Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 3

There seemed no courteous way to write the letter that circumstances required. Two pieces of paper, three, four, and five Tristen used, and cast each attempt away into the fire of the hearth near his desk. He had every confidence in Tassand and his servant staff, but he found the letters too painful to have lying about, and he would not leave them a moment on his desk—or send them to his friend.
Orien Aswydd came with her sister Tarien. Tarien is with child, which is yours, and a wizard…
… Orien and Tarien Aswydd fled Anwyfar when men attacked it.
Tarien has your child, a son, and he has the wizard-gift…
With the Aswydds in residence a few stone walls away it was folly to carry difficult consultation to the gray space, and he feared he was growing so distraught with the letters he had become easy to overhear. He felt alone, abandoned by his friend, by his advisor. He had somehow to say a thing which he knew would bring pain to two he loved, and which might, in the wrong hands, bring bloodshed and war, and he could not find the words to take away the sting of that unanticipated revelation.
Tarien Aswydd came here for refuge and will bear a child in perhaps a month, which…
The sixth attempt went into the fire. He rested his head against his hands, checked his fingers belatedly for ink—they were clean— and at that one practical thought knew that his later attempts at gentle advisement were worse, not better.
At that point he left his desk in his apartment, gathered only Lusin and Syllan to guard him, and went to Emuin's tower.
He rapped, pushed the latch, and discovered the old man, far from having lain sleepless during his hours of flailing about the edges of the gray space, had fallen sound asleep in his chair. Young Paisi was curled by the fire like a young hound, and their supper dishes stood empty on a table cluttered with charts.
He eased the door shut. The latch went down, and stung, doing so.
Emuin's head came up. Eyes blinked, as if trying to resolve what they saw.
"Well, well," Emuin said. "Is there trouble? Or more trouble?"
"Forgive me. I need words, master Emuin."
Two blinks more. "Words for Cefwyn?"
"Yes, sir."
"Oh, try folly and prodigious fool."
"You don't mean that, sir."
At this point Paisi waked, looking exhausted and startled at once.
"Oh, I mean it," Emuin said, ignoring the boy. "I said it then, damn his stubborn ways, and I say it again."
"But I can't. Do I say to him… Tarien Aswydd has your child, a son? That's what I've written."
"That's fair enough. That should inform a thoughtful young man he's been a fool. That's the essence of the report, isn't it? Maybe he'll hear it from you."
"He listens to you."
"Not in this."
"Ninévrisë will be upset with him, won't she?"
"Oh, I imagine she'll be somewhat upset. She's a lady capable of setting aside her heart's feeling to serve her common sense, but this will test the limit, I rather think."
There had been a time he had not understood Emuin's humors, or his ironies. Now they cut keenly, but he knew that they shielded a worried and fond heart.
"What will she do when she knows?"
"All of that is Cefwyn's to deal with," Emuin said brusquely, not yours. You're not the keeper of his conscience, nor am I. Just deliver him what he needs to know, and let him find the way through this maze. It's enough we have the lady in keeping and she's not making pilgrimage to Guelemara this winter. At very least we'll deal with the birth. I don't know what more we can do with the plain, unpleasant truth."
"Am I not to be his friend? Wasn't that your advice? And Wouldn't a friend give him something more than just… the plain truth, on a paper? Shouldn't I have something else to say? Shouldn't I be wise enough to have advice?"
Emuin's frown eased, and the fierce scowl revised itself into a more pensive, wounded look.
"Or can't you advise him, sir?" Tristen leaned both hands on the table, on the welter of charts and dishes. "You came here with me, and you left him to fend for himself. Idrys is clever, and Her Grace is wise, and Annas is kind, but you aren't there, and I think he'd truly wish you were with him when he reads this letter. He needs your advice.
He needs it most of all."
"I can't travel in this weather. I'm old. My bones won't stand the saddle, I can't ride through such drifts, and by the time a carriage; made the trip the news would have walked to Guelemara, drifts and all. I can't advise him! Too many people know this. Someone is going to tell the wrong person, if they haven't already run to the capital to shout it in the streets, and the longer we wait, the more certain that is.
We don't know we're not already too late to keep it out of Ryssand's hands… particularly if those blackguards of Es-; san's attacked the nuns because someone had found out about Ta-rien. Tarien might have been their reason, more fool they—someone's hope to keep her and the babe when it's born. And if that was the case and if they lost her, they'd have run straight to the capital and reported to whoever set them on."
"Or they'd run for the far hills and not come at all."
"There is that hope."
"Orien thought it might be because Cefwyn found out. I don't think so. If he knew, he didn't need to send the Guelen Guard: Idrys, maybe, but not soldiers to attack the nuns. I think they could be; Ryssand's. Maybe Orien said what she did about Cefwyn finding out because she suspected someone had found out, but I don't think that someone is Cefwyn. He wouldn't kill the nuns."
"He would not," Emuin mused, raking tangles from his beard. "I can think of two reasons there was an attack on Anwyfar in the first place: first, the one you name, that someone knew there was a child and wanted Tarien in his hands. Ryssand could do gods know what at that point, none good. So could Tasmôrden, if Cuthan spilled what he knows in that quarter, and if he knows too much. That's well possible.—Or it could be someone's blind ill working that bounced off us like a rock off a shield and rebounded on the closest and most vulnerable of our precautions. Our confinement of the Aswydds was always chancy."
"There's a third," he said, taking very seriously what Emuin said.
"That the working was Orien's, to arrange an escape, and to come here. She surely wished it. Ordinarily she couldn't manage it. But she found a current already moving—and maybe she found help."
"Certainly she'd like to be involved," Emuin said. "And think, too: the gainer in what's happened is Orien. She's here. The great loser thus far in what happened is Ryssand: he'd have been so pleased to have Tarien in his hands. The scandal will still break: there's no hiding it forever. But if we're very lucky we might conceal the child until after the attack across the bridges. If Cefwyn wins the war and sets Ninévrisë on the throne, he can do no wrong in her people's eyes and if Ninévrisë has her kingdom back, she may forgive him his old sins. Maybe we wished too hard for Cefwyn's safety and something we've done is looking out for his interests… preventing the rumor reaching home, in fact."
"And those women died for that?'"'' He was appalled by the thought.
"Oh, don't count it our fault: it may be no one's particular fault—except the scoundrels who killed the nuns, of course. They have the fault. The rest is blind chance. Water breaks out where the dike is lowest, young lord, never the strongest point. And by now, after what Mauryl's done, what I've done, what other agencies have done—there's a lot of water flowing."
"Are they guilty, without knowing what they did?"
"Oh, they knew what they did. And it may even have been Orien they were after. These were Quinalt men. They served in Amefel when she ruled here. They knew her for a sorceress and they hate sorcery.
As for the nuns, they were nuns of my sect, not the Quinalt, and these men were Ryssand's. Maybe they were looking for nothing more than some charge of latent witch-work to lay against the Teran-thines.
Ryssand's failed in one assault on Cefwyn's rule; he may be looking for another weak point, and never forget that Cefwyn is Teranthine, and that I am. A sorceress sent among Teranthine nuns to hide her and keep her head on her shoulders—how will that sound among the orthodox and doctrinist Quinaltines?—Ah, me, write you must, but we have to keep this news out of Guelessar in general, if that's possible, yet be sure Cefwyn knows. We've sheltered these Women, we have them, all to our advantage now, and whatever wizardry opposes us will go straight for that babe. Rely on it."
Much of it seemed conjecture, none leading anywhere.
But the part about wizardry and the baby sounded all too reasonable.
"So we," Emuin concluded, "must do something about it."
"What can we do, sir?"
Emuin rose from his chair at the table and picked up a rod that was at the moment weighing down a half a score of scattered parchments.
He waved it at Tristen, waved again in what seemed an instruction to stand on the other side of the table.
Tristen did so. Emuin pushed the rod end-on toward him across that scatter of charts.
"Now push it back to me."
Tristen obliged. Emuin received the end, and mildly pushed the other end again toward Tristen's side of the table, while Paisi came and stared dubiously at the proceedings.
"Push it back to me," Emuin said, and as Tristen slid it toward him, Emuin placed a thin, arthritic finger in the path of the rod, with a tap diverting it to the side.
"What?" said Emuin. "Are you suddenly weak? Push it to me, I say."
Tristen drew back the rod.
"Push with all your strength this time."
"It would not," Tristen said. "No more than a sword past an opposing blade. It will miss, no matter how much strength I have."
"A child's finger could do the same."
"At the right point, likely so, sir."
"Paisi?" ;
"Oh, no, sir," Paisi said, tucking both his hands behind him and backing up a step. "I ain't tryin' to stop m'lor' wi' me finger."
"Paisi sees the lesson," Emuin said, "—don't you, boy?"
"As I ain't puttin' my finger in m'lor's way, 'at's sure."
"But you would win," Emuin said.
"As I ain't puttin' meself in m'lor's way by winnin' again' 'im, either."
Tristen smiled, but the lesson was not lost.
"And that's what a boy learns," master Emuin said. "What does the lord learn?"
"That if you set your finger in the way of the rod too late, you lose.
And if you have your finger in the way at the right time, the rod can't reach you. And it's not about rods… or swords. It's about wizardry."
The grim thought Unfolded itself and cast a gloom over him. "The point of diverting this wizardry isn't now. It was this summer."
"In the early summer, when a prince shared a bed with Tarien Aswydd. If you will know, he was abed with her the night you arrived."
It was like a dousing with cold water. "Me, sir?"
"You came, you diverted his attention, various things changed, and he had no further time for the ladies Aswydd, but not in time, since by then the deed was very clearly done." Emuin picked up one of the scattered charts and cast it heavily onto the table. "Does that Unfold to you?"
Tristen turned it, looked at it, and turned it again in hope it would make some sort of sense. It might have been upside down or sideways for what he made of the scratchings and circles and numbers and intersecting lines. "No, sir. It doesn't."
"Likely because it's wizardry, and not magic. The Sihhë-lords never needed such meticulous proceedings."
"It's to do with the stars and the moon, I see that much. Has it to do with the Great Year?" That was just past, and it had long occupied Emuin's attention in the heavens.
"It's to do with calamity," Emuin said. "Mind, no such chart is infallible. It marks opportunities, moments of vulnerability, moments of power, and, the Nineteen witness! the Sihhë can create their own moments outside of wizardry and throw all our meticulous plans and times askew—gods, but you can, young lord! But I suspect even you find magic easier at certain times and in certain places—or that what you loose flows more readily in certain directions than in others: the river finds the lowest, easiest course, does it not?"
He understood how it explained the twisted course certain of his wishes took, or why he saw some things as easy and direct and some things not.
But he was not diverted by any sleight of hand, not now. His thoughts ceased to skip and turn, and went straight to a single question. He did not even ask it aloud. He wished an answer, and Emuin's chin went up, and he frowned, opposing Emuin's will.
"Forgive me," Tristen said. "I wish to know, and not to oppose you…
not at all to oppose you. I know how hard you've tried to keep all your plans in shape around me, no matter how often I cast them all down. But now I want the truth, master Emuin, with all good will.
Inform me, and perhaps you'll have less patching to do. I might agree."
Emuin let out a slow breath. "Cefwyn proposes to set out this spring against Tasmôrden. Before the trees break their buds, there is an hour, a day, on which what Men call luck will more than ebb: it will turn utterly against him. That is written in the events he himself set in motion, and written in the stars."
"Then I should be with him!" Tristen said.
"Or—perhaps you shouldn't. Perhaps you can do more from a Distance, where you have a better view of what's happening, and where you can lay hands on the very things that threaten him.
Possibly you're doing exactly what you should do. Before the trees break their buds, too, that child will be born, here, in Amefel."
He had thought only of weapons. What Emuin said appalled him.
"The child."
"Here, I say, the child will be born."
"And I brought her here!"
"Perhaps it was the best of intentions. She's not in a worse place.
Parsynan isn't in charge here, Cuthan's not here to help Orien, and Tasmôrden's men aren't pouring across the border to raise the whole province in rebellion. All the things you've done have put her in your hands, not the other way about. I don't say this child's the only danger. What Cefwyn may do when once he hears the news: that is a danger. What Her Grace may do is likewise a danger, and what her people may do is a danger, all approaching that moment Cefwyn's luck—luck! so men call it, and nothing further from the truth—his luck will turn. The flow will all go against him, for a certain number of hours. I confess that all along, I've thought constantly of the battle with Tasmôrden, and that manner of threat. But again, the river may have taken the easiest course. It was natural these women come to their home, to their people. They say the nuns didn't know. And there's a fifth possible agent of the situation at Anwyfar… you, young lord."
"I would never wish what happened!"
"But you know that you have effect."
"I know that I do, sir."
"We aren't masters of how a thing happens. So likewise we must be careful how our letters will inform Cefwyn and Her Grace, and do it well. You're quite right to come to me. You're quite right to approach this with caution."
"You know how to tell him. You see the danger. Twice over, it should be you that writes that letter."
Emuin's brows lowered. "Oh, I know these things, I know them too well. Mauryl called on me to kill a young prince in his sleep. And I did, young lord, and have bad dreams all my life. Now I see that dream one more time."
"Hasufin Heltain." Tristen drew a great breath, knowing well how their enemy—Mauryl's enemy—had entered a dead babe in Althalen, King Elfwyn's son… and nothing might have prevented him, except he had grown too sure of himself, too early… a boy's faults of haste, betraying a very, very dangerous spirit to the only wizard capable of dealing with him… of killing him, before his adulthood.
"He's dead," Emuin said. "But he was dead before he fought you at Lewenbrook. That's only mild inconvenience to him. A woman dabbles in sorcery, far past her knowledge. A foolish woman lets down the wards, in all senses, and bargains for power… and what better chance has a wandering spirit? You caught Orien at her sorcery once. We don't know how often and to what ends she opened that window in your apartments. We know Hasufin used Aséyneddin on the battlefield, but that was the right hand of his effort, and it fell too quickly, far too quickly. I suspect this babe for the left, his second and surer gateway, one he already knew he had, and which he didn't risk at Lewenbrook. That babe is half-Aswydd and half-Marhanen… wizard-gift matched with all the Marhanen faults—and strengths."
"I hear the child in the gray space. Surely you do."
"I hear him. A son, I do agree with all you said, below in the hall, though I'm a little less reckless in inquiring."
"There seems no harm in him."
"Oh, indeed there isn't. Right now he's Tarien's child… an innocent.
What better way to breach our defenses? What better way to gain entry to this warded fortress? What better way to defend himself, than by our virtue, and our scruples, and our reluctance to do harm to innocence? If we harm him… we damn the virtue that's in us, and we turn ourselves down a bloody dark path. If we kill this child.— Hush, boy!" It was Paisi he meant, for a startled shiver had leapt into the gray space, and Ernuin whirled about and seized Paisi by the shoulder.
"We ain't to kill it!" Paisi cried, wincing from Emuin's grip, and the danger of flying into the gray space with Orien and Tarien only a few stone barriers away from them brought Tristen's sharp no! and with it he imposed a hush so deep Paisi struggled for his next breath, mouth open, eyes wide.
"Be calm," Tristen said, and made his wish gentler, so the boy could get his wind. "Be calm. You mustn't go there with what we say here.
Be very quiet. Listen to what Emuin's saying to us. Listen.
Understand him."
"I brung Gran Sedlyn up th' hill, an' she had a look at the lady, an' she says it's an Aswydd babby an' a wizard. But she ain't sayin' it's evil!"
'Gran Sedlyn is the midwife," Emuin reminded him. "And canny as they come. No, boy—" This, to Paisi, whose eyes were round as moons. "—we haven't any ill intent: that's the point. Wizardry.
Wizardry, lad, is a matter of seasons and timing, and this… this one event is set. That child will be born in his time, and as much as Gran Sedlyn can assure it, it will be the child's time, not Tarien Aswydd's wishing. It won't please her, but it pleases me, and it gives the child his best chance."
Tristen had misgivings of his own, but none that he chose to discuss in Paisi's hearing. He laid his hand on Paisi's other shoulder, wishing him calm and steady and confident. "Trust Emuin," he said to Paisi.
"And don't talk about this. Don't think it in the gray space where the Aswydds might hear you."
"Oh, gods," Paisi said, and his eyes rolled toward the west wing, where the women were.
"Do you understand your lord?" Emuin said sternly, drawing his attention back. "Look at me, boy! Think of filching apples."
"Apples, sir?"
"I'm sure you've stolen apples in the market. In fact I know you have."
"Aye, master."
"And didn't get caught."
"No, master."
"Why weren't you caught?"
"I was careful."
"And slipped in very quietly and didn't disturb anyone. Is that it?"
"Wi' my hands," Paisi said, making a flourish of his fingers, and a twist of the wrist that tucked an imaginary apple up his sleeve.
"Clever lad. Well, now you're the merchant, and you don't want some clever lad making off with any apples. So what do you do?"
"I watch wi'out seemin' to watch. Old Esen down in market, 'e's a canny 'un. He always looks as if 'e's watchin' somethin' else, an' 'e'll nab ye quick as ye can say—"
"So can Orien Aswydd. Do you understand me?"
Paisi's head bobbed slowly. "Aye, master, that I do."
"Think as if you were going to steal something from her apartment."
"Oh, no, sir, I ain't."
"As if you were, wretched boy. As if! Pretend that's what you're about, and go very, very quietly, because she's the merchant and you're the thief, and she's very, very dangerous."
"Aye, sir. Aye master. Yes, m'lor'." This, with a bob of his head first to Emuin, then to Tristen. "M'lord."
"He's learning," Emuin said. "The fair mother tongue suffers less every day, and he's learned to wash his hands and the vessels, and not in the same water." Emuin reached out a hand and tousled Paisi's unruly hair. "I kept you here to hear this, boy, because I'll not have you overhearing half we say and then wondering about it or peeking and prying about the gray space, which, gods know, is the worst thing you could do. Salubrious fear. Do you know the word salubrious?"
"No, master Emuin."
"It means healthful. Good for you. Trust that now you know everything there is to know, or at least as much as your lord and your master together know, and don't try to find out anything except from me: it wouldn't at all be helpful or salubrious for you to pry into Lady Orien's affairs. So don't!"
"Not salubrious, sir. I understand."
"Good!" Emuin said, and to Tristen: "I'll write to Cefwyn, and you write whatever you find to write. The sooner Cefwyn knows, the safer for us all."
The Aswydd ladies walked to Henas'amef for safety, Tristen wrote, with the brazen dragons looming over his desk and Aswydd green draperies open on a blood red sky. Men attacked the convent at Anwyfar. Lady Tarien is with child, a boy, and yours, which I do not know otherwise how to inform you, except that Emuin and I are taking care here and you should also take care.
With the help of all the southern lords and the earls of Amefel I hope soon to release the Dragon Guard from their watch at the river. I hope also to be sending the Guelens as soon as the weather permits. I know I have many of your best men. You can trust the officers Uwen put over the Guelens, but not the ones I sent away. I hope you will not restore them to their office. Orien says it was Essan who attacked the nuns at Anwyfar, and I think she is telling the truth in that.
I hope that you are well. All the lords with me wish you well. So does Uwen. Master Emuin is writing his own letter to go with this one. Be careful for your safety. We are doing everything we can "ere to carry out your orders, which I have never forgotten.
He put the pen in its holder, out of words, at least of those he would write. He heated wax and made the seal.
But on an impulse of the heart he took a fresh sheet of paper and wrote: To Her Grace of Elwynor, a wish. And he wrote it only with his finger, with no ink, but in the manner of a ward, and sealed it with his seal and with a ward. He had no idea whether a wizard could receive it, but he thought one could. Most particularly he Bought Ninévrisë might have gift enough, and that no one handling it would understand the message: Cefwyn is in danger. Here is refuge if you need it.
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