Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 5
Next: CHAPTER 7


A gentle snow veiled the banners, snow falling on snow, cooling the passions, hiding the blackened beams of the Bryalt shrine across the square from the Quinalt, so that Luriel's second wedding processional had no such ill-omened sight as it wended its way to the steps of the Quinaltine. Lay brothers swept the steps, which in Cefwyn's estimation only made them chancier, and he held his consort's hand with attentive caution on the climb. Trumpets blared about them, all the bright display of the houses of Panys and Murandys, colors of gold and green and blue and white billowing out in streamers from the drafty doorway above.
The choir began, eerie echoing of voices within the stone sanctuary.
Cefwyn had always found it unnervingly evocative of funerals, of souls trapped in the shrine that was the holiest of all Quinalt shrines, all the dead buried in the vaults below. He had seen more funerals than festivals when he was a boy: the old guard of the Marhanen court had been dying; then his cousins dying; his mother and then Efanor's mother dying. He had come to detest the Quinalt liturgy, as he had come to detest the Quinalt's influence over his father. From boyhood he had far preferred the Teranthines… partly since it was his grandfather's choice and annoyed his father; but mostly because the Teranthines had more cheerful music and talked less about sin.
But that alliance had been a boy's liberty to choose. The man was king of Ylesuin, the Quinalt was the order that dominated the court and held most power in the kingdom, and to that faith the king must show due and solemn observance.
Especially that was so since he had appointed the new Patriarch, and had to uphold the man in his office. But on the brighter side, he had very good cause to expect cooperation: Father Jormys, now Patriarch of the Holy Quinalt, was a devout religionist, but no fool, and not unaccustomed to politics, having been Efanor's spiritual advisor since Efanor had left the Teranthines. He had encouraged a little too much devotion on Efanor's part, perhaps, but that had been the extravagance of green youth—Efanor's—and the enthusiasm of a young priest with a willing hearer; and that, too, was settling to sober good sense as the boy became a man courted by dangerous men, and as the priest found himself enmeshed in the court.
And if there was a miracle to be had, some divine blessing to mark the accession of Jormys and the confirming vote in the Quinaltine, it was… thank the gods of both faiths… the snow. Riots and murder were far less likely when the weather closed in like this. Snow was more efficient than troops of the Guard in dispersing the crowds and lowering the voices that had lately cried out in anger. Men drunk on wine and the last Patriarch's murder had burned and looted the Bryaltines just across the square, convinced that the Bryaltines had sheltered assassins and wizards.
But now the populace had seen a body displayed as evidence of the king's justice on the impious—not that the man was guilty, to be sure.
His sole recommendation was that he was already dead, unidentifiable, and a convenient recourse when the mob demanded justice. They had hung the unfortunate posthumously… and in that very hour the snow had started to fall, and fall, and fall with no letup.
Hard to maintain the will to riot when fingers and toes were numb.
Hard to gather in great drunken numbers when the streets were slippery with ice.
Today, even for a court wedding, he had provided no unbounded largesse of ale in the square, and consequently the majority of those onlookers who came to watch this processional were sober, intent on the spectacle, not the excess of good cheer flowing in the Quinaltine square, which had been the most grievous mistake of the last attempt at this wedding.
And without the drunken crowd, the troublemakers in the town who had escaped having their crowns cracked by the Guard were lying low and quiet. The ordinary folk of the capital who were not standing to cheer the procession were busy sweeping the snow off their steps or struggling with frozen cisterns and ice dams on their roofs.
So in the safety of the snow Lady Luriel of Murandys could attempt again to be married. It was an indecently short time after the murder of the Patriarch to be holding a state wedding, but the affairs of state rushed on: the last Patriarch was three days in the vaults beneath the Quinaltine following a fortnight of extravagant ritual, the blood was cleared off the stones, the shrine was purified, and Lady Luriel and the second son of Panys were back for another attempt at married bliss.
The banners swept in, the procession followed, and in the pageantry of the banners and the trumpets to either hand, Cefwyn marched down the aisle and took his place in the first row of seats, standing with the Royal Consort to await the rest of the court.
His brother Efanor arrived next, and Lord Murandys and Lord Panys… the Lord Commander should have been there, too, but Idrys, he noted, had disappeared.
"Where is Idrys?" Ninévrisë whispered in some concern. When Idrys was not punctual, there was a reason, and Cefwyn's confidence in the safety of the place was just a little undermined, the sound of the trumpets gone just a little thin in his hearing.
"Seeing to the Guard," Cefwyn guessed, whispering, and thought to himself, I hope so.
The recent upheaval left all the land uneasy. Only yesterday came word of a Teranthine shrine attacked, plundered by bandits, rapine and murder on innocent nuns—disturbing enough in itself until he heard the name of the place so afflicted. Anwyfar was also where he had lodged the Aswydd women, and there was no especial word on their fate. He had the least uncomfortable suspicion it might not have been bandits, rather the actions of someone bent on causing trouble.
Idrys had sent men to find out. That report might have come in, among other matters Idrys saw to.
The murder of the Patriarch had not settled the struggle inside the Quinalt, between the orthodoxy and the moderate wing. Far from it.
The orthodoxy, which was almost certainly to blame for the death of the Patriarch, had tried to set the blame on the hapless Bryaltines, since the murder had left the Patriarch's murdered body in a room filled with heretic Bryaltine charms and imagery—it was far too obvious a lie, but not for the mob: the mob had set fire to the sole Bryaltine shrine in Guelessar, and hung its priest… bad enough if that were the end of it. But it was Ninévrisë's priest.
She had attached herself to the Bryaltine sect to please the Quinaltine, who could by straining a little accept that faith, all to allay the popular fear of Elwynim as a people steeped in wizardry and godlessness.
So he did not take it for a coincidence that whoever had murdered the Patriarch, his ally in the skirmishes with the Faith, had blamed the Bryaltines, Ninévrisë's… no matter that hapless Father Benwyn, a bookish man and nearsighted to the extreme, had been the least likely murderer in all Ylesuin.
Cefwyn did not take any of it for a coincidence, he found it hard to take the business in Anwyfar as a coincidence, and now came the absence of his right-hand man when they were all met again in this place that had been the center of the previous incident in this first trial of the new Patriarchate and the second attempt at this marriage.
It was the first major court function since the Holy Father's funeral and interment, and it was the apt occasion for trouble.
He hoped Idrys was only exercising caution—perhaps personally standing by the new Patriarch even as he robed for the event.
Please the gods they made it through this wedding without incident…
and married off his former lover before she was herself the focus of trouble in the court.
He tightened his grip on the rail before him as, to the wailing of the choir, the bride and groom arrived in their places at the altar. Shortly after came the moment of previous disaster, the moment when the last attempt at matrimony had ended in blood-spattered priests running out to announce the Patriarch's murder. Cefwyn clenched his teeth as the smoke of censers increased, creating smoke through which the Holy Father should make his appearance—and relaxed with a sigh when the shadowy figure of the new Patriarch did appear out of that veil of smoke.
The entire congregation sighed and seemed easier as that fatal moment passed safely. The choir never ceased its haunting, haunted praise, and the new Patriarch lifted his heavily robed arms and pronounced an untrammeled blessing on the congregation and on the couple.
Cefwyn heaved a second and ultimate sigh of relief, feeling as if knotted ropes had loosened about his chest.
Murandys and Panys, two houses of great wealth, one troublesome, one loyal to the Crown, were now joining hands in this marriage.
Luriel, who had looked to marry the heir of Ylesuin, and who had found herself instead in virtual exile in Murandys, was redeemed.
Panys' second son, a good young man, had by the nuptial agreement secured himself the right of inheritance in Murandys—when heirless Murandys died, he would pass into the line of Murandys and become lord of the province… since Prichwarrin Lord Murandys had produced no male heir, and the sibling line had produced no male either. Luriel would inherit as far as the custom of her province allowed: that was to say, she had chosen her husband; and if she was canny and bided her time, she would be essential to her spouse in the administration of the province of her birth.
Patience was certainly not Luriel's best skill, lending some doubt to her help—but after the vows she became her husband's concern, and her uncle's… not to cross his path again until Prichwarrin should die (please the gods) a natural death abed, at a goodly and peaceful age.
The new Holy Father reached the final pronouncement of marriage.
The trumpet fanfare rang out. The choir soared to hitherto unreached heights, all but painful to the ears, and the high, pure bells began to peal. The whole town seemed joined in relief that the deed was done, the ceremony had come off without an ill omen, and the Patriarchate had survived.
A second fanfare echoed among the shadowy pillars, the signal for the banner-bearers to file toward their departure. The king and royal family must leave first, with their various banners: then the married couple, in precedence over all other lords and ladies for this one day of their lives… though Murandys ranked high in the order of things under any circumstances.
The red Marhanen banner with its golden Dragon swept across the light from the doors, then the red banner of the Guelens, translucent against the sun, bearers fanning out to the side against the snow-laden light. The prince's standard followed.
Cefwyn and Ninévrisë swept to one side, with Efanor close beside them: Luriel and Rusyn of Panys swept to the other side in a flow of blue and white and gold and green banners astream in the ice-edged wind and the pure, clear daylight. The bells rang, the trumpets blew, and such of the town as had braved the cold to stand before the steps, respectable folk all, waved kerchiefs and cheered an event of hope in the affairs of their land.
It was a moment for smiles, and for an unrestrained breath and a sigh.
Cefwyn lifted a hand and waved, and Ninévrisë waved. The populace waved handkerchiefs and scarves.
And in that moment a shadow slipped close to Cefwyn's side, as only the Lord Commander could without the quick reaction of the king's bodyguard.
"Ryssand's come to the wedding," Idrys said in half a whisper, and Cefwyn swung his head half-about, appalled.
"Here?"
"He's passed midtown… ridden Ivanim fashion to get here—doubtless for the wedding."
"Damn him!" Cefwyn's voice escaped discipline, but he lowered it quickly. "At risk of his bead he comes here! And nothing from the gate-guards?"
"They reached me, my lord king. You were already in the processional. Hence my absence. I've alerted the Guard."
"Damn and damn!" Cefwyn said, and unwillingly caught Ninévrisë's attention. "Wave," he said, and did, smiling.
Ryssand risked everything on this return… of course before the weather worsened, of course at the worst moment, of course while the union of the Marhanen with his own troublesome but essential house was still under discussion. Here was the man likeliest at the root of all the realm's troubles, strongly urged to absent himself from the court for the season, and he dared come back unbidden?
The timing was no accident. Ryssand was a master of public display for his provocations, and would never arrive to attend the wedding, no, but rather just in time take advantage of the crowd thus gathered to force his king to act or fail to act in public.
And a king who had just arranged this marriage at some personal investment and cost to the Crown had to wonder, did Lord Murandys, father of the bride, who had agreed to the wedding to secure his own unstable political ground, know of the return of his erstwhile partner in dissent? Had they possibly conspired to do this?
"Cuthan and Parsynan are with him, my lord king," was Idrys' final caution, as horsemen broke forth into the snowy square, the banner of Ryssand brazenly displayed. A clot of townsfolk accompanied the column, the curious of the lower town swept up in Ryssand's course through the streets. The celebrants who had been cheering Luriel and her groom saw it and deserted the space below the steps to gawk as the unannounced arrival made his procession toward the Quinaltine.
Corswyndam Lord Ryssand reined his fine chestnut in at the steps and made his bow. And with the banner of Ryssand was another, smaller banner, one which most of Ylesuin would not recognize: the banner of the earl of Bryn, out of Amefel.
Never mind the man, still in the saddle as if he headed some invading army—or trusted Ryssand gave him the ducal privilege of staying ahorse in his king's presence—had no longer any right to the display of those colors.
'My lord king," Corswyndam said loudly enough for half the square to hear. "My lady. My lord prince."
Oh, that was calculated, a salute to Ninévrisë, the Royal Consort.
Corswyndam had moved heaven and earth to see Ninévrisë treated as an enemy instead of an honored and queenly bride. By the protocols, she being merely the Royal Consort, he might have omitted her from the reckoning entirely, and yet he did not. He saluted her, he saluted Prince Efanor, whom he courted for a son-in-law. There was no piece of mischief in Ylesuin that did not have Lord Ryssand somewhere involved, and all this public courtesy, all this show was a challenge to his king to accuse him of any of it—an attempt to interject the very scandal Cefwyn had avoided into this most happy of moments.
Cefwyn strode to the edge of the Quinaltine steps and set fists on hips. "You left our lands and our court at our express invitation,"
Cefwyn shouted down at him. "Now you presume to return without so much as asking our leave. Do you come to honor the new bride? If so, I find your timing damned ill considered, to her, to the noble houses here displayed, and to the Crown, sir!"
"Concern for the realm brought me, Your Majesty." Corswyndam swept a second bow. "And the honoring of my oath to Your Majesty, to uphold the king, the realm, and the Holy Quinalt! Things I've learned dictated I ride with scarcely a guard, in all haste, before intemperate influences might bring worse weather on the roads! And forgive my intrusion into this festive occasion, but I ask a hearing, Your Majesty, of utmost urgency. Your Majesty has been misled—"
" We have been misled?" It was clear, now, by the colors of Bryn, what Ryssand dared with this public show, and letting the famed Marhanen temper out, Cefwyn strode a step lower and pointed at Earl Cuthan of Bryn and at Lord Parsynan, faces he knew, one from his stay in Amefel and the other because he himself had appointed the scoundrel viceroy of Amefel on Ryssand's recommendation. "There's a pairing straight from hell! The man who would not be duke of Amefel, who betrayed his own people and contrived with traitors, and the scoundrel who slaughtered a nobleman's guard for his own damned petty spite! Are these blackguards under arrest? Is that the gift you bring me, two wretches fit for hanging? For that, I may be appeased!"
The two in question held back, and Parsynan retreated a step, looking starkly afraid. But no accusation scathed Corswyndam or brought a decent blush or a pallor to his face.
"The gift I bring Your Majesty is the truth, the much-abused truth, that—"
"Oh, come now, come, sir! Ryssand defends the truth? If you think it resides in these two miscreants, you need to have a lad to guide your steps!"
"Your Majesty, I bring you peace! Peace with Elwynor!"
" Damn you, I say! And damn these two traitors!"
But Ryssand had gotten his blade past Cefwyn's guard, and the poison had reached ready ears. Prichwarrin Lord Murandys, at Cefwyn's elbow, rushed to plead, loudly, before all witnesses, noble and common: "I beg Your Majesty hear him."
"Indeed," said Lord Isin, from his other side. "Indeed, peace with Elwynor, Your Majesty. Hear him."
"I know the source," Cefwyn began to say, but then Lord Murandys cast himself to his knee on the icy landing and seized Ninévrisë's hand.
"Intercede, Your Grace, for the saving of your subjects and the king's mercy."
Cefwyn was shocked to silence, but Ninévrisë backed a step and tried to rescue her hand, all but slipping on the ice. Isin besought Efanor's arm in similar plea, but Efanor's bodyguard interposed an armored side, diverting the old man in alarm. A man slipped, guards reached for weapons, and all manner of mischief might have broken out, except Idrys called out sharply, "Hold! All hold!" and set an armored presence beside the royal family, arraying the Dragon Guard and all their weapons at his command.
And still Prichwarrin Lord Murandys, father of the forgotten bride, remained on his knees, a public scandal, and Ninévrisë, recovered from her near fall, refusing to grant him grace.
"Get up," Cefwyn said harshly.
Prichwarrin rose stiffly and obediently to his feet, and Cefwyn turned a baleful stare down at the armed company.
Artisane was there, too, that cloaked woman on the piebald mare, riding sidesaddle in her many-petticoated skirts, and she was a presence as unwelcome in Ninévrisë's women's court as her father was in his own. Inside the Guelesfort, out of public view, he could order Ryssand's throat cut, if he wished the breach with the north irrevocable—and Prichwarrin at the head of his enemies.
But such was the tangle of relations between the Marhanen kings and this most powerful of the dukes of Ylesuin that he could not set ducal heads side by side on Guelemara's gate. He had not formally banished Lord Ryssand: he had sent him forth in private disgrace precisely because he could not afford a public breach; and he had then countenanced Ryssand's pursuit of an alliance with his house, namely Efanor, trying to patch up the northern region's relations with the Crown—because without the north there was damned little left of Ylesuin.
"Peace, of course, is what we all desire," Cefwyn said at last, "and you shall have your hearing—at my convenience! Now clear the streets before these good people demand your arrest! You've disrupted the festivities."
"When shall I see Your Majesty?" Ryssand asked.
"Obey your king!" Idrys said. "Withdraw!"
"At Your Majesty's command," Ryssand said, with another deep bow and with a faint smile touching the corners of his mouth. "Shall I camp at the town gate in disgrace? Or shall I have my residence in the Guelesfort at my disposal?"
Camp at the gate, was on Cefwyn's tongue, and, Sweep the steps of them, close behind. But Ryssand was too canny a campaigner, and the presence of the crowd, the hired tongues that would surely wag the instant this confrontation ended and spread whatever rumors Ryssand ordered, all forced control over the Marhanen temper.
"Sleep in the stables, for all I care, but—" Now, he looked beyond, to his people, acknowledging their witness of this unseemly display.
"—take heed of rumor, and mind the source! The words of those who have fallen from grace for murder and treason in their own province are not to be trusted in Guelemara! We will listen and we will hear, but we will not be swayed by the interests of murderers!"
He descended then two steps closer to Ryssand:
"You will have your audience," Cefwyn said in no good humor, and for immediate ears only. "And if these two you've brought affront me as they affronted the duke of Amefel, their heads will sit on spikes on the town gate! Let them look to their lives, I say! And I place their behavior at your account, Ryssand! Look to it, and let them not offend me as they offended Amefel!"
"Your Majesty." Ryssand bowed in the saddle, and bowed again, and a third time before he turned his horse about and rode at the head of his small column—the banners of Ryssand and Bryn happening in the process to seize the precedence over the Dragon Banner of the Marhanen.
For that reason and in full consciousness of appearances, Cefwyn did not descend the steps to tail onto the lord of Ryssand's procession to the Guelesfort. He stood fast on the steps, with Idrys beside him, with Ninévrisë, with Efanor, Lord Murandys and Lord Panys and Lord Isin, and the bride and groom.
"Damn him," Cefwyn said.
"This is my wedding!" Luriel cried, in tears. "This is my wedding, does anyone remember? This is my wedding!"
"Be still!" her uncle said sharply. It was a wedding already marginally scandalous, not alone since the Patriarch's murder at the last attempt; all the world knew the niece of Lord Murandys had been in the royal bed.
And now at the outburst from Murandys, the young groom, leaving his bride, went several steps aside to confer with his father, Lord Panys, leaving Luriel alone before the scandal-loving crowd at the foot of the steps.
Cefwyn cast a look at Efanor, the while, wondering how Efanor had taken what had just transpired, and whether the marriage proposal between Efanor and Artisane had assumed an extreme advantage at the moment or whether he should take the excuse of his offense against Ryssand to consider the marriage entirely out of the question.
It had seemed advantageous from time to time, Efanor being in no wise gullible and having his own notions how to contain Ryssand's ambition; now, among a dozen times else, he doubted the wisdom of it and asked himself how he could have been so foolish.
Ninévrisë's hand sought his, and her fingers pressed on his as if she would drive her own good sense into his hot-tempered Marhanen head: nothing precipitate, nothing foolish, she silently counseled him.
The baron foolish enough to challenge his grandfather to that degree would have gone to the block, so he said to himself, but those raw, rough times of beginning a kingdom were done: his own reign was a rule of reason—so he hoped. Yet he asked himself now how the populace saw him, whether he had won this encounter or whether Ryssand had.
But on the thought of his grandfather's methods he left Ninévrisë, took the bride's hand, and brusquely led her to the groom and seized his hand. He held up their joined hands then to the witness of all the crowd, many of whom had by now forgotten they had come to witness a wedding.
That was what they had come to see. Had they forgotten it?
"A king's penny apiece!" he shouted. It was the third penny the Wedding had cost the treasury, but it was a grand gesture, it distracted the crowd into wild cheering, and he left it to Idrys and his capable staff to marshal the crowd into order and to the treasury to nnd pennies enough.
It was cheaper than bloodshed and the entanglements of a ducal execution.
Kiss the bride," he ordered young Rusyn, the groom, and as Rusyn obliged, there rose cheers and laughter from the crowd. The union of two young nobles was far more understandable to the people, far closer to their hearts than the constant feuds close to the throne. "Give us a diversion," he added, for the young man's ears alone, and Rusyn, nothing loath, gave him that and more, leaving his new bride breathless, to the utter and noisy delight of the crowd. The traditional cheers went up, and when Cefwyn left the bride and groom to their moment of public display, and reached his intimates and his wife, he passed only a glance to Idrys, who understood every order implicit in that moment's stare and went to be sure all the necessary things happened.
The duke of Ryssand's little entourage had meanwhile had time to clear the square by now, the crowd had been entertained, and now the bridal procession could get under way without looking like the tail of Ryssand's.
"Ring the bells!" he said, realizing that the bells were the source of the silence, and a lay brother ran to relay that order.
"Trumpeters!" the Guard sergeant shouted. "Way for His Majesty an'
Her Grace!"
They descended the icy steps without mishap, save one of the lay brothers went sliding in unseemly fashion, to the rough laughter of a now good-humored crowd.
For those who gathered omens from ceremonies, however, this one had not had the best beginning. Everything about the marriage of Luriel and Rusyn was second-best, from the choice of mates to the once-worn wedding finery, which had had to be recovered from soot and, one suspected, even traces of blood the common folk now called sacred.
Not the best-omened wedding, but gods, it was a relief all the same to have the matter done with. Panys was assured of a foothold in Murandys, where the Crown needed a loyal man. Ryssand had timed his arrival for after the ceremony, thank the gods, not to have disrupted the wedding altogether, and Lord Murandys was likely of mixed feelings about the choice of Luriel's wedding for Ryssand's return—Ryssand correctly predicting there would be no bloody confrontation and no arrest to mar a wedding.
But since Murandys had made the alliance with Panys as the way out of royal displeasure, during Ryssand's forced retreat from the court…
Murandys might be asking himself now whether Ryssand's choice of moments might be a veiled threat against him. It might have been premature, Murandys might now think, to have made an alliance with a friend of the monarch: Ryssand must have some secret behind this move.
So Cefwyn thought, too; and that was the other reason not to order Ryssand's arrest. There was more to it than appeared, and its name was very likely Cuthan of Bryn, and Tristen, gods save them all.
And peace with Tasmôrden? He began to guess the sum of matters, and said not a word to Ninévrisë on the matter of this peace Ryssand spoke of. She had heard as well as he, and knew no more than he, but neither of them could like the source of it: there was no agreement possible with Tasmôrden in Elwynor that did not preclude Ninévrisë's return as lady Regent—and that condition was entirely unacceptable.
Beyond unacceptable—it was foolish even to contemplate it.
Tasmôrden was forsworn, a rebel against Ninévrisë's father. What faith could they put in another oath?
Not mentioning the faith in Ryssand.
So they walked over the now well-trampled snow, with evidence of horses roused out from a well-fed evening before: they walked, a royal procession, a wedding, over snow no longer clean, thanks to Ryssand—but becoming so, in the steady fall of white.
Snow veiled the Guelesfort gates into an illusion of distance and mystery.
Snow lay on the ironwork, a magical outlining of the dragons that were the center of the work, on the gates that lay before the second, oaken set of gates.
"He has something," Ninévrisë said in a hushed voice, as they passed outside the hearing of the crowd. "And it's not good."
"I know damned well he has," Cefwyn answered her. "And I know it's not good."
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Next: CHAPTER 7