The occasional observations of Carolyn Kephart, writer

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Life and Works, an Introduction

However you found your way here, reader, my thanks for stopping by.  I've created this post to introduce myself and my published work, much of which is free with my compliments. In addition, I'll be linking here to more fiction in the near future - new tales, sections of the Ryel Saga continuation, and bits from other works in progress. Other posts relate to past travels, like the three-part Visions of the Mystic East and others describing Europe and Japan, embellished with lots of my photos.

Visit my website at http://carolynkephart.com for short stories and first chapters of my books. You can read the former on this blog; click the links below to access. (New as of 5/1/2022: the first chapter of THE RYEL SAGA is now available here, with succeeding chapters to appear weekly. Check the Archive at the left of the screen to access them in order.)

The Kind Gods - Did the old gods really die? A warrior seeks answers at the grave of his greatest enemy. Published in Bewildering Stories.

Everafter Acres - Happily ever after isn't always perfect, but dark knights can be illuminating. Published in Luna Station Quarterly.

Last Laughter - A cautionary tale about a wicked court jester and his comeuppance. Published in Silver Blade Fantasy Quarterly.

Regenerated - Cela always hoped she'd see Jorgen again, but was this really Jorgen? Published in Quantum Muse.

The Heart's Desire - A government scryer's life is a prison until she discovers the ultimate secret language. 

My Facebook author page is here, and I also have a Friends page here, where pals can find out what I'm up to lately.

At The Core of the Happy Apple: A Mystery Solved examines the inner workings of a beloved vintage toy, and is my most popular blog post so far.

My current publications, available at most online outlets:

Wysard  and  Lord Brother, Parts One and Two of the Ryel Saga duology, acclaimed  epic fantasy

The Ryel Saga: A Tale of Love and Magic, combining the duology in a single volume

Queen of Time, contemporary magic realism that takes the Faust legend in new  directions

At the Core of the Happy Apple: A Mystery Solved, an essay on the inner workings  of the popular 1970s Fisher Price wobble toy  

PenTangle: Five Pointed Fables, a collection of short stories previously published in  ezines

(Photo: Pond flowers, taken by the author one lucky afternoon.)


Wednesday, August 03, 2022

THE RYEL SAGA: Chapter Thirteen

Below is Chapter Thirteen of THE RYEL SAGA, which combines both volumes of my WYSARD and LORD BROTHER duology. I plan to post a chapter every week (27 chapters total). Enjoy, with my compliments. For the first chapter visit herelinks to succeeding chapters are given at the bottom of each entry, and can also be accessed via the Archive panel at the left of the screen. For links relating to my other writing either free to read or available for purchase, visit here.

THE RYEL SAGA:
A TALE OF LOVE AND MAGIC
(WYSARD and LORD BROTHER
Complete in One Volume)

By Carolyn Kephart

Revised 2013 Second Edition

“Intricately layered and exotic” ~Robin Hobb

Lord Adept Ryel Mirai leaves the great Art-citadel Markul to rediscover the long-lost spell that will release his mentor from the wraithworld of the Void, but a malignant sorcerer likewise imprisoned has enlisted the aid of Ryel’s strongest rival to find the spell first. Amid dangers, joys and temptations, Ryel encounters unlikely allies and unforeseen enemies, and learns that he may well gain all that he wishes...although perhaps not as he wished it. 

Chapter Thirteen
    Theofanu

On his return to the headquarters Ryel was ushered by Roskerrek’s orderly to the rooms assigned him, which by their rich appointments seemed intended for visits from heads of state. The Count Palatine’s chambers overlooked the courtyard and the city, but the wysard’s faced the Lorn and the mountains beyond it. As Ryel was taking in the view, a platter of the Verlande’s delicious cuisine was sent in accompanied by noble wine, and the wysard fully enjoyed both as coppers of steaming water and a bath were made ready in front of the bedchamber’s blazing hearth.

Just as the wysard sank into the bath with a contented sigh, a perfunctory knock sounded at the door and Jorn Alleron entered the room, carrying a large long cloth bag over his arm. At the sight of the embathed and embarrassed Ryel he bowed with punctiliously averted eyes. “Forgive the intrusion, m’lord prince—and rest assured that I know your Steppes ways well, and won’t abash you by staring. My lord thought you might find use for some clothes in the Northern fashion. They’re fresh from the tailor, never yet worn. If you don’t want them, I’m to leave them here nonetheless.”

“How did you know to address me by that title?” Ryel demanded, surprised at how matter-of-factly Alleron had uttered it. “I thought I was incognito.”

“No chance of that, thanks to my lord’s spies at Grotherek,” Alleron replied, almost in apology. “Speaking of which, here’s his letter.”

Opening the crackling silver-sealed paper, Ryel quickly scanned the sharp-angled symmetry of the writing.

‛The Count Palatine regrets that he knew not the wandering Prince of Vrya at first sight, and wishes to make amends with the old Northern custom that welcomes guests with fresh raiment. He further asks that the Prince command whatever he wishes for his ease and comfort.

In all recognizance,

Roskerrek.’

Ryel folded the letter again, inwardly debating. Gorgeous Almancarian robes would more suitably adorn the Prince of Vrya than Northern dress—and attract the most inconvenient kind of attention. “The Count Palatine’s generosity is not only thoughtful, but remarkably well-timed,” he said at last. “I accept it with pleasure.”

Alleron nodded approvingly. “Good. You and he are just of a height, and much of a size, so these should serve. I’ll give order to have your own things laundered, by your leave.” He dropped the bag on the bed, somewhat exasperated. “You might have told me you were a prince of Destimar, sir—but I should have guessed as much from your horse. Will you need help in dressing?”

The question surprised Ryel, but then he realized it had been asked because of his exalted rank, a status he knew would be hard to get used to. “I can manage on my own, Captain. Have a seat and try some of this wine; it’s remarkable.”

The flaxen captain nodded thanks as he removed his hat and tossed it aside. He had changed out of uniform, and was now handsomely outfitted in lapis-blue shorn velvet and finely pleated lawn. “I have time for a glass or two. Then I must attend my lord at that heathen service—damnation take it.” He faced the fire, and jabbed it into roaring life with the poker.

“You have little sympathy for the cult of the Master, it seems,” Ryel ventured.

“I serve one master only, sir, not some low tinsel blasphemy that dares call itself a religion. Let me get you a towel.”

Ryel made a declining gesture. “Thank you, but it’s within my reach.”

“So it is; but I’ve orders to wait upon you, and I’m glad of ‛em.” Removing his gloves, Alleron took the towel from its rack by the fire, holding it open discreetly screenwise.

Ryel stood up, allowing himself to be enfolded in the warm thick-napped fabric, and reached for another towel to dry his hair. “What do you know concerning the cult of the Master?”

“It’s naught but rank witchcraft—babbled nonsense, bewildering drugs, lewd mummery.”

“Then how did it take hold?”

Alleron barked his quiet laugh. “To comprehend, you need only have been to a church service anywhere in Hallagh.”

Ryel remembered the cheerless stark rites he had witnessed earlier, and nodded. “I can well understand.”

The captain opened the bag on the bed and took out a rich silk dressing-gown of deep maroon brocade, helping Ryel into it. “Religion’s sadly altered since I was a lad. I used to enjoy attending worship service with my lord, because the music was always so fine and grand, and the colored glass windows were splendid to behold, and the priests wore such fine robes. The rites were full of ceremony, and grave and stately. I always felt as if man were a noble thing at those times. But the reforms put down all of that, as you’ve seen. The puritanical observances now in fashion might be well enough for the citizens, but the court, being for the most part licentious and unbridled, grew heartily tired of the Unseen—weary of the unvarying dull rigmarole, sick of an invisible god who did nothing but threaten and demand and forbid. Then comes Theofanu with her tricks and her drugs and her fleshly delights, all of them scot-free, and the court leapt on the Master’s way like an old lecher on a fresh doxy.”

Ryel laughed. “The rites of the goddess Argane are different from both, I hope.”

“As unlike as sunshine day from dirty night, sir,” the captain replied, most decidedly. “But you’ll find that out soon enough. For now, let’s see to that hair of yours.” As he spoke, he took up a comb. “Sit there by the fire, if you will.”

Ryel complied, but hesitantly. “Thank you, but—”

“It’s no trouble.” And Alleron with a gentle patience born of dealing with many a mane untangled the wysard’s clean damp locks, pulling never a strand as he combed it smooth. “You’ve good hair, sir,” he said approvingly. “Fine, but thickly set. I daresay it’d curl well with a little help. Shall I call in a barber?”

“I think not,” Ryel replied; but he had to admit to himself that he enjoyed being so skillfully looked after. “Grateful though I am for your services, captain, I would not further inconvenience you. Therefore—”

“I’m glad to. It takes me back,” Alleron said, his tone reflective, his fingers infinitely apt as they combed and ordered. “I used always to take this care of my lord, during the wars; and I still have, during those times his sickness afflicted him more cruelly than usual, days now gone forever thanks to you. They’re a mutton-fisted parcel of louts, his orderlies.” He hesitated. “Speaking of my lord, I would thank you again for your care of him. It’s altered him much—not only his mood, but his looks too. He might even wed if he wished, now.”

“As ill as he’s been, I can’t imagine that.”

“You’d be surprised. Women in the northlands look for solid merit when it comes to men, and several ladies, great ones in this realm, would gladly be wife to my lord because he’s learned in so many arts, and poetical, and a steel-nerved soldier too. Often when his health’s allowed he’s taken part at the Duchess of Craise’s famed gatherings, where the best minds of Hallagh convene; Her Grace is a rare and lovely woman still young, and would accept him in an eyeblink if he asked. I doubt she’d mind changing ranks, either; here in Hryeland a Count Palatine is worth fully as much as a prince of Destimar, by your leave.”

Ryel smiled. “And what of yourself, Captain?”

Alleron shrugged. “I’ll not wed until my lord does. I’ve three brothers, two of them my elders, all of ‛em wived and childered. Not every man’s a marrier, and I’m in no hurry. Now that your hair’s near dry, m’lord prince, here’s your clothes.” He opened the bag, drawing forth a suit of pearl-gray corded silk exquisitely made, and body-linen of dazzling whiteness. Shaking out the shirt, he held it to the fire to warm it, and a delicate fragrance of lavender and citron rose upon the air.

Taking advantage of Alleron’s discreetly turned back, Ryel pulled on a pair of soft cambric under-breeches. “Speaking of skills, I’ve also heard that the Count Palatine is expert in the healing of envenomed wounds.”

Alleron handed Ryel the shirt. “Ah. So we’re speaking of Guy Desrenaud now?”

Ryel nodded. “I believe we should.”

“What would you know of him, m’lord prince?”

“I’ve heard he’s dead,” the wysard replied.

Alleron did not reply at once. “That’s scarcely common knowledge hereabouts.”

“Do you believe it?” Ryel asked.

The captain looked the wysard in the eye, true as steel. “I believe anything my lord tells me, sir.”

“What do you remember concerning Guyon Desrenaud?”

At Ryel’s question Alleron half-smiled in his wry way. “I recall that the first part of my lord’s cure was to order that he be thoroughly washed, privately murmuring that a more reeking fellow he’d never been near in all his life. He had no love for Starklander—as all of us called Desrenaud—from the first; yet he could not help but admire him for his bravery and coolness in the face of danger when the wars came.”

“Did they ever quarrel?” the wysard asked.

Alleron ironically nodded. “Oh, many a time. Here’s your stockings—it’s custom to wear a couple of pair, against the cold.” As the wysard donned them, Alleron shook out the suit’s breeches with a sharp snap and set them within reach. “My lord would kill, I think, merely to kiss the tips of the Domina’s fingers, and it gave him untold pain to see Bradamaine prefer a wild Ralnahrian lordling to himself. But that’s no more than common knowledge.”

“Tell me something that isn’t, captain.”

“Very well,” said Alleron. “But only because you saved my lord’s life. Starklander was never more in danger than during his first week in the Barrier.”

Ryel’s blood quivered. “Why is that?”

Alleron held out the suit’s waistcoat for Ryel to slip into. “Because my lord nearly killed him.”

“Tell me more,” the wysard said; and it took all of his will to keep his voice detached and calm.

The captain handed Ryel a pair of boots of fine black leather, and gauntlets of the same. “Well, during the earl’s cure my lord stayed at his side the clock round. But one night I chanced to enter the room very softly, and saw my lord watching over Starklander not with care, but as a ravening lion eyes a sleeping child—I hope those boots fit you without galling. They were delivered from the cordwainer only today, and aren’t broken in.”

“They’re perfect,” Ryel said, somehow mastering his impatience. “Continue.”

“Well, my lord drew his dagger, and felt its edge awhile, never taking his eyes from Starklander, who slept heavily because drugged. And then my lord pulled aside the bedclothes and bent over Starklander as if to strike, and I was on the point of rushing over to prevent him. But all my lord did was to suddenly halt, and fling the dagger away, and sink into his chair again with his face in his hands.”

Ryel drew a relieved breath. “That’s an interesting story, captain.”

The captain shook out the coat and held it ready. “I expect you to keep it to yourself, m’lord prince.” Unpacking a rich lace collar and cuffs, Alleron adjusted them at Ryel’s neck and wrists; then took a round box from the bottom of the bag and produced a dashing wide-brimmed black hat embellished with a rich brocade band and a panache of gray plumes, which Ryel carefully donned. “You’re a fine sight in Hryeland garb, sir,” the captain remarked, standing back and frankly admiring after giving the hat a touch more tilt. “I’ve noticed that your ears are pierced; here’s a jewel for your left lobe, as is the custom with our young blades, and some rings for your fingers, gifts of my lord.”

Ryel hung the pearl pendant in his ear, and slid the rings—elegant circlets of gold and sapphire—on his fingers. “The Count Palatine’s generosity is as impressive as his taste.”

“It’s his way, m’lord prince. The Domina’s sent a coach for you; it’s waiting at the door.”

“We’ll go together, if you like.”

Alleron grunted refusal. “I never use a wagon unless I’m wounded. Horseback for me, or nothing; but I’ll ride at your side and bear you company. Best that we go now, for if we don’t get to the service before the Domina arrives, it’ll be considered disrespect. Here, don’t forget your cloak.”

Ryel donned the dashing black mantle, and the two men left the headquarters and made their way through the streets to the great park that spread out at the back of Grotherek Palace. In a retired part of it, Ryel descried a sheer wall of dark stone topped with sharp spikes, pierced by a narrow gate watched by two sentinels fully armed. Many coaches waited, all of them finely made, well-gilded, and emblazoned with coats of arms. The sentinels, noting the Domina’s quarterings on the doors of Ryel’s conveyance, bowed low as the wysard alighted and passed unquestioned through the gates with Alleron.

A smooth pavement of marble and mosaic led to the temple’s stairs, which were few and wide. The building itself was an overwrought edifice built of garish red-tinged stone, strangely and unpleasingly built up of layer upon layer of carved concatenated fantastic beings, animal and semi-human. Further unsettling to the eye were columns too slender for their capitals, windows of jarring shapes and styles, overly attenuated pinnacles.

“Ugly, isn’t it? This way.” And Alleron led the wysard into a long nave half-lit with fires suspended from the vault on slender chains, and murky with incense of civet and ambergris vying with the musky perfumes that exhaled from the assembled and impatient court. At the end of the nave stood not an altar, but a great marble dais like a low stage, ornately decorated; and facing this dais at some distance was a rich chair, the only such furniture in all the room.

“The Domina’s,” Alleron said. “Everyone else needs must remain on their feet, aching though they be.”

Present in sullen numbers were the Servants, who stood apart from the rest of the congregation, pallid, evil-eyed, scarred and defaced. To Ryel they seemed more like srih-automated corpses than living youth, so dully glazed were their sunken eyes and so waxy their faces; and he could tell by their fidgeting febrile impatience that they were starving for Theofanu’s drugs, all but mad for them.

Alleron dealt the wysard a nudge. “There’s my lord arriving, and you can be sure all know it.”

Roskerrek had just entered the nave like a red wolf among peacocks, and courtiers moved well aside as he passed them. His progress to the Domina’s empty chair set off a sensation of amazed murmurings and up-leaping eyebrows that he acknowledged with neither word nor look, save for a reluctant dash of color in his pale cheeks, and the proud denial of a smile on his stern sensual lips, and ineffable serenity welling in the depths of his strange-colored eyes. Approaching Ryel, he gave a soldierly bow.

“Most exalted Prince of Vrya, greetings,” he said, well knowing that all around him were listening. “Our Northern habit suits you very well indeed.”

Ryel returned the bow, in the suave manner of Almancar. “My lord of Roskerrek is as liberal with compliment as he is with gifts, and both are gratefully esteemed.”

As their courtesies were being discussed in whispers by those watching, a beautiful young woman rustled in, gowned in shimmering rich violet satin that closely sheathed the slimness of her waist, and proudly bared the smooth grace of her neck and shoulders. A strand of great pearls encircled her throat, and gold drops hung in her ears, and her luxuriance of dark curls was half caught up in a golden comb; her lips had been made yet redder with a touch of carmine, and her hazel eyes were enlarged yet more with a suggestion of kohl. She barely glanced at Roskerrek, and made her way straight to Ryel.

“So. The Prince of Vrya, eh?”

The wysard gazed in admiring wonder. “You make a perilous beauty, Countess.”

Valrandin only grimaced. “Bah. I detest skirts, and don’t much like having my neck half-naked.” A folding fan of ivory and silk hung from a ribbon at her waist, and she snapped it open with a deft flick of her wrist. “Sweltering in here, as always.”

Surely she was aware of Roskerrek’s stare, but she made no sign. Far from narrowing in feral ambiguity, his eyes gazed in searching fascination at the slender court beauty, and he drew near. “I have often observed, Countess, that in male habit you seem one of the handsomest youths in Hryeland; but in woman’s dress you are indisputably the fairest lady. Would that you had the vanity to perceive where your real strength lies.”

Instead of replying with a taunt, Valrandin looked up into Roskerrek’s face, examining every feature with evident wariness. “You are greatly changed, my lord.”

He faintly smiled. “It seems to unsettle you.”

Some of Valrandin’s old mutiny returned. “I fear no man,” she said, with arrogant emphasis on the last word. “And if you think—”

Sudden unseen music of trumpets rang in the vault, and the court’s restless chattering subsided as the Domina Bradamaine entered in manlike garb of midnight-blue brocade, stalking through the throng that fell back on either side with a soft roar of rustling silk and sweeping plumes. Valrandin and Roskerrek moved as one to attend her; but the Domina noticed Ryel first, and after a moment’s surprise waved him over to her side, her manner unexpectedly welcoming.

“Our Northern style of dress becomes you handsomely, Prince Ryel,” she said. “Yet even in your Steppes gear you seemed more than a mere Rismai physician. It’s bad manners indeed that a Destimarian prince of the blood should have to stand, but such is the protocol here. Lean against my chair, if you grow tired.”

“My thanks, most exalted.” Ryel lifted his eyes to the temple’s vault, where concatenated harmonies rained down like a shower of gold. “That music is very beautiful.”

Bradamaine only shrugged. “I’ve a blind ear for it. To me it’s naught but noise.” She turned to her left, and started at the sight of the Count Palatine, gazing up at him half in bewilderment, half in shock. “Yvain Essern, is that you?”

Roskerrek bowed low. “Eternally at your command, m’Domina.”

“I’d hardly know you. You’re so…changed.”

He gazed on her with a look Ryel could only describe as ardent. “Thank the Prince of Vrya for it. But whatever else about me alters, my zeal in your service never will. You may command me in anything—as you well know.”

Bradamaine only stared at him in clear mistrust. One of her hands clenched the chair-arm, and as if inadvertently Roskerrek as he spoke laid his own hand upon hers. Bradamaine recoiled as if from a venomous sting, wincing in momentary loathing. At that naked revulsion murmuringly observed by many onlookers, the Count Palatine showed no emotion; but he caught the Domina’s hand in a grip inexorable for all its gentleness, and kissed the pale smooth skin with lingering fervor. Bradamaine wrenched her hand free, clenching it as if longing to deal Roskerrek a blow; but the look in his eyes made her fingers slacken. Not even in Almancar, not even in the temple of Demetropa, had Ryel seen the depth of adoration that fired Roskerrek’s ice-gray eyes.

A whisper of music wrought by unknown instruments materialized out of nothingness. In the complete silence two equivocal figures in trailing copes emerged from a scented mist, tall priests neither male nor female, young nor old, their painted faces patched with diamonds, their eyelids purple and gold, lips a silvered scarlet. Both were slender and incandescently fair. Pearls and moonstones streamed in ropes from their tall diadems, and their hands and wrists glittered with a galaxy of ornaments; copes of opalescent orphreyed silk trailed in long folds behind them. They moved with a mannered grace, their looks haughty and distant.

“Two of the former ruler Regnier’s former favorites,” Valrandin whispered for Ryel’s edification. “Eunuchs now, as they deserve.”

They bore in their hands each a salver of gold in which burnt an incense which Ryel recognized with a start as mandragora mixed with feia and hrask. He forced himself to resist the seduction of the smoke, whose bittersweet reek of salt marsh and dead roses soon filled the whole of the temple. But the Servants craned forward, breathing deeply and avidly with the rest of the congregation, sighing in pleasure as their wits began to shift, and the two priests darted sly glances at each other, their painted mouths suppressing smiles.

Next came two men naked to the waist, clad to the ankle in many-colored silk belted with gold and precious stones—black men both, muscled and shorn, Zallans from all seeming, and if so, far indeed from their hot homeland. Each bore in both hands a globe, one made of black glass, one of white. The four priests stood abreast, leaving a space in their midst. The music grew ravishingly sweet, and the congregation, the Servants especially, trembled in near-frantic impatience. All at once a great flash of light darted from the temple’s dome to the center of the dais, and out of the radiance materialized a figure with uplifted arms, a woman with her head draped and her body robed in brilliant gold-cloth: the priestess Theofanu. At her gesture the music died away, and amid the after-ringings in the vault the Servants shrieked her name and the Master’s as if burning up in fire.

Another gesture of Theofanu’s and the Servants quieted, dropping down in full prostration while the rest of the congregation fell to its knees, until all were in postures of adoration save for Ryel and Roskerrek. Upright and unmoving they stood on either side of the Domina’s chair, awaiting what next would come. But Bradamaine had left her chair to kneel with bowed head next to Valrandin, her silver hair hiding all her face, raining around her shoulders like a shower of stars against a moonless night. Ryel caught the clove-amber scent of her gloves that lay draped over the arm of the chair, heard the muffled come and go of her breathing behind her face-concealing hands. A sudden tremor shot through him, annoying, uncontrollable, like the shudder after a taste of green fruit. The drug was taking him, for all his struggles.

Drawing aside her veil, Theofanu gazed complacently upon her followers. By her looks Ryel knew her to be of the mountain regions of the Azm Chak. She was lean as a stick, smoky yellow-brown of skin; her nose lay flat against her face, and her large fleshy mouth parted over prominent teeth filed to sharp points. Her cheeks were tattooed with the luck-symbols of her people, but the center of her forehead was scarred to the bone with the Master’s sign, a circle enclosing an eight-rayed spark. Her oiled hair was skinned back from her scarred face in a great black knot stuck full of long lacquered pins. Her age could not be told with any exactitude; she might have been thirty, or sixty. Long and narrow and absolutely black were her eyes, that scanned Roskerrek with suspicion and resentment, but met Ryel’s in complete satisfaction.

“The Master moves among us,” she said, the resonance of her voice weirdly incongruous in her dry little body. “The Master lives within us. The Master is the source of all joy.”

At that last word the congregation stirred in electric animation. The music changed to savage throbbing drumbeats, shrill pipings—the music of the teeming jungles of the priestess’ homeland. Theofanu and her half-naked priests began to sway to the fierce rhythm, and the onlookers eagerly seconded them until everyone in the room was rocking back and forth in ever-quickening unison—everyone but Ryel and the Count Palatine. The rocking became a dance, and the dance grew wild. It was strange and terrible to see Bradamaine’s haughty bedizened courtiers so obliviously unbridled, rumpling and ripping their silks and laces.

At the dance’s height Theofanu seized the white globe from the priest on her left, and as she did so the congregation shrieked in impatience. With a laugh Theofanu lightly tossed the bright sphere high into the air, out above the congregation. It hovered awhile above the eagerly gazing crowd, and as it hovered it began to glow within, brighter and yet more bright. Then it burst soundlessly, and a myriad glowing sparks drifted down. The shadowy nave filled with light brilliant as noonday, and the air changed to mist heady with high summer. As he breathed, Ryel felt his memory flood with everything he had ever held dear in his early years—acts of kindness shown him by others, places whose beauty he had reveled in; times he had spent riding across the steppes with his mother, and times he had walked with Edris in the dark of night atop the walls of Markul, talking of the Art. Amid his reverie fresh music began, a singing of many voices, the words incoherent and ecstatic, the harmonies intricate beyond unmeshing, the voices inhumanly sweet.

His eyes felt afire, and he opened them to find that every face about him was bathed in tears, save for Roskerrek’s.

Theofanu’s purple lips parted in a dangerous grin. Taking the black globe from the other priest, she held it forth, and a shivering gasp moved among the assembled courtiers.

“The Master calms all fear.” And she hurled the globe high above the upturned anguished faces. It floated over the congregation with deliberate slowness, and everyone it passed shrank from it; and in its dark depths glowed a dark light like the death of a far-off star. Then suddenly with a numbing blast the funereal sphere exploded, hailing down a shower of scorching soot, and instantly the nave was plunged into eclipse unearthly cold, clammy as grave-dirt. A stench of putrefaction poisoned the air, and upon the miasma a horde of loathsome forms floated in a glow of corpse-light. No music sounded now, but ghastly laughter and maddened howls mingled with the swelling hysteria of the congregation.

The Domina quivered in terror, and at her side Valrandin clenched back cries; but in the half-darkness the Count Palatine stood upright and unmoved, save for the contempt that twitched in the corner of his mouth. Ryel likewise scorned such puerile foolery, but nonetheless could not shut out the stink and the noise, nor quell the visions that bolted through the brain—flash after ghastly flash of war and torture, inhuman cruelties, monstrous atrocities far beyond anything Ryel had ever dared imagine even during his Markulit studies. The horrors brought back all the sickness the wysard had taken from Roskerrek, wringing his wits, shredding his entrails. Fevered and cramping he scrabbled in his pocket for the carnelian perfume-flask, and took a desperate breath. But to his blank despair no fragrance issued forth to rescue him from the air’s stench, or made any impression upon the pain.

The frenzy in the room was on the point of giving way to madness. A bare moment before utter lunacy reigned, Theofanu’s tumid mocking lips moved in a single word, and as she spoke that word her empty eyes locked with Ryel’s.

Deliverance came sweet as death. In the agony’s ebbing the wysard clutched the arm of the Domina’s chair, unbalanced and asweat; and all around him he could hear sobs of relief, the Servants’ loudest.

Theofanu made a graceful sweeping gesture, and the darkness lifted. Looking down, Ryel saw that not a single speck of black dirtied his garments, although the dark globe in its explosion had scattered burning sparks and reeking soot throughout the temple’s nave. With the lifting of the darkness, the congregation’s anguish evaporated. Now hungry expectation penetrated the chamber, lust chafing with impatience.

The priestess laughed low in her throat, and lifted her voice a third time. “The Master confers…pleasure.”

Delicious yet disturbing images, passionate and sensual, drifted across the wysard’s perturbed imagination with electric immediacy. Again he beheld Diara, sighing with delight as she gave herself up to his hands. It seemed he could never get enough of the silk of her, that sense-dazing fragrance. His flesh trembled, stiffened, ached beyond enduring.

But in that moment the air grew thick and sour, making him choke on the breath he fought to draw, and Dagar’s voice dripped into his brain like acid.

So hot, young blood? It lewdly giggled. But so dull, too. Here, let me show you some livelier sport.

“No,” Ryel choked. “Get out.”

But although he fought against them, his thoughts grew lubricious and wanton, their lascivity made cruel by the daimonic infection of his blood and Dagar’s exploitation of it. In a red vision he took Diara ravenously, ripping away her silken robes, scattering her ropes of pearl, forcing her down and clamping his mouth over her outcries. His breath quickened, his body tensed; but then a stern hand clutched his arm, hard as an iron vise.

“Stand straight,” hissed Roskerrek in his ear, wiltingly cold amid the assembly’s collective throb.

Ryel’s eyes burnt with desperate shame. All about him men and women whined and panted, but at Ryel’s side Roskerrek stood cold and unyielding as carved stone, his attention fixed on Bradamaine who now sat slumped and breathless, her ice-eyes heavy-lidded and fixed far, her red lips moving inaudibly.

New music sounded, beguiling and soft. Weary but not yet sated, ladies and gallants brushed against each other with suggestive deliberation, exchanging languishing glances, whispered trysts. Theofanu surveyed her work and seemed well contented. She spoke another word, and one of her acolytes brought her a great deep bowl of gold—an empty bowl, Ryel saw.

“The Master heeds your prayers.” Holding forth the vessel, the witch waited silently. In another moment courtiers approached to cast into the bowl not money or jewels, but folded papers. Theofanu welcomed each offering with smiles, and then handed the bowl to another of her priests.

“The Master gives all and asks nothing. Go, be joyful.”

She disappeared, not in a blinding blast but little by little, her substance seeming to dissolve into the mandragora haze as the congregation watched in awe and made various signs of devotion. The priests left the dais in silent state, retiring behind the hangings as the music continued to play in soft languorous measures.

Slowly and unwillingly Bradamaine rose from her chair amid the dazed obeisance of her court. Her face was flushed, and her breath came fast.

“Ah, Gabriel,” she said thickly, embracing Valrandin’s slim-laced waist. “Let’s leave this place, and lie down a little.”

Valrandin, acutely aware of Roskerrek’s relentless presence, whispered something urgent in the Domina’s ear. Those words worked like a spell, causing Bradamaine’s wonted pallor to return, her eyes become ice again. She released her favorite, and addressed the Count Palatine.

“I had almost forgotten. My lord Roskerrek, I would speak with you tomorrow morning, in my audience-chamber. Alone.”

At her last word the Count Palatine visibly started. “On what business, m’Domina?”

“A private matter. You have said that you’ll never fail to render me absolute obedience—I’ve an asking for you that will require it.” As she spoke, she glanced at Ryel, but the wysard could not read her look.

The Count Palatine bowed, clearly seeking to master his astonishment and joy. “I will not fail you, m’Domina. You have my word.”

Bradamaine’s harsh lips coldly tightened. “Do I indeed? We’ll see. Until tomorrow, then.” Abruptly she turned to the wysard. “My lord prince, most glad I am that we met.”

Ryel observed that her gladness seemed very slight, but he inclined his head. “As am I, m’Domina.”

“This will likely be our last encounter, I regret to say. I will be much busied with affairs of state henceforth. But if I can render you any service whilst you’re in Hallagh, you’ve only to ask. Farewell.”

Without another word Bradamaine departed, her arm once more around Valrandin. Ryel watched her going with misgiving, but he placed the blame for his mood and the Domina’s on the dangerous drugs still impregnating the air.

Then something seemed to sting him between the shoulder blades. Jerking about, he saw one of Theofanu’s androgynous acolytes beckoning to him from the dais. At that moment Alleron, who had been standing throughout the service as near the door as possible, approached with a message for the Count Palatine, and the wysard took occasion to slip away.

The silent priest led Ryel behind the hangings, through iron-bound doors and a somber antechamber, from thence into a great room filled with every luxury, lit by many lamps and warmed by a dozen braziers wrought in silver and jade, where precious essences burned among the coals. Ryel had expected to find appointments of barbaric magnificence in the wonted style of the Azm Chak, but saw nothing of the kind. Dawn-mauve, muted peach, soft green and ivory were the only colors, while the furniture was all deep-piled couches designed for intimate converse, and little tables carved of crystal and sweetwood, whereon stood dishes of perilous delicacies, phials of sense-obscuring drugs, ewers of bright wine, precious vases filled with narcotic flowers. Paintings of a suavely lascivious nature covered the walls, and statues of exquisite yet disturbing beauty peopled the room with maidens and dainty boys, clad lightly if at all. From one of the couches Theofanu smiled at Ryel.

“Over here, brother.” And she patted the cushions next to her with a spike-nailed ochre-hued hand. Most incongruous did she appear in those soft surroundings, monkeylike in her cloth of gold. “Over here, for pretty talk.”

Ryel joined her, and the acolyte silently took his leave, bowing low to both wysardess and wysard.

“Wine?” Theofanu asked. “It is of Masir. You fondest of Masir.”

Ryel remembered that delicious drink he had first tasted in Almancar, and his lewd imaginings of only moments before, and felt himself coloring hot. “I want no wine.”

“Drugs? I have all drugs.”

“No. Why did you wish to see me?”

Theofanu bunched herself up, hugging her ankles, tilting her head as she studied his face with her whiteless eyes. “So. Ryel Mirai, lord adept of Markul. You like my rites?”

“I found them trivial and childish.”

The wysardess laughed in shrill simian peals. “Yes! It take me much time to find something fool enough for the court of the Domina. But I find it. You know how? I look at the Unseen. I find the Unseen hates all sweet things. Loves money, much money, always money. No music, no drugs, no delight, no danger in temple of the Unseen. Only talk, talk, ugly talk. The religion of a cold land, a cold people. I bring the sun. Color, all colors. Pleasure. Music, very good music, because they love music here in the North. And I ask no money, not one copper coin money, never. Today is best so far; today, everyone surrender to my spells.” She winked, slyly. “Even you.”

Ryel quelled the hot blood that would have shamed his cheeks. “The Count Palatine of Roskerrek resisted your foolery, at least.”

“Ha. Redbane.” She said the name as if spitting out sucked poison. “One day he suffer. One day soon.”

Ryel quelled the hot blood overtaking his face. “Dagar uses you like a foolish toy, Theofanu.”

She only sneered. “I make this city my toy. Its queen my toy. Soon, all the land.”

“So it’s nothing more than a game to you?”

“The Master gave me a great gift, brother.” She poured herself wine. “You sure you not want some? No? Well.” She sat cross-legged, and drank. “In Azm Chak, all women treated like slaves. Beaten. Married too young, to old men. Their body’s pleasure-place cut away before marriage.” The opaque eyes narrowed in memory. “My sister die of it. Many girls die of it. But me, I live. Then they want to marry me to some man I hate—I hate all men, after that—and I run away from the Azm Chak, to Ormala. Learn the Art very fast. But nothing brings back my lost pleasure. Ormala soon not enough; I go to Elecambron. Dagar I find when I Cross; and Dagar gives me back my pleasure.”

“Dagar restored the excised flesh?”

“Not restore. Return the feeling. Make it more.” She licked her lips, her tongue like a slug on a fungus. “I have much pleasure, much, thanks to Dagar. I am grateful.”

Ryel stared at her. “Grateful enough to aid in the destruction of the World?”

She only nodded. “The World and more.” Reaching for the golden bowl at her side, she brought up a handful of folded notes. “The World destroys itself. Gladly, daily.” She chose a note and began to unwrap it. “Here are askings. Bribes, offers.” She began to read. “A great lord in difficulties needs gold. Offers his two children to serve the Master—boy and girl, lovely, both virgin. Another, from a lady who wish her false lover made impotent. Here another lady wants her husband dead.”

“Surely you do not fulfill such requests.”

She tossed the papers away. “Now and then, but seldom. Foolish askings. I tell them that Master answers all prayers, but only prayers spoken in the temple. So they come, and bring others.”

“If you keep using strong drugs in your rituals, Hryeland will soon have a pack of idiots and madmen for its court.”

Theofanu’s fleshy lips drew back in amusement. “So the Master hopes.”

“Dagar’s methods are well-suited to his auditory,” Ryel was forced to admit. “Carnal excess for the Hryeland aristocracy, and grim threats for the lower orders in Almancar.”

Theofanu nodded serene assent. “Much happen since you left Almancar. New religion there now, most stern—most like the Unseen. The dirty folk of the Dog’s Ward worship the Master. Some rich ladies, too, find the priest Michael pleasing. Wise are the ways of the Master.”

“I have failed to see Dagar’s wisdom in any of our encounters,” Ryel retorted.

Theofanu laughed at him. “How wise you? You that took Redbane’s sickness to yourself?”

Bitterly self-disgusted, Ryel made no reply.

The sorceress leaned forward, locking her empty eyes with Ryel’s. “We have both Crossed, brother. Both Crossed, both seen, both come back marked with Dagar’s seal. We know.”

The wysard tried to look away; could not. “I don’t understand you, sister.”

“Let Dagar have you. Fight no more.” Her bony hand with its sharp nails moved to wrap Ryel’s wrist, but he evaded that touch, revulsed.

“I will fight to the last of my strength, Theofanu.”

The witch frowned. “But why?”

“Because my Art is in the service of life.” As Ryel spoke, his stomach cramped and queased. “Because there is too much pain in the World already.” His skin burnt and sweated. “Because I know...what love is.” A hammering ache pounded his brain to gray mash, forcing him to silence.

Theofanu’s chattering laugh added to his suffering. “I feel your thoughts during the rites, brother,” she chuckled. “Much violence, much.”

Ryel fought the chill that tried to shake him. “I'm not well. But I will find a cure.”

“The Master will heal you,” said the witch. “Let him.”

“Never.” The wysard stood up, and the swiftness of his action made his brain burst almost. Clutching his head in his hands, he spoke again, even though his voice seemed to fracture his skull. “Dagar cannot succeed, Theofanu.”

She only curled her lip. “The Master will sway all soon, brother. The World. The Cities. All.”

Ryel trembled, all his blood burning. “No.”

The witch snickered, shrill and contemptuous. “No? Someday soon, Unseen will be forgotten, and worship of Redbane’s sword-goddess will be heresy. And someday you join me and Dagar, soon.”

The wysard moved away, clenching his teeth. “I’ve had enough of this.”

“You are in pain, brother.” The sorceress reached out her skinny arms, her long gilt nails. “Here, I help.”

“Don’t touch me!” Turning away violently, Ryel fled staggering from the room, Theofanu’s scorning tittering laughter echoing behind him.

Desperately pushing aside the hangings of the dais, the wysard lost his balance, and clung to the cloth as he swayed. Unable to master his guts, he vomited onto the precious mosaic pavement. Blind with excruciation he stumbled down the temple steps and into the open air, never so sweet to him before, and shoved past the guards into the park. Dropping down on the grass, he numbly groped in his coat pocket for the Transcendence scent-cylinder.

He never expected it to help him, but the merest whiff of the Dranthene fragrance took away the pain. Gasping with the deliciousness of that salvation he sat up, leaning his back against a tree and blankly staring into the grudgingly budding branches for a time. Only thirst racked him, now. Looking about, he saw that one of the ornamental fountains spurted a thin jet of water. This he made for, and drank deeply after splashing his face and rinsing his mouth.

A known voice addressed him. “You look as if you could use something stronger.” And Jorn Alleron, materialized like some helpful spirit, opened a silver flask and handed it to Ryel.

The wysard tilted it to his lips, tasted pure Steppes frangin, and sighed with sheer delight. “ I never expected this.”

“I’m fond of the stuff. It has a rare tang to it.” As he spoke, he captain sat down next to the wysard at the fountain’s edge. “My lord bade me wait for you, but I'd have done it anyway. Are you all right? You look ghastly.”

The wysard took another pull of frangin, feeling like the trees about him, tingling with sweet strong rising sap. “It must have been the incense of the Master’s rituals.”

Alleron spat. “Wasn’t it foul, though? All of it was foul—except the music, I’ll admit. That yellow slut jerks the court about like puppets, playing their passions like strings, scaring them the way a nursery bugbear tale frights a child—and like children they clap their hands even as they shiver and squeal. The incense you speak of is some filthy drug, no?”

Ryel nodded. “A compound of several powerful narcotics.”

“Addictive ones, I doubt not.”

“Yes,” the wysard replied. “The strongest known.”

“I thought as much. That’s why I stood next the door, to breathe clean air.”

“The Count Palatine seemed unaffected,” Ryel said. “I must confess that surprised me.”

“His body is impervious to all drugs, sir, even as his faith in Argane Queen of Battles withstands all arts and wiles. You look half dead from that witch’s filthy smokes and stinks.”

“I’m well enough, now. But I must say I envy the Count Palatine’s powers of resistance.”

“As do I,” Alleron said. “On that subject, my lord bade me learn what the yellow-eyed bitch wanted of you, when you stayed behind after the service.”

“Her eyes are yellow?”

“You didn’t observe? They’re like a snake’s, or lizard’s, or whatever other creeping vermin you please. She aimed at your conversion, I suppose.”

“She did,” Ryel replied, grimacing at the memory.

“And she failed?”

“Most miserably.”

Alleron lifted his flask to the wysard before taking another swig. “My congratulations. I knew she’d never make a convert of you; but had she done so, you could never try for a Swordbrother tomorrow. The goddess Argane admits no divided loyalties. She’s a jealous mistress, is Argane.”

Ryel smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I’ve asked to be your Preceptor, if that suits you,” Alleron said. “The rites are straightforward, but you’ll still need some instruction.”

The wysard inclined his head in thanks. “I would be honored, Captain.” He accepted the re-proffered flask with a nod of thanks. “Are you really going to fight with the Countess tomorrow?”

Alleron nodded unshakeable assent. “At two of the clock in the headquarters courtyard, even as she wishes.”

“Your strength against a girl’s, Captain?”

Alleron blushed with nothing but frangin. “The girl you speak of is one of the wickedest blades in Hryeland. She’s been the death of more than one poor devil hereabouts.”

“But she’s your sister. Swordsister, I should say.”

“This is a private quarrel, m’lord prince, and has naught to do with the Brotherhood.”

Ryel kept his reply neutral. “The Count Palatine might object.”

Alleron grunted a half-laugh. “He hates the little slut as much as I.”

Ryel raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I much doubt that, Captain.”

“Be that as it may, he’ll be glad to see her taken down a bit, and I’ll be even gladder to oblige. Well, I don’t doubt you’re blood-weary after so much rank mummery, and looking forward to some dinner, which we’ll have at headquarters in the best style thanks to my lord’s order. He’s meeting with the Brotherhood council tonight, which is certain to rule in your favor, and I’m to instruct you regarding some particulars of the ritual. Whenever you feel like moving, I’ll escort you back to headquarters. Your little Jinn’s on hand to take you there—I sent away that gaudy whorish coach that awaited you.”

Ryel turned about and was glad to find his mare quietly standing next to Alleron’s not far away. “My thanks, Captain.”

For a moment Alleron paused. “I don’t know if you know, m’lord prince, but you’re very likely the first man not of military rank ever to join the Brotherhood.”

The wysard could not help recalling the words of Belphira Deva in the Diamond Heaven: words concerning the battle of heart against mind, self against World, that was unending war to some. “In my own way I’m a soldier, Captain,” he said aloud; and for the first time, he felt like one.


Chapter Fourteen coming soon.


© Carolyn Kephart 2013, 2022


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

THE RYEL SAGA: Chapter Twelve

 

Below is Chapter Twelve of THE RYEL SAGA, which combines both volumes of my WYSARD and LORD BROTHER duology. I plan to post a chapter every week (27 chapters total). Enjoy, with my compliments. For the first chapter visit herelinks to succeeding chapters are given at the bottom of each entry, and can also be accessed via the Archive panel at the left of the screen. For links relating to my other writing either free to read or available for purchase, visit here.

THE RYEL SAGA:
A TALE OF LOVE AND MAGIC
(WYSARD and LORD BROTHER
Complete in One Volume)

By Carolyn Kephart

Revised 2013 Second Edition

“Intricately layered and exotic” ~Robin Hobb

Lord Adept Ryel Mirai leaves the great Art-citadel Markul to rediscover the long-lost spell that will release his mentor from the wraithworld of the Void, but a malignant sorcerer likewise imprisoned has enlisted the aid of Ryel’s strongest rival to find the spell first. Amid dangers, joys and temptations, Ryel encounters unlikely allies and unforeseen enemies, and learns that he may well gain all that he wishes...although perhaps not as he wished it. 

Chapter Twelve
    Bradamaine

Ryel turned back with little regard for the streets and sights he passed through, dazedly attempting to envision Valrandin as a woman, and to imagine how he would have treated her had he known. No physical hints had betrayed the Countess’ sex—no swell of breast or hip, no softness whatever either in her semblance or her manners. The clear timbre of her voice, pitched neither high nor low, had been very pleasing, but without any hint of femininity. But there were the diamonds in both her ears, contrary to the custom of Northern males who wore only one ear-ornament, if any; and that rich pervasive scent, and that superlative abundance of lace at her wrists and throat.

“A woman,” he murmured to himself. “And Roskerrek knows it well.” Again he witnessed the savage eyeplay that had passed between the Count Palatine and Valrandin, now realizing that beneath the seeming disdain ran a current of unwilling esteem, and that under the apparent loathing twisted something far to the contrary.

As he considered those events and all the others that had befallen him since his arrival in the North, a deafening peal of bells made him start, and fight to keep in the saddle as Jinn reared in startlement. Glancing around, he saw that the clanging din came from a great temple; and he further noticed that he was on Crown Street. Recalling the poet Dulard’s mention of Derain Meschante, Ryel paused to consider the sacred building’s stark and unwelcoming exterior, and then tied Jinn to a railing near the church door where other horses were fastened.

Climbing the steps, he entered into a long bare hall grudgingly illumined by the wan Northern afternoon, where his appearance was uncordially remarked by the congregation, most of it sober middle class, who from long rows of hard benches eyed his Steppes gear askance and murmured among themselves. Their faint noise was the only sound in the great echoing room where meager shafts of pallid light glinted on the dust-motes with chilly disapproval. At length a rustling at the end of the room alerted the congregation to stand; and a skeletal gray-robed priest ascended the steps of the pulpit in the midst of the room’s end with slow steps, setting down with a reverberant thud the great book he held, turning its pages with dry cracklings and much coughing. At last he spoke, intoning a prayer through his nose; and the congregation seconded it with the same pious nasality. Fervorless was that orison, which chiefly requested the downfall of unbelievers; and the rest of the service was fully as joyless and perfunctory. At some point a pair of gray-swathed hangdog acolytes circulated about the auditory with wide brass salvers, into which those assembled were all but constrained, it appeared, to throw considerable amounts of coin; the heaped vessels were then placed upon the bare stone altar under the grim and unsatisfied eye of the priest.

Next followed a brief, bitter harangue eloquent only in its denunciation of sin and assurance of eternal damnation were not certain precepts of an exceptionally self-denying nature followed to the letter. Distrust and loathing of the flesh seemed to be the key, indeed the only, tenets of belief. Ryel listened amazed, wondering how anyone could find spiritual comfort in dogma so basely bare of any uplifting philosophy, any tenderness, forgiveness, love; and he could not help but remember the Temple of Atlan and its passionate celebration of pleasure, the jewel-sparked nudity of the dancers, the candlelight and wine and color and music. The worship of Atlan might not be any more profound in its intentions than that of the Unseen; but at least Destimar had other deities—Demetropa, Divares, Aphrenalta—whereby a believer’s higher faculties might find nourishment. Hryeland had only this one unforgiving invisible god, to whom its worshipers were no more than vermin, and the world a barren rock.

Bored to disgust, Ryel had no wish to stay further. He was on the point of leaving when at that moment a shiver went through the congregation, an eager current of expectation. Turning his gaze back to the pulpit, Ryel saw that a preacher was mounting the creaking steps with a heavily resonant tread: a priest much younger than the first, his years less than forty. He was almost as powerfully built as Michael Essern, and nearly as tall despite his slack round-shouldered stance. Unlike Michael he was meticulously washed, and immaculately clad in severe gray robes, and all unlike Michael most disconcertingly repulsive of visage. In a man of right mind and clean spirit, the priest’s looks would have been unremarkable, and in a man of great intellect and compassionate wisdom they might well have been deemed attractive. But Ryel only saw the pebble-hard mud-colored eyes, and the bitter-lipped mouth. Even the hair was joyless, hanging in thin lusterless strands of dull brown. Nevertheless, at the sight of the priest the congregation seemed as close to ecstasy as it was capable, and pressed forward to hearken unto his teachings.

“Who is he?” the wysard whisperingly demanded of the plump burgher’s wife at his left elbow. When she did not reply, he asked again, more insistently.

She glared him up and down, her overfed cheeks wobbling with indignation. “He is none other than the Reverend Prelate Derain Meschante, the most eminent divine in the land,” she hissed. “And an outland reprobate you must be, to intrude here with your idle askings!”

“So that’s Meschante. By every god—”

He must have said the last words too loudly, because appalled silence sheer as ice caught their echo. Meschante stood upright at last, darting a furious glare directly at the wysard.

“By every god? None but a benighted heathen would swear so grossly—and such you must be, from your outland looks. A slave to the dirty gods of Destimar, most probably of that deceiving idol of whores and wastrels, Atlan!”

Ryel faced Meschante unperturbed, and only when the congregation’s spiteful murmuring had died down did he speak, clearly and quietly. “You once frequented Atlan’s temple, I believe. Not only the temple, but the Diamond Heaven.”

“You mean the brothel quarter. And I did indeed,” Meschante replied, quelling his flock’s bleating horror with a lowering scowl. “And there I preached the truth of the Unseen to the shameless denizens of that filthy wallow. I saved souls there, outlander.”

Approving murmurs met this declaration, but Ryel only lifted his chin in scorn. “You basely insulted a woman of purer spirit than you could ever begin to comprehend, and drove into exile a man you could never hope to match.”

“I worked the will of the Unseen,” Meschante said, sneeringly self-righteous. “Mine is the triumph, and I glory in it.”

“The Diamond Heaven still stands, for all your puritan ravings,” the wysard replied. “And Belphira Deva is no less fair, despite your bigoted insolence.”

At the mention of Belphira, Meschante’s flaccid pallor colored dark with rage and something more, and his voice rose over the congregation’s hissing hubbub. “Never speak that slut’s name in this sacred place! Her damnation will come at last—but not before time claws to pieces her painted beauty and leaves her a broken crone! As for that harlot’s rakehell paramour, he went from her reeking bed to this realm, only to be driven forth in shame at last.”

“Driven where?” Ryel demanded, fighting to contain his impatience.

Observing that his congregation was dividing its attention between him and the wysard, Meschante made a gesture of contemptuous dismissal. “To his doom, I devoutly pray. But if I have any means to bring about judgment on that braggart Desrenaud and his proud trollop, believe that I will use them to their limit. Now get you gone, but know that the Unseen will punish with eternal fire your impious invasion of Its sanctuary.”

Revulsed and disappointed, Ryel quitted the church under indignant glares, glad to be back in the jostling muddy street. As he was considering a quiet glass of ale in some snug tavern, he was surprised by the voice of Jorn Alleron, its tone harsh and sharp.

“Damnation, I’ve been looking for you everywhere, doctor. You’re to come with me this instant.”

Ryel turned and looked up at the mounted soldier, noting the drawn tension around his steely eyes. “But I wasn’t to meet the Count Palatine until—”

“He requires you now. I’ve never seen him worse. He was nearly falling off his horse when he got back from the Ministry, and we had to carry him indoors. Come along, and be quick!”

***

Impatiently led by Alleron, the wysard made his way to the headquarters and Roskerrek’s apartments. The rooms of the lower floor were designated for military business, and officers and soldiers came and went, filling the air with the tread of boots, the rattle of swords, and harsh peremptory commands. Upstairs in one wing of the great building were Roskerrek’s private chambers, all deserted and silent, chill as vaults, hung with faded tapestries and darkened by ancient walnut paneling and heavy graceless furniture black with age. It seemed as if the vast rooms lay under some heartless curse that had banished all hope of pleasure, and that laughter had never stirred the dank stony air.

Alleron quietly pushed open a great door. “In through here,” he whispered. “Be quiet as you go.”

The chamber Ryel entered, ushered by a wordless orderly, was exceedingly warm. A great fire burned in the hearth, throwing erratic shadows on the walls, where beasts and birds and monsters carved in the wood took sinister life from the wavering light. Heavy curtains muffled the windows and partly surrounded the great tester-bed that stood close to the mantelpiece.

“Over here, physician.” Alleron’s voice, hushed and cautionary, led Ryel to the bedside. By a branch of candles on a nearby table the wysard saw that Roskerrek lay at length and seemingly asleep, but muttering and tossing as if trapped in a nightmare. Alleron looked on with disquiet clearly heart-wrung.

“I’ve never known him worse,” the captain whispered hoarsely. “When he came back from the Ministry he had a vomiting fit in the courtyard, and then fainted; came to when we got him inside, and went mad almost from the pain in his entrails and his head.”

Ryel looked closer not at Roskerrek but Alleron, noting the equerry's cut lip and blackened eye. “Was he the cause of your wounds, Captain?”

Alleron nodded, but shrugged too. “Often my lord’s pain is so great that he loses his wits almost, and lashes out not knowing what he does. I’m used to it—and glad of it, because it always seems to soothe him.”

“You never give him calmants?”

“No drugs avail him, doctor, nor ever have.” Turning, Alleron beckoned to the waiting orderly. “Bring the basin—he’s about to have another fit.”

Starting up on an elbow, Roskerrek began to retch, racked with spasms; and Alleron held his head, pulling back the heavy red skeins of hair until the paroxysm was over.

The silent servant brought fresh water and carried away the basin, closing the door soundlessly behind him. “Ah, Yvain,” the captain murmured brokenly, taking a moistened cloth and gently wiping Roskerrek’s lips.

Roskerrek gasped and thrashed, hissing a foul torrent of curses as he fought the equerry’s care with the seeming last of his strength, backhanding a vicious blow that made Alleron’s wounded mouth bleed afresh. Then he gave an anguished moan, and lost consciousness. Lifting Roskerrek up, Alleron gathered him into his arms, and for a moment hid his face in the thick scarlet hair that absorbed his torn lip’s blood like clear water. Then he regarded Ryel, his steely eyes rusted.

“I grew up by Yvain’s side,” he said, his voice unsteady. “If I could take his suffering upon me, I would joyfully. Do everything you can for him, doctor.”

“I promise I will, captain,” Ryel replied, greatly moved. “Now go, and if you would, inform the general’s servant that I’ll not need his services.”

Alone with Roskerrek, Ryel for some time contemplated the sick man who lay immobile now, faint groans escaping through clenched teeth. Roskerrek was only partially in uniform, his coat and hat and gloves carefully arrayed on a nearby chair and his sword slung over its back. Nevertheless his boots muddied the bedclothes, and his shirt was still tautly belted into the black cavalry breeches. Ryel’s eye was drawn to the lean strength of the overwrought form kept alive only by iron will, and the perfection with which it was clothed. The immaculate shirt was made of the finest linen Ryel had seen outside of the Eastern Palace, and scented with a pleasing fragrance of lavender and citron, but was wringing with sweat.

“Am I dying, doctor?”

The words were scarcely audible, uttered between parched lips that scarcely moved. Ryel laid his hand on Roskerrek’s forehead, wincing at the icy wetness against his palm, the battering throb of the temples.

Roskerrek stared into emptiness. Even in the near-darkness the pupils of his eyes were contracted almost to invisibility, and between the red lids glowed cold gray-yellow light. Again his hoarse whisper barely rose above the crackling of the hearth. “My brain is about to burst in a cloud of blood. My guts are crawling with envenomed snakes fanged in fire.”

“You are very sick,” the wysard said; and despite his misgivings he pitied this man, whose being was tainted with inhuman bane.

“I was born sick.” Seemingly with all the strength he had, the Count Palatine continued after a long silence. “Sick and weak. All my life I have forced this afflicted flesh to its limit.” He swallowed. “But the pain worsens year by year. There are remissions in which I almost know health; but far more frequent are the cruel times. The times a demon takes me—”

He groaned and panted, his entire body gripped by a raging chill; gave a low half-animal cry, desperate with torture, and caught the wysard about the throat to strangle him, stammering obscenities. But his icy fingers were as weak as a child’s, now.

That’s enough, Ryel thought. Taking Roskerrek’s head in both his hands, he forced his brow to the Count Palatine’s dripping one, and uttered a word. At once Roskerrek fell back insensible, although still shuddering.

Seating himself on the bed at Roskerrek’s side, Ryel contemplated his next move. He required three spells: the first to take away the pain, the second to rid the body of the daimon-blight, the third to heal the ravages wrought by years of suffering. Having chosen the mantras he deemed best, he drew a long clear breath and began to say the first words, droning them in the back of his throat, sure of his Mastery.

The spell took. Roskerrek ceased his writhing and lay still, his face’s tics and twitches relaxed for the first time. Gently the wysard took the Count Palatine’s wrist and turned back the cuff of the shirt, and observed with consternation that the hard white flesh of the arm was seamed to the elbow with scars, and with cuts both fresh and mending. Pushing up the other sleeve, he found the same slashed defacement.

“By every...” Loathing the sight, he healed the worst of the wounds and erased many of the scars with the Art’s aid, then turned the sleeves down again.

Roskerrek stirred and whispered, his eyes yet closed. “Bradamaine.” Convulsively he seized Ryel’s hand. “Command me. Anything. Life, death…”

Those slim fingers had the grip of a great cat, and Ryel broke free only with all his strength. Steeling himself, the wysard then slowly spoke the next spell, leaning over Roskerrek to touch mouth to mouth, breathing the last words into the sick man’s body.

At that barely grazing contact Ryel felt a virulent sickness invade his body and brain, dizzying him, making his gorge rise. For the first time in his life the wysard envisioned what it would be like to kill a man in cold blood, to cruelly force a woman to serve his pleasure, to lay waste to cities. Shuddering, he banished those thoughts. But he could not rid himself of the dull throbbing that bound his skull with an ever-tightening crown of burning iron, or the qualms that soured the pit of his throat.

The air grew stifling, nearly strangling him, and then the fire in the hearth leapt up in a burst of sparks. The voice Ryel loathed issued from the flames, crackling with laughter.

Redbane’s cure has cost you, young blood.

The wysard doubled over in a throe. “Dagar?” he gasped. “But it’s still daylight. How...”

My strength grows ceaselessly, sucked from the spirits of the air. Not even the Void can confine me now.

“What did you do to me, monster?”

The snide voice giggled. Nothing but give your healing-spells a clever twist, and turn the Bane upon you. Now it’s in your blood, sweet eyes. Now the pain that gives my servant Michael his strength will prove your unending torment, Edris’ bastard. Now I’ll watch you crawl, and beg me to make you mine to end the torture.

In agony though he was, Ryel lifted his chin in defiance. “You’ll never have me. I’ll find the Mastery of Joining—and I’ll bring my father back from the Void, where you’ll stay chained forever.”

My servant Michael is far more clever in those matters than you, young blood. He’ll find it first, count on it. And oh, but I’ll be ready. Changes are already awork, thanks to me. In Markul and Tesba they wonder at the decline of their Art, and consult their great Books; but in Ormala and Elecambron they smile at the uncommon success of their spells. My side is winning.

Ryel answered through clenched teeth. “What is this talk of win and loss? We of the Cities are brothers.”

Too long have the Cities lived in balance, the voice with a sneer replied. Time for yours to topple. And I’ll have the World, too, and make it suffer for bringing me into it. Destimar will fall, and then the North, and then the rest. The World and the Four will be mine, the voice purred. The World and the Four, and your sweet young body.

Ryel spat into the flames and turned his back on them. The fire gave a great burst, and the air lightened. Pushing his freezing hands through his hair to ease the pain that racked his skull, the wysard returned to Roskerrek’s bedside, and called upon every power of his Art to accomplish the final spell.

When it was done, he brought the candles closer. Their light stabbed to the back of his brain. With unsteady fingertips he stroked Roskerrek’s face, running them over the forehead, down the cheeks, across the lips; lightly circled the closed eyes. Like yielding clay the furrows and lines faded at the wysard’s touch, and a faint flush overcame the chalk-like pallor. All the hard-angled beauty that long pain had destroyed now returned to its right like a long-thwarted ruler to his throne, compelling and noble; and now Ryel observed a scar that ran in a straight faint crease across the top of Roskerrek’s left cheek to the temple, as if the skin had been seared by a fine red-hot wire.

“No common mark,” the wysard murmured. “That I’ll leave you, Redbane.”

He uttered an Art-word, and Roskerrek opened his eyes. The dilation of the pupils all but crowded out the gray of the iris, conferring a dreaming visionary depth to his countenance.

“I don’t know what I feel,” he said, his voice distant and wondering.

“It’s called health,” Ryel said, curtly and bitterly jealous.

Swiftly, with the heedless grace of a great cat, Roskerrek rose and went to the window, opening it wide, letting in the cold Northern noonday. He drank in the chill radiance as if drinking delicious wine. A wondering while he was silent, as if coming to terms with the incredible possibility of a life free of continual suffering. “This light would have all but killed me, before.” He turned to Ryel, not yet daring to trust. “Never in my life have drugs had any effect on me.”

“I used no drugs, General,” the wysard replied. “My methods are confidential.”

“But can I dare trust, and hope? How long will the cure last?”

“As long as you live. The sickness that consumed you has been routed forever.”

Roskerrek gazed eagerly into the white radiance the wysard shrank from. “Forever?” He breathed in the chill air as if drinking delicious wine. “With all my heart I would believe you, Ryel Mirai.”

“I speak the truth, Yvain Essern.”

Ryel must have spoken sharply, for Roskerrek turned from the window and came to the wysard’s side, and silently took his hand, carrying it to his forehead in the way of Destimar. “I will never forget this deliverance.”

The wysard flinched, barely able to keep from snatching his hand away. “Neither will I.”

Releasing him, the Count Palatine crossed the room, pulling aside another curtain. This one concealed not a window, but a great mirror. Leaning both hands lightly against the glass, Roskerrek stared at his reflection, his features motionless in meditation, his voice still.

“Long ago I vowed to Argane never to marry and beget, lest my blood’s taint be perpetuated. But now…”

Ryel said what the Count Palatine did not dare. “Now your offspring will be free of the infection, as will their descendants.”

“At last. After long centuries, at last. It seems far too much to believe.” A long moment Roskerrek hesitated before speaking again. “I cannot tell how many times in my life I sought death. How many times in my agony I commanded Jorn Alleron to run me through and end it forever...the only orders I ever gave him that he disobeyed.” As if looking into the face of a stranger the Count Palatine studied his transformed self. “So this is what I really was.”

“Yes,” Ryel said, unable to quell his envy.

“I look younger.” Impatiently Roskerrek dashed away the wetness rising in his eyes, as one swiftly turns the page of a fascinating book never read before. “I am but thirty-six. No graybeard yet.” He tilted his face from side to side, appraisingly, with a tinge of a smile. “Why, I’m half in love with myself.” Catching sight of the scar, he traced it with his fingertips. “Yes. Half in love.”

Ryel joined Roskerrek at the mirror, glanced at his own haggard reflection, and turned away. “I congratulate you.”

“Name what you will. Anything. I will triple whatever you ask.”

“I wish only the answer to a single question, as I said before,” the wysard replied.

“Very well. You may ask it and welcome.” Roskerrek smiled, then. “But only after we dine. I’m hungry for the first time in years.”

Ryel felt a sickening twinge of impatience. “You had promised—”

“I pray you accept of my entertainment, Ryel Mirai. You’ll not regret it; my cook Verlande is the best in Hallagh, which is saying much.”

The thought of food made the wysard’s gorge rise, but he quelled it somehow, and resigned himself. “As you wish.”

“Excellent. I’ll inform my orderly. But first come with me, if you would.”

Roskerrek led Ryel into the next room, a large chamber closely draped and lit by dozens of candles that made the wysard clench his teeth. The Count Palatine swiftly uncurtained the windows, not noticing how Ryel recoiled.

“Away with this gloom! Sir, I am going to dress, and to tell Jorn Alleron of my cure; I’ll not be long. I trust my library will help you while away the time—or you may make use of the instrument there, if you chance to be a musician.”

“I do not play,” the wysard said through gritted teeth.

Roskerrek seemed to notice Ryel's condition for the first time in a very long while. “You’re pale.”

The wysard turned away. “It’s nothing.”

“Sit and rest. I shan’t be long.”

He left, and Ryel at once yanked the curtains shut again. He was in terrible pain, his eyes squinting with it, his stomach churning. Another moment and he’d be sick. In blind panic he fumbled in his pocket, not knowing why, and found the carnelian scent-cylinder; still not knowing why unstoppered it and breathed of its perfume as if drinking antidote to poison. Instant deliverance ensued, relief so sweet that he dropped into a chair, unable to stand.

“My infinite thanks, Priam,” he whispered.

After a moment he rose, and began to look about the room. Now he could appreciate that it was a fair large chamber excellently furnished, and that every wall was covered floor to ceiling with books, save at intervals where paintings or windows took their place. There were thousands of volumes, Ryel observed, all of them indicating their owner’s grave elevation of mind—books of history, music theory, the arts; plays and novels, none of them frivolous; the lives of notable men and women; many treatises on the waging of war, and the science of weapons—especially the sword—and the manner of dealing with princes; philosophy and astronomy and mathematics. A double-ranked harpsichord took up the center of the room, and a great desk covered with papers stood near it. On the harpsichord lay a sheaf of manuscripts for sonatas, canons, inventions, swiftly yet exquisitely penned; Ryel looked over some of the compositions, spelled one or two of them out on the keyboard, and was moved by their beauty. The papers on the desk had been written by the same sharp symmetrical hand—Roskerrek’s, clearly. Here were drafts of several poems, and the opening scene of the third act of a tragedy entitled 'The Queene’s Generall.' Part of a soliloquy uttered by the protagonist caught the wysard’s eye, and he read it murmuringly aloud.


“’Hope of Delighte to come, that never seemes

Nearer than Fantasie or fever’d Thought;

Jewell past price, more treasur’d than all Dreames

Of gaine, though with deepe Sorrowe dearly bought;

Rose of a bleeding Hearte, that never stayes

To bloome, yet leaves its Thornes to know it by;

Mirrour of every Joye, that to the gaze

A false Reflection yields, and mocks the eye;

Islande of Paradise, whose shelt’ring Baye—”


He halted, aware of a door opening. The Count Palatine entered, freshly and magnificently attired in muted shimmering sea-green velvet embroidered in silver and set off by exquisite lace, and soft fawn-colored boots and gauntlets. The hues of his garments sorted well with his coloring, making it less strange to the sight; moreover, the sharp scarlet growth that had exaggerated the angularity of his face was now cut closer. Few would now deny that the general of the Domina’s armies was an arrestingly well-favored man, the hard-edged beauty of his face in striking harmony with the lithe strength of his form. The face now faintly smiled, and the body slightly bowed. “Island of paradise, whose sheltering bay/ No stranger welcomes that it does not slay.’ I see you have a tolerance for indifferent verses.”

Ryel backed away from the desk, astonished by the transformation he beheld. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean—”

“No harm done,” Roskerrek smiled. “I’m sure you’ve written a sonnet or two in your life.”

“I never was so inspired,” the wysard replied. “But I would gladly have composed any of that music.” And he indicated the manuscripts on the harpsichord.

Roskerrek closed the door behind him. “You tempt me, sir. I haven’t touched the keys in weeks.” He started to draw off his gloves. “Would you permit me to run over a passage or so before we dine?”

“With all gladness.”

The Count Palatine smiled. “You seem in much better spirits than you were. I’m glad of it.”

Ryel gave a relieved nod. “As, very much, am I.”

Seating himself at the harpsichord, Roskerrek deftly tried some chords, and the instrument spilled forth notes like sharp-cut diamonds. “Alleron’s kept this in tune, I see. He’s an able executant; we play duets sometimes.”

Ryel would have attempted to envision that unlikely scene, but the Count Palatine had chosen a sonata and begun to play, his first notes driving out all else from the wysard’s mind. Roskerrek’s fingers, enriched with rings of emerald and gold, touched the keys so lightly that it seemed the music was wrought by spirits of the air, not the agency of humankind; yet the harmony came clear and piercing sweet, played with a masculine force that mingled in passionate union with the delicate timbres of the instrument. It was exquisitely complex music full of enrapturing invention, passionate in its reflective intensity; and as he listened, the wysard thought of the house he was now in, where one progressed from cold officialdom to colder emptiness, only by great privilege passing into the private world of warmth and security; and listening to Roskerrek’s music the wysard realized that he had entered the innermost chamber of all, a secret place incomparably rich and wondrous.

“You are an artist, General,” the wysard said reverently when the piece had ended.

Roskerrek inclined his head in thanks, but only slightly. “I am most fortunate to have benefited from the best instruction, early on. My mother has great skill at the clavier, and when I was very young she taught me to play, because she noted that music soothed my illness. What you hear in my works is her influence.”

The wysard inwardly commended that lady’s wisdom. Perhaps it implied Art within her, to understand that demonic forces were repelled by beauty. With greatest pleasure the wysard listened to the enthralling harmonies, until a servant entered to announce that dinner was readied. The Count Palatine led Ryel to a long large paneled room whose table would readily seat twenty, one of its ends covered with fine damask and laid for two with massy gleaming silver, nearest the great marble hearth where a fire blazed brightly. The candle-branches on the table had just been lighted, and wine had been poured, but only in one of the glasses.

“I from time to time entertain my staff officers here, and members of the fellowship of Argane,” Roskerrek said. “My cook Verlande is one of the most famous in the city, but of late he’s had little employment. If I continue to give him insufficient scope for his talents, I risk losing him to the Earl of Gledrim, whose fortune is as fabulous as his palate is discerning—far more so than any of his other tastes. Tonight I asked Verlande to surpass himself. Here, try this wine; I’m told it’s quite good.”

It was, in fact, excellent. “Will you not have some?” Ryel asked.

Roskerrek shook his head. “I’ve never touched drink in all my life. No, I take that back; when I was ten I stole a drink of my father’s glass, and it nearly killed me.”

“It would not harm you now.”

Roskerrek hesitated a moment, then poured his goblet half full and lifted it. “To your health, Ryel Mirai—which seems to have returned, I am glad to observe.”

Ryel returned the pledge. “To your health as well, my lord.”

“I owe it entirely to you,” Roskerrek said. “My gratitude is not only for myself. From now on my poor equerry will no longer have to serve as my sick-nurse, and suffer from my mad fits.” His keenly angled features clouded a moment. “I had no idea I’d blackened Jorn’s eye. He tried to hide it from me when we met again, and when he learned of my cure he wept like a child.”

Ryel thought of his last meeting with that brave good man. “His devotion is noble.”

The Count Palatine smiled. “It is indeed. Let’s drink to it.” He took first a tentative sip of the rich vintage, then another less wary, then a long savoring mouthful. “But this is delicious. Finally I realize why Verlande always seemed so sorry for me. Surely he’s been exasperated too, since he chooses wines with great care to compliment his dishes, from what everyone tells me. Speaking of which, the the first course is coming in.”

Verlande’s cuisine was both robust and subtle, concocted with elaboration and splendidly presented. Ryel, who had expected insubstantial delicacies fit for an invalid, ate almost with greed, and Roskerrek seconded him. As if by tacit agreement the conversation was wide-ranging and pleasant, inspired by the many subjects in the Count Palatine’s library.

“It’s luck that you have such a good command of Hryelesh,” the Count Palatine said as the dessert came in. “My spoken Almancarian is nonexistent beyond a few phrases, I’m sorry to say, although I can read it well enough to enjoy the epic cycles of Destimar.”

“I’m glad for you,” Ryel said. “They are extremely beautiful, and don’t translate well.”

“May I ask why you bothered to learn the language of this land, dwelling in the Steppes as you were?”

“For the same reasons you learned Almancarian,” the wysard replied. “Much of the best literature in the world is written in Hryelesh, and reading it has given me great pleasure. Besides, I didn’t dwell all my life in Rismai.”

As he said the last words, he inwardly cursed himself for his carelessness brought on by the heady wine, but it was too late. “Where else have you lived?” Roskerrek asked, clearly interested. “You must be conversant in the ways of many a land, to judge from your manners; from the first you’ve seemed far more than a mere wandering healer.”

“You’re kind, but I’ve found my manners sorely lacking in this city,” Ryel said, glad of a chance to turn the talk. “I blundered grossly soon after you and I parted at the headquarters, and inadvertently insulted the Countess of Fayal by calling her a gentleman.”

Roskerrek’s eyes widened. “Blest Argane. I wish I’d been there to see that. I'm astonished she didn’t challenge you to a duel.”

“Luckily for me, there wasn’t time.”

“I should have warned you at the outset. My apologies.” Having poured more wine for them both, Roskerrek sat back and seemed to ruminate aloud as he held his glass to the candlelight. “A more quarrelsome vixen I’ve never had the misfortune to contend with. A brawling debauched hoyden, so ignorant and untaught that she can scarce write her name, or read a sentence without stumbling, or find Hryeland on a map…and the only female member of the Brotherhood of the Sword, which makes her all the more prideful and arrogant.”

“By every god,” the wysard said despite himself. “I never expected that last bit of information.”

“It hardly overjoys me, either,” the Count Palatine said, his tone grim. “Many think that royal favor played a role and coerced her joining, but I have to give Valrandin her due, and admit that she passed the initiation solely on her own merits. Her adversary was the Earl of Rothsaye, who has no love for her and showed no mercy during their combat. Despite his advantage of size and years, she held her own and got in the first cut.”

“Have you ever dueled with her?”

“No. I never will, no matter how much and loudly she petitions.” Roskerrek reached for an apple, holding it up and admiring its polished blush; and his frown faded. “Man’s garb becomes her well. But you should see her gowned, with a touch of color to heighten her looks. I recall one of her dresses—a plum-colored satin that makes her shoulders and her neck seem white as a swan’s… “ he broke off, coloring slightly, and hastily set the apple down again. “I’m speaking foolishly. Perhaps I’m getting drunk.”

Ryel had noted that the Count Palatine seemed in no adverse way affected by the wine, despite now having drunk three glasses of it. “I’d say that you’re speaking like a man in perfect health.”

Roskerrek half smiled, and seemed to debate inwardly a moment. “There is another who would benefit from your healing powers. Come with me, if you would.”

Before Ryel could reply, Roskerrek pushed away from the table and stood up. Leading the wysard back to his study, he abruptly threw open the doors of an inlaid cabinet set into the wall. A double portrait, life-sized and half-length, of two young soldiers in rich black uniforms and armor of gold-chased burnished steel, gazed back at Ryel with proud challenging eyes. They were both of a height, although one was perhaps twenty-five, the other just out of his teens. The eyes of both were unsettling pale gray, their skin was all but bloodless, and their hair was strange scarlet red, falling in long heavy skeins. They stood side against side, the elder with his arm about the younger man’s shoulders, the younger’s hand on the elder’s waist.

“My brother Michael and myself, when we first entered the army,” the Count Palatine said.

“It is a magnificent painting,” Ryel said, unable at first to note anything but the workmanship.

“I commissioned it. The artist is greatly famed, and I believe this work to be her best. She never flatters her subjects, as should be evident.” Roskerrek contemplated the painting awhile before speaking again. “Save for his coloring, Michael had the good fortune to resemble my father, who was considered one of the handsomest men in the North. As you might have observed, my brother wears the battle-jacket of the Ninth, famed as the Black Dragons, the cavalry’s elite force of which he was colonel—a regiment that neither gives nor accepts quarter in the field.”

Ryel nodded slowly, remembering that encounter in Markul. It was as if he stood at his Glass once more; as if the painted semblance would at any moment glower a frown, and address him rudely.

“His abilities were superior to those of officers twice his age,” Roskerrek continued. “A braver soldier never held command.” He glanced at Ryel. “You might have heard of my brother while you were in Almancar.”

“I saw him there.”

“I envy you.” After another silence, Roskerrek spoke again. “We have been apart many years, and I have missed him more than I have power to express. We were devoted to one another as boys, and our shared suffering only tightened the bond. We never quarreled, save when pain drove us to violence we regretted immediately afterward. Because my illness was graver than my brother’s, I was educated privately; but Michael was able to attend the university of this city, where he studied natural philosophy. He had a capacity approaching genius, but his skepticism incurred much exasperation among the theological faculty, who were plagued by his continual asking of questions to which there were no ready answers. His was a great and restless intellect that scorned all dogma.” The Count Palatine’s cold eyes had warmed as they gazed upon the portrait, but now grew somber. “They say my brother now goes about unwashed and in rags, with his head shaven. Is this true?”

“I regret to say it is.”

“How that could come about I’ve no idea. He was always so cleanly in his person, so elegant in his dress. But that was a long time ago, before… “ Roskerrek turned to the wysard, suddenly. “What is your City, Ryel Mirai?”

There was no mistaking the implicit capitalization of the word. Taken aback by the question, Ryel sought refuge in evasion. “I don’t understand what—”

Roskerrek made a fierce gesture like the tearing away of a veil. “Enough of this dissembling, Lord Ryel—for such is the title by which your ilk style themselves, I am aware. Both you and I know that Michael is an adept of Elecambron. I have not his talents, but I assure you I know a wysard’s work when I see it.” He pushed back his sleeve to resentfully bare his now all but unmarked forearm. “Nothing less than the Art could have healed my sickness, and nothing less could have effaced the evidence of my sacrifices to Argane, Queen of Swords. You are a Markulit, are you not?”

Ryel lifted his chin. “I am.”

Ever with his searching pale eyes on Ryel, Roskerrek slid the sleeve back down to his wrist, settling the lace of the shirt-cuff. “You’re very young to be of that City.”

“I was born to the Art,” Ryel replied. “My father was a wysard.”

“What was his name?”

“Edris Desharem Alizai.”

The name ensorcelled Roskerrek into white stone. But when he at last could speak his voice rang with unprecedented warmth. “Edris was your father, and a wysard? But when did he turn to the Art?”

“At the age of thirty,” Ryel said.

“And when did you?”

“At fourteen,” the wysard replied. “I dwelt with him for twelve years in Markul.”

The pale eyes glinted. “But this is incredible! Did he ever tell you of Warraven?”

“Only in passing,” Ryel said. “But your father was a great fighter, as I understand.”

Roskerrek gave a wry half-laugh. “So was yours. Not once but often I heard my father speak of his friend, the wild Steppes brave who in the thick of battle had saved his life, and was one of the most honored of Argane’s faithful.” Roskerrek’s expression, hitherto eagerly alight, darkened again. “Yet I recall that you did not include his name when you first told me yours. Was his passing recent?”

Ryel swallowed. “Yes.”

“Ah. That’s hard.”

“It has been.”

They were both silent, remembering and mourning. “That cloak of yours was my father’s,” Roskerrek said at last. “I knew it from first—and your wearing of it was the only reason I engaged you as a physician. I had no hope whatsoever that you would cure me. There is a tear near its hem, small, three-cornered, mended so neatly one can scarcely find it—am I not right?”

Ryel stared, surprised. “You are.”

“That tear was mended by my mother’s hands,” Roskerrek said. “How did your father come into possession of Warraven’s mantle?”

“Edris used his Art to bring it to Markul,” Ryel replied. “It became my own at his death.”

“By rights it should have been mine. But I’ll not deprive you of it.”

“I thank you, because I would sooner part with my skin.”

Another silence, broken slowly. “Ask your question, Lord Ryel.”

The wysard lost no time. “I believe you have knowledge of the whereabouts of Guyon de Grisainte Desrenaud, Earl of Anbren. I wish to find him.”

“Find him? And why?”

“My reasons are private,” Ryel replied.

“I cannot tell you where he is.”

The wysard felt a sharp jab at his brain’s core. “But I thought you knew.”

“I do know,” Roskerrek said, emotionless now. “But I cannot tell you.”

Ryel stared at him, fighting a cramp somewhere deep. “You would have died without me, damn it.”

The Count Palatine calmly nodded. “I am sure I would have, and very soon.”

“And out of your mind.”

“I have no doubt of that.”

Ryel struck the wall. “You gave me your word!”

“And I deeply regret having to take it back; but I gave it first to Guyon Desrenaud, who has no wish to be found. I cannot betray an oath I swore in the Temple of the Sword.”

Ryel turned away, bitter with frustration, as Roskerrek went over to the table where they had both left their swords, reaching for the wysard’s weapon. “May I look at this?”

“If you must.”

The Count Palatine carried the sword to the light. “I’ve always admired the Steppes tagh, but have never fought against one.”

“I’d be more than glad to give you a chance,” Ryel replied, with hard irony.

Faintly Roskerrek smiled. “Would you.” His pale gaze narrowed as he read the runes on the blade. “This is a Brotherhood sword. Your father’s, surely.”

“Yes.”

The Count Palatine eyed the wysard keenly awhile before speaking. “You well realize, I trust, that you have no right to wear this. But you might earn that privilege. And were you a member of the Fraternity of the Sword, I by the Brotherhood’s laws could keep no secret whatsoever from you in the Temple of Argane.”

“Then I ask to join the order.”

With both hands Roskerrek swung the slim blade in a smooth arc, noting the way its brilliant metal caught the light. “You must swear to abjure all other gods.”

“I swear it readily.”

The Count Palatine lowered the blade level with his waist, trying a difficult twisting sideways thrust, executing it to perfection. “And you must promise to use no Art. This really is a remarkable weapon.”

“I won’t need my Art,” Ryel said. But watching those trained and expert movements, he was far from sure.

Roskerrek continued to examine the tagh with calmly intent interest. “Brotherhood swords are wrought not of steel, but of metal infinitely stronger and signally rare, its chief component found only in Argane’s temple. Surely you have observed the brilliant luster, which never dims? The way the blade is always keen as death, and never rusts? The way it weighs almost nothing? You’ll also find that it can very quickly be brought to white heat, and hold that heat for what seems a distressingly long time, without the least loss of temper.” He swung the blade in a slow spin, trying its balance, his stance and guard those of a Steppes tagh master. “The unique alloy is forged and wrought by the ateliers of the two armorers of the Order, men more jewelers than smiths, more artists than artisans. I can tell which of them made this one by the lamination of the metal. A Brotherhood sword is the work of many months and extreme expense, and not until the aspirant passes the initiation can runes be inscribed upon the blade.”

“And in the case of failure?” Ryel asked.

“The sword is hung in Argane’s sanctuary, there to remain forever.”

Ryel gave a low whistle. “I daresay the aspirant feels some regret at that.”

“One is past regret when dead—a condition in which an aspirant now and again finds himself,” Roskerrek answered with meaning irony. “The ritual concludes with a combat in honor of the goddess, the aspirant’s adversary being chosen by the chief priest; the bout is fought stripped to the waist, and swords white from the fire can inflict terrible brands early in the combat. Are you quite sure you still wish to join?”

The wysard smiled. “Quite.”

“Then I’ll confer with the Brotherhood officers tonight regarding your fitness to join the order. Such deliberations customarily span months, but the singularity of your case merits an exception.”

“For that consideration I thank you.” And Ryel held out his hand for his weapon, but Roskerrek shook his head.

“This is no longer yours. It will be kept in Argane’s care until such time as you are worthy of it. If you require a sword, I’ll lend you one of mine.”

“I’ll wear none but my father’s,” Ryel replied, fighting down his indignation. “My Steppes dagger will serve me in the meanwhile.”

“As you wish,” said Roskerrek. “But one thing more. Did Lord Edris ever tell you of his initiation into the Brotherhood?”

“He never spoke of the Brotherhood,” Ryel replied, coolly now.

“I see he kept his oath,” Roskerrek said, in the same tone. “Well, perhaps you may have observed he bore a scar.”

Ryel lifted his chin. “My father had scars all over his body.”

The Count Palatine half-smiled. “But only one on his left side, a deep diagonal running from under the arm nearly to the navel—I see you remember it. Warraven gave him that.”

“And how did Edris reciprocate?”

Roskerrek regarded Ryel steadily. “My father had no scars save those he gave himself, in Argane’s service.” As if to mitigate the severity of that statement, he added, “I wish you to stay in my house as my guest for as long as you wish, unless you have other obligations.”

“I accept with thanks,” Ryel said, giving a slight bow, but both chagrined and unsettled within. To be without his tagh was bad enough; to have to deal with initiation into a Northern blood-cult was still worse; and to have the demon-bane of the Red Esserns throbbing in his veins was little short of live damnation.

At that moment a sharp double knock sounded at the door, and Alleron entered. Bowing low first to Roskerrek, the captain strode forward and dropped to his knee before Ryel. “Physician, from this moment on I worship you as a god.” And to the wysard’s astonished embarrassment, Alleron grabbed his hand and kissed it.

Seeing Ryel’s consternation, the Count Palatine spoke sharply. “Equerry, get up this instant. I command you.”

“May you always, m’lord,” Alleron said, obeying at once. His normally impassive features glowed nevertheless. “I confess I’m still amazed to see you in complete health, after these many years. It’s news too green to digest yet.”

The Count Palatine laughed for what the wysard realized was the first time since their meeting, probably the first time in very long; a sweet sound it was. “I’ll be forever grateful that I let you force me into accepting the services of Ryel Mirai, who has truly proven a great doctor.”

“He’s further famed than you know, m’lord. And greater than either of us might guess.”

“What do you mean?”

Both Ryel and Roskerrek asked that, almost in unison, both abruptly. Alleron glanced from his master’s face to the wysard’s, plainly taken aback. “Well, the physician has been summoned to Grotherek Palace without delay, for a private interview with the Domina Bradamaine.”

The Count Palatine frowned. “Why?”

“I don’t know, m’lord. But only this hour a messenger came from the palace and gave the order.”

“If word comes from that quarter, needs must comply,” said Roskerrek; but he seemed perturbed. “I’ll not trespass by asking what business the Domina might have with you, Lord Ryel, much though I’d like to know. Nor will I detain you, for I have business at hand. My equerry here will attend you in the meantime.”

The Count Palatine and the wysard parted, and Ryel followed Alleron down into the courtyard for his horse.

“I should have known you for a lord, with a horse so fine,” Alleron said in his wry way; and then he gave a sharp whistle, at which Jinn emerged from the stables led by a duly respectful groom, gleaming like fresh gold, her silken mane partly braided, her tail bright as a comet’s.

“I took the liberty of looking after your darling whilst you were working my lord’s cure,” Alleron continued, taking the reins from the groom and handing them over to Ryel. “A gentler sweeter creature I’ve never met. And I’ll say this for her—she’s a true lady in her ways. In fact, I’ve met many a lady considerably less refined.”

“What do you mean, Captain?” the wysard asked.

“Well, she won’t eat anything. And the straw beneath her has stayed clean and dry ever since she was stabled, if you take my meaning.”

Ryel smiled to hide his disquiet. “She always had good manners.”

“More than most humankind I’ve met. Permit me, doctor.” And Alleron held Ryel’s stirrup, humble as a stable-hand.

“There’s no need for that, Captain,” Ryel said; but the captain insisted. Damp gratitude flickered in the corner of his blackened eye. “You saved my lord’s life, sir. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“I can think of a way,” Ryel at once replied. “What do you know of a man named Guyon Desrenaud?”

The wysard braced himself for the kind of reaction that question had elicited from Valrandin, and was surprised and relieved when Alleron seemed to consider a long moment, then swing into the saddle of his own horse before replying quietly.

“I knew him better than most, doctor. I was his dispatch rider during the late wars, carrying letters between him and the Domina.”

“I thought you served the Count Palatine.”

“I carried my lord’s messages as well. Some there are that might tell you I’m the best rider in the realm, and can get more speed out of a mount than any other. And those sayings may well be true—but that’s neither here nor there. Starklander was a man whose greatness fully matched that of my lord’s, although I admit it much differed in kind. It wrung me sore when he was exiled from this land, and my one desire is to have him back in the Domina’s good graces again.” He dealt Ryel a wary glance. “Do you wish him good, or ill?”

“Neither as yet,” the wysard answered. “But whatever you can tell me concerning him, I would be glad to hear.”

“Showing’s better than telling,” Alleron said. “Come on and you’ll see what I mean.”

They rode from the headquarters to the bridge that joined the city to the promontory. Once across, they came to broader streets, cleaner air, and some beauty. The dwellings increased in magnificence and pretension, as did the liveried servants who lounged within doorways or self-importantly bustled past. Then came the boundaries of the palace itself, great smooth walls of stone interspersed with panels of wrought iron, through the tracery of which one might espy wide graveled walks leading to the white and gray-rose vastness of Grotherek. Here were no gilded towers, no heaven-seeking spires; the palace stood in a massive rectangle that branched out into wings of like design. Its air of heartless frivolity struck Ryel forcibly: perfect symmetry dominated, an exactitude enhanced rather than relieved by a bewildering multiplicity of columns and pilasters and swags. The gardens surrounding the palace exhibited a similar combination of restraint and opulence: trees took geometrical forms, their natural shapes contorted with such ingenuity that the eye turned away exhausted, and the first leaves of yet-unblooming flowers were marshaled and serried in tight ranks. Despite the leafless severity of the park, well-clad courtiers strolled about the gravel-walks enjoying the rare appearance of the sun, which had just found a chink among the prevailing pall of cloud and was shining brightly.

As they rode up to the palace, the wysard and his companion passed a band of horsemen all in the height of Northern fashion, the most comely young men Ryel had seen since Almancar, all of them tall and delicately formed, their beardless faces lovely and bold, their long locks curling in minion ringlets. Booted and spurred they were all, with swords and daggers at their sides; but as they rode by, Ryel observed their rich jewels and their excellent lace, and breathed a mist of delicious perfume, and remembered the mistake he’d made earlier in the day.

“The Companions of the Domina,” Alleron said, noting the wysard’s attention. “Officers of the royal guard, all of them. Duchesses, countesses and baronesses, every one—and all of them horsebreakers, hard drinkers, and stark deadly swordswomen, so be mindful. I marvel that Valrandin isn’t with them.”

“You two didn’t seem friends, as I recall.”

Alleron grunted a laugh. “Not much love lost between us, I’ll admit. She and I have crossed blades in the past, but never as much as we’d like. Someday we’ll have it out for good and all, and she’ll get what’s been coming to her.”

“I think the Domina might disapprove, Captain.”

“Indeed she might. There are tales abroad concerning those two, but I’ll not repeat such greasy hearsay—especially since Valrandin’s a devotee of Argane, and a high-ranking one at that.”

“Yes, I learned from the Count Palatine that she’s a Swordbrother.”

“Well, a Swordsister to be exact, though some of us have other names for her rather more choice. But here’s what I wished to show you before we enter the palace grounds. A sorry sight, but needful for your instruction.”

They had come to one of the outbuildings of the palace, seemingly a garden-house ringed round by a thick hedge. Behind the hedge stood a number of statues, apparently discarded or awaiting repair. All were of life size, and they made a strange deformed assembly, silent under the cold leaden sky: undraped goddesses lacking noses and limbs, battered fallen heroes. Alleron led Ryel to an entrance amid the shrubbery, and the two men dismounted and passed through the gateway.

“Here it is,” Alleron said. “I once knew this statue when it stood at the Domina’s very chamber-door. Now it’s as discredited and abused as the man whose likeness it was meant to be—although none of the world’s art could hope to come near Starklander’s self.”

The statue Alleron indicated was still standing, but had been decapitated. The equerry sought for a moment among the high weeds that surrounded the statues, gently cursing as he did so. Then he straightened up slowly, holding a bronze head in his hands. “Help me with this, if you would.”

When the head was balanced atop its body, Ryel looked upon the semblance of a warrior leaning on his sword, as if surveying a field of combat after a battle. Weariness sat on every limb, yet the head was as proudly upheld as if the trumpets were but now sounding the attack. Tawny bronze had been wrought to resemble life in proportion and gesture, while gold rubbed into the hair approximated the effects of sun and wind. Muted silver gleamed on breastplate and wrist-guards—the statue's only armor—but the face needed no such embellishment. Such had Ryel envisioned the hero Drostal in the epics he had read as a boy. He had to look well upward to fully admire the proud immobile face. “By every god,” he breathed, marveling.

“He was god enough for me,” Alleron said, his voice suddenly rough. “Many a time I’ve seen him standing in that selfsame way, catching his breath after the fight was done. And if by chance you’re wondering, he really and indeed resembled this image in looks and size, save that all the world’s art is helpless to catch the way his eyes lit, whether in kindness or in anger.”

“It’s truly a great work.”

Alleron nodded. “Randon Ithier’s masterpiece, and the only known likeness of Guyon Desrenaud extant in all the Barrier—he forbade any artist to portray him whilst he dwelt here. Ithier was forced to disguise himself as one of the soldiery, the better to observe his subject. And he did well; made the resemblance faithful to a hair.”

“A born leader, from the looks of him,” Ryel said.

“True indeed. A reckless one, however, without a thought of death for himself; but he had the tenderest care for his men, who’d have followed him through hell if he’d led them. It passes belief that he received no more hurt during the wars than some scratches and bruises, for he was always in the very center of the fight. Great Argane loved him well.”

A laugh issued from nearby, one Ryel knew. “Such a bootlicking dog-robber you are, Captain. If Redbane heard you, he’d be jealous.”

Instantly Alleron whirled about, hand on sword-hilt, eyes furious. “You’re not wanted here, Valrandin.”

The Countess appeared from behind a statue, returning Alleron's anger with cool scorn. “As if I gave a rat’s arse. The Domina sent me to escort your friend to her audience-chamber. She’s now at leisure, having just driven away the Tyanian ambassador.” To Ryel she swept off her plumed hat and bent in a deep bow, surprising him much. “The word’s up all over the court that you’ve wrought Redbane’s cure. I never thought you’d succeed.”

Alleron’s glare would freeze fire. “Call my lord by his right name, vixen. I swear, if you weren’t a Swordbrother…”

“Sister. Give Redbane a kiss for me when you see him next, dog-robber, and be sure to use your tongue.”

With some of the foulest curses Ryel had ever heard, Alleron jerked his sword halfway out of the scabbard, but the wysard halted it from issuing further with a swift hand-grip and a quiet word of Art.

“I’ll not keep the Domina waiting. Captain,” he said. “And I feel very sure that the Count Palatine wouldn’t want you quarreling with this lady.”

“Lady, you call her.” Alleron spat feelingly. “We’ll finish this up another time, Countess.” He deliberately and indecently mispronounced her title, but Valrandin only laughed.

“The time will find itself, dog-robber. Tomorrow, say, at two of the clock in the headquarters courtyard? “

“Accepted,” Alleron replied. “And it can’t come soon enough to suit me.”

“I too look forward to it,” Valrandin replied. “But I've had enough of you for now. Bannerman, come with me.” She made as if to leave, but then halted for a long moment before Desrenaud’s statue, studying the image with reverence. “He looks a hero,” she said softly. “Just as he should.”

Alleron ignored her, and addressed Ryel. “Shall I wait for you, m’lord? I’ll be glad to.”

“I’ll find my way back, Captain. But thank you.”

They parted, and Ryel followed Valrandin to the palace. The guards looked askance at Ryel’s Steppes gear, but Valrandin’s piercing glare and a very few words elicited instant deference. The Countess led the wysard through vast halls lined with travertine columns and ranks of statues in bronze and marble, halls thronged with courtiers and their hangers-on loitering to no apparent purpose. Heady, riotous richness belied the chill symmetry of the palace’s exterior, for here every wall was glazed with gold-leaf or draped in tapestry and brocade, or paneled with mirrors that reflected the brilliant costumes, mannered demeanor and boredom of the court; every floor of inlaid stone or intricate parquet, polished to perilous smoothness; every ceiling thronged with fabulous beings sporting in nacreous billows of cloud; every statue caught in some ecstasy of violence, half the body lost in tumultuous drapery, half emerging naked-limbed and wild-eyed, gesturing in every variation of high emotion. Energy and impatience had been translated into architecture and ornament; everything seemed on the point of flowing or flying.

The colors furthered the effect in their rich acidity of glowing crimson and flame-orange, cobalt and citron, peacock and magenta and hot violet. Yet in the presence of this superabundant richness and energy Ryel could not help a shiver of unease; the coldness he had sensed in the palace’s exterior now seemed to penetrate his being. The sameness of the deformities, the unvarying elongations and distortions of the human forms and the mindless agitation of their facial expressions, the repetitious irregularity of decorative motif, were both wearisome and disturbing, as was the insistent emphasis on harsh light, unshadowed line, impossible attitude, perverse subject matter. It set his teeth on edge, unstrung his nerves; he remembered Markul’s antique blacks, malachite greens and slate grays, the smooth and somber austerity softened by the uncertain misty light, and sighed at the recollection.

Valrandin heard the sigh, and followed the wysard’s glance to the ceiling, which was covered with an apotheosis boiling over with naked winged figures and gold-glowing clouds. The lieutenant grimaced in sympathy.

“Trash of the last reign,” she said. “That’s Regnier, the Domina’s brother who reigned last, being carried up to bliss in the arms of his catamite favorites—each a faithful portrait, I understand, even to the prick. Ah well, each to his own taste.”

They came at last to a pair of tall portals carved with the royal insignia. Two Companions stood without, swords drawn; Valrandin returned their salutes and smiles with offhand courtesy. Knocking thrice at the door she entered, Ryel following.

“M’Domina, here’s the man you wished to see.”

The figure at the end of the room looked up from the papers covering the work-table. The room was windowless, its darkness relieved only by a cluster of candles; their light fell full on Bradamaine, Domina of Hryeland. Coming as he had from the brilliance of the palace and the day, Ryel’s eyes were unused to the sudden change; the Domina, at first a blur, took on form but gradually, as if surfacing from deep space, reminding the wysard eerily of his first encounter with Michael Essern. She wore complete black that melted into the shadows of the chamber; only her head was visible, and that only by slow degrees. Ryel saw the hair first of all: hair of pure silver, without curl as it was without color, falling unbound to her shoulders in straight heavy masses. The face next, its still-youthful features at odds with its silver frame; a marble mask, equivocal in feature, aquiline-nosed and deep-eyed, of that uncanny pallor that colors hot red at the least provocation and freezes white as suddenly. Then like a stab the mouth—brooding red, voluptuous, commanding, carnal, set in the marble and the silver like a living jewel part flower, part ruby, the bloom poisonous and the gem false. But the eyes, last of all to emerge clearly, held Ryel fixed: ice-eyes the blue of diamond-glitter, fringed with pale lashes. The image, slow to form, seemed to rest suspended in the darkness like an alien moon; and then the red lips parted, speaking in a voice low and a little rough, like the after-tang of honey.

“Sir, tell me who you are.”

“I am Ryel Mirai, a physician,” the wysard replied, bowing.

The voice was unimpressed. “What else?”

“A Rismai of the Inner Steppes.”

Again that harsh indifferent voice. “What else?”

“Nothing else, most exalted.”

“Are you sure?” The woman rose from her work, coming around to join him and Valrandin, and the wysard saw that the Domina Bradamaine wore men’s clothes, black velvet doublet slashed with crimson satin, black velvet breeches, and boots of supple black leather downturned at the knee. She had none of woman’s superfluity in her flesh; all was hard, tight, planed smooth, sudden and strong. Save for the fullness of her mouth and the curve of her eyebrows, no woman showed in her face; yet her voice was that of an enchantress—a Northern one, speaking a form of Hryelesh more rugged and archaic than Ryel had yet heard. And she was very tall, so tall that she met Ryel’s eyes levelly as she stood close to him and spoke again. “Naught else? I would think you something more. A wandering prince of Destimar, belike.”

Gabriel Valrandin laughed as Ryel did what he could to control his astonishment. “He must be a magic prince out of one of his people’s epics,” the lieutenant said, “for he appeared from nowhere, and undertook to cure Redbane of those ills he’s had since birth.”

The Domina’s ice-blue eyes arched their brows a moment before pierced the wysard to the quick. “And did you succeed, Ryel Mirai?”

“I did, most exalted,” the wysard replied.

Bradamaine stared him through. “And how did you work his cure, when all other help has failed?”

“My methods are confidential.”

Valrandin broke in. “However it’s come about, I’m glad. I’ve always wanted a fair fight with Redbane, but always held back because of his sickness. Now I’ll get my heart’s content.”

Bradamaine laughed, rough and short. “And he’ll have your heart’s blood if he can, sweeting. Or perhaps he’ll draw it from someplace else.” She leaned to Valrandin’s ear, burying her lips in those rich abundant curls, whispering something that made the Countess first start, then make a face of deepest disgust. “And with that happy thought you may leave us, Gabriel, for I wish to speak with this bannerman alone. Try to stay out of trouble until I see you again, and come gowned to the service.”

Valrandin made an impatient mouth, but shrugged acquiescence. “As you wish, m’Domina.”

“Wear that new frock I sent you.” And she took Valrandin in her arms, embracing her with a warmth Ryel had not thought her capable of, an eager tenderness.

“If I must, m’Domina.” The embrace was returned, but with less fervor, and a slight wince at the command.

Bradamaine watched her favorite’s departure for some time after the door had closed; then turned to Ryel.

“Well. Sit you down, Prince Ryel of Destimar, for we’ve much to discuss. Nay, not that chair; ‛twill hobnail my coat of arms all over your back. It’s reserved for my treasurer. Take you the other.” She poured two goblets full of wine from a table that stood near, handing one to the wysard. The drink was as red as her mouth, and fiery strong; Bradamaine drained half of hers at once, then dropped into an armchair, stretching out her long booted legs, throwing back her head to fix her watchet stare on the wysard’s face. “So. You are surprised that I knew you?”

Ryel inclined his head as calmly as he might. Word of his elevation to imperial rank could not possibly have reached Hallagh in so short a time, even with the swiftest of messengers. “How did you come by your information, most exalted?”

“That I’ve no way to tell you,” the Domina replied. “The letter was upon my work-table this morning, gold-sealed with the crown of Destimar, writ by the new Sovran’s own hand. From this same missive I’ve learnt that you wrought the cure of the Sovrena Diara, which argues you a healer of skill. The Sovran also let fall that you quit Almancar abruptly, and some doubts he had as to whether you were still alive. No particulars did he give, nor will I trouble you for any. But I marvel much that you wander in search for a dead man, when the Sovran’s letter makes plain that he desires your return to Almancar, as forthwith as may be.”

Ryel looked away. “I would prefer not to answer, m’Domina.”

“I’ll not force you.” Bradamaine poured and drank more wine. “So. Finding Guy Desrenaud is your aim.”

“It is.”

The Domina’s mouth tightened. “You’ll not have an easy time of it, I do assure you.”

Ryel felt his insides cramping. “I realize that the earl is no longer in this realm, but—”

“Neither in this realm nor this world. Lord Guyon’s dead.” Bradamaine’s last words came rougher than all the others, but her ice-eyes never thawed. “He died as he lived. In battle. After fleeing the Barrier, he sold his sword to Wycast, fighting in their unending war against Munkira. In some border-skirmish or other he fell, ‛tis said. A witless, worthless death.” Again she reached for her wine, and drank deep.

Ryel set his own glass down, rather too hard. “Who told you this?”

“Roskerrek,” said the Domina, the word rough in her mouth.

“You believe him?”

Bradamaine nodded, although with manifest reluctance. “Whatever wrong he’s wrought in his day, never has he lied to me.”

Fighting to conceal his reaction, Ryel felt the daimon-sickness well outward from his inmost spirit, cramping his entrails, savaging his brain. Feverishly he reached for the scent-cylinder, opening it in sweating haste. The exquisite essence overcame the air, and his pain. But Bradamaine seemed not to notice it in the least.

“What’s that? Some medicine?”

Ryel’s astonishment overwhelmed his other emotions. “You can’t smell it?”

She shook her head. “Mine’s a blind nose for scents, Prince Ryel—which I’ve been frequently glad of, what with all the perfumes my courtiers reportedly soak themselves in.”

The wysard thrust the scent-cylinder into his pocket again. The fragrance had not only cleared his wits but sharpened them, and he sensed deception; whether it was the Domina’s or Roskerrek’s he resolved to learn, whatever the cost, in the Temple of the Sword. But he knew the price would come high, for the daimonic blight was strong within him, and the combat would take place at night, with Dagar there.

Bradamaine was speaking, her tongue loosened by drink. “I never knew Starklander,” she said, mostly to herself. “Never did he seem a man of human making. I never learned him. Like something out of a fable he came to me.” She opened her eyes not looking at Ryel but far away. “Know you the story of how Starklander and I first met, my lord prince? It’s a famous tale hereabouts.”

The wysard leaned forward. “I would very much like to, m’Domina.”

“Very well. It has long been Hryeland custom that whenever the ruler of the land passes through the palace gates, folk may assemble there to beg favors or offer petitions. One winter’s day some years ago as I rode up to the gates, the people thrust forward as always with their endless askings. But all of a sudden, one among the crowd, a great strong Barbarian disguised, dragged me off my horse and pulled out a dagger to run me through. I’d have been instantly spitted, had not a tall ruffian in dusty black flung himself on the assassin and knocked him down, wresting the knife away. Whilst some of the guard dragged the assassin off for questioning—a soft word for torture and execution—I had my savior brought before me. Reeking dirty he was, his face bearded, his hair all unkempt. But anyone not stone blind might tell that he was of no ordinary making, nor was I surprised to learn that he was none other than the notoriously famed Guyon Desrenaud. As it happened, in struggling for the Barbarian’s knife Desrenaud took a hard cut on the forearm, and it further so chanced, as too often it does in the North, that the blade was poisoned. It was Desrenaud’s great good luck that Roskerrek had experience in the treating of envenomed wounds; the Count Palatine is more learned in the art of poison than any other in the North.”

Ryel stared. “The Count Palatine healed Lord Guyon?”

Bradamaine gave a harsh laugh. “Not of his own wishing, I can assure you; ‛twas at my express command. And thanks to Roskerrek’s care, Desrenaud survived, and regained his health and all his looks. An idle foolish romance-book might say that Desrenaud was formed by nature to beguile. He had come to Hryeland to fight in my wars with the Snow-folk, and he proved himself so able a soldier that in two years he rose from mere captain to second in command only to Roskerrek. But he overstepped his authority beyond forgiveness when he made that treaty with the White Barbarians; he engineered it himself, against my orders and Roskerrek’s opposition. Trekked alone across the mountains through the snow to the camp of the Barbarian chief, and effected what thirty years of struggle could not—an end to the pillaging and rapine, and quiet at last.”

Ryel listened enthralled, as to a tale of wonder. “Brave,” he murmured.

Bradamaine shook her head, her eyes focused far, into memories. “Witless, rather. But ever since then, the peace has held. I was furious with Starklander for taking matters into his own hands, and for putting himself in so much danger, but when he returned to Hallagh in triumph to the cheers of the entire populace, I could hardly punish him.”

She had looked away from Ryel all the time she’d spoken, but for a bare moment he caught her eye. Instantly he compelled his Mastery to hold her gaze, fixing it immovably on his own.

“You loved him, or thought you did.”

The Domina’s pallor colored suddenly, startlingly. “I’d wanted him from the first sight. But feelings for me he had none. Only a mere soldier’s service he rendered me, and I craved all of him. When all wiles failed, I besought Theofanu for a love-philtre that would bring him to my bed.” At Ryel’s shocked astonishment she lifted her hand, then let it drop again. “I had no choice. He would never have lain with me otherwise, so besotted he was with that whore of his, Belphira Deva. But I thought that if he could so lightly leave her for no other excuse than the death of Prince Hylas, he could just as lightly become mine.”

“And then?”

Bradamaine tried to look away, but could not. “It took strong drugs to sway him. Soon he became fonder of them than of me. We quarreled, and I commanded him to leave my realm at once. No sooner was he gone than I learnt I was with child by him; but it was born before its time, and born dead. No one knows of that but me. Would that I had Guy Desrenaud’s cold corpse beneath my foot, and his traitor heart bleeding in my hand...but now even that pleasure is denied me.”

Silence fell awhile, and the wysard broke it slowly. “Might I know what caused your brother’s death, m’Domina?”

She would not look at him. “A fever.”

“You do not sound entirely sure,” Ryel said.

“Regnier lived a life of riot and excess. No one was surprised at his death.”

“Least of all the Count Palatine, I have a feeling.” Those words made Bradamaine look up, eyes narrowed, and once again the wysard locked them with his own, and searched them with his Art. “Did Roskerrek kill the Dominor on your orders?”

It did not seem possible for the Domina to turn any paler, but she did; and as she did she nodded an answer. “My brother more than merited his death. But Roskerrek never asked reward for that service, and I often wonder what he will demand of me someday.”

“His devotion to you is spiritual, not carnal.”

“That’s scarcely reassuring. ‛Tis said that the goddess Argane’s statue in the Sword Brotherhood’s temple looks uncannily like me, and that Redbane draws his own blood as offerings to it. I find that…disgustful. No day goes by that I wish he and I had never met.” Her eyes welled up wetly, and blinked hard once or twice. It broke the Mastery-spell, and the mood, which turned so cold the wysard shivered and drew away from her as she pushed back from her chair, rising as she swiped her eyes with her doublet-sleeve. “That wine’s damnably strong,” she said; and Ryel knew their interview was over. “You’ll guest at Grotherek tonight, my lord prince?”

Her tone held no cordiality, and the wysard was happy to decline. “I thank you, most exalted, but I have already accepted the hospitality of Lord Roskerrek.”

Bradamaine’s eyes narrowed. “Ah. Have you. I've expressly commanded him to be present with my court at the Temple of the Master tomorrow. Join us, if you would. Even if we can make no believer of you, I’ve small doubt you’ll find the rites of interest.”

“For that invitation I thank you, most exalted,” Ryel replied, calmly dissembling his surprise at this new bit of luck. “When do the rites take place?”

Bradamaine glanced at the cased clock by her work-table, that had accompanied the conversation with sepulchral monotonous insistence. “Three hours hence. If you have no other clothes than those you stand up in, more suitable I’ll have sent to you at the Count Palatine’s quarters.”

At this less than veiled reflection on his dusty Steppes gear Ryel gave a slight bow. “No need, most exalted, although I thank you. I have better with me.”

“Good. I’ll have a coach sent for you, that you may appear at the Temple of the Master in a style befitting your rank.”

A few more strained formalities and Ryel took his leave. But before leaving the palace grounds, he stopped at the yard where the statues stood in broken neglected disarray.

Despite its having been created by an artist unquestionably great, the statue of Lord Guyon Desrenaud had received rough treatment, scratches and dents, and the pedestal’s inscription had been roughly chiseled away. Alleron was no longer there, but at the base of the statue lay a fresh little bouquet of the few flowers that grew wild around it. You’ve come down in the world, Starklander, Ryel thought. I only hope you’re still falling, and haven’t yet hit.


Chapter Thirteen is here.


© Carolyn Kephart 2013, 2022