen said, "and you never meant it. Do you think you'd lie to Hasufin, and have what you wanted? If you lied and he lied—what in the world were you expecting to happen?"
She had no idea, he decided sadly. Nothing at all Unfolded to him to make sense of Orien, but he suspected Orien's thoughts constantly soared over the stepping-stones to the far bank of her desires, never reckoning where she had to set her feet to take her there.
Flesh and bone as well as spirit, Mauryl had said to him, when he had been about to plunge down a step while looking at something across the room. He could hear the crack of Mauryl's staff on incontrovertible stone, to this very hour. Look where you're going, Mauryl would say.
It was in some part sad that Orien had had no Mauryl to advise her.
But on a deeper reflection, perhaps it was as well for all of them that Hasufin's counsel had never been other than self-serving.
And she never answered him now, never confessed her expectations, possibly never knew quite what they were or why she continually fell short of her mark.
"What do you hope I should do?" he asked them. "I might send you to Elwynor."
"Send us to Elwynor?" Orien echoed him, and drew herself up with a breath, a shake of her head, a spark in the eye. "Oh, do. Do, and you send king Cefwyn's child to Tasmôrden!"
Cefwyn's child, he said to himself.
A man and a woman made a child together, and would it be with one of the stableboys Tarien had done this magic?
No. It made perfect sense. Now her defiance assumed a purpose, and her coming here disclosed a reason. So did the nuns' deaths, at a far remove: whatever men had killed those hapless women, he knew that greater currents were moving in the world, and that none of them was safe.
"And when will the child be born?" he asked, already having clues to that answer.
"I'm eight months now," Tarien said, and settled into her chair like a queen onto her throne.
Nine was the term of a child that would live. So Uwen had said.
Three times wizards' three, this term of a child. Wizardry set great store by numbers, and moments, and times.
"And have you sent this news to Cefwyn?"
"No," Orien said. And Tarien:
"We kept it our secret. My secret. Even when he sent us away. It never showed until fall, and under all these robes, and then the winter cloaks… only my nurse knew."
"Yet the Guelens came," Orien said with a bitter edge. "So perhaps the nuns did see, and perhaps he does know, this good, this honest king of yours, despite all you say."
Tristen shook his head. They were back to that, never resolved. "No.
I know he wouldn't."
"What, a Marhanen king refuse a murder? To prevent an Amefin claim on the throne, to keep our secret a secret—come now, what might not our Cefwyn do?"
"He didn't do this," he said with unshaken confidence. "He doesn't know. He wouldn't harm you."
"Come now. If he knew—oh, indeed, if he knew. You," Orien said,
"who are good, and honest—all these things… you'd stick at murder.
You have virtues. But three generations of the Marhanen has taught this province the Marhanen do not!"
"And this is his child."
She gave him a startled, uncertain look at that saying.
"A child with the wizard-gift," he added, for in the storm he had heard sometimes two lives, and sometimes and faintly, three.
"An Aswydd child," Orien said, "with Marhanen blood."
"My child." It was a small voice. A near whisper from Tarien, that still managed a hint of defiance. "And he's right. I think he is right; they didn't come from Cefwyn."
"Oh," Orien hissed, "now we believe him again. Now we think him full of virtue and chivalry, this lover of ours. A Marhanen king would not hesitate to rip that child from your womb and destroy it, never doubt it. But not here. Not from Lord Tristen's hands. Tristen would never allow it, our gentle Tristen…"
He liked nothing he heard, least of all Orien Aswydd appealing to his kindness, and now he wished he had called Emuin to this conference.
But it was too late. He saw Orien's confidence far from diminished and her malevolence far from chastened.
"You think you've done all this," Tristen said, for she seemed to have no grasp of any other state of affairs. "You let Hasufin Heltain past the wards, you dealt with wizardry, and you think it was all yours?
The child has the gift. If he's Cefwyn's, he might be king. And you dealt with Hasufin Heltain! You know what he did at Althalen, you know Emuin cast him out then, and you know what he wants most of all—is that what you want? This child is his best chance since Althalen!"
Tarien had her hand on her belly, and she understood his meaning—at last and very least one of the Aswydds heard his warning, she, who held within herself all the consequence of Hasufin's ambition, and could not escape it, could not on her own prevent Hasufin's taking the child as his way into the world of Men.
"Don't listen to him!" Orien said. "Pay no attention. It's only Cefwyn's interest he cares for, nothing, nothing at all for the babe's sake! Your child will be king!"
Tarien pulled away and leaned against her chair, arms folded protectively over her belly..
"Tarien!" Orien insisted, but Tristen drew Tarien's eyes to him.
"Don't listen," he said.
"Amefel is ours!" Orien hissed. " We are the aethelings. We are the royals and we were royal before the Sihhë came down from the Hafsandyr! This land belongs to her son!"
It was indeed her claim, and a claim with some justice. Tristen considered that, considered the angry determination in Orien's eyes, and her wishes, and the strength they had. "You can't," he said, to all her wishes. "Not alone. I wish not. Emuin wishes not. Mauryl wished not, and I don't think you can wish otherwise to any good at all, Lady Orien. Your servants have gone, Lord Cuthan's across the river—Lord Edwyll's dead, and his heir is the aetheling now."
"Crissand!" The voice shuddered with scorn.
"The Witch of Emwy said it, and I say it. Did Tasmôrden promise you what he promised Cuthan? There was no army. There never was an army. He lied to Cuthan. He lied to all the earls, and Edwyll died of the cups in your cupboard… or was it your wish?"
Orien's eyes had widened somewhat, at least in some inner recognition.
"Was it your wish?" Tristen asked her. "Your wish, and not the cups?"
Orien's brows lifted somewhat. "The wine. My sister and I had no inclination to die as our brother died. We preferred that to exile."
It was not all she preferred to exile: death here, death in her Place, as the Zeide was: foreseeing that danger, even then, he had advised Cefwyn to banish her and the Aswydds of the name. Both dead and alive they had gone out the gate, to prison and burial elsewhere.
"And Cuthan is in Elwynor," Orien said, "with the latest usurper. And you sit here. The mooncalf, they called you. The fool. Mauryl's hatchling."
"I was," he said.
"And Bryn?" she asked.
She knew, he was sure now, that Tasmôrden had promised invasion: she likely knew everything Cuthan had done. Messages had gotten to Anwyfar, and she had expected a rising against the Crown. But she had not known anything since Cuthan's flight: that said something of her sources, and of Cuthan's slight wizard-gift, remote now from her.
It was clear that whispers had gone on in the gray space that neither he nor Emuin had heard. In Guelessar, in the autumn, he had rarely reached out to Amefel. Emuin had forbidden it.
"What of Bryn?" she demanded to know. 'Drusenan of Modeyneth is Lord Bryn now." It did not please her. But she turned her face elsewhere and wrapped her wishes inward, tightly held, and he left them unpursued.
"So busy you've been," she said, gazing into distance. "Gathering an army in Amefel, all those tents arrayed outside my walls… a winter campaign, is it to be? All for Cefwyn. For Cefwyn's heir." Her eyes lanced toward him, direct and challenging. "For his firstborn son—his firstborn Aswydd son—a kingdom."
"It is a son," he said, for Tarien's child was male, and would be firstborn. That was the truth, and only then knew with full force how it would hurt Ninévrisë.
And that son, not Ninévrisë's, would harm the treaty with Elwynor.
It would harm Cefwyn—the northern lords would reject a child of Aswydd and Marhanen blood out of hand. So would the Elwynim.
"A son," Orien said. One set of plans dashed in what he told her, she gathered up others, and recovered herself. "A bastard, he may be, but a royal, firstborn bastard."
Bastard was a child without ceremony, unrecognized. Bastard was a child no one would own.
But that was not so. Someone owned this child. Tarien did. Ta-rien already held it protected in her arms, her eyes wide with alarm while Orien's flashed with defiance of him. They were twins, of one mind until that moment: of one ambition, until that heartbeat. He had divided them. The child had. Cefwyn had, for Tarien's feeling was not Orien's, and the realization of that shivered through the gray space with the kiss of a knife's sharp edge.
He was sorry for their pain, but he was not sorry for Orien.
And he sealed himself against all their entreaties and their objections. If anyone could bend Orien Aswydd, it might be Tarien. If anyone could sway her, it might be her twin, given time, and a quieter hour. There was the hope for them: Cefwyn's son he could not reach, not now, not without harm.
"I'll ask about the gowns," he said, intending to leave.
"Servants," Orien said. Her lips made a thin white line. Her eyes held storm that, prudently, did not break.
"Respect the wards," he said, "and respect the guards."
"And if we don't? Would you harm my sister and the child?" she asked, with the clear expectation he would not.
It was the truth. She expected to have won the argument, and to have her way, and she would not.
"I don't intend her harm," he said with a glance toward Tarien, whose eyes met his in dread. "I can't say what she means to do," he said directly to Tarien. "Take care. Take care for yourself."
And with that he walked out, sealed against the roiling confusion they made in the gray space.
He realized now that Emuin had been listening for the last few moments, subtle and stealthy as Emuin was. But he did not acknowledge that he knew, not this close to the twins' apartment. He gathered up Uwen and his own guard, who had been talking with the Guelens at the nearer station.
"They ask for their gowns," he said to Uwen. "Do you know what happened to them?"
"I fear they've gone, m'lord, I'd imagine they have."
"The servants?"
"I'd say. His Majesty was at Lewenbrook, His Highness bein' here didn't know one man from another, comin' an' goin'—" When Efanor had been in charge of Henas'amef, Uwen meant, and sure enough there had been no few of the servants fled when Cefwyn came back.
"I'll imagine the pearls an' such on those gowns just walked out o'
town in purses and tucked in bosoms, and went all the way to Elwynor, or even into noble ladies' dower chests, closer to home."
There had been ladies of various houses near enough the As-wydds to have had access to a wardrobe.
Without the Aswydd sisters in their red-haired glory, the gowns, the jeweled cups, the gold plate on the tables, the hall would never be as fine or as glorious as he had seen it in Heryn Aswydd's reign. He was sad to miss the beauty of it, but not at all sad about the grain it bought for the hungry families, or the army it fed, until hands could let go the bow in favor of the shepherd's staff. Cefwyn had used to say Lord Heryn's court outdid Guelemara for luxury… and that was not true in size, but in sheer brightness, it might well have been so.
"I did promise them jewelry, at least. I thought of the necklaces we found in Parsynan's room. I think those were likely theirs."
" 'At were generous," Uwen said. "But a woman's jewelry is money if she took to the road, an' off to Elwynor, as these two might if one of the guards don't watch sharp. An' one of them jewels is three years'
wage to these men."
"They won't leave this place," he said, and it had the ring of truth in it as the words came out. "Tarien's afraid." He considered who was near them, and knew of a certainty that Emuin was listening, remote in his tower as he told Uwen the simple, the important truth. "Tarien's child is Cefwyn's son."
"Gods save us, I was afeared so. Ye're sure?"
"A son, and a wizard."
"… An' His Majesty's. Gods save us all."
"They think the nuns didn't know anything, not even that Tarien was with child… but if the nuns did know, word might have gotten to the Quinalt, and to Ryssand, mightn't it?"
Uwen gave a soft whistle. "A chain of ifs, m'lord, but it's a damn short chain, and none of 'em's impossible."
"Ryssand would want them."
"Damn sure he would."
To say the least, Emuin said within the gray space, where he had been lurking the last several moments in utter quiet. Cefwyn took chances. Now one of them's come home.
What should I do? Tristen asked Emuin, since Emuin had remarked on the situation. And: "What shall I do?" he asked Uwen, aloud, attention divided, distracted in two conversations at once.
"Tell His Majesty," Uwen said. "This 'un's worth a letter."
Write to Cefwyn, Emuin said, in the same instant. If Ryssand is behind the raid on Amvyfar, gods save us all, then he's gone far beyond retreat. This is deadly, if he alleges it. And above all else, Cefwyn needs to know before the rumor reaches the streets.
He had no wish to bear that news—but Emuin was right: the rumor spreading was inevitable. The babe would be born in its due course, with all that he was and might become, and would no one know? It was impossible to keep that secret, impossible to keep it with all the wizardous currents running through the world. Tarien, with her sister, had tried to kill Cefwyn this summer—but was that in fact all they had aimed at?
And did that matter now to the truth that grew inside her, a creature, like himself, with its own presence and own will within the gray space?
Mauryl had made him. What had Tarien Aswydd made?
The child is a wizard, he said to Emuin. And has he not his own reasons?
Weak yet, Emuin said, which in some measure comforted him.
But not wholly.
Not so much as to give him ease of mind or spirit.
And when they reached the stairs, he and Uwen together, and went down, as one must, to go up again to his wing, it cast him momentarily within reach of traffic in the lower hall—in sight, as it chanced, of the master carpenter, who hurried over with the report of a leak in the archive window, which must be dealt with.
"As it's endangering the books, Your Lordship…"
"I'll attend it," Lusin said, Lusin, chief of his bodyguard, whose business had nothing to do with the master carpenter; but ice forced snowmelt through cracks, and the woes of the world went on.
He hourly—even at this hour—expected the report from Mo-deyneth, of grain headed for storage, safe from Tasmôrden's reach.
He expected another report from Haman, tomorrow, of the horses in pasture. Cefwyn had a child of whom Cefwyn knew nothing, and grain moved, and the library window leaked.
Meanwhile the boy Paisi, who, a former felon, marshaled two servants to carry firewood for him, passed on his way to Master Emuin's tower. Paisi bowed, and the servants bowed, but Tristen had already set his foot on the step before he even gave a thought to the courtesy, or thought of Paisi as a messenger to bear a quiet word to Emuin, one the twins would not hear.
"Tell him I'll see him this afternoon," he said, and Paisi turned, eyes wide, and bobbed a courtesy, knowing well which he he meant: his lord would meet with his master in what quiet and privacy they could arrange in the fortress, but hereafter such moments were difficult to achieve, and all they did in the gray space might flow through it to other interested souls.
Emuin was right. He had to write to Cefwyn. The more understanding of such a child Unfolded to him, the more he knew that Cefwyn must not be caught by surprise with this news. Cefwyn had to break it to Ninévrisë, and to the lords in his own court: Cefwyn had to tell his friends, and break it to them early and with all the facts in hand… before Ryssand heard it and whispered it piecemeal and had the lords forming a dozen different opinions, each at odds with the other.
To two lords at least he had no need to send a messenger. At the top of the stairs he slipped quietly into a gray space momentarily untroubled by the Aswydds and whispered to Cevulirn of Ivanor, —
Come. Bring all the lords. There's a matter to discuss.
Likewise he sought Crissand Adiran.
But he did not find him, not in the Zeide, nor in the confines of Henas'amef, or yet in the camp outside the walls. Perhaps he was asleep… but the hour argued against it.
He grew troubled, then, and made his presence bolder, and stronger, and went searching more noisily through the gray space, seeking whether Crissand was indeed simply sleeping, and near at hand, or whether something dire had befallen him.
He did not expect to find Crissand's presence far, far north of the town, struggling through drifts. But there he was.
He did not expect, given all the untoward things that had happened last night, to meet evasions, or to know that Crissand had slipped his guards and risked his life escaping him and his notice.
He did not expect to meet the pitch of anguish, or the fear that shut Crissand off from him.
It was not the action of a reasonable man, but that of a man pressed to the limits of his endurance. And he knew nothing that might have sent Crissand out and away from him in that state— except his bringing Crissand's cousins into Henas'amef, and settling them in the Zeide.
That was the fear. That was the anger and the anguish.
He stopped on the stairs, his hand clenched on the stonework, and looked away past the walls of the stairwell. He was heart-struck that Crissand had hidden his feelings from him so well until now,| and never disturbed him in leaving.
Are you well? he asked. Are you safe? Come back. Where are your guards?
Crissand failed to answer him… too far a thought for Crissand's scant ability, it might be. And now he did dread the Aswydds' attention, and feared to make too great a thing of it.
It might be that Crissand had no inclination to listen: the lord of Meiden rode northerly, toward Anwyll's garrison and, in between, the village of Modeyneth, and the building of a defensive wall . . all these things were in that direction. There were ample things in which Crissand had a legitimate interest, in his lord's name.
But nothing about Crissand's self-appointed mission gave Tristett any sense of quiet or surety. He felt only the keen awareness that Crissand was Aswydd himself, and that the quarrels that had split the Aswydd house and brought it down might not be done—for if there was a lord in Henas'amef who had reason to take strong exception to the return of Orien Aswydd to this hall and to the shelter of this roof, Crissand had that reason. He had buried a father thanks to her.
Be safe, Tristen wished Crissand, and continued up the stairs, more than distressed: worried to the depth and breadth of his heart. And he wished Crissand's welfare whether or not Crissand heard him, and whether or not it accorded with other matters he cared for.
Be sensible. Trust Modeyneth and go no farther… above all not to Althalen. And come back to me when you've done what you set out to do. Be assured I am your friend.
That, he wished Crissand to know most of all.
Previous: CHAPTER 1