Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 6
Next: CHAPTER 8

There was no haste to deal with Ryssand… no chance, however, to exchange the royal finery for plainer garb, or to bathe away the incense that clung to the Quinaltine and everyone that had been within its walls.
Efanor came on the unspoken understanding that they had matters to discuss—urgent matters.
"Had you foreknowledge of this?" Cefwyn asked, drawing him into the privacy of the Blue Hall, where Ninévrisë waited, and added as he shut the door: "Superfluous to ask, but had you the least hint of this move?"
"None," Efanor said, and Ninévrisë sank down at the small round table where they often sat in their deliberations. "There was in fact every indication he would remain in his province at least until matters were settled between us. And yet he's brought the lady Artisane, when he certainly knows she's not welcome with Her Grace."
"Unwelcome," Ninévrisë said, "indeed, and so she is. But that's not saying I hold that sentiment to the last. If needs be, needs must. If Ryssand regrets the offer he made in favor of this peace he talks about—perhaps that alliance with Artisane is that much more important."
"My very wise lady," Cefwyn said, touching her fingers. "I've no doubt. None of you, either, brother." He withdrew his hand from Ninévrisë"'s and found that hand wished very much to become a fist, which movement he resisted, as he resisted the absolute order he could give at any moment, any hour, on any given day, to arrest the man. Second thoughts were always possible. As the people's blood cooled, they were less and less wise. "Damn him! the effrontery of the man!"
But common sense, which even a monarch possessed, insisted that this man, this extravagantly provocative man, had come with something beyond the ordinary, something so strong Ryssand was willing to cast his life and the survival of his house on its validity…
and Cefwyn was relatively sure of the nature of it.
It was no surprise, the news that Lord Cuthan had come to Ryssand's lands: he had known that already; he had known Parsynan was there, too, both supping at Ryssand's table, Parsynan nightly regaling the man with Tristen's affronts to Quinalt decency, Cuthan complaining of high-handed abuse of power.
Conservative, noble-born Quinaltine in Parsynan's case, and—at most charitable guess in Cuthan's case—liberal Bryaltine, if Cuthan's private beliefs were even that close to the Quinalt. They were an unusual pair of advisors for any northern baron, to say the very least.
Cefwyn wondered, did those watching that pair on horseback consider that curiosity? Did the commons have any least idea they were in the presence of an Aswydd, however remote in blood—advising orthodox Lord Ryssand?
Tristen had sent Cuthan to exile in Elwynor, in effect, into Tas-morden's hands. Damn Cuthan for a traitor—and depend on Tristen to grant him that retreat. It had given him a hellish problem.
"So Ryssand says he brings peace, and has a man lately in Ta-môden's keeping," he said, out of that thought. "An offer from Tasmôrden, that's the news, no great wit required for us to guess that much. It wants only the details."
"An offer from Tasmôrden," Efanor repeated. "An offer acceptable to the Quinalt zealots. One can only imagine those details."
"None of them acceptable to Elwynor," Ninévrisë said.
"Which goes without saying," Cefwyn replied. "Still, it would help to know the exact nature of the proposal before he brings it within hearing of the court—or has his agents gossip it about. We took damage enough in our encounter on the steps of the Quinaltine this morning—he uttered the word: peace. Peace, in any form that doesn't involve troops, would come welcome to all the barons. The seed's there. We can't unsay it."
"He was too polite," Efanor said slowly.
"Polite?" Cefwyn exclaimed, for politeness had been nowhere in his sight.
"To Her Grace," Efanor said, "he was polite. Everything he's done, every move his zealot followers have made, has been with the intention of lessening her position, and to chastise you for having the effrontery first to choose a Bryaltine wife instead of Luriel and then to support Her Grace's claims to lands the barons—particularly those near the river Lenúalim—would have for their own, if you were our grandfather. Now, and for no reason, he acknowledges Her Grace publicly, and Murandys openly courts her favor. I ask why."
Any question of Ryssand, the Quinalt, and Ninévrisë struck so deeply to the heart of his fears he lost all sense of moderation. Most of the Quinalt zealotry which had caused such trouble in Guelessar had its doctrinal origins in the northlands, in Ryssandish territory, where the Quinaltine faith found its most absolute and rigid interpretation. They had seen that small leaven in the loaf rise up to bloody riot involving half the town of Guelemara not a fortnight ago, at Luriel's first wedding. Priests liberally supported by Ryssand's donations preached their conservative doctrine, and disaffected guardsmen Tristen had let go had spun tales of magic and sorcery in Amefel… the part about magic at least was true: sorcery Cefwyn did not believe. They had killed Father Benwyn, clandestinely murdered the Patriarch as too moderate, too accommodating to the Crown—he was sure that the Patriarch's accommodation of the royal marriage had cost him his life.
And most of all Ryssand's darts and the zealots' sermons had flown at Ninévrisë… Artisane's empty accusations, Ryssand's attempts to rouse the Holy Father to forbid it, even the appearance of a Sihhë coin in the offering box, sending Tristen into exile. All these schemes had aimed at foreign influences in the land, and he could not forget now that the Aswydds' place of exile at Anwyfar was burned to the foundations: even the moderate Teranthines come under attack. The Teranthines were no longer safe. The Bryaltines certainly would not be.
And Efanor was right: Ryssand had not taken the chance to slight Ninévrisë, on the very steps of the Quinaltine, when protocols might have covered that small spite, when in fact Ryssand's zealot priests would have taken amiss his acknowledgment of her—would have disapproved it heartily if they were there to hear, as they might have been.
What manner of game had Ryssand set in motion? And what did he intend?
Order something too extreme, and Ryssand might prove to have another, fatal dart in his quiver… something that might unsettle the populace, snow or no snow, into another convulsion of religious outrage.
But what was this courtesy toward Ninévrisë?
"He has something," Cefwyn found himself saying, unable to look his brother in the eye. "He has something that makes him confident enough to return in spite of me, something beyond an offer from Tasmôrden, which needs must include peaceful dealings between Quinaltine and Bryaltine."
"He has some accusations against Tristen almost certainly," Efanor said, "considering the company he brought with him. And I'm sure Tristen will have done something worth our apprehensions in any given fortnight."
"Almost certainly he has." About Tristen he had no illusions, nor fear of him, either. Gods, how he missed him—missed the innocent indirection that could lead a man to question his most dearly held assumptions. Truth went where Tristen went, and his court, it seemed, could not withstand that habit of his. "Amefel can break out in plagues and frogs, and I'll still trust him. But you have the right of it. I fear he's not been discreet, not when he banished the earl of Bryn, not when he sent Parsynan out in disgrace."
"What dared we hope?" Efanor asked. "Discretion hasn't yet dawned on him."
"But, damn them, he's an assurance for our safety, if they understand him well enough, where he is. Mauryl held the old tower with never a bleat from Ryssand. What's changed?"
"Ryssand's ambition," Efanor said.
"Perhaps Tristen is the reason we hear from Tasmôrden now,"
Ninévrisë said softly. "Fear of what rises in Amefel. Perhaps Tasmôrden understands the new lord in Amefel very well indeed."
"So would Ryssand fear the new lord in Amefel, though for different reasons. He urged me appoint Parsynan to the post, and I never asked. I never had the full accounting of the archive in Henas-'amef; I never had the full account of Heryn Aswydd's dealings, or where the gold flowed, and in Ryssand's uncommon attachment to Amefel, Ryssand's uncommon fear for Parsynan's safety. Gods know whether we'll ever get it out of the records, not since Ryssand's man went through them. But Ryssand can't touch Tristen—even without this army of alliance he's building—and gods help Ryssand if Ryssand ever struck at me: I don't know if I could restrain Tristen. Surely Ryssand knows that."
"But is it to the good of Ylesuin," Efanor persisted, "if we let the old power wake. Yes, Mauryl was in his tower, but he was quiet in his tower. Is it the gods' will… or is it some other will that guides this? I confess to you, brother,—I am not wholly at peace with this. I trust the lord of Amefel, I trust him for his honor and for his goodwill—but he is—"
Efanor broke off, and left it unsaid, what Tristen was, or might be.
Sihhë?
The High King of the Elwynim?
"He is," Cefwyn said with a sigh, "Tristen. That says all. It says all he knows, more to the point."
"Are we sure?" Efanor asked. "Is it the man we know, who drove Parsynan from the town?"
"Oh, yes," Cefwyn said on a long breath. "Beyond any doubt. No temporizing, no debate. It was his best decision. Gods give us all the courage."
"Gods grant us the wisdom," Efanor said pointedly, "to apply it in due season. And thank the gods there's only one Tristen. Two would be—excessive."
"There were five, once," Ninévrisë said in the ensuing silence, "Five, if he is what most think."
"Gods save us from such days," Efanor said. "And I ask, in all, honesty, in all regard for one who's served you very well… is it; wise to lean for safety on this friend of ours, even willing the best; for us, as perhaps he does? He is Mauryl's, if he is anyone's. And' Mauryl, whatever else, was not necessarily a friend of our house."
"An ally of necessity," Cefwyn said. He had not approached Efanor with his own fears in that regard, and perhaps that was a mistake on his part. Efanor was devout; but indeed, Efanor was emerging from a young man's religious innocence to a sober awareness of the power inside the Quinaltine, and its warfare with the Crown. He had seen firsthand the consequences of Lewenbrook, when an army came back after an encounter with sorcery. Efanor understood that sort of warfare, and when they came to a question of Tristen's involvement—the question was there, and it hung silent in the air a moment.
"I trust him," Ninévrisë said. " I believe in him."
"So do we all. So do we all," Cefwyn said, and wished to say it, with all his heart. "He won't betray us. We'll have our army yet, damn Ryssand's conniving heart. He's failed in slandering you. Now he'll raise complaints about Tristen. That's exactly where this is; going. I can see it, right under the surface. Tristen's in the wrong and these saintly men he brings to argue how they were wronged—"
"Don't set your mind too early," Ninévrisë cautioned. "This peace—"
"This peace he claims to bring," Cefwyn began, but a page hovered in the doorway. "Well? Well?"
The boy tried to say a word, but Idrys appeared behind him and simply moved the boy aside. "My lord king," Idrys said, and drew in a man in the habit of the Quinalt, a lay brother, a fearful and woebegone young man.
"That's very well, Deisin," Cefwyn said to the page. It was the presence of the priest that the young man very wisely doubted as legitimate or wanted, but the page drew back and Idrys escorted the priest in.
"It's good you came," Cefwyn said peevishly. The lack of warning about Ryssand was not Idrys' best work, by far, but Cefwyn bit back any harsher word.
"My lord king, this is Brother Meigyn. He asks Your Majesty's protection and a recommendation to the Quinaltine, for his service to Your Majesty."
"And that service?"
"Brother Meigyn has been a clerk of the Quinalt in Ryssand. His position there has become difficult, because of the service he's about to render. If he goes back to Ryssand's court, he's a dead man."
"Give him to Annas. Recommend him to Jormys. What's the tale?"
"Let me dispose of the good brother," Idrys said, and escorted the frightened man to the door, where he gave orders to the page waiting outside. "His Majesty's instruction," Idrys said. "A hot meal, a warm place to sit. Wait for me. I may have more questions."
Then Idrys was back, a black, foreboding presence: master crow with news that did not bode well.
"From Lord Ryssand's court?" Ninévrisë prompted him in a faint voice.
"Just so, my lady. Unhappily, this was my last man in Ryssand's court. Two others had to flee, not without delivering useful information. Another died a suicide, or so the official explanation ran. Meigyn remained to the last. He's given to venial sins, a love of ale and women, far better a Teranthine than a Quinalt avocation, but that's his misfortune. Being my last and best source, he had the good sense to come only when there was something worth his life… and considerable reward."
"He accompanied Corswyndam here?" Cefwyn asked, wondering how close the clerk might have sat to the duke of Ryssand, and whether there would be a storm over this desertion.
"Fled, rather, on foot, when he knew Corswyndam was coming here and with what news. He's an unobtrusive man—stole a mule at Evas-on-Reyn, and managed to get here two hours behind. What he does say seems well worth his risk, my lord king. It's the essence of what Ryssand will say tonight."
The details. The chance to set their course before the battle. Cef - wyn exchanged a look with his brother and his wife.
"Say on, master crow." Cefwyn drew a deep breath and leaned an arm across the back of his chair, waiting. "What does Ryssand think to win?"
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Next: CHAPTER 8