Goddess of the Ice Realm
By David Drake, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2003 David Drake
All rights reserved.
I think the rain's going to hold off after all," said Garric, eyeing the sky to seaward where clouds had been lowering all day as the royal fleet made its way up the western coast of Haft.
If it didn't, well, he wouldn't shrink. For most of his nineteen years he'd been a peasant who herded sheep and worked in the yard of his father's inn, often enough in the rain. But now he was Prince Garric of Haft, making a Royal Progress from Tisamur, through Cordin, and to Carcosa on Haft. He was here to convince the folk living in the West that there was a real Kingdom of the Isles again and that they were part of it. It's hard to impress people in a downpour; all they really care about is getting under cover as soon as the foreign fools let them.
"Ah, you can believe that if you wish, your highness," said Lobon, the sailing master of the Shepherd of the Isles. His voice mushed through a mouthful of maca root, which oarsmen claimed gave them strength and deadened the pain of their muscles. "What I say is that we'll have a squall before we've settled half so many ships into their berths."
He nodded glumly toward the harbor mouth ahead. "That's if Carcosa even has berths for a hundred warships. We're at the back of beyond!"
"Carcosa can berth a hundred warships," Garric said, a trifle more sharply than the sailing master's comment deserved. "A thousand years ago when Carus was King of the Isles and Carcosa was his capital, the harbor held as many as five hundred."
Lobon was a skillful judge of winds, currents, and the way to get the best out of even a clumsy quinquereme like the Shepherd, but he'd been born on the island of Ornifal. He was just as much of an Ornifal chauvinist as a landowning noble like Lord Waldron, commander of the royal army.
Garric came from Barca's Hamlet on the east side of Haft. All the time he'd been growing up, Carcosa was the unimaginably great city that held all the wonder in the world. And besides Garric's own background —
"Aye, lad," said the ghost of King Carus, alive and vibrant in Garric's mind. "Five hundred ships in harbor — but only when I wasn't off on campaign with them, smashing one usurper or another. And that was most times, till the Duke of Yole's wizard smashed me instead and the kingdom with me. But you'll do better, because you know not to solve all your problems with a sword!"
Garric smiled at the image of his ancient ancestor. He and Carus could have passed for son and father: tall and muscular with a dark complexion, brown hair, and a quick smile unless there was trouble to deal with. Carus had never fully mastered his volcanic temper, a flaw that'd proved fatal as he'd said. But —
If I'm doing better, Garric said in his mind's silence, then in part it's because I have your skill to guide my swordarm when a stroke is required.
"I wouldn't know about what went on before my time," muttered Lobon. He spat over the stern railing, threading the gobbet between the helmsman at the starboard steering oar and one of Garric's young aides. The helmsman remained unconcerned, but the aide jumped and smothered a curse.
Generally an aide was somebody's nephew, a second son who could run errands for the prince and either rise to a position of some rank at court or be killed. Either would be a satisfactory outcome, since a family of the minor nobility couldn't afford to support another son in the state his birth demanded.
This youth, Lord Lerdain, was an exception. He was the heir presumptive of Count Lerdoc of Blaise, one of a handful of the most powerful nobles in the kingdom. Lerdain's presence at Garric's side made it more likely that Lerdoc would remain loyal.
Lobon understood Garric's glance toward Lerdain. He scrunched his face into a smile and said to the aide, "Don't worry, boy. I've been chewing maca root since before your father was born. I won't hit you less I mean to."
His face shifting into a mask of frustration, he added, "Not room to swing a cat aboard this pig, there's so many civilians aboard. Ah — begging your pardon, your highness."
"I understand, Master Lobon," Garric said with a faint smile. "We'll be on land shortly ... and I fully appreciate your feelings."
The Shepherd of the Isles was as large as any vessel in the royal fleet. She had five rows of oars on either side and a crew of nearly three hundred men. Despite the quinquereme's relative size, she was strictly a warship rather than a yacht intended to carry a prince. Garric's personal bodyguard, twenty-five Blood Eagles, took the place of the Shepherd's normal complement of marines, but he and the dozen members of his personal entourage were simply excess baggage so far as the ship's personnel were concerned.
"Though as for being civilians ..." Garric added mildly. "I think you'd find I could give as good an account of myself in battle as most of the marines the Shepherd's shipped over the years."
For his formal arrival in Carcosa, Garric wore a breastplate of silvered bronze and a silvered helmet whose spreading wings had been gilded. If the sun cooperated, Prince Garric would be a dazzling gem in a setting formed by the polished black armor of his bodyguards.
Garric's armor this day was for show, but the sword hanging from his belt had a plain bone hilt and a long blade of watered steel. There was nothing flashy about the weapon; but swung by an arm as strong as Garric's, the edge would take an enemy's head off with a single stroke.
"Yes sir, your highness!" Lobon said, looking horrorstruck to realize what he'd said to his prince. To avoid a further blunder, he stepped forward on the walkway and bellowed through the ventilator, "Timekeeper! Raise the stroke a half beat, won't you? This is supposed to be a royal entry, not a funeral procession!"
Obediently the flutist in the far bow of the oar deck quickened the tempo of the simple four-note progression on his right-hand pipe; the other pipe of the pair continued to play a drone. The rate at which the oars dipped, rose, and feathered forward increased by the same amount. In time the Shepherd would slide marginally faster through the water, but a quinquereme was too massive to do anything suddenly. Even the much lighter triremes, which made up the bulk of the fleet, accelerated with a certain majesty.
"The trouble is, lad," said the image of Carus, "you don't act like a noble and they treat you like the folks they grew up with. Then they remember who you really are and they're afraid you'll have them flayed alive for disrespect to Prince Garric of Haft."
I'd never do that! Garric thought in shock.
"No more would I," Carus agreed, "though I showed a hard enough hand to enemies of the kingdom. But there's some in your court who'd show less hesitation over executing a commoner for disrespect than they would over the choice of a wine with their dinner."
"I don't belong here," Garric whispered, but he didn't need the snort from the ghost in his mind to know that he did indeed belong. The Kingdom of the Isles, wracked by rebellion and wizardry, needed Prince Garric and his friends more than it needed any number of the courtiers and Ornifal landowners who'd claimed to be the government of the Isles for most of the thousand years since the Old Kingdom collapsed in blood and chaos.
Thought of his friends made Garric look toward the bow where his sister Sharina, his boyhood friend Cashel, and the wizard Tenoctris leaned against the railing. Like Garric they were mostly concerned with keeping out of the way. This was a particular problem for the women since they'd dressed for arrival in Carcosa in spreading court robes of silk brocade: cream with a gold stripe for "Princess Sharina," sea green for the aged wizard. In a manner of speaking, Tenoctris was much older than the seventy years or so she looked: she'd been flung a thousand years into the future — and onto the beach at Barca's Hamlet — by the same wizard-born cataclysm that had brought down the Old Kingdom.
Sharina wore a fillet, but the golden flood of her hair streamed out beneath it. She was tall — taller than most men in Barca's Hamlet — and blond unlike anyone else in the community. Her mother Lora had been a maid in the palace in Carcosa when tall, blond Niard, an Ornifal noble, had been Count of Haft through his marriage to Countess Tera....
Even a brother could see that Sharina's willowy beauty would be exceptional in any company. "But I know a prettier woman yet," whispered Garric, and smiled wider to think of Liane bos-Benliman. She'd be meeting him here in Carcosa for their wedding.
Sharina felt the weight of her brother's glance. She turned and waved, her smile like sunlight.
Tenoctris and Cashel turned with her. The old wizard was cheerful, birdlike, and as doggedly determined as any soldier in the army. Cashel was almost as tall as Garric, but he was so broad that he didn't look his height unless you saw him with ordinary men. Mountains would crumble before either Cashel or his sister Ilna, aboard the two-decked patrol vessel following the Shepherd, ever failed their duty. Sharina was fortunate to love a man so solid and so much in love with her.
There's never been a man luckier in his friends, Garric thought as he smiled back. Then he turned and waved to the small woman in the stern of the patrol vessel astern.
"And never a better time than now," Carus said, "for the Kingdom of the Isles to have friends — and luck!"
When Ilna saw Garric wave, her first thought was, What does he mean by that?
Then, feeling foolish — feeling more of a fool than she usually did — she waved with her right as her left held the cords she was plaiting. The movement was polite and a little prim, the way Ilna os-Kenset did most things.
Garric didn't mean anything by it. He was just making a friendly gesture to a childhood friend who didn't, after all, mean very much to him.
Near Ilna — and on a deck-and-a-half patrol vessel like the Flying Fish, anyone could be described as near everyone else aboard — Chalcus talked with Captain Rhamis bor-Harriol, a nobleman younger than Ilna's nineteen years. From what Ilna had seen of the captain during the voyage up the western shore of the Isles, he was a complete ninny.
That didn't matter, of course; or at any rate, it didn't matter any more than if Rhamis was being a ninny in some job on shore. The Flying Fish's sailing master took care of navigation and the ordinary business of the ship, limiting the captain's responsibilities to leading his men in a battle. In Ilna's opinion, ninnies were quite sufficient for that task.
"Is something wrong, Ilna?" Merota asked from Ilna's elbow, unseen till the moment she spoke. The nine-year-old was, as Lady Merota bos-Roriman, the orphaned heir to one of the wealthiest houses on Ornifal. Ilna was her guardian, because ... well, because Ilna had been there and nobody else Ilna trusted was available.
The girl was related to Lord Tadai, who acted as chancellor and chief of staff while Garric was with the fleet and those who held the posts officially were back in the palace at Valles. Tadai would've taken care of Merota, but to Tadai that meant marrying the child to some noble as quickly as possible. Merota was young? All the more reason to pass the trouble of raising her on to somebody else.
Ilna and her brother Cashel had been left to raise themselves after their grandmother died when they were seven. Their father Kenset had never said who their mother was; he'd kept a close tongue on the question of where he'd been when he went off adventuring. The only task Kenset applied himself to after coming home with the infants was drinking himself to death, and at that he quickly succeeded.
Ilna and Cashel had survived — survived and prospered, most would say. They were honored members of the royal court, after all. But Ilna wouldn't willingly see another child deal with what she'd gone through herself. If that meant she had to take responsibility for the child, well, she'd never been one to shirk responsibility.
"Nothing's wrong with the world, Merota," Ilna said. She smiled faintly and corrected herself, "Nothing more than usual, that is."
Which is enough and more than enough! she thought, but it wasn't the time to say that, if there was ever a time.
"And as for myself, I'm in my usual state," she continued, still smiling. "Which is bad enough also, I suppose."
When Ilna had last glanced at Merota, the girl was amidships with Mistress Kaline, the impoverished noblewoman who acted as her governess. Mistress Kaline was still there, lying flat over the ventilators — the Flying Fish had no amidships railing — and looking distinctly green.
Ilna's stomach flopped in sympathy, but she'd learned early in the voyage not to eat until they'd made landfall for the night so that she could digest on solid ground. The patrol vessel was agile and quick in a short dash, but it pitched, rolled, and yawed in a fashion that Ilna didn't have words to describe. It wouldn't have been her choice for the ship she wanted to travel on, but she'd never wanted to travel in the first place.
The rest of Garric's staff was aboard quinqueremes or the three-banked triremes that made up most of the fleet. The bigger ships were equally crowded, but they were a great deal more stable. Chalcus had picked the Flying Fish because it was similar to the pirate craft he'd commanded in the days before he met Ilna; and since Ilna had picked Chalcus, that was the end of the matter so far as she was concerned.
Chalcus caught Ilna's eye; he bowed to her and Merota with a flourish before resuming his conversation. Chalcus was no more than middling height. He looked slender from the side, but his shoulders were broad and he moved with the grace of a leopard. If you looked closely at his sharply pleasant features, you saw the scars; and when Chalcus was stripped down to a linen kilt like the sailors, you could see he had scars of one sort or another over most of his body.
From taste and habit Ilna dressed plainly, in unbleached woolen tunics and a blue wool cloak when the weather required it; Chalcus by contrast was a dazzle of color whenever circumstances permitted. Today he wore breeches of red leather, a silk shirt dyed in bright indigo, and between them a sash colored a brilliant yellow with bee's pollen that matched the fillet binding his hair. Ilna knew that the nobles gathered on the quay to meet them would think Chalcus looked like a clown; but they wouldn't say anything, at least not the ones who took time to note the sailor's eyes and the way use had worn the hilt of his incurved sword.
"I do hope Mistress Kaline won't still be sick when we're introduced to Count Lascarg," Merota said in a carefully polite voice. "She'll never be able to live down the embarrassment if that happens."
Ilna looked sharply at her ward, thinking for a moment that she was serious. Then Merota's angelic expression dissolved in a fit of giggles.
"Yes," Ilna said, allowing herself to smile minusculely before her face stiffened again into its accustomed sternness. "But if necessary we'll both help her stand. I've found it settles me to hold on to others."
She didn't care for Mistress Kaline as a person; but then, she didn't care for very many people. Ilna had continued to employ Mistress Kaline after Merota became her ward, in part because the stern old snob did in her way truly love the child, but also because Ilna was more afraid of her own power than she was of anything else in this world or beyond it. It would be easy to dismiss the governess who'd sneered at Ilna as an orphan with no culture and no forebears ... but for Ilna, it would have been equally easy to weave a pattern that would rip Mistress Kaline's soul straight to Hell.
That way lay damnation. It was a path Ilna had once traveled, and from which she would never fully be able to return.
"You're really all right, Ilna?" Merota asked softly.
Ilna reached down with her right hand and squeezed the girl's. Sometimes Merota acted younger than her nine years, but at others it seemed that she was taking care of Ilna instead of the other way around. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Goddess of the Ice Realm by David Drake, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2003 David Drake. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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