Niall, Prince of Homana, key player in a prophecy that spans generations, should have been the treasured link between Cheysuli and Homanan. Yet neither of the peoples he is destined to someday rule feel anything but suspicion of Niall. Homanans fear him for his Cheysuli heritage, while Cheysuli refuse to accept him as their own because he has acquired neither a lir-shape nor the lir companion that is the true mark of the Cheysuli shapechangers.
And now, despite his precarious situation within the kingdom, Niall must undertake a journey to fulfill yet another link in the ancient prophecy. He must travel through war-torn lands to claim his bride—a mission which may prove his doom. For searching for both his destiny and his lir, Niall is about to be plunged into a dangerous maelstrom of intrigue, betrayal, and deadly Ihlini sorcery....
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DAW titles by Jennifer Roberson
THE SWORD-DANCER SAGA
CHRONICLES OF THE CHEYSULI
THE SONG OF HOMANA
LEGACY OF THE SWORD
TRACK OF THE WHITE WOLF
A PRIDE OF PRINCES
DAUGHTER OF THE LION
FLIGHT OF THE RAVEN
A TAPESTRY OF LIONS
THE GOLDEN KEY
(with Melanie Rawn and Kate Elliott)
RETURN TO AVALON
HIGHWAYMEN: ROBBERS AND ROGUES
OF THE CHEYSULI:
TRACK OF THE
DAW BOOKS, INC.
DONALD A. WOLLHEIM, FOUNDER
375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
ELIZABETH R. WOLLHEIM
SHEILA E. GILBERT
For the readers.
THE HOUSE OF HOMANA
Table of Contents
I knelt in silence, in patience, right knee cushioned by layers of rain-soaked leaves. Boot heel pressed against buttock; the foot within the boot, perversely, threatened suddenly to cramp.
Not now, I told it, as if the thing might listen.
My left leg jutted up, offering a thigh on which I could rest the arm supporting the compact bow, support I needed badly. I had knelt a very long time in the misted forest, keeping my silence and my patience only because the discipline my father and brother had taught me, for once, held true. Perhaps I was finally learning.
How many times did Carillon kneel as I kneel, lying in wait for the enemy?
My grandsire’s name slipped easily into mouth or mind. Perhaps for another man, perhaps for another grandson, it would not. But for me, it was a legacy I did not always desire.
—Carillon would keep still for hours—Carillon would never speak—Carillon would know best how to do the job—
Distracted by my thoughts, I did not hear the sound behind me. I sensed only the shadow, the weight of the stalking beast—
Even as I tried to turn on cramping foot, the bow was knocked flying from my hands. Half-sheathed claws shredded leather hunting doublet and, beneath that, linen shirt. Weight descended and crushed me to the ground, grinding my face into damp leaves and soggy turf.
In the cold, breath rushed out of my nose and mouth like smoke from a dragon’s gullet. Mountain cat.
I knew it at once, even as the cat’s weight shifted and allowed me room to move. There is a smell, not unpleasant, about the cats. A sense of presence. An ambience, created the moment one of their kind appears.
I rolled, coming up onto my knees, jerking the knife free of the sheath at my belt—
A female. Full-fleshed and in prime condition. Her lush red coat was a dappled chestnut at shoulders and haunches. The tail lashed in short, vicious arcs as she crouched. Dark-tipped ears flattened against wedge-shaped head as she snarled, displaying an awesome assemblage of curving teeth.
She hissed, as a housecat will do when taken by surprise.
And then she purred.
I swore. Slammed the knife home into its sheath. Spat out mud and stripped decaying leaf from face and hair. And swore again as I saw the laughter in her amber, slanted eyes.
And suddenly I knew—
I glanced back instantly. In the clearing, very near the place I had waited so patiently, the red stag lay dead, the king stag, with the finest rack of antlers I had ever seen. And a red-fletched arrow stood up like a standard from his ribs.
“Ian!” I shouted. “Ian—come out! It was not fair!”
The cat sat down in the clearing, commenced licking one big paw, and continued to purr noisily.
“Ian?” I looked suspiciously at the cat a moment. “No—Tasha.” Still there was no answer. It was all I could do not to fill the trees with my shout. “Ian, the stag was mine—do you hear?” I waited. Wiggled my foot inside my boot; the cramp, thank the gods, was fading. “Ian,” I said menacingly; giving up, I bellowed it. “The stag was mine not yours!”
“But you were much too slow.” The answering voice was human, not feline. “Much too slow; did you think the king would wait on a prince forever?”
I spun around. As usual, with him, I had misjudged his position. There were times I would have sworn he could make his voice issue from rock or tree, and me left searching fruitlessly for a man.
My brother sifted out of trees, brush, slanted foggy shadows into the clearing beside the dead stag. Now that I saw him clearly, I wondered that I had not seen him before. He had been directly across from me. Watching. Waiting. And laughing, no doubt, at his foolish younger brother.
But in silence, so he would not give himself away.
I swore. Aloud, unfortunately, which only gave him more cause to laugh. But he did not, aloud; he merely grinned his white-toothed grin and waited in amused tolerance for me to finish my royal tirade.
And so I did not, having no wish to hand him further reason to laugh at me, or—worse—to dispense yet another of his ready homilies concerning a prince’s proper behavior.
I glared at him a moment, unable to keep myself from that much. I saw the bow in his hands and the red-fletched arrows poking up from the quiver behind his shoulder. And looked again at the matching arrow in the ribs of the red king stag.
Conversationally, I pointed out, “Using your lir to knock me half-silly was not within the rules of the competition.”
“There were no rules,” he countered immediately. “And what Tasha did was her own doing, no suggestion of mine—though, admittedly, she was looking after my interests.” I saw the maddening grin again; winged black brows rose up to disappear into equally raven hair. “And her own, naturally, as she shares in the kill.”
“Of course,” I agreed wryly. “You would never set her on me purposely—”
“Not for a liege man to do,” he agreed blandly, with an equally bland smile. Infuriating, is my older brother.
“You ought to teach her some manners.” I looked at the mountain cat, not at my brother. “But then, she has arrogance enough to match yours just as she is, so I am sure you prefer her this way.”
Ian, laughing—aloud this time—did not answer. Instead he knelt down by the stag to inspect his kill. In fawn-colored leathers he blended easily into the foliage and fallen leaves. Another man, lacking the skills I have learned, would not have seen Ian at all, until he moved. Even then, I thought only the glint of gold on his bare arms would give him away.
I should have known. I should have expected it. All a man has to do is look at him to know he is the better hunter. Because a man, looking at my brother, will see a Cheysuli warrior.
But a man, looking at me, will see only a fellow Homanan. Or Carillon, until he looks again.
For all we share a Cheysuli father, Ian and I share not a whit of anything more. Certainly not in appearance. Ian is all Cheysuli: black-haired, dark-skinned, yellow-eyed. And I am all Homanan: tawny-haired, fair-skinned, blue-eyed.
It may be that in a certain gesture, a specific movement, Ian and I resemble one another. Perhaps in a turn of phrase. But even that seems unlikely. Ian was Keep-raised, brought up by the clan. I was born in the royal palace of Homana-Mujhar, reared by the aristocracy. Even our accents differ a little: he speaks Homanan with the underlying lilt of the Cheysuli Old Tongue, frequently slipping into the language altogether when forgetful of his surroundings; my speech is always Homanan, laced with the nuances of Mujhara, and almost never do I fall into the Old Tongue of my ancestors.
Not that I have no wish to. I am Cheysuli as much as Ian—well, nearly; he is half, I claim a quarter—and yet no man would name me so. No man would ever look into my face and name me, in anger or awe, a shapechanger, because I lack the yellow eyes. I lack the color entirely; the gold, and even the language.
No. No shapechanger, the Cheysuli Prince of Homana.
Because in addition to lacking Cheysuli looks, I also lack a lir.
I think no one can fully understand what pain and futility and emptiness are. Not as I understand them: a man without a lir. And what of them I do understand comes not of the body but of the spirit. Of the soul. Because to know oneself a lirless Cheysuli is an exquisite sort of torture I would wish on no man, not even to save myself.
My father was young, too young, when he received his lir, and then he bonded with two: Taj and Lorn, falcon and wolf. Ian was fifteen when he formed his bond with Tasha. At ten, I hoped I would be as my father and receive my lir early. At thirteen and fourteen I hoped I would at least be younger than Ian, if I could not mimic my father. At fifteen and sixteen I prayed to all the gods I could to send me my lir as soon as possible, period, so I could know myself a man and a warrior of the clan. At seventeen, I began to dread it would never happen, never at all; that I would live out my life a lirless Cheysuli, only half a man, denied all the magic of my race.
And now, at eighteen, I knew those fears for truth.
Ian still knelt by the king stag. Tasha—lean, lovely, lissome Tasha—flowed across the clearing to her lir and rubbed her head against one bare arm. Automatically Ian slipped that arm around her, caressing sleek feline head and tugging affectionately at tufted ears. Tasha purred more loudly than ever, and I saw the distracted smile on Ian’s face as he responded to the mountain cat’s affection. A warrior in communion with his lir is much like a man in perfect union with a woman; another man, shut out of either relationship, is doubly cursed…and doubly lonely.
I turned away abruptly, knowing again the familiar uprush of pain, and bent to recover my bow. The arrow was broken; Tasha’s mock attack had caused me to fall on it. A sore hip told me I had also rolled across the bow. But at least the soreness allowed me to think of things other than my brother and his lir.
I have never been a sullen man, or even one much given to melancholy. Growing up a prince and heir to the throne of Homana was more than enough for most; would have been more than enough for me, were I not Cheysuli-born. But lirlessness—and the knowledge I would remain so—had altered my life. Nothing would change it, not now; no warrior in all the clans had ever reached his eighteenth birthday without receiving his lir. Nor, for that matter, his seventeenth. And so I tried to content myself with my rank and title—no small things, to the Homanan way of thinking—and the knowledge that for all I lacked a lir, I was still Cheysuli. No one could deny the Old Blood ran in my veins. No one. Not even the shar tahl, who spoke of rituals and traditions very carefully indeed when he spoke of them to me, because—for all I lacked a lir—I still claimed the proper line of descent. And that line would put me on the Lion Throne of Homana the day my father died.
That, at least, was something my brother could not lay claim to—not that he would wish to. Being bastard-born of my father’s Cheysuli meijha—light woman, in Homanan—attached no stigma to him in the clans. Cheysuli do not place such importance on legitimacy; in the clans, the birth of another Cheysuli is all that counts, but as far as the Homanans were concerned, Donal’s eldest son was tolerated among the Homanan aristocracy only because he was the son of the Mujhar.
And so Ian, as much as myself, knew what it was to lack absolute acceptance. It was, I suppose, his own part of the discordant harmony in an otherwise pleasing melody. It only manifested itself for a different reason.
“Niall—?” Ian rose with the habitual grace I tried to emulate and could not; I am too tall, too heavy. I lack the total ease of movement born in so many Cheysuli. “What is it?”
I thought I had learned to mask my face, even to Ian. It served no purpose to tell him what torture it was to see my brother with his lir, or my father with his. Most of the time it remained a dull ache, and bearable, as a sore tooth is bearable so long as it does not turn rotten in the jaw. But occasionally the tooth throbs, sending pain of unbearable intensity through my mind; my mask had slipped, and Ian had seen the face I wore behind it.
“Rujho—” so quickly he slipped into the Old Tongue—“are you ill?”
“No.” Abrupt answer, too abrupt; I inspected the bow again, for want of another action to cover my brief slip. “No, only—” I sought a lie to cover up the pain “—only disappointed. But I should know better than to match myself against you in something so—” I paused—“so Cheysuli as hunting a stag. You have only to take lir-shape, and the contest is finished.”
Ian indicated the arrow. “No lir-shape, rujho. Only human form.” He smiled, as if he knew we joked, but something told me he knew well enough what had prompted my discomfiture. “If it pleases you, Niall, I will concede. Without Tasha’s interference, you might well have taken the stag.”
I laughed at him outright. “Oh, aye, might have. Such a concession, rujho! You will almost have me believing I know what I am doing.”
“You know what I taught you, my lord.” Ian grinned. “And now, if you like, I will go fetch the horses as a proper liege man so we may escort the dead king home in honor.”
“To Homana-Mujhar?” The palace was at least two hours away; rain threatened again.
“No, I thought Clankeep. We can prepare the stag there for a proper presentation. Old Newlyn knows all the tricks.” Ian bent down and with a quick twist removed the unbroken arrow from between the ribs of the stag. “Clankeep is closer, for all that.”
I shut my mouth on an answer and did not say what I longed to: that I much preferred the palace. Clankeep is Cheysuli; lirless, I am extremely uncomfortable there. I avoid it when I can.
Ian glanced up. “Niall, it is your home as much as Mujhara.” So easily he read me, even by my silence.
I shook my head. “Homana-Mujhar is my place. Clankeep is yours.” Before he could speak I turned away. “I will get the horses. My legs are younger than yours.”
It is an old joke between us, the five years that separate us, but for once he would not let it go. He stepped across the dead king stag and caught my arm.
“Niall,” The levity was banished from his face. “Rujho, I cannot pretend to know what it is to lack a lir. But neither can I pretend your lack does not affect me.”
“Does it?” Resentment flared up instantly, surprising even me with its intensity. But this was intrusion into an area of my life he could not possibly understand. “Does it affect you, Ian? Does it disturb you that the warriors of the clan refer to me as a Homanan instead of a Cheysuli? Does it affect you that if they could, they would petition the shar tahl to have my birth-rune scratched off the permanent birth-lines?” His dark face went gray as death, and I realized he had not known I was aware of what a few of the more outspoken warriors said. “Oh, rujho, I know I am not alone in this. I know it must disturb you—a full-fledged Cheysuli warrior and a member of Clan Council—in particular: that the man intended to rule after Donal lacks the gifts of the Cheysuli. How could it not? You serve the prophecy as well as any warrior, and yet you look at me and see a man who does not fit. The link that was not forged.” It hurt me to see the pain in his yellow eyes; eyes some men still called bestial. “It affects you, it affects our sister, it affects our father. It even affects my mother.”
Ian’s hand fell away from my arm. “Aislinn? How?”
His tone was unguarded; I heard the note of astonishment in his voice. No, he would not expect my lack of a lir to affect my mother. How could it, when the Queen of Homana was fully Homanan herself, without a drop of Cheysuli blood?
How could he, when there was so little of affection between them? Not hatred; never that. Not even a true disliking of one another. Merely—toleration. A mutual apathy.
Because my mother, the Queen, recalled too clearly that what love my father had to offer had been given freely to his Cheysuli meijha, Ian’s mother, and not to the Homanan princess he had wed.
At least, not then.
I smiled, albeit wryly, more than a little resigned. “How does it affect my mother? Because to her, my lacking a lir emphasizes a certain other bloodline in me. It reminds her that in addition to looking almost exactly like her father, I reflect all his Homanan traits. No Cheysuli in me, oh no; I am Homanan to the bone. I am Carillon come again.”
The last was said a trifle bitterly; for all I am used to the fact I look so much like my grandsire, it is not an easy knowledge. I would sooner do without it.
Ian sighed. “Aye. I should have seen it. The gods know she goes on and on about Carillon enough, linking her son with her father. There are times I think she confuses the two of you.”
I shied away from that idea almost at once. It whispered of sickness; it promised obsession. No son wishes to know his mother obsessed, even if she is.
And she was not. She was not.
“Clankeep,” I said abruptly. “Well enough, then let us go. We owe this monarch more than a bed of leaves and bloodied turf.”
A muscle ticked in Ian’s jaw. “Aye,” he said tersely; no more.
I went off to fetch the horses.
Once, individual keeps had been scattered throughout Homana, springing up like toadstools across the land. Once, they had even reached a finger here and there into neighboring Ellas, when Shaine’s qu’mahlin had been in effect. The purge had resulted in the destruction of Cheysuli holdings as well as much of the race itself. Later the Solindish king, Bellam, had usurped the Lion Throne and laid waste to Homana in the name of Tynstar, Ihlini sorcerer, and devotee of the god of the netherworld. With Carillon in exile and the Cheysuli hunted by Solindish, Ihlini and Homanan alike, what remained of the Cheysuli was nearly destroyed completely. The keeps had been sundered into heaps of shattered stone and shreds of painted cloth.
My legendary grandsire had, thank the gods, come home again to take back his stolen throne; his return ended Solindish and Ihlini domination and Shaine’s purge. Freed of the threat of extirpation, the Cheysuli had also come home from secret keeps and built Homanan ones again. Clankeep itself, spreading across the border between woodlands and meadowlands, had gone up after Donal succeeded to the Lion on Carillon’s death. And though the Cheysuli were granted freedom to live where they chose after decades of outlawry, they still preferred the closeness of the forests. Clankeep, ringed by un-mortared walls of undressed, gray-green stone, was the closest thing to a city the Cheysuli claimed.
As always, I felt the familiar admixture of emotions as we entered the sprawling keep: sorrow—a trace of trepidation—a fleeting sense of anger—an undertone of pride. A skein of raw emotions knotted itself inside my soul…but mostly, more than anything, I knew a tremendous yearning to belong as Ian belonged.
Clankeep is the heart of the Cheysuli, regardless that my father rules from Homana-Mujhar. It is Clankeep that feeds the spirit of each Cheysuli; Clankeep where the shar tahls keep the histories, traditions and rituals clear of taint. It is here they guard the remains of the prophecy of the Firstborn, warding the fragmented hide with all the power they can summon.
And it was here at Clankeep that Niall of Homana longed to spend his days, for all he was prince of the land.
Because then he would be Cheysuli.
The rain began again, though falling with less force than before. This was more of a mist, kiting on the wind. Sheets of it, shredded by the gusts, drifted before my horse. It muffled the sounds of the Keep and drove the Cheysuli inside their painted pavilions.
Except for Isolde. I should have known; ’Solde adores the rain, preferring thunder and lightning in abundance. But this misting shower, I knew, would do; it was better than boring sunlight.
“Ian! Niall! Both my rujholli at once?” She wore crimson, which was like her; it stood out against the damp grayness of the day as much as her bright ebullience did. I saw her come dashing through the drifting wet curtains as if she hardly felt them, damp wool skirts gathered up to show off furred boots of sleek dark otter pelt. Silver bells rimmed the cuffs of the boots, chiming as she ran. Matching bells were braided into thick black hair; like Ian, she was all Cheysuli. Even to the Old Blood in her veins.
“What is this?” She stopped as we did, putting out a hand to push a questing wet muzzle from her face; Ian’s gray stallion was a curious sort, and oddly affectionate toward our sister. But then, perhaps it was the magic in her showing. “The king stag!” Yellow eyes widened as she looked up at Ian and me. “How did you come by this?”
’Solde seemed untroubled by the rain, falling harder now, that pasted hair against scalp and dulled the shine of all her bells. One hand still on the stallion’s muzzle, she waited expectantly for an explanation.
I blew a drop of water off the end of my nose. “’Solde, you have eyes. The king stag, aye, and brought down by Ian’s hand—” I paused “—in a manner of speaking.”
Ian glared. “What nonsense is this? ‘In a manner of speaking.’ I took him down with a single arrow! You were there.”
“How kind of you to recall it.” I smiled down at ’Solde. “He set Tasha on me the moment I prepared to loose my own arrow, and the cat spoiled my shot.”
’Solde laughed, smothered it with a hand, then attempted, unsuccessfully, to give Ian a stern glance of remonstration. At three years younger than Ian and two years older than I, she did what she could to mother us both. Though I had my own mother in Homana-Mujhar, ’Solde and Ian did not; Sorcha was long dead.
Rain fell harder yet. My chestnut gelding snorted and shook himself, jostling all my bones. I was already a trifle stiff from Tasha’s mock attack; I needed no further reminding of human fragility. “’Solde, do you mind if we go into Ian’s pavilion? You may like the rain, but we have been out in it longer than I prefer.”
Her slim brown fingers caressed the crown bedecking the king stag’s head. “So fine, so fine…a gift for our jehan?” She asked it of Ian, whose stallion bore the stag before the Cheysuli saddle.
“He will be pleased, I think,” Ian agreed “’Solde, Niall has the right of it. I will shrink like an old wool tunic if I stay out in this downpour a moment longer.”
’Solde stepped aside, shaking her head in disappointment, and all the bright bells rang. “Babies, both of you, to be so particular about the weather. Warriors must be prepared for anything. Warriors never complain about the weather. Warriors—”
“’Solde, be still,” Ian suggested, calmly reining his stallion toward the nearest pavilion. “What you know of warriors could be fit into an acorn.”
“No,” she said, “at least a walnut. Or so Ceinn tells me.”
The stallion was stopped short, so short my own mount nearly walked into the dappled rump, which is not something I particularly care to see happen around Ian’s prickly stallion. But for once the gray did nothing.
Ian, however, did. “Ceinn?” He twisted in the saddle and looked back at our smug-faced sister. “What has Ceinn to say about how much you know of warriors?”
“Quite a lot,” she answered off-handedly. “He has asked me to be his cheysula.”
“Ceinn?” Ian, knowing the warriors better than I, could afford to sound astonished; all I could do was stare. “Are you sure he said cheysula and not meijha?”
“The words do have entirely different sounds,” ’Solde told him pointedly, which would not please Ian any at all. But then, of course, she did not mean to. “And I do know the difference.”
Ian scowled. “Isolde, he has said nothing to me about it.”
“You have been in Mujhara,” she reminded him. “For weeks. Months. And besides, he is not required to say anything to you. It is me for whom he wishes to offer.”
Ian, still scowling, cast a glance at me. “Well? Are you going to say nothing to her?”
“Perhaps I might wish her luck,” I answered gravely. “Whenever has anything we have said to her made the slightest amount of difference?”
“Oh, it has,” Isolde said. “You just never noticed.”
Ian shut his eyes. “Her mind, small as it is, astonishes me with its capacity for stubbornness, once a decision is made.” Eyes open again, he twisted his mouth in a wry grimace of resignation. “Niall has the right of it: nothing we say will make any difference. But—why Ceinn?”
“Ceinn pleases me,” she answered simply. “Should there be another reason?”
Ian glanced at me, and I knew our thoughts ran along similar paths: for a woman like our sister, a free Cheysuli woman with only bastard ties to royalty, there need be no other reason.
For the Prince of Homana, however, there were multitudinous other reasons. Which was why I had been cradle-betrothed to a cousin I had never seen.
Gisella was her name. Gisella of Atvia. Daughter of Alaric himself, and my father’s sister, Bronwyn.
I smiled down at my Cheysuli half-sister. “No, ’Solde. No other reason. If he pleases you, that is enough for Ian and me.”
“Aye,” Ian agreed glumly. “And now that you have taken us by surprise, ’Solde, as you intended all along, may we get out of the rain?”
’Solde grinned the grin that Ian usually wore. “There is a fire in your pavilion, rujho, and hot honey brew, fresh bread, cheese and a bit of venison.”
Ian sighed. “You knew we were coming.”
’Solde laughed. “Of course I did. Tasha told me.”
And with those well-intentioned words, my sister once more reminded me even she claimed gifts that I could not.
The rain began to fall a trifle harder. Isolde flapped a hand at us both. “Go in, go in, before the food and drink grow cold. I have my own fire to tend, and then I will come back.”
She was gone, crimson skirts dyed dark by the weight of the rain. I heard the chime of bells as ’Solde ran toward her pavilion (did she share it now with Ceinn?) and reflected the sound suited my sister. There was nothing of dark silence about Isolde.
“Go on,” Ian told me. “Old Newlyn will wish to see the stag now in order how best to judge the preparation. There is no need for you to get any wetter. Tasha will keep you company.”
Ian did not bother to wait for my answer; much as I dislike to admit it, he is accustomed to having me do as he tells me to. Prince of Homana—liege man; one would think Ian did my bidding, but he does it only rarely. Only when it suits that which he believes appropriate to a liege man’s conduct.
I watched him go much as ’Solde had gone, fading into the wind and rain like a creature born of both. And she had the right of it, my rujholla; warriors did not complain about the weather. Warriors were prepared for anything.
Or perhaps it was just that they knew how to make themselves look prepared, thereby fooling us all.
I grinned and swung off my gelding, looping the reins over a wooden picket-stake before the pavilion doorflap. As I pulled the flap back, Tasha moved by me into the interior, damp fur slicking back against muscle and bone as she pressed briefly against my leg. I wondered if she hated the rain as most housecats did; but then, she would hardly thank me for comparing her to a common creature such as knew the tame freedom of Mujhara’s alleys and the corridors of Homana-Mujhar.
Ian’s pavilion was dyed a pale saffron color. The exterior bore a stylized painting of a mountain cat in vermilion, honoring his lir. The interior was illuminated by the small fire ’Solde had lighted, but because of the gray of the day the shadows lay deep and thick. Trunks merged with walls and tapestries, the divider curtain with the faint haze of silver woodsmoke. Nothing seemed of substance except the fire in the cairn.
Tasha wasted no time. She stretched her damp, substantial length upon the silver-blue pelt of a snow bear and began to lick herself dry. Unfortunately, I could not do the same with my own soaked skin, not having the proper tongue.
Wet leathers smell. So do wet mountain cats. Between myself and Ian’s lir, there was little left that did not offend my nose. And because Ian and I were not at all of a size, me being both a hand-span taller and at least thirty pounds heavier, I could not borrow dry leathers from one of his clothing chests. So I wrapped myself up in yet another bear pelt, this one chestnut-brown, and hunched down beside the fire with my back to the doorflap. I poured a cup of hot honey brew and inhaled the pungent steam.
“Ian.” The voice outside startled me into nearly spilling my drink. “Ian, we must talk. About your rujholli’s future and the future of the Lion—” Without waiting for the word admitting entrance, the man who spoke jerked aside the doorflap and ducked inside. “Your decision can wait no long—”
He broke off at once as I turned on my knees to look at him. He was a stranger to me; clearly, I was not to him. And neither was his subject.
I rose, shedding bear pelt, and faced him directly. He was young, but several years older than I. Quite obviously all Cheysuli and just as obviously all warrior. He wore leathers, damp at the shoulders, dyed the color of beech leaves. His gold bore the incised shapes of a rock bear, a breed smaller than that most commonly found in Homana, but doubly deadly. I had not heard of a warrior bonding with a rock bear for years.
By the lir I judged the man. And by the look of him, he was not one to allow another man time to speak when he had words of his own in his mouth. Even in all its youth, his face was hard, made of sharp angles, sharper than is common. His nose was a blade that sliced his face in half. There was the faint tracery of an old scar cutting the flesh at the corner of one eye. Though not so much older than I in years, I knew he was decades older in self-confidence.
But I have learned how tall men can occasionally intimidate shorter men. I reached out and took up the weapon. “Aye?” I asked. “You spoke of me?”
I waited. Dull color stained his dark face darker, but only for a moment. The yellow eyes veiled themselves at once; he was not a man I could intimidate with height or rank. But then I should have known better than to try; Cheysuli are intimidated by no one.
“’Solde said her rujholli was here.” He gave up nothing in manner or speech.
“He is,” I agreed. “Did she not say—both?”
He judged me. I could see it. He judged me, as if he sought something in my face, my voice, my eyes. And then I saw the brief glance at my left ear, naked of gold, and knew the judgment reached.
Or perhaps merely recalled, as if it were no new thing. “No,” he said smoothly. “She mentioned only Ian.”
My fingers clenched briefly on the cup; carefully, I unlocked the stiffened joints. With effort, I kept my voice from reflecting the pain his casual words had caused. That much I had learned from my father; kingcraft often requires delicacy of speech as well as subterfuge. This meeting would afford me the chance to practice both. “My rujholli is with Newlyn. But if you would prefer it, you may wait here for his return.” I paused. “Or leave your message with me.”
I knew he would not. I could smell it on him: a great need for confidence, secrecy; his manner bespoke an arrested anticipation. Whatever news he had for Ian was important to them both. And would therefore be important to me as well, I thought, a trifle mystified; I wondered anew at the stranger’s attitude.
“With you?” He nearly smiled. And then he did, clearly, and I saw he was not so much older than I after all. “My thanks, but no. I think not, my lord; it is better done in private.”
He spoke politely, but I knew well enough what he did. Cheysuli warriors only rarely give rank to another, and then only to a Homanan such as my grandsire had been. To another warrior, never, because Cheysuli are born and remain equal until they die. And so he reminded me, as perhaps he meant to, that he viewed me as nothing more than a Homanan.
An unblessed man, as lirless Homanans are called. Well, perhaps he is not so wrong.
Politely, he bowed his head in subtle acknowledgment of my rank. It grated in my soul, that acknowledgment; I would trade every Homanan rank in the world for acceptance in all the clans.
“Tell your brother Ceinn has words for him,” he said quietly, using the Homanan tongue as if I were deaf to the Cheysuli. “And forgive me for interrupting.”
He was gone before I could stop him; before I could say a word about my sister’s marriage. It was not my place to say nay or yea to the union; Cheysuli women are free to take what warrior they will, but there was little good in making no effort to like the man she would wed.
Well, the effort would have to wait.
The cup was cool in my hand. It would be easy enough to pour out the cold liquor and refill my cup with hot, but suddenly I wanted no liquor, no food, no pavilion filled with my brother’s lir. Thanks to Ceinn and his careful words, I wanted nothing to do with anyone.
Tasha still lay on the pelt. She had interrupted the grooming ritual to look at me with the fixed, feral gaze of the mountain cat, as if she sought to read my mind. That she could read Ian’s I knew, but mine was closed to her. As much as hers was to me, and always would be.
Abruptly, I set down the cup and went back out into the rain. At once I shivered, but did not allow it to turn me from my intention. I jerked the reins from the picket-stake and swung up into the wet Homanan saddle.
Homanan this, Homanan that—it is no wonder the Cheysuli look at me with doubt!
“Niall!” Ian, coming through the rain, lacked both stallion and stag. “Rujho—”
I cut him off. “I am for Mujhara after all. I have no taste for Clankeep today.” I reined my fractious chestnut around. “Ceinn came looking for you.”
Black brows rose a trifle; what I looked for in his face was missing. There was no guilt in my brother, no embarrassment, that he discussed me with others behind my back.
But I wonder…what does he say?
Ian shrugged, dismissing Isolde’s warrior. “Niall, stay the night, at least. Why go back in this rain?”
“The rain has stopped.” It had, even as we spoke, but the air was heavy with the promise of more. “Ian, just—just let me be.” It came out rather lamely, which irritated me even more. “Rujho…let me be.”
He did. I saw the consternation in his face and the brief tightening of his mouth, but he said nothing more. One brown hand slapped my chestnut’s rain-darkened rump, and I was away at last.
Away. Again. Away. Gods, how I hate running—
—and yet, as always, it seemed the only answer.
I stopped running at sunset because my horse went lame. Not far from Mujhara—I could see torchlights just ahead—I pushed myself out of the damp saddle with effort (wet leather against wet leather hinders movement considerably) and dropped down into sucking mud. I swore, jerked boots free, slipped and slid around to the right foreleg to inspect the injured hoof. The gelding nosed at me and snorted as I insisted he lift the leg. I tried to ignore damp questing nostrils at the back of my neck as I dug balled mud from his hoof.
A stone had wedged itself in the tender frog of the hoof. Cold, stiff fingers did not accomplish much; I unsheathed my knife and dug carefully at the stone until I pried it loose. The frog was bruised. It was nothing that would not heal in two or three days, but for now riding him would only worsen the lameness and delay recovery. And so I took up the reins and proceeded to lead my horse into the outskirts of Mujhara.
The city is centuries older than I. My father once told me the Cheysuli originally built Mujhara, before they turned from castles and houses to the freedom of the forests. But the Homanans claimed their ancestors had built it, though artifacts of Cheysuli origin had been found in old foundations. I could not say who had the right of it, as both races had lived in Homana for hundreds and hundreds of years, but I thought it likely the Cheysuli had built at least Homana-Mujhar, for the palace was full of lir-shapes carved in rose-colored stone and rich dark wood.
Mujhara itself, however, resembles little of the city that once held court upon the land. Originally curtain walls had ringed the city, offering protection against the enemy. But Mujhara was like a small boy growing to manhood all at once, without warning. It had burst free of childhood’s bones and sinews with new adult growth and strength, as I myself had so dramatically two years before; now the city walls and barbican gates lay nearly half a league yet inside the outskirts, leaving hundreds outside the Mujhar’s official protection.
But we had not been at war for nearly twenty years, and all the treaties held. Homana was at peace.
The gelding limped behind me as I led him through the narrow, mud-clogged streets. Inside the walls the streets were cobbled. Outside they were not, since no one could say what dwellings might go up overnight, thereby creating new streets. Ordinarily the ground was dry and hardpacked, or frozen solid in winter. But now it was a rainy spring. And so I slogged through the mud with my limping horse behind me.
I headed straight toward the nearest gate leading into the inner city, but nothing in Mujhara is straight. Streets and alleys and closes wind around and around like Erinnish knotwork, lacking beginning and end. So the Prince of Homana and his royal mount also wound around and around.
In fall, the light dies quickly. With the sun gone the streets lay shadow-clad in deepening darkness. I frowned against those few torches that threw inadequate illumination from dwellings into the street, for they played tricks on the eyes by hiding real obstacles even as they created others.
Your own fault, I reminded myself. Ian offered a warm pavilion, dry pallet, good food, company, drink.
Well, so would Homana-Mujhar, providing the horse allowed me to reach it before the night was through.
The rising yowl of an angry cat broke into my thoughts. The sound came closer still, rising in volume as well as tone; I turned, searching, and saw the dark streak come running at me from out of the shadowed wynd. Behind the cat came a dog singularly dedicated to catching his prey. Neither animal paid mind to me or my horse, both intent upon the moment. The cat flew by me, closely followed by the dog, and as I turned to watch them go I came face to face with a cloaked and hooded man.
I stopped short. So did my horse; he nearly walked over me. As it was, I felt hoof against heel before I could step away.
The cloaked figure did not attempt to move out of my way, nor did he offer apology. He stood his ground. I thought perhaps he mistook me for another; when he put out a restraining hand as I made to go on around him I knew he did not, and I closed my free hand around the hilt of my knife.
“A moment of your time,” said the cloaked figure quietly.
The gelding, so close behind me, snorted loudly into my left ear and showered me with mucus as I jumped and swore. The stranger pushed the hood from his head and let it settle on his shoulders. I could see his face dimly in the diffused light of the torches. He was smiling; my horse’s response had amused him.
I let the merest hint of knife blade show and hoped my voice sounded steadier than I felt. Thieves and cutpurses abound in any city, even Mujhara, and I was not in an area I knew well. For that matter, only rarely do I go into the city alone at all. Ian is almost always with me, or others from the palace.
“I carry no wealth,” I challenged, attempting to sound older and more confident than I was. “I have only this horse, which is far from a valuable beast at the moment. Else I would be riding.”
The smile widened a little. “If I wanted your horse and your wealth, my young lord, I would take both. As it is, I desire only a moment of your time. But first, let us have better light. I would let you see to whom you speak.”
I opened my mouth to repudiate his arrogance and his demands upon my time; I said nothing. I said nothing because I could not, being struck dumb by the illumination he conjured out of the air.
A hand. The merest flick of eloquent fingers, sketching, and a rune glowed in the air. Deepest, richest purple, swallowing the darkness and creating light as bright as day.
I thrust up an arm to block the sudden flame and fell back two steps. Briefly I felt the bulwark of my horse’s chest behind me. But then he, too, took fright from the fire and shied badly, lunging away so quickly he jerked the reins free of my hand. I whirled, trying to catch him, but for the moment his lameness was forgotten. He wheeled and went back the way we had come, spraying thick clots of mud into the air and liberally daubing my clothing as well as my unshielded face.
But the horse was the least of my worries. Much as he had spun I also spun, but not away. Not yet. I faced the man instead, though admittedly only through utter astonishment and no particular measure of courage. But I could hardly see him through the brilliance of his rune.
The hand dropped back to his side, hidden in woolen folds of darkest blue. The rune remained: hissing, shedding tendrils of brilliant flame…and yet there was no heat. Only the bitter cold of harshest winter.
“There.” He was content with what he had wrought. “Light, my lord. Illumination. Not in the manner to which you are accustomed, perhaps, but light nonetheless. Which would lead me to believe there is no Darkness in my sorcery if I can conjure Light.”
Illumination filled out the details of his face. He was an immensely attractive man, as some men are; not precisely pretty, but more than merely handsome. As a child he would have been beautiful. But he was no longer a child, and had not been for years.
Suspicion flared much as the rune flared, blinding and all-consuming. At once I looked for the telltale eyes and found the stories true. One blue. One brown. The eyes of a demon, men said of people with mismatched eyes; appropriate, in this case, for his name was linked with such. With Asar-Suti himself, the god of the netherworld, who made and dwells in darkness.
Black hair, worn loose and very long, was held back from his face by a narrow silver circlet. He was cleanshaven, as if he wished all to see his face and marvel at its clarity of features. No modest Ihlini, Strahan; he wore pride and power like a second cloak, and finer than any silk. I saw the glint of silver at one ear. His left, as if he mocked the lir-gold of the Cheysuli.
But then, perhaps he mocked no one; he could not wear an earring in his right because he lacked the ear.
I took a single backward step. Stopped. Again, not because I found a sudden spurt of courage, but because I found I could not move. Facing him, seeing for myself what manner of man he was, I could not go immediately out of the sorcerer’s presence.
Ensorcellment? Perhaps. But I choose to call it consuming fascination.
I licked my lips. Breath was harsh in my throat. It was difficult to swallow. A weight was pressing on my ribs. The contents of my belly threatened to become discontent with their surroundings.
The odd eyes watched me. Strahan judged, as Ceinn had judged. And, like Ceinn, the Ihlini saw I had no gold of my own. But then, undoubtedly, Strahan already knew quite well of my lack.
He smiled. I wondered how much of Tynstar was in him, his father, whom men claimed a handsome man. And his Solindish mother, Electra, who had been Carillon’s wife and queen before Carillon had slain her. Oh aye, I wondered how much of Electra was in him, because she was in me as well.
“Kinsman.” Coolly, he acknowledged the blood between us. “You must tender my regards to your father when I am done with you.”
I did not care for the implications in the statement. And yet I knew I stood little chance against him, whatever he chose to do. Lirless, I lacked the magic of my race. Nothing would turn the Ihlini’s power if he chose to use it against me.
Strahan smiled again. Women, I knew, would be at once swallowed whole by the magnitude of his allure. And men. For a different reason, perhaps, but the results would be the same. Where Strahan had need of loyal servants, he would find them. He would take them. And use them up before he ever let them go.
“I have heard stories of you, Niall.” That did not serve to settle me at all. “Tales of how the Prince of Homana, young as he is, bears a striking resemblance to Carillon. Of course it is in the blood, you being his grandson, but I wonder….” The smile showed itself again. There was speculation in his ill-matched eyes. “When I knew him, he was an old man made older by my father’s arts, and he was ill. Ill and dying, slowly, as the disease devoured him. But still a strong man, as strong as he could be.” Black brows drew down a little beneath the silver circlet; he was judging me again, and using my grandsire as the point of comparison. Like my mother. Like so many Homanans. “He was the enemy, of course, a man I desired to slay—especially once he had slain my father,” the cool voice hardened, “but in the end, Osric of Atvia did the slaying for me.” Briefly, one corner of his beautiful mouth twisted in an expression of irritation. “And now, in some strange manner, I see I must face Carillon again.”
“No.” Inwardly, I drew in as deep a breath as I could. It did not dull the fear, but it filled the emptiness of my belly with something other than utter panic.
Strahan’s arched brows rose. “No?”
I wanted to clear my throat before I tried my voice again. I did not, because I knew he would take it as a sign of my fear. And then, looking into the sorcerer’s face, I no longer cared what he thought or what he knew.
This man is kin to me… Ihlini, perhaps, and powerful, but still a man like me.
“You face me, Strahan,” I told him as evenly as I could. “Not my grandsire. Not my father. I am the one you face.”
The Ihlini smiled a little. “You, then.” Casually said, as if I hardly mattered. So easily was I discounted by Tynstar’s son. “Again; you will tender my regards to your father, the Mujhar.”
I smiled. I felt it stretch my lips a little, and heard the steadiness of my voice. As even as I could want it. “Be certain I will, Strahan. And know he will be pleased you have shown yourself in Mujhara. He has sought you many years.”
“And will seek me many more.” He was patently unruffled by my bravado. “What is between Donal and me will be settled one day but not tonight. Tonight I came seeking you.”
“And if I said I had neither the time nor the inclination to trade empty threats with you?”
Strahan laughed. The rune hissed and spat and pulsed against the darkness, as if it laughed as well. “The wolf’s cub hackles, snapping; the falcon’s hatchling spreads his wings and tries to fly.” The laughter stopped as quickly as it had begun. Softly, he said, “A suggestion, my lord prince: waste no effort in displays of dominance when you have no lir to mimic.”
From a Homanan, from a Cheysuli, the taunts were bad enough. But from an Ihlini sorcerer—
Rage roared up from inside my head. I heard a voice shouting at Strahan, calling him foul names in Homanan and Old Tongue alike. That much I knew of the language. I felt my body take two steps forward, saw my hands rise up as if to clutch at the Ihlini’s throat. And then my hands struck through the flaming rune and the bones filled up with pain.
Cold. Not hot. Cold.
I cried out. I felt myself crushed to my knees in the mud of the street. The rune ate through leather and flesh to my bones and turned my blood to ice.
Through the haze of pain and the glare of living flame, I saw the Ihlini’s inhumanly beautiful face. Dimly, I saw how he watched me, glinting eyes narrowed, black brows drawn down as if he studied a specimen. Waiting. Watching. Examining the results of the specimen’s foolishness.
I watched him watching me and remembered who he was.
As well as what he was.
At last, he spoke. “Not now. Not yet. Later.”
No more than that. A fluid gesture of one hand and the rune ran away from my body, spilling out of my flesh like blood from an opened vein. It ran down my thighs to splash against the mud, pooling like rancid water. Puddled. Ran in upon itself. And then hurled itself upward to renew its form in the shadows of the night.
Strahan looked down upon me as I knelt in the mud of the street. Once again he smiled. I saw genuine amusement and a trace of pleasure in his eyes; a look of contented reminiscence.
“Your father once knelt to me,” he said in a perfect contentment. He did not gloat. I think he did not need to. “Did he never tell you?” A nod of his head as I held my silence; it was the least I owed my father. “No, he would never say it; not to you, but it is true. And now his son as well.” Strahan paused. “His Homanan son; the Cheysuli would never do it.”
So easily he reached into my soul and touched that aspect of my character which I hated. Not my brother. Never Ian. No—myself, for resenting the gifts Ian—and others—claimed. Gifts I should claim myself.
I wrenched myself from my unintended posture of obeisance. A small thing, to face the sorcerer standing, but the beginnings of rebellion. It was the least I would offer him.
“State your business,” I said flatly, I have learned something of royal impatience from my father, who hates the demands of diplomacy. Too often he is trapped by endless petitioners.
Strahan’s eyes narrowed a trifle. “You are betrothed to your cousin, Gisella of Atvia: do not wed the girl.”
Stunned, I waited for something more. And when he offered nothing, I laughed. It was unintended. The situation hardly warranted levity, but he caught me so off-guard there was nothing else I could do.
I laughed at him. And Strahan did not like it.
“You fool,” he snapped. “I could grind you into the mud before you could utter a word, and never bestir myself.”
Suddenly, he was no longer so awe-inspiring. I had touched a nerve. “Do it,” I challenged, emboldened by his unexpected vulnerability. “What better way of keeping me from wedding my Atvian cousin?”
Something hurled me flat against the ground, pinning me on my back. Half-swallowed in mud, I lay there, staring up at the angry sorcerer. “Drown,” he said between clenched teeth. “Drown in all this mud!”
I could not move. I felt the ground shift beneath my flattened body. It heaved itself up from under me, lapped over my limbs and began to inch up my torso. I felt it in my ears; at the corners of my eyes.
But even as I drowned, I was aware of a nagging question. Why did it matter to Strahan if I wed Gisella or not?
The mud was at my mouth. My body was nearly swallowed whole. I felt the first finger reaching into my nostrils. I shouted, but my mouth filled with the mud.
Insanely, I did not think of dying for itself. I thought instead of disappointing others by the helplessness of my dying. Ah gods, not like this—Carillon would never die like this—in such futility.
Abruptly, the rune winked out. Darkness filled my head.
I thought it was the mud. I thought it might be death. And then I realized that though I lay flat on my back in the street, I was free of the drowning mud.
I lay there. All was silence, except for my ragged breathing. The abrupt disappearance of the brilliant rune left my eyes mostly blinded; I saw nothing, not even the light from nearby dwellings. Only darkness.
I twisted. Thrust one shaking hand into the ooze and slowly pushed myself up. Mud clung to me from head to toe, but it no longer threatened to drown me. I was weary unto death, as if all the strength had been sucked from me. I was cold, wet, filthy, stinking of my fear…and angry that I was so inconsequential a foe for the Ihlini.
“Why should I do it?” Strahan asked. “Why should I trouble myself with you?”
I twitched. Spun again to face him. I had believed myself alone; that Strahan had gone into the darkness. And then I saw the ghostly luminescence of his face in the light of the quarter moon, and I realized the clouds had broken at last.
I spat out mud. My reprieve made me momentarily brave. “I think I understand, Ihlini. If I wed Gisella and get sons on her, I have added yet another link to the chain. Another yarn to the tapestry of the Firstborn.” A muscle jumped once in his cheek. “Aye, that is it! Atvian blood mixed with that of Homana, Solinde and the Cheysuli brings us decidedly closer to fulfilling the prophecy.” Suddenly, I laughed; I understood it at last. “By keeping me from wedding Gisella you break the link before it is truly forged.”
“Wed her,” he said sharply, abruptly changing course. “Wed the Atvian girl; I do not care. One day you will come to me; I invite you now to do it.” His odd eyes narrowed a little. “If you have sons, I will make them mine. I will take them…but I think you will never get sons upon Gisella because the others will see you dead.”
“Others?” I could not help the blurted question. “Who but you would wish me dead?”
It was Strahan’s turn to laugh. “Has your father taught you nothing? Do they keep you in ignorance, thinking to ward your pride? Not an easy thing to know, is it, that you are the center of the storm.” Silver glinted at his single ear. “Better to ask: who would not wish you dead.”
“Not—?” I whispered hollowly, as if I were a puppet and he the puppetmaster.
Strahan pursed his lips in consideration. Black brows rose below the circlet. “Or, if not dead…at least replaced by another.”
Replaced. Me? But it was not possible. I was the Prince of Homana, legitimate son of Donal the Mujhar and Aislinn the Queen, Carillon’s daughter. The proper blood was in my veins. There were no other legitimate children; the Queen was barren, the physicians said. There was and always would be only me. How could they think to replace me, and—by the gods!—with whom?
One hand parted the darkness and filled it with light again. “Shall I prophesy for you, my lord prince?” asked the compelling tone. “Shall I show you what will come to be, no matter how hard you try to rewrite what the gods themselves have written?”
He did not wait for my answer. He lifted the hand again and lent it the fluid, eloquent language of brush against living canvas. I saw the fingers move, forming shapes amidst the darkness.
Colors poured out from Strahan’s fingertips: argent purple, deepest lavender, palest silver lilac. And the lurid red of fresh-spilled blood.
He painted a picture of living flame: a rampant Homanan lion and a compact Cheysuli warbow. All rich in detail, even to the curling tongue of the gape-mouthed lion and the ornamentation of the warbow. They hung against the air as if they waited. As if I had only to pluck the bow from the darkness and loose an arrow at the lion.
I stared. Swallowed hard. There were no words in my mouth. All I knew was a sense of awed, awful discovery: the picture he painted was a true one, regardless that the artist was my enemy.
“The Homanans want no Cheysuli shapechanger on the throne,” Strahan said above the hissing of the flame. “The Cheysuli want no unblessed Homanan on the throne. But Donal’s son is both and neither; what do you think will happen?” The parti-colored eyes were eerie in the light of the glowing shapes. “Look to your people, Niall,” he said. So softly, he spoke; so gentle was his tone. “Look to your friends…your enemies…your kin—lest they form an alliance against you.”
Smoothly, he bled together the shapes of bow and lion. And out of the flame I saw born the face of my brother—and the face I knew as my own.
“I think I need not trouble myself with you,” Strahan said in quiet satisfaction. “I will let the others do it for me.”
“You should have come to me first.” She had both temper and tongue to complement the red-gold brilliance of her hair. “Do you know how I have worried since that horse returned without you?”
That horse had indeed returned (without me, of course) and my absence had set the palace into an uproar. Rather, my lady mother had. Most of the Mujharan Guard had been stripped from better duty and sent out looking for me, as if I were a foolish, spoiled child gone wandering in the streets. And they had found me, some of them, just as I approached the gates of Homana-Mujhar. It had been a humiliating experience trying to explain how my horse and I had come to be separated. Especially since I could say nothing of Strahan’s presence in the city. Not to them. Not at once. Not until I faced my father.
But now, looking at my mother’s pale face, I knew it had been worse than humiliating for her. Always she worried. Always she fretted, saying Ian alone was not enough to guard me against misfortune. This would give her fuel for the fire.
Deep down, I was touched she cared so much, knowing it arose out of insecurity because she had borne only a single son, but mostly I was resentful. Oh, aye, she meant well by it, but there were times the weight she placed upon me was nearly too much to bear.
You may not be his son, she often said, but you bear his blood, his bone, even his flesh. Have you not looked in the silver plate?
Oh aye, I had, many times. And each time I saw the same thing: a crude vessel lacking luster, lacking polish. But no one saw the tarnish because it was overlaid with the shining patina of Carillon.
Even now she gave me no time to explain; to say a word to my father as he came into my chamber and shut the heavy door.
And so I let the resentment speak for me. “Would you have me remain in my befouled state, then? Look at me!” I had gotten as far as shedding muddy boots, soaked doublet; I faced her in filthy leather leggings and damp linen shirt. Thin rivulets of muddied water ran down to stain the carpeted floor.
“Niall.” That from my father; that only. But it was more than enough.
I looked back at my mother’s taut face. “I am sorry,” I told her contritely, meaning it. “But I wanted to bathe and change first, before I came to you.”
“It could have waited. I have seen men in worse conditions, and they were not my son.” The strain showed at the corners of eyes and mouth. She was still beautiful in a way harpers and poets had tried to describe for years, but it was a fragile, brittle beauty, as if she might break with the weight of who and what she was. Aislinn of Homana, daughter of Carillon; once a princess, now a queen, and the mother of her beloved father’s grandson.
I think she judged herself solely by the fact she had borne Carillon an heir. A true heir, that is; a man with much of his blood, not a Cheysuli warrior handpicked because Carillon had no choice. No, my mother did not view herself as woman, wife, mother or queen. Merely as a means to perpetuate her father’s growing legend.
The resentment died as I looked at her. I could not name what rose to take its place, for there was no single emotion. Just a jumble of them, tangled up together like threads of a tapestry; the back side, not the front, with none of the pattern showing.
I released a breath all at once. “I am well. Only wet and dirty. And more than a little hungry.” I looked at my father, longing to tell him at once of my confrontation with Strahan. But I would not so long as my mother was in the room. I saw no good in giving her yet another thing to fret about.
“Ian?” he asked.
I shrugged, turning away to strip out of my clammy shirt. “At Clankeep. I think he will stay the night.” I heard the servants in the antechamber, filling up the cask-tub with hot, scented water. Oil of cloves, from the smell of it.
“Niall—” It was my mother again, moving toward me, but she did not finish. My father put his hands on her shoulders and turned her away from me. He did it gently enough, but I saw the subtle insistence in his grasp.
“Leave him to me, Aislinn. We have guests to entertain.”
Womanlike, she instantly put a hand to the knot of red-gold hair coiled at her neck to tend her appearance. There was no need. She was immaculate, as always. The bright hair, as yet undulled by her thirty-six years, was contained in a pearl-studded net of golden wire. Her velvet gown was plain white, unadorned save for the beaded golden girdle and the gold torque at her throat. My father’s bride-gift to her some twenty years before.
“So we do.” Her voice was flat, almost colorless. “But I wonder that you choose to host them at all.”
“Kings do what kings must do.” I heard an edge in my father’s voice as well. “We are at peace with Atvia, Aislinn; let us not break the alliance with discourtesy.”
Her eyes flicked back to me. Great gray eyes, long-lidded and somnolent. Electra’s eyes, they said, recalling the mother’s beauty. But in conjuring Electra’s name they also conjured Tynstar’s.
“This concerns you as well, Niall,” she said abruptly. “More so than us, when it comes to that. And if your father does not tell you the whole of it, come to me. I will.”
The tension between them was palpable. I looked from mother to father, but his face was masked to me. Well, I could wait all night. One thing he had bequeathed to me was more than my share of stubbornness.
My mother went to the door and tugged it open before either my father or I could aid her. She lifted heavy skirts and swept out of the door at once, leaving me to shut it and face my father alone at last.
My father. The Mujhar of Homana he was, but more and less than that to me. He was a Cheysuli warrior.
A son looking upon his father rarely sees the man, he sees the parent. The man who sired him, not the individual. I was no different. Day in, day out I saw him, and yet I did not. I saw what I was accustomed to seeing; what the son saw in the father, the king, the warrior. Too often I did not see the man.
Nor did I really know him.
Now, I looked. I saw the face that had helped mold my own, and yet showed nothing of that molding. The bones were characteristically angular, hard, almost sharp; even in light-skinned Cheysuli, the heritage is obvious in the shape of the bones beneath the flesh. The responsibilities of a Mujhar and a warrior dedicated to his tahlmorra had incised lines between black brows, fanned creases from yellow eyes, deepened brackets beside the blade-straight nose. There was silver in his hair, pale as winter frost, but only a little; we age early only in that respect, and with infinite grace.
For the first time in a very long time I looked at the scars in his throat and recalled how Strahan had once tried to slay my father by setting a demon-hawk on him. Sakti, her name was, and she had set her talons true, even as she died. But my father had not, thanks to Finn, my kinsman, and the gods who gave us the earth magic.
Earth magic. Another thing I lacked.
He was tall, my father, but not so tall as I, with all of Carillon’s bulk. He lacked my weight, though no one would name him a small man; Cheysuli males rarely measure less than six feet, and he was three fingers taller yet. He was certainly more graceful than I, being more subtle in his movements. I wondered if that total ease of movement came with the race or age. The gods knew I had yet to discover it.
Beneath lowered lids, as I began to undress, I watched my father, and wondered how he had felt as Carillon bequeathed him the Lion Throne. I wondered what he had thought, knowing so much of Cheysuli tradition would have to be altered to fit the prophecy. To fit him: the first Cheysuli Mujhar in four hundred years.
I would be the second.
He said nothing of my mother to me. A private man, my father, though open enough about some things. Just—not about what I wanted to hear.
“Well?” That said, he waited.
I stripped out of my leggings and walked naked into the antechamber. Steam rose from the cask. The scent of cloves drifted into the air. And then I waved away the servants so my father and I could discuss things privately.
I considered telling him the whole of it, from the beginning of the hunt to my arrival, on foot, at Homana-Mujhar. But that would be unnecessarily perverse of me, and I thought the circumstances warranted more seriousness. So I took a shortcut straight to the matter of most importance to us both.
“I met a man tonight,” I began. “A stranger, at least to me. But he had a message meant for the Prince of Homana.” I took up the soap and began to lather my muddy skin. “He said I was not to wed my Atvian cousin.”
My father’s motion to hook a stool over with one foot was arrested in mid-reach. He did not sit down at all but faced me squarely, an expression of astonishment mingled with genuine bafflement on his face.
After a moment of startled speculation, he frowned, “How odd, that such a thing is said today.”
I dipped under the water to soak my hair; came up with water streaming down my face. “Why only odd today?” I spat out soapy water and grimaced at the taste.
“Because the Atvians we host tonight are here upon business concerning the betrothal.” This time he finished hooking the stool over and sat down. “It seems Alaric has decided it is time the betrothal became a marriage.”
I stared at him. The scent of cloves filled my nostrils. Water still ran down my face. But I did not try to wipe it away. “Now?”
“As soon as can be.” He sighed, stretching out long legs. “Alaric and I made an agreement nearly twenty years ago. He has every right to expect that agreement to be honored.”
His tone was a trifle dry. My father has no particular liking for Atvians, having fought them in the war; he has less affection for Alaric, the Lord of Atvia himself. For one, Alaric’s brother had slain Carillon, making my father Mujhar. And Alaric himself, upon swearing fealty to Donal of Homana, had demanded my father’s sister in marriage as a means to seal the alliance. Though my father had hated the idea, he had agreed at last because, in service to the prophecy of the Firstborn, he saw no other way of linking the proper bloodlines.
And to link them further, he had declared his firstborn son would wed the firstborn daughter of Bronwyn and Alaric.
Oh, aye, Alaric got the match he wanted. He even got the daughter, called Gisella. But no other. For Bronwyn died while birthing my half-Cheysuli cousin.
I looked at my father’s face. He is a solemn man, the Mujhar, not much given to impulsiveness or high spirits. Once he might have been different, but responsibilities, I am told, can often change even the most ebullient of men. The gods knew he had known more of them than most, my father. He had had mother, father, uncle and Mujhar all stripped from him, in the name of the prophecy. In the name of Ihlini treachery.
Lir-gold shone on his bare arms. He was Mujhar of Homana, but he did not forsake his Cheysuli customs, even in apparel. Certain occasions warranted he put on Homanan dress, but mostly he wore the leathers of his race.
I slid down against the curved wood of the cask and flipped the soap into the water. “Well, I expected the marriage to be made one day. You never hid it from me, my tahlmorra.” I grinned; it was an old joke between us. “Just—not yet.”
My father smiled. No man would call him old; he is not so far past forty, but neither would a woman call him young. Still, his smile banished the gravity of his title and set him free again. “No, not yet. But soon.” A glint of amusement showed in his yellow eyes. “You have a little time. Atvian custom demands a proxy wedding before the true marriage is made.”
I frowned in distraction at a purplish bruise on my right knee. “How soon will this proxy wedding be performed?”
“Oh, I think in the morning.… I did say you had a little time.” The glint in his eyes was more pronounced.
“In the morning!” I stared at him in dismay. “Without warning?”
He sighed. “Aye, I would have preferred it myself. And that is what upsets your jehana. She swears it is a purposeful insult and that we should send them home at once until proper homage is made, along with a respectful request, since Alaric owes me fealty, and not the other way around.” His smile was wry; my mother, born to such things as royal rights and expectations, was much more cognizant of details my father thought less important. “But Alaric’s envoy says a message was sent some months ago, though it never arrived. Perhaps it was.” He shrugged, patently dubious. “Regardless of that and the lack of proper homage, the betrothal was made in good faith. Alaric has the right to ask the wedding be performed. At seventeen, Gisella is old enough. Once the proxy ceremony is completed, you will go to Atvia to bring your cheysula home to a Homanan wedding.”
Cheysula. He used the Old Tongue word for wife. But his mouth shaped it differently than mine; like Ian, he had been keep-raised. They were very alike, my father and my brother. I was like neither of them.
As Strahan had taken infinite pains to point out.
Almost at once I forgot about cheysulas and proxy weddings. “Jehan,” the Cheysuli word slipped out more easily than usual. “The man who told me not to wed Gisella—” I broke off a moment, not knowing how to say it. “It was the Ihlini. Jehan—the man was Strahan.”
He stood up at once, my father; so quickly, so abruptly he overset the stool. I heard the thump of wood against stone. The hiss of his indrawn breath.
But “Strahan” was all he said.
In the heat of the scented, steaming water, I was cold. To see that look in my father’s eyes—
“Aye.” Mostly it was a whisper. “Jehan—”
“You are certain.” The tone was a whiplash of sound. No longer did I face my father. Nor did I face the Mujhar. What man I saw was a warrior filled up with a virulent hatred, dedicated to revenge.
“Certain,” I echoed. “I saw his eyes: one blue, one brown. And he lacked an ear.”
“Aye, he lacks an ear! Finn made certain of that much before he died!”
He broke off. I saw the spasm of grief contort his face. Almost as quickly, the mask was back in place. But he did not veil his eyes. Perhaps he could not. And what I saw sent an icy finger down my spine. “Jehan—”
“By the gods, I have prayed that ku’reshtin would come within my grasp.” Both hands were extended. Fisted. I saw how the sinews stood up beneath the flesh; how the nails dug into the palms. “By the gods, I have prayed for this!”
I had not known such hatred could live in my father. He can show anger, aye, and irritation, and more than a little intolerance of things he considers foolish, but to see such bitter hatred in his eyes, to hear it in his voice, made me a child again. It stripped me of size and confidence and made me small again.
I sat in the cask with water lapping around my chest and stared at the warrior who had sired me. And wondered what manner of man I might be had the Ihlini served me such pain and grief upon my platter.
“He did not harm you?”
Slowly, I shook my head. “He—gave me a taste of his power. But he did me no lasting harm.” I thought again on his parting words to me and the vividness of his painting. True? Or false? A trick to undermine my trust in Homanans and Cheysuli? More than likely. It was the Ihlini way.
And I knew it might succeed.
I looked away from my father. Replace me, Strahan had said. With another. Friends, enemies, kin. An alliance uniting them.
“Niall.” He reached down and caught my left arm, gripping me by the wrist. “He did not harm you?”
“No.” I said it as calmly as I could. “He said I was to tender you his regards.”
After a moment, my father released my arm. He swore beneath his breath. “Aye, he would. Ever polite, is Strahan. Even when he kills.”
“But why did he let me live? Surely it would suit his plans better if I were not in his way to the throne?”
“You are not in his way, not really.” My father, looking infinitely older, shook his head and sighed. “The gods know why, but it is an Ihlini trait to play with an enemy before the kill. They twist the mind before they twist the body, as if it makes the final snap that much more satisfying. Tynstar did it with Carillon for years, though in the end, as you know, Carillon slew Tynstar.” Of course I knew. It was all a part of the legend. “It may be a perverse manifestation of the power.” He shrugged again. “Who can say? Strahan did not let you live out of kindness. No. More like—anticipation.” His expression was very grim. “It means he has other plans for you. It means you are part of his game. And when he is done playing with you, he will end it. As he ended it for Finn.”