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The Raven Ring
A Lyra Novel
By Patricia C. Wrede
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Patricia C. Wrede
All rights reserved.
Ciaron smelled strange. It wasn't the saltwater smell of the sea, or the fishy tang of the docks, though both permeated the air even at the farthest inland edge of the city. No, Eleret thought, the odor that made her nose twitch came from the mingling of coal smoke with frying onions, stale beer, and attar of roses, and from the reek of hot metal, warm horse dung, and sweaty clothes—and all the other smells of too many people living in the same place. She wondered how the folk passing by her managed not to notice, and whether she, too, would adjust if she stayed long enough in Ciaron.
The noise was almost as bad as the smell. Wagons rumbled past, wheels clattering against the gray stone pavement while their loads of jars and barrels clattered against each other. Men and women called out in singsong voices, praising a confusing array of wares for sale. Shouting children ran through the crowd on mysterious errands, dodging people and horses and carts. If she did not listen too closely, the sounds blended into a continuous hum of activity.
A man in a gray cloak pushed by her and Eleret gave herself a mental slap. Sunset was only a few hours away, and if she didn't get moving she'd have nowhere to spend the night. After three weeks of traveling, she had learned the importance of finding lodging early. She stepped forward, and the fabric of her loose brown skirt wrapped around her calves as she tried to take too long a stride.
Eleret shoved her unbraided hair out of her face and grimaced. She had bought the garment the day before, in a small village some thirty miles east, and she was not yet used to the way it hampered her movements. She was not used to hair in her face, either. But Gralith had insisted that, if she must go to Ciaron alone, she should at least dress in a manner that did not instantly proclaim her Cilhar origins. The idea had sounded reasonable at the time, but she was beginning to wish she had not listened.
After a moment, the skirt unwound. Eleret slipped her left hand into her pocket, groping for the slit she had made in the material. She found it and reached through, to the knife she wore strapped to her thigh. Touching the smooth horn handle reminded her of home and made her feel better. She couldn't stand in the street all day holding a knife under her skirt, though. The thought made her smile slightly as she withdrew her hand. Shrugging the strap of her kit bag into a more comfortable position, she started slowly up the broad avenue inside Ciaron's east gate.
The avenue was at least three times the width of the widest street in Calmarten. Gralith had said there were eight such avenues in Ciaron, radiating out from Castle Hill at the center of the city. Eleret wondered whether they were all as crowded as this one. A bearded man on horseback rode by, passing a wagon filled with water jars coming in and another going out that carried crates with a few wilted vegetables in the bottoms. A dark-haired woman in a brown wool cloak argued with a merchant over the price of a small wooden box, glancing up from time to time to watch the traffic coming through the gate. An elderly porter shuffled from one shop to the next, hoping for work. And all around them, people walked, some briskly, others slowly, jostling each other with a cheerful unconcern that set Eleret's teeth on edge.
The buildings were as oversized as the street. Near the gate most of them were of wood or brick; farther along stood towering structures built of the same dark gray stone as the street. Painted ships and carts decorated a few of the walls, but most were plain. At the far end of the street, the steep sides of Castle Hill rose above the heads of the crowd, with the Emperor's palace perched on top.
A cart rattled by, piled with chairs carefully roped together and padded with coarse cloth. Its driver, a middle-aged woman in a faded green dress, glanced curiously in Eleret's direction and gave a little sniff as she passed. Eleret looked after her, more amused than annoyed. She had done nothing that she knew of to deserve the woman's contempt, and if she had overlooked some local custom, she would find it out soon enough and correct it.
At the next corner, Eleret left the avenue and headed south. "See Adept Climeral at the school first, before you do anything else," Gralith had said. "He'll know the best place for you to stay, and who you'll need to see." Then, Eleret had been skeptical of the need for such guidance, but five minutes inside Ciaron's outer wall had convinced her that it would be more useful than she had thought. Ciaron was enormous; she could waste hours or days trying to find an inn that suited her slender means.
Gralith's instructions were easier to follow than she had expected. Accustomed to choosing a path based on landmarks, even in villages, she had assumed that Gralith was unused to giving directions when he had said only "two streets, then right; three streets, then left." Now she understood. Ciaron had been carefully planned, the streets ran in straight lines at fixed distances from each other. The narrow alleys at the rear of the buildings were straight, too. It made Eleret even more uncomfortable than the throng of people.
As she drew farther away from the avenue, the crowd thinned. There were still more people on the street than she was used to—a couple wearing matching bright blue capes and hats, a dark-haired woman in a brown cloak, a group of youths swaggering slowly in no particular direction, a pair of muscular men carrying fishnets—but at least now she could walk without bumping into them. She wondered how her mother had felt about the people and the straight streets and square buildings, and whether she had missed the clean quiet of the mountains. But Tamm Salven had been in the army, Eleret reminded herself, stationed out on the western border. She probably had not spent much time in Ciaron.
Preoccupied with her thoughts, Eleret almost walked right past her destination. The Island of the Moon had set up its school in yet another large, plain, square stone building. Eleret had an unexpected attack of nervousness when she saw it. She told herself not to be foolish; a house was a house. Putting her shoulders back, she laid one hand lightly on the hilt of her dagger and went up to the door.
No one answered her repeated knocks. Eleret frowned. This was the official home of the Islanders in Ciaron; someone must be in. She stepped back a pace and studied the door. She saw no knocker or bellpull, but at the left side of the door, set in a niche in the stone, was a small brass knob. Feeling foolish, Eleret pulled at it.
A faint chime sounded somewhere inside the building. Eleret smiled. A moment later, a dark-haired girl in a plain gray robe opened the door. She looked as if she might be only a year or two older than Nilly, but she held herself with the stiff correctness of someone much older. "Welcome to our House. What service may I do you?"
"I'm here to see Adept Climeral," Eleret answered, all her uncertainty returning with a rush at the girl's formality.
The girl's eyes widened, and suddenly she looked younger and considerably less dignified. "Climeral? But he's head of the school; he doesn't do things for anyone, he just directs everyone else. Are you sure you want to see Climeral?"
Eleret repressed a strong desire to deny that she wanted any such thing. "Yes. I have a message for him, from Gralith in the Mountains of Morravik."
"Oh!" The girl gave her a bright, relieved smile. "Then you must be Eleret Salven. He's been expecting you for several days, even though Nijole said you couldn't possibly get here before the end of the week. He said Nijole hadn't ever met any Cilhar and didn't know what they could do. Looks like he was right again. Oh, I'm keeping you waiting. Come in; I'm Prill, and I talk too much."
To agree would have been unmannerly, so Eleret stepped inside without speaking. As she crossed the threshold, her uneasiness vanished like smoke in a sudden breeze. The stone walls seemed to radiate peace and solid comfort despite—or perhaps because of—their plain, uncarved surfaces. A bar of sunlight fell through a long, narrow window slit above the door, turning a thin stripe of stone to gold and making the high arch of the ceiling seem to vanish among quiet shadows.
"It is something of a mausoleum, isn't it?" Prill said cheerfully, misreading Eleret's expression. "Blame it on the Ciaronese. It's four hundred years since Imach Thyssel fell, or nearly, and they still won't allow decent windows in any building inside the city walls. Even the Emperor's palace has nothing but arrow slits on the first two floors. It's been hundreds of years since anyone attacked Ciaron; you'd think that by this time they'd feel safe enough to allow a few windows. But I was forgetting, you're Cilhar. You probably approve of buildings that are easy to defend."
"They have certain advantages," Eleret replied. She wondered what it would be like to live in a place that no one had attacked for a hundred years.
"Yes, I suppose they do. I'm sorry. I tend to forget that every place isn't as peaceful as the Island. Still, a city doesn't have to be completely peaceful to allow big windows. Look at Kith Alunel."
"Um," said Eleret. Kith Alunel was just a name to her, a city rich in history which she did not expect she would ever see.
"Exactly," Prill said. She threw open a door and announced, "Eleret Salven's come, Adept. And Nijole owes me a tenth piece."
"I'll remind her when I see her, Prill," an amused tenor voice said from the interior of the room. "I'll also remind her about making wagers with the juniors. Come in, Freelady Salven. I am Climeral of the Island of the Moon, as Prill here has neglected to mention."
Eleret stopped dead in the doorway, staring at the white-robed man behind the table at the far side of the room. His hair was silver-white and swept back above an unlined forehead; his eyes were a dark gray-green and tilted upward at the corners. He was unmistakably one of the non-Human, semilegendary Shee, and all Eleret could think was that Gralith might have warned her. It was one thing to know that all four of Lyra's races lived and worked on the Island of the Moon; meeting a Shee magician in person was something else entirely.
"Go on, Climeral won't eat you," Prill said.
"I may, however, mark you down for some classes in proper conduct," the Shee Adept said to Prill. "You appear to be badly in need of them."
"I'm taking two next season."
"If Nijole is going to put you on door-duty, you had better start sooner than that," Climeral told her. "Get along with you, child."
Prill made a face at him, gave Eleret a gamin grin, and disappeared down the corridor. Eleret looked at Climeral uncertainly, half expecting him to scowl. Instead, he smiled. "Welcome, Freelady."
"I thank you for your courtesy," Eleret responded automatically. "May your welcome bring strength to us both."
"And defeat to our enemies, yours and mine," the Shee finished. "Though mostly yours, I expect; Cilhar seem to collect them the way Traders collect money. Come in and sit down."
Eleret hesitated, wishing she had thought to question the young doorkeeper before she had gotten into this. However logical she tried to be, however much she told herself that Gralith wouldn't have sent her here if it weren't acceptable, it just didn't seem right to ask a Shee, one of the race of wizards who had raised up the Mountains of Morravik in order to hold back the Melyranne Sea, to give her directions to a cheap inn.
Climeral saw her glance back the way she had come, and misunderstood. "Don't mind Prill. We're very informal among ourselves, and she hasn't been here long enough to realize that some people find it disconcerting."
"It's not that," Eleret said quickly, and then wondered what she would say if he asked her what the problem was. She didn't think she could bring herself to explain that she did not know how to treat a being who had stepped straight out of the oldest and most beloved tales she knew.
Fortunately, Climeral didn't ask. He waited until she had settled herself into the chair, then said, "Gralith told us you were on your way, but the method he used does not allow long messages. You've come to collect your mother's effects?"
"I'm to pick up Ma's things, yes," Eleret answered, relieved by the Shee's businesslike tone. "Where do I go to get them?"
Climeral shuffled through several sheets of paper, then pulled one out and looked at it. "The office of the Imperial Guard. Ask for Commander Weziral. If anyone tries to make difficulties, tell them I sent you." He looked up with a smile. "And don't let anyone talk you into signing up."
"I won't." Tentatively, Eleret returned the smile. "How do I get to the office of the Imperial Guard?"
"I'll give you directions, but it's too late for you to go today. By the time you got there, everyone would be gone."
Eleret stared, her awe of the Shee swept away by astonishment. "Gone? What do you mean? How can you run an army if no one can get hold of the commanders?"
"There aren't many emergencies of that sort in Ciaron," Climeral said gently. "If something should happen, there are ways of sending messages to the people who need them. Important as it is to you, though, I don't think giving you your mother's things would be considered a good reason to summon the Commander during his off-duty time."
"Then I'll go tomorrow," Eleret said. The Shee magician might be right, but the arrangement still seemed peculiar. An army couldn't do much if it only fought for a few hours every day, and the people who ran it had to work as long and hard as the soldiers or everything was likely to come to pieces. Of course, Climeral was a wizard, not a warrior, so perhaps he didn't understand. "Can you suggest a place where I can stay tonight?"
"Try the Broken Harp. It's a little farther from the palace and the sights of Ciaron than most people like, so it's not expensive, but it's clean and reasonably comfortable. I'll have someone escort you there, if you'd like."
"No, thank you."
"Ciaron can be a bit overwhelming if you're not used to cities," Climeral warned. "And I wouldn't like to think that anything ... unpleasant might happen to you. You may not be wearing Cilhar styles, but someone may still guess where you've come from. And you're an attractive young woman; that can be a danger in itself."
For a moment, Eleret was tempted; then she shook her head. She didn't think Climeral could assign someone to be her guide and bodyguard for the whole time she was in Ciaron, so sooner or later she would have to survive the city on her own. It might as well be sooner.
Climeral shrugged. "All right. I'll write you out directions to the inn, then." He reached for the inkpot in the corner of the table.
"No need to waste the paper," Eleret told him quickly, a little shocked by the very idea. "Just say them over; it'll be faster."
"You're sure you'll remember them?"
"Quite sure." Eleret smiled, thinking of the straight, evenly spaced streets outside. The problem wouldn't be remembering the turns; it would be keeping count of them as she walked. She'd have to, though, if she wanted to find the inn. Everything in Ciaron looked like everything else; from what she'd seen, there were hardly any useful landmarks.
Climeral still looked dubious, but he told her. He seemed surprised when she did not ask him to repeat the directions, and even more surprised when, to reassure him, she faultlessly recited what he had said.
"What a remarkable memory," Climeral said when she finished.
"Me?" Eleret said. "You mean because I can say over that little bit? That's nothing. You should hear Siff or Bilet do a telling; they can go on for hours and never miss a word."
"This ability is common among Cilhar?"
"Most people can do it a little, if that's what you mean."
Climeral gave her a long, thoughtful look. "I can see that there is a great deal more to your people than their skill with weapons. Since you have so little difficulty, I may as well tell you now how to get to the offices of the Imperial Guard."
Excerpted from The Raven Ring by Patricia C. Wrede. Copyright © 1994 Patricia C. Wrede. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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