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Mienthe did not remember her mother, and she was afraid of her father—a cold, harsh-voiced man with a scathing turn of phrase when his children displeased him. He favored his son, already almost a young man when Mienthe was born, and left Mienthe largely to the care of a succession of nurses—a succession because servants rarely stayed long in that house. If Mienthe had had no one but the nurses, her childhood might have been bleak indeed. But she had Tef.
Tef was the gardener and a man of general work. He had been a soldier for many years and lost a foot in a long-ago dispute with Casmantium. Tef was no longer young and he walked with a crutch, but he was not afraid of Mienthe’s father. It never crossed Mienthe’s mind that he might give notice.
Despite the lack of a foot, Tef carried Mienthe through the gardens on his shoulders. He also let her eat her lunches with him in the kitchen, showed her how to cut flowers so they would stay fresh longer, and gave her a kitten that grew into an enormous slit-eyed gray cat. Tef could speak to cats and so there were always cats about the garden and his cottage, but none of them were as huge or as dignified as the gray cat he gave Mienthe.
When Mienthe was seven, one of her nurses started teaching her her letters. But that nurse had only barely shown her how to form each letter and spell her own name before Mienthe’s father raged at her about Good paper left out in the weather and When are you going to teach that child to keep in mind what she is about? A sight more valuable than teaching a mere girl how to spell, and the nurse gave him notice and Mienthe a tearful farewell. After that, Tef got out a tattered old gardener’s compendium and taught Mienthe her letters himself. Mienthe could spell Tef’s name before her own, and she could spell bittersweet and catbrier and even quaking grass long before she could spell her father’s name. As her father did not notice she had learned to write at all, this did not offend him.
Tef could not teach Mienthe embroidery or deportment, but he taught Mienthe to ride by putting her up on her brother’s outgrown pony and letting her fall off until she learned to stay on, which, fortunately, her brother never discovered, and he taught her to imitate the purring call of a contented gray jay and the rippling coo of a dove and the friendly little chirp of a sparrow so well she could often coax one bird or another to take seeds or crumbs out of her hand.
“It’s good you can keep the cats from eating the birds,” Mienthe told Tef earnestly. “But do you mind?” People who could speak to an animal, she knew, never liked constraining the natural desires of that animal.
“I don’t mind,” said Tef, smiling down at her. He was sitting perfectly still so he wouldn’t frighten the purple-shouldered finch perched on Mienthe’s finger. “The cats can catch voles and rabbits. That’s much more useful than birds. I wonder if you’ll find yourself speaking to some of the little birds one day? That would be pretty and charming.”
Mienthe gazed down at the finch on her finger and smiled. But she said, “It wouldn’t be very useful. Not like speaking to cats is to you.”
Tef shrugged, smiling. “You’re Lord Beraod’s daughter. You don’t need to worry about being useful. Anyway, your father would probably be better pleased with an animal that was pretty and charming than one that’s only useful.”
This was true. Mienthe wished she was pretty and charming herself, like a finch. Maybe her father… But she moved her hand too suddenly then, and the bird flew away with a flash of buff and purple, and she forgot her half-recognized thought.
When Mienthe was nine, a terrible storm came pounding out of the sea into the Delta. The storm uprooted trees, tore the roofs off houses, flooded fields, and drowned dozens of people who happened to be in the path of its greatest fury. Among those who died were Mienthe’s brother and, trying to rescue him from the racing flood, her father.
Mienthe was her father’s sole heir. Tef explained this to her. He explained why three uncles and five cousins—none of whom Mienthe knew, but all with young sons—suddenly appeared and began to quarrel over which of them might best give her a home. Mienthe tried to understand what Tef told her, but everything was suddenly so confusing. The quarrel had something to do with the sons, and with her. “I’m… to go live with one of them? Somewhere else?” she asked anxiously. “Can’t you come, too?”
“No, Mie,” Tef said, stroking her hair with his big hand. “No, I can’t. Not one of your uncles or cousins would permit that. But you’ll do well, do you see? I’m sure you’ll like living with your uncle Talenes.” Tef thought Uncle Talenes was going to win the quarrel. “You’ll have his sons to play with and a nurse who will stay longer than a season and an aunt to be fond of you.”
Tef was right about one thing: In the end, Uncle Talenes vanquished the rest of the uncles and cousins. Uncle Talenes finally resorted to the simple expedient of using his thirty men-at-arms—no one else had brought so many—to appropriate Mienthe and carry her away, leaving the rest to continue their suddenly pointless argument without her.
But Tef was wrong about everything else.
Uncle Talenes lived several days’ journey from Kames, where Mienthe’s father’s house was, in a large high-walled house outside Tiefenauer. Uncle Talenes’s house had mosaic floors and colored glass in the windows and a beautiful fountain in the courtyard. All around the fountain were flower beds, vivid blooms tumbling over their edges. Three great oaks in the courtyard held cages of fluttering, sweet-voiced birds. Mienthe was not allowed to splash in the fountain no matter how hot the weather. She was allowed to sit on the raked gravel under the trees as long as she was careful not to tear her clothing, but she could not listen to the birds without being sorry for the cages.
Nor, aside from the courtyard, were there any gardens. The wild Delta marshes began almost directly outside the gate and ran from the house all the way to the sea. The tough salt grasses would cut your fingers if you swung your hand through them, and mosquitoes whined in the heavy shade.
“Stay out of the marsh,” Aunt Eren warned Mienthe. “There are snakes and poisonous frogs, and quicksand if you put a foot wrong. Snakes, do you hear? Stay close to the house. Close to the house. Do you understand me?” That was how she usually spoke to Mienthe: as though Mienthe were too young and stupid to understand anything unless it was very simple and emphatically repeated.
Aunt Eren was not fond of Mienthe. She was not fond of children generally, but her sons did not much regard their mother’s temper. Mienthe did not know what she could safely disregard and what she must take care for. She wanted to please her aunt, only she was too careless and not clever enough and could not seem to learn how.
Nor did Aunt Eren hire a nurse for Mienthe. She said Mienthe was too old to need a nurse and should have a proper maid instead, but then she did not hire one. Two of Aunt Eren’s own maids took turns looking after Mienthe instead, but she could see they did not like to. Mienthe tried to be quiet and give them no bother.
Mienthe’s half cousins had pursuits and friends of their own. They were not in the least interested in the little girl so suddenly thrust into their family, but they left her alone. Uncle Talenes was worse than either Aunt Eren or the boys. He had a sharp, whining voice that made her think of the mosquitoes, and he was dismayed, dismayed to find her awkward and inarticulate in front of him and in front of the guests to whom he wanted to show her off. Was Mienthe perhaps not very clever? Then it was certainly a shame she was not prettier, wasn’t it? How fortunate for her that her future was safe in his hands…
Mienthe tried to be grateful to her uncle for giving her a home, but she missed Tef.
Then, late in the year after Mienthe turned twelve, her cousin Bertaud came back to the Delta from the royal court. For days no one spoke of anything else. Mienthe knew that Bertaud was another cousin, much older than she was. He had grown up in the Delta, but he had gone away and no one had thought he would come back. Only recently something had happened, some trouble with Casmantium, or with griffins, or somehow with both, and now he seemed to have come back to stay. Mienthe wondered why her cousin had left the Delta, but she wondered even more why he had returned. She thought that if she ever left the Delta, she never would come back.
But her cousin Bertaud even took up his inheritance as Lord of the Delta. This seemed to shock and offend Uncle Talenes, though Mienthe was not sure why, if it was his rightful inheritance. He took over the great house in Tiefenauer, sending Mienthe’s uncle Bodoranes back to his personal estate, and he dismissed all the staff. His dismissal of the staff seemed to shock and offend Aunt Eren as much as his mere return had Uncle Talenes. Both agreed that Bertaud must be high-handed and arrogant and vicious. Yes, it was vicious, uprooting poor Bodoranes like that after all his years and years of service, while Bertaud had lived high in the court and ignored the Delta. And flinging out all those people into the cold! But, well, yes, he was by blood Lord of the Delta, and perhaps there were ways to make the best of it… One might even have to note that Bodoranes had been regrettably obstinate in some respects…
Since the weather in the Delta was warm even this late in the fall, Mienthe wondered what her aunt could mean about flinging people into the cold. And how exactly did Uncle Talenes mean to “make the best” of the new lord’s arrival?
“We need to see him, see what he’s like,” Uncle Talenes explained to his elder son, now seventeen and very interested in girls, as long as they weren’t Mienthe. “He’s Lord of the Delta, for good or ill, and we need to get an idea of him. And we need to be polite. Very, very polite. If he’s clever, he’ll see how much to everyone’s advantage raising the tariffs on Linularinan glass would be”—Uncle Talenes was heavily invested in Delta glass and ceramics—“and if he’s less clever, then maybe he could use someone cleverer to point out these things.”
Karre nodded, puffed up with importance because his father was explaining this to him. Mienthe, tucked forgotten in a chair in the corner, understood finally that her uncle meant to bully or bribe the new Lord of the Delta if he could. She thought he probably could. Uncle Talenes almost always got his own way.
And Uncle Talenes seemed likely to get his own way this time, too. Not many days after he’d returned to the Delta, Lord Bertaud wrote accepting Talenes’s invitation to dine and expressing a hope that two days hence would be convenient, if he were to call.
Aunt Eren stood over the servants while they scrubbed the mosaic floors and put flowers in every room and raked the gravel smooth in the drive. Uncle Talenes made sure his sons and Mienthe were well turned out, and that Aunt Eren was wearing her most expensive jewelry, and he explained several times to the whole household, in ever more vivid terms, how important it was to impress Lord Bertaud.
And precisely at noon on the day arranged, Lord Bertaud arrived.
The family resemblance was clear. He was dark, as all Mienthe’s uncles and cousins were dark; he was tall, as they all were tall; and he had the heavy bones that made him look sturdy rather than handsome. He did not speak quickly and laugh often, as Uncle Talenes did; indeed, his manner was so restrained he seemed severe. Mienthe thought he looked both edgy and stern, and she thought there was an odd kind of depth to his eyes, a depth that somehow seemed familiar, although she could not put a name to it.
Lord Bertaud accepted Uncle Talenes’s effusive congratulations on his return with an abstracted nod, and nodded again as Uncle Talenes introduced his wife and sons. He did not seem to be paying very close attention, but he frowned when Uncle Talenes introduced Mienthe.
“Beraod’s daughter?” he asked. “Why is she here with you?”
Smiling down at Mienthe possessively, Talenes explained about the storm and how he had offered poor Mienthe a home. He brought her forward to greet her lord cousin, but Lord Bertaud’s sternness frightened her, so after she whispered her proper greeting she could not think of anything to say to him.
“Manners, Mienthe,” Aunt Eren sighed reproachfully, and Uncle Talenes confided to Lord Bertaud that Mienthe was not, perhaps, very clever. Terre and Karre rolled their eyes and nudged each other. Mienthe longed to flee out to the courtyard. She flushed and looked fixedly at the mosaics underfoot.
Lord Bertaud frowned.
The meal was awful. The food was good, but Aunt Eren snapped at the maids and sent one dish back to the kitchens because it was too spicy and she was sure, as she repeated several times, that Lord Bertaud must have lost his taste for spicy food away in the north. Uncle Talenes worked smooth comments into the conversation about the brilliance with which Bertaud had handled the recent problems with Casmantium. And with the griffins, so there had been something to do with griffins. Mienthe gathered that Feierabiand had been at war with the griffins, or maybe with Casmantium, or maybe with both at the same time, or else one right after the other. And then maybe there had been something about griffins again, and a wall.
It was all very confusing. Mienthe knew nothing about griffins and couldn’t imagine what a wall had to do with anything, but she wondered why her uncle, usually so clever, did not see that Lord Bertaud did not want to talk about the recent problems, whatever they had exactly involved. Lord Bertaud grew more and more remote. Mienthe fixed her eyes on her plate and moved food around so it might seem she had eaten part of it.
Lord Bertaud said little himself. Uncle Talenes gave complicated, assured explanations of why the tariffs between the Delta and Linularinum should be raised. Aunt Eren told him at great length about the shortcomings of the Tiefenauer markets and assured him that the Desamion markets on the other side of the river were no better. When Uncle Talenes and Aunt Eren left pauses in the flow of words, Lord Bertaud asked Terre about hunting in the marshes and Karre about the best places in Tiefenauer to buy bows and horses, and listened to their enthusiastic answers with as much attention as he’d given to their parents’ discourse.
And he told Mienthe he was sorry to hear about her loss and asked whether she liked living in Tiefenauer with Uncle Talenes.
The question froze Mienthe in her seat. She could not answer truthfully, but she had not expected her lord cousin to speak to her at all and was too confused to lie. The silence that stretched out was horribly uncomfortable.
Then Uncle Talenes sharply assured Lord Bertaud that of course Mienthe was perfectly happy, didn’t he provide everything she needed? She was great friends with his son Terre; the two would assuredly wed in two years, as soon as Mienthe was old enough. Terre glanced sidelong at his father’s face, swallowed, and tried to sound enthusiastic as he agreed. Karre leaned his elbow on the table and grinned at his brother. Aunt Eren scolded Mienthe for her discourtesy in failing to answer her lord cousin’s question.
“I am happy,” Mienthe whispered dutifully, but something made her add, risking a quick glance up at her lord cousin, “Only sometimes I miss Tef.”
“Who is Tef?” Lord Bertaud asked her gently.
Mienthe flinched under Aunt Eren’s cold glare and opened her mouth, but she did not know how to answer this question and in the end only looked helplessly at Lord Bertaud. Tef was Tef; it seemed impossible to explain him.
“Who is Tef?” Lord Bertaud asked Uncle Talenes.
Uncle Talenes shook his head, baffled. “A childhood friend?” he guessed.
Mienthe stared down at her plate and wished passionately that she was free to run out to the courtyard and hide under the great oaks. Then Uncle Talenes began to talk about tariffs and trade again, and the discomfort was covered over. But to Mienthe the rest of the meal seemed to last for hours and hours, even though in fact her lord cousin departed the house long before dusk.
Once he was gone, Aunt Eren scolded Mienthe again for clumsiness and discourtesy—Any well-bred girl should be able to respond gracefully to a simple question, and why ever had Mienthe thought Lord Bertaud would want to hear about some little friend from years past? Anyone would have thought Mienthe had no sense of gratitude for anything Talenes had done for her, and no one liked an ungrateful child. Look up, Mienthe, and say, “Yes, Aunt Eren,” properly. She was much too old to sulk like a spoiled toddler, and Aunt Eren wouldn’t have it.
Mienthe said Yes, Aunt Eren, and No, Aunt Eren, and looked up when she was bidden to, and down when she could, and at last her aunt allowed her to escape to the courtyard. Mienthe tucked herself up next to the largest of the oaks and wished desperately for Tef. Speaking his name to her cousin had made her remember him too clearly.
Six days after Lord Bertaud’s visit, not long after dawn, a four-horse coach with the king’s badge in gold scrollwork on one door and the Delta’s in silver on the other arrived at the house unannounced. It swished around the drive and pulled up by the front entrance. The driver, a grim-looking older man with the king’s badge on his shoulder, set the brake, leaped down from his high seat, opened the coach door, and placed a step so his passenger could step down.
The man who descended from the coach, Mienthe saw, did not fit the image implied by its elegance. He looked to be a soldier or a guardsman, not a nobleman. By his bearing, he was well enough bred, but no one extraordinary. But he wore the king’s badge on one shoulder and the Delta’s on the other. Mienthe did not move from the window seat of her room. She was curious about the visitor, but not enough to put herself in her uncle’s way.
She was surprised when Karre put his head through her door a moment later and said, “Father wants you. In his study. Hurry up, can’t you?”
Mienthe stared after Karre when he had vanished. Her heart sank, for whatever Uncle Talenes wanted, she already knew she would not be able to do it, or at least would not be able to do it properly, or would not want to do it. Probably he wanted to show her off to the visitor. Mienthe knew she would look stiff and slow and that Uncle Talenes would regretfully tell his visitor that she was not very clever. But Karre called impatiently from out in the hall, so she reluctantly got to her feet.
She was not surprised to find the visitor with Uncle Talenes when she came into the study, but she was surprised at Uncle Talenes’s expression and manner. Her uncle liked to show her to his friends and talk about what he would do with her father’s estate when she married Terre, but this time he did not look like he had brought her in to show her off. He looked angry, but stifled, as though he was afraid to show his anger too clearly.
In contrast, the visitor looked… not quite oblivious of Uncle Talenes’s anger, Mienthe thought. No, he looked like he knew Uncle Talenes was angry, but also like he did not mind his anger in the least. Mienthe admired him at once: She never felt anything but afraid and ashamed when Uncle Talenes was angry with her.
“Mienthe? Daughter of Beraod?” asked the visitor, but not as though he had any doubt as to who she was. He regarded Mienthe with lively interest. He was not smiling, but his wide expressive mouth looked like it would smile easily. She nodded uncertainly.
“Mienthe—” began Uncle Talenes.
The visitor held up a hand, and he stopped.
Mienthe gazed at this oddly powerful stranger with nervous amazement, waiting to hear what he wanted with her. She felt suspended in the moment, as in the eye of a soundless storm; she felt that her whole life had narrowed to this one point and that in a moment, when the man spoke, the storm would break. But she could not have said whether she was terrified of the storm or longed for it to come.
“I am Enned son of Lakas, king’s man and servant of the Lord of the Delta,” declared the young man. “Your cousin Bertaud son of Boudan, Lord of the Delta by right of blood and let of His Majesty Iaor Safiad, bids me bring you to him. He has decided that henceforward you will live with him in his house. You are to make ready at once and come back with me this very day.” Looking at Uncle Talenes, he added warningly, “And you are not to fail of this command, on pain of Lord Bertaud’s great displeasure.”
“This is outrageous—” Uncle Talenes began.
The young man held up a hand again. “I merely do as I’m bid,” he said, so sternly that Uncle Talenes stopped midprotest. “If you wish to contend with this order, Lord Talenes, you must carry your protest to the Lord of the Delta.”
Mienthe looked at the stranger—Enned son of Lakas—for a long moment, trying to understand what he had said. She faltered at last, “I am to go with you?”
“Yes,” said Enned, and he did smile then.
“I am not to come back?”
“No,” agreed the young man. He looked at Uncle Talenes. “It will not take long to gather Mienthe’s things,” he said. The way he said it, it was not a question but a command.
“I—” said Uncle Talenes. “My wife—”
“The lord’s house is not so far away that you will not be able to visit, if it pleases you to do so,” Enned said. He did not say that Mienthe would visit Uncle Talenes’s house.
“But—” said Uncle Talenes.
“I am to return before noon. We will need to depart in less than an hour,” said the young man inflexibly. “I am quite certain it will not take long to gather Mienthe’s things.”
Uncle Talenes stared at the young man, then at Mienthe. He said to Mienthe, within his voice a note of conciliation she had never before heard, “Mienthe, this is outrageous—it is insupportable! You must tell the esteemed, ah, the esteemed Enned son of Lakas, you will certainly stay here, among people who know you and have your best interests close at heart—”
Mienthe gazed into her uncle’s face for a moment. Then she lowered her gaze and stared fixedly at the floor.
Uncle Talenes flung up his hands and went out. Mienthe heard him shouting for Aunt Eren and for the servants. She lifted her head, giving the esteemed Enned son of Lakas a cautious glance out of the corner of her eye.
The young man smiled at her. “We shall leave them to it. Where shall we wait where we will be out of the way?”
Mienthe led the way to the courtyard.
Enned son of Lakas admired the huge oaks and trailed his hand in the fountain. Mienthe stood uncertainly, looking at him, and he turned his head and smiled at her again.
His smile lit his eyes and made Mienthe want to smile back, though she did not, in case he might find it impudent. But the smile gave her the courage to ask again, “I am not to come back?”
“That’s as my lord wills,” Enned said seriously. “But I think it most unlikely.”
Mienthe thought about this. Then she turned and, going from one of the great oaks to the next, she stood on her toes, reached up as high as she could, and opened the doors to all the cages one after another.
The birds swirled out and swept around the courtyard in a flurry of sky blue and delicate green, soft primrose yellow and pure white. The palest blue one landed for a moment on Mienthe’s upraised hand, and then all the birds darted up and over the walls and out into the broad sky.
Mienthe lowered her hand slowly once all of the birds were gone. When she nervously looked at Enned, she found that although he was looking at her intently and no longer smiling, his expression was only resigned rather than angry.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose I can pay for those, if Lord Talenes asks.”
Uncle Talenes did not ask. He was too busy trying to persuade Mienthe that she really wanted to stay with his family. Aunt Eren tried, too, though not very hard. Mienthe looked steadfastly at the floor of Uncle Talenes’s study, and then at the mosaic floor of the entry hall, and then at the gravel of the drive. When Enned asked her if everything was packed that should be, she nodded without even glancing up.
“Well, you can send back if anything is missing,” Enned told her, and to Uncle Talenes, “Thank you, Lord Talenes, and my lord sends his thanks as well.” Then he handed Mienthe formally into the coach and signaled the driver, and the horses tossed up their heads and trotted smartly around the sweep of the drive and out onto the raised road that led through the deep marshlands into Tiefenauer.
Mienthe settled herself on the cushioned bench and fixed her gaze out the window. A bird called in the marshes—not the little brightly colored ones from the cages, but something that sounded larger and much wilder.
“You will like the great house,” Enned said to her, but not quite confidently.
“Yes,” Mienthe answered obediently, dropping her eyes to her folded hands in her lap.
“You cannot have been happy living with your uncle, surely?” Enned asked, but he sounded uncertain. “Now we are away, will you not speak plainly to me? My lord did not mean to take you away from a house where you were happy. He will send you back if you ask him.”
Mienthe turned her head and stared at the man. “But you said he would not send me back?” Then, as Enned began to answer, she declared passionately, “I will never go back—I will run into the marshes first, even if there are snakes and poisonous frogs!”
“Good for you!” answered Enned, smiling again. “But I think that will not be necessary.”
He sounded cheerful once more. Mienthe looked at her hands and did not reply.
The great house was not what she had expected, though she had not realized she expected anything until she found herself surprised. It was not neatly self-contained, but rather long and rambling. It occupied all the top of a long, low hill near the center of town. It had one wing sweeping out this way and another angled back this way and a third spilling down the hill that way, as though whoever had built it had never paused to think what the whole would look like when he had designed the parts. It was made of red brick and gray stone and pale cypress wood, and it was surrounded by sweeping gardens—not formal gardens such as at her father’s house, but wild-looking shrubberies with walks winding away into them.
The house was huge, but nearly all the windows were tight-shuttered, and there was nothing of the crowded clamor that should have occupied so great a dwelling. Mienthe remembered that her lord cousin was supposed to have dismissed all the staff. She would have liked to ask Enned about this, but she did not quite dare. The coach swept around the wide drive and drew to a halt, and the driver jumped down to put the step in place. Enned descended and turned to offer Mienthe his hand.
Lord Bertaud came out of the house before they quite reached it. He looked tired and distracted. Behind the tiredness and distraction was that other, darker depth that Mienthe could not quite recognize. But his expression lightened when he saw her, and he came down the steps and took Mienthe’s hands in his.
“Cousin!” he said. “Welcome!” He smiled down at her with every evidence of pleased satisfaction. The darkness in his eyes, if it had been there at all, was hidden by his smile. Mienthe blushed with confusion and nervousness, but her cousin did not seem to mind, or even notice. He said to Enned, “There was no trouble?”
“Not at all,” Enned replied cheerfully. “I enjoyed myself. What a pity all your orders cannot be such a pleasure to carry out, my lord.”
“Indeed.” Lord Bertaud released one of Mienthe’s hands so he could clap the young man on the shoulder. “Go help Ansed put the coach away, if you will, and settle the horses, and then come report to me.”
“My lord,” Enned answered, with a small bow for his lord and another for Mienthe, and turned to hail the coach’s driver.
Lord Bertaud drew Mienthe after him toward the house. “You will be hungry after your journey. I had my men wait the noon meal—I am afraid we do not have a cook as yet. Indeed, as yet we have few servants of any description,” he added apologetically. “Of course you must have a maid, and I have arranged interviews for tomorrow, but for the moment you must make do with Ansed’s wife. Edlis is her name. I am sure she will not be what you are accustomed to, cousin, but I hope you will be patient with her.”
Mienthe, who was not accustomed to any but the most grudging help with anything, did not know how to answer.
Lord Bertaud did not seem to mind her silence, but led her into the house and down a long floor. The floor was not decorated with any mosaic tiles. It was plain wood. Though the boards were clean, they were not even painted, and they creaked underfoot. He told her, “You may explore the house after we eat, or whenever you like. I have put you in a room near mine for now—all the house save part of this wing is shut up at the moment, but later you may certainly choose any room that pleases you.”
They turned a corner and entered the kitchens, which were wide and sprawling, with three ovens and four work counters and a long table in front of two large windows. The windows were shaded by the branches of overhanging trees, but open to catch any breeze. The door to an ice cellar stood open, with a cool draft rising from it, and only one of the ovens glowed with heat. It was immediately obvious that there was no proper kitchen staff, for the meal was being prepared by a man who looked like a soldier.
“Yes,” said Lord Bertaud, evidently amused by Mienthe’s expression. “I did not want to hire a cook you did not like, cousin; the cook is almost as important as your maids. So it’s camp cooking for us today, I fear.”
“Well, my lord, I think we’ve managed something better than camp fare,” the man said cheerfully. “Nothing fancy, I own, but a roast is easy enough, and you can always tuck potatoes in the drippings. And I sent Daued into town for pastries.” The man nodded to Mienthe politely. “My lady.”
Mienthe hesitantly nodded back.
“We will all eat in the staff hall today, with perfect informality,” declared her cousin.
“Yes, my lord,” agreed the man, and poked the roast with a long-handled fork. “This is so tender it’s near melted, lord, so we can serve as you please.”
“Half an hour,” said Lord Bertaud, and to Mienthe, “I think you will like to meet my new gardener. I hired him just two days past, but I’m quite pleased. Just step out through that door and I think you will find him working in the kitchen gardens, just here by the house.”
Mienthe stared at her cousin.
“Go on,” Lord Bertaud said, smiling at her. “Tell him that everyone will be eating in the staff hall, please, cousin. In half an hour, but if you are a little delayed, no one will mind.”
This all seemed strange to Mienthe, but then everything about her cousin seemed strange to her. When Lord Bertaud nodded firmly toward the kitchen door, she took a cautious step toward it. When he nodded to her again, she turned and pushed open the door.
The gardener was sitting on a short-legged stool, carefully setting new ruby-stemmed chard seedlings into a bed to replace long-bolted lettuces. Though his back was toward Mienthe, she knew him at once. She stopped and stared, for though she knew him, she did not believe she could be right. But he heard the kitchen door close behind her and turned. His broad, grizzled face had not changed at all.
“Mie!” Tef said and reached down for the crutch lying beside his stool.
Mienthe did not run to him. She walked, slowly and carefully, feeling that with any step he might suddenly turn into someone else, a stranger, someone she did not know; perhaps she only imagined she knew him because the smell of herbs and turned earth had overwhelmed her with memory. But when she reached the gardener and put a cautious hand out to his, he was still Tef. He rubbed dirt off his hands and put a hand on her shoulder, and pulled her into an embrace, and Mienthe tucked herself close to his chest and burst into tears.
“Well, now, it was an odd thing,” Tef told her a little later, when the brief storm had passed and Mienthe had washed her face with water out of his watering jug. “This man rode up to my house four days ago. He asked me was I the Tef who’d used to be a gardener for Lord Beraod. I said yes, and he asked me all about the old household.”
“And about me,” Mienthe said. Four days ago, so Lord Bertaud must have sent a man to Kames almost as soon as he had left Uncle Talenes’s house. So he must have been thinking even then about bringing her to live with him in the great house. That decisiveness frightened Mienthe a little because she still had no idea why her cousin had brought her to live with him.
“Yes, Mie, and about you, though not right at first. I could see he’d been working around to something, but I didn’t rightly know what, and then after I knew what, I’d no idea of why. But I couldn’t see what harm it would do to answer his questions, so I told him.”
“Yes, but what did you tell him?”
“Well, the truth! That your mama died when you were three and your father barely noticed you except when you got in his way; that Lord Beraod had a temper with a bite to it and couldn’t keep staff no matter he paid high; that you had twenty-seven nurses in six years and hardly a one worth a barley groat, much less a copper coin; and that—” He paused.
Mienthe looked at Tef wonderingly. “What?”
“Well, that I’d let you follow me about, I suppose,” Tef said gruffly. “So this man, he said Lord Bertaud, Boudan’s son, had come back to the Delta and meant to be lord here, only he needed staff, and would I want to come be a gardener at the great house? I said I wasn’t any younger now than I was then, but he said Lord Bertaud wouldn’t mind about that. And then he said the lord would be sending for you, Mie, so I gave my house to my nephew’s daughter and packed up my things, and, well, here we are.”
Mienthe thought about this. Then she asked, “But why did he send for me?” and waited confidently for the answer. It never occurred to her that Tef might not know.
Nor was she disappointed. Tef said briskly, “Well, that’s simple enough, I expect. You know the old lord, Lord Berdoen that was your grandfather, you know he was a terror, I suppose, and rode his twelve sons with a hard hand on the rein and whip, as they say.”
Everyone knew that. Mienthe nodded.
“Well, Lord Boudan, your cousin’s father, he had just the same cold heart and heavy hand as the old lord, so they say. Anyway, Lord Boudan, he sent his son to serve at court—that was while the old king was alive, but by all accounts, Prince Iaor liked Bertaud well and kept him close. So even after Lord Boudan and then the old king died, Lord Bertaud didn’t come home—not but for flying visits, do you see. He’d hated his father so much he couldn’t stand any part of the Delta, is what I’d guess, and so he stayed on at court. And he still is close to the king, from what they say about this past summer: They say Iaor sent your cousin as his envoy to Casmantium after that trouble this summer, did you hear about that?”
Mienthe shook her head uncertainly, meaning that if her uncle had said anything about it at the time, either he hadn’t said it to her or she hadn’t been paying attention.
“Well, I don’t know much about it, either, but there’s been talk about it around and about the Delta because of your cousin’s being our right lord, do you see? And some folk say one thing and some another, but I guess there was some kind of problem with griffins coming over the mountains into Feierabiand early in the summer, but it all had to do with Casmantium somehow, which that part makes sense, I guess, since everybody knows that’s where griffins live, up there north of Casmantium. And Lord Bertaud was important in getting it all to come out right, somehow, and then the king sent him to Casmantium after it was all over, to escort the young Casmantian prince to our court as a hostage—”
“Oh!” said Mienthe, startled, and then put a hand over her mouth to show she was sorry for interrupting.
“Well, that’s what they say, though how our king made Casmantium’s king send him, I’m sure I don’t know. He must be about your age, I guess. The young prince, I mean.”
“Oh,” Mienthe said again, feeling intensely sorry for the displaced Casmantian prince. “I suppose he was sad to leave his home and go somewhere to live with strangers?” She supposed he might even have been sorry to leave his father, too, though that required some imagination.
Tef patted her hands. “Oh, well, Mie, a boy that age might be ready for an adventure, maybe. And you know, our Safiad king’s a decent sort by all accounts. Anyway, I’ve barely seen your cousin to speak to, you know, but somehow I don’t think he’d be the sort to lend himself to anything that wasn’t right and proper.”
“He seems kind,” Mienthe whispered.
“He does that. Anyway, besides about the young prince, I heard tell of something about a wall in Casmantium, but I can’t rightly say I know what that was about, except it was about the griffins again and likely needed some kind of mageworking to build. They say the Wall is a hundred miles long and was built in a single night, but I don’t know as I believe even the greatest Casmantian makers and builders could do that. Not even with mages to help.”
“Well, your cousin’s no mage, but I guess he built that Wall, or maybe had it built, somehow. Whatever he did, he came out of it with honors from both the Casmantian king and our king, which you can maybe guess or else our king wouldn’t hardly have sent his own men to serve Lord Bertaud here in the Delta, would he?”
Mienthe wondered again why her cousin had come back.
“Oh, well,” said Tef, when she asked him. He paused, picking up a clump of dark earth and crumbling it thoughtfully in his fingers. “You know, Mie, I think maybe Lord Bertaud was hurt somehow in all that mess this summer, and don’t fool yourself, if there was any kind of battle, I’m sure it was a right mess. They always are. Or maybe he was just tired out. I wonder if maybe he… well. What I think is, when it came right to it, when he found he needed a place to shut himself away from everything and just rest, somehow he found himself thinking of the Delta. It’s in his blood, after all, however hard a man his father was.”
Mienthe nodded doubtfully. “But—” she began, and then exclaimed, “Oh!” as she suddenly understood something else. “That’s why he dismissed all the staff here—because he’d hated his father’s house so much and didn’t want anyone here who’d been here when he was a boy! Is that why?”
“I should think so. He’s allowing the staff to reapply, but the word is, only the younger staff have a chance to come back—it’s just what you said, he doesn’t want anyone here who reminds him of those bad years. And that’s why he sent for you, do you see, Mie? Because he saw you in your uncle Talenes’s house and you reminded him of himself, that’s what I expect happened, and he decided to rescue you just as the king once rescued him.”
“Yes…” Mienthe said softly. She could see this was true, that it must be true. Her heart tried to rise up and sink both at once. From being afraid that she would not be able to please her cousin and that he would send her back, she found herself afraid that she would not be able to please him and that he would be disappointed in her. Her famous, important cousin might not be sorry he had rescued her, but he would be sorry he had rescued her. That he had not found a girl who was clever and pretty and graceful—someone he could be proud of having rescued. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she rubbed her sleeve fiercely across her eyes—she never cried, and here she was weeping twice in an hour!
In an hour. Mienthe jumped to her feet and said, “He said half an hour!” and then she really wanted to cry, because here she had barely arrived at the great house and already she was letting her cousin see how careless and stupid she was—
“Hush, Mie, it’ll all be well,” Tef promised her, patting her foot because he couldn’t reach her shoulder. “Do you think he didn’t know we’d get to talking? Hand me my crutch, there’s a sweet girl, and don’t cry.”
If you are a little delayed, no one will mind, her cousin had said, Mienthe remembered, so maybe Tef was right. She tried to smile, but still said anxiously, “But we should hurry. To the—to the staff hall, he said.”
“The staff hall it is, then,” Tef agreed, climbing laboriously to his feet.
Six years later
Tiefenauer, largest town of all the wide Delta, was a place of broad streets and ancient cypresses and swamp oaks. Wooden boardwalks lay beside all the important streets, allowing passersby to keep out of the winter mud that sometimes flooded even over the cobbles. Deep drainage channels ran underneath the boardwalks, so that only the greatest storms of spring and fall would flood the town. Even so, winter and spring and fall were the seasons when Tiefenauer bustled with energy and life.
In the summer, when the days grew long and the air hung motionless and heavy, the town became as somnolent as the air. Flowers of purple and red tumbled from every balcony, and it seemed that every house in Tiefenauer had at least one balcony. Fat bumblebees hummed placidly among the flowers, and all the people of Tiefenauer hung out little pots of sugar water to attract the large purple-backed hummingbirds, and the little red-throated ones, to their balconies. Larger birds darted among the branches of the great trees and nested in the streamers of moss that festooned them.
Years ago, Tan had lived in Tiefenauer for one long, lazy summer that stood out, jewel-bright, in his memory. He wished fervently that it was summer now. The Delta was seldom so terribly cold, but it surely seemed cold enough. He knelt, shaking and half frozen, in the dirty straw of his cell, and tried not to laugh. There was nothing the least amusing in his situation, except that it was so utterly, perfectly ludicrous.
He said to the prison guard—a brawny young man with broad shoulders, big hands, and, currently, an expression of grim distaste, “I suppose everyone begs you to carry messages to their friends and promises rewards for the favor. But does everyone ask you to take a message to the lord himself? Not even a message. Just a name. I swear to you, he’ll know that name. I swear to you, he’ll want to see me. He must see me. It’s—”
“Desperately important, I know,” interrupted the young guard. He gave a scornful, uneasy jerk of his head. “Of course it is. But they’re busy up in the great house. Anyway, it’s against the rules. That’s enough for me! Do you think I want to be stuck down in this pit forever? I’ll warn you, though, don’t trouble offering a bribe to Jer when he comes on duty. He’ll take your money and give you nothing for it.”
“If I had anything to bribe either of you with, I’d risk it,” Tan assured the young man. “Unfortunately, all I can offer is a promise that if you take my name up to the great house, you’ll not remain a prison guard.”
“Because I’ll be a prisoner myself?” the guard said, not quite as naive as he looked. “Indeed, I would be in your debt, esteemed sir. I said, it’s against the rules.” He half turned, preparing to go on with his rounds.
Tan longed to pound his hands against the floor and shout. But it wouldn’t help, and anyway he was too tired. He made himself speak softly instead. “Well, I’m sure that’s a comfort to you. When I’m found murdered in this cell, I hope you will wonder how far you are responsible. But you won’t need to reproach yourself, will you? You’ll know you followed the rules.”
The guard turned back, frowning. “I think you’re safe enough in our keeping.”
Tan laughed out loud. “You think, what? That I’m some thief or common thug? I’m asking you, begging you, to take my name to the Lord of the Delta himself, and you think I’m a thief? Is that what you think?”
The young guard opened his mouth, shut it again, turned his back, gave Tan an unsettled look over his shoulder, and walked out. The door slammed behind him with disheartening finality, leaving Tan alone in the dark and cold. Tan pressed his hands over his eyes. Perhaps a little less sarcasm, a little more humility? If he had not learned a measure of humility tonight, he surely never would.
He eased himself back to sit against the wall. The stone was dry enough, but cold. It seemed to suck the warmth right out of his bones. After a moment he hunched away from it and huddled into the straw. The window of his cell admitted, at the moment, nothing past its bars more alarming than the chill air of earliest spring and little curls of mist. Tan wondered how long it would take for Linularinan agents to track him to this cell. How they would laugh, to find him so stupidly trapped, and by his own people! And then someone would throw a poison dart through that window or, much worse, bribe the prison guards to release him into their hands. And after that…
It was appalling that only the basic integrity of a young prison guard who didn’t break the rules might protect him from his enemies. He knew, of course, that no such integrity could possibly protect him well enough.
The outer door swung back suddenly, letting in the bright swinging light of lanterns and the heavy tread of boots. Tan straightened, then got to his feet and tried to look intelligent and at least somewhat respectable. The young guard had come back, and with him was the officer of the watch: a powerful man with a harsh, brutal face.
“Well?” he said to Tan.
“Esteemed Captain,” Tan said immediately, and bowed.
“You don’t consider our protection here adequate, is that right? You’ve got special enemies, that’s what I hear. You think you’ll fare better if your name goes up the hill, do you?”
“If you please to send it, esteemed sir, and I swear to you it will be recognized.”
The captain looked Tan up and down with obvious distaste. “You’re safe enough here, I assure you, so you may set your heart at rest on that account.”
Tan bowed his head and said nothing.
“Huh. A prodigal cousin, are you? Got in bad company and came dragging home to beg pardon and payment of your debts from the lord?”
“If you like,” Tan agreed obligingly. He tried to look dissolute and repentant.
“You think Lord Bertaud will be happy to hear your name, do you? Not likely! Theft, brawling, murder: What else do you drag at your heel? You think the lord will pardon all that for whatever blood you might have in common?” The captain sounded like he doubted this. He said with grim satisfaction, “You think he wants some bastard half cousin up at the great house now, with the king’s household in residence? If you had the sense of a turnip, you’d hope no judge had time for you until next month, after the king’s gone back to Tihannad, if you hope for mercy from Lord Bertaud.”
Tan gazed at the captain. He said slowly, “King Iaor is here?”
“You didn’t know?” This time, the captain sounded honestly astonished. “Earth and sea, man, where have you been the past six years? It’s that long since His Majesty began breaking his annual progress in the Delta for a month or more! Ever since Lord Bertaud came home.” He looked grimly pleased to crush Tan’s hopes.
“If Bertaud doesn’t know my name, Iaor will,” Tan declared at once, hoping it was true.
The captain scowled. “Lord Bertaud, man, and King Iaor, man! Let us have some respect!”
Tan bowed apology. “I beg your pardon, esteemed Captain. I meant no disrespect.” He tried to remember a name that both Bertaud and the king might recognize.
“Well,” the captain said, looking at him hard. “And what name is it that they’ll know, up at the great house?”
“Teras son of Toharas,” Tan said, hoping that this was true.
“Huh.” The captain turned his head and fixed the young guard with a cold eye. The young man straightened his back and swallowed. “Since you and the prisoner are both so concerned for his safety, you can stay on after your shift and keep an eye on him,” said the captain. “Without extra pay, of course.” He walked out.
The young guard looked morosely at Tan. “Thank you so much. I ought to beat you bloody.”
“Your captain may yet send my name up the hill,” Tan said softly. “That chance is worth any beating. So is your watchful presence here. Did you think I did not mean my warning to you? You may well have saved my life tonight.” He bowed his head, adding formally, “I am in your debt, and you may call upon me.” He looked up again, smiling, and added, “For all you may not find such a promise very impressive just at this moment. What is your name, if I may be so bold as to inquire?”
The guard seemed warily impressed, and not very inclined to carry out his threat. He hesitated for a moment and then said, “Tenned. Son of Tenned.”
“Tenned son of Tenned. I thank you.” Tan bowed. Then, as the young man did not seem likely to carry out his threat, Tan sat down in the straw, wrapped his arms around his body, and tried not to shiver the last of his strength away. Tenned’s presence was indeed a comfort and a safeguard. Tan might even dare to rest, if he were not so cold.
Tenned regarded him for a long moment. Then he set his jaw, hooked his lantern to a hook high up in the wall, and left the room.
But he came back in mere moments with a threadbare blanket and a hard roll stuffed with sausage, both of which he tossed wordlessly through the bars to Tan.
Despite his surprise, Tan caught the food and the blanket. A flush crept up the guard’s face when Tan stared at him, making him seem younger still. Tan shook his head. “Truly, you need a place in some other company. You are too kind to be”—he gestured at the walls of his cell and, by extension, at the prison entire—“here.”
The guard crossed his arms uneasily across his chest and glanced away. But he said in a low voice, “Maybe, if the captain doesn’t send word up the hill… maybe I’ll go after all. At noon.” He gave Tan a hard look. “If the captain lets me off duty at noon. That’s a double watch. He’ll set up to three extra, if he’s angry enough. He did that to a new guard last week, when he let a prisoner get his keys.”
Tan might have wished Tenned to be careless enough to let Tan get his keys, but this seemed most unlikely. He contented himself with nodding sympathetically.
But at two hours past dawn, the guard captain came back himself, with a pair of extra guards and a set of slender keys. The stamp of their boots woke Tan, who sat up and then got to his feet, laying aside the blanket with a nod of thanks to Tenned.
“I don’t know as anyone recalls your name, mind,” the captain told Tan. “Maybe they’re only interested. But you’re to go up and they’ll take a look at you, at least. I wouldn’t care to miss it. I’m taking you up myself.”
Tan looked over the two guards the captain had brought with him and shook his head. “You should have more men.”
The captain lifted his eyebrows. “What? That tough, are you?”
“Not for me. Six men, at least. Ten would be better. You should detail half to keep their attention outward.”
For a long moment, the captain was silent. Tan wondered whether he had at last succeeded in impressing the man with his sincerity, if nothing else. Or, given the captain’s harsh, expressionless stare, whether he had at last succeeded in offending the man beyond bearing. The man had shoulders like an ox; he could undoubtedly deliver a ferocious beating if he decided a prisoner was being deliberately insolent. “Not that I’d try to instruct you in your business, esteemed Captain,” Tan added, trying his best to look respectful.
But the captain only said at last, to one of his men, “Beras, go round up everyone who’s free and tell ’em meet us at the front gate. Tenned. Unlock that cell.” He shot Tan an ironic look and threw the young guard a set of manacles. “Chain the prisoner.”
Tan put his hands out cooperatively, hoping to get Tenned to chain his hands in front of his body rather than behind. From the deepening irony of the captain’s expression, the man recognized that old trick. But he said nothing, and Tenned did indeed allow Tan to keep his hands in front.
The great house stood, in fact, on a long, low hill—low, but the only hill for half a day’s travel in any direction, the Delta not being renowned for hills of any kind. The house was itself essentially long and low, though one wing had two stories and one round tower at the edge of the adjoining wing stood two stories higher than that. The tower was windowless. Tan wasn’t quite certain what that said about the character of the man who had commanded it built.
The house had been built by a succession of Delta lords, each adding to it primarily by building out into its grounds rather than upward. One wing of the house had originally been stables—but very fine stables—and another had once probably been a mews, from the look of the extremely broad windows. The current stables and mews and kennels were just visible, far around the side of the house. If Tan had seen them earlier, he might have guessed that the king was in residence, both from the general busy atmosphere and from the fineness of the horses. The guard captain appeared to be heading for a door over in that general area.
The captain had, in the end, surrounded Tan with nine guards and had ordered five of them to forget the prisoner and watch the streets. Half a dozen crows flew overhead, cawing harshly. They flew ahead of the little procession and over the rooftops to either side. Another crow perched on the captain’s shoulder, tilting its head this way and that, its bright black eyes intelligent and alert. It seemed the captain had an affinity for crows. At the moment, Tan could hardly imagine a more useful affinity, though he’d have preferred to have a larger flock looking for trouble. Though, even so, it didn’t seem likely anyone with a bow could stay hidden on a roof with even a few crows flying watchfully near. Even a man who could whisper to his arrows and make them turn to strike their target had to aim somewhere near where he wanted them to strike.
The captain followed the flight of his crows with a frowning look, then turned his attention back to his prisoner. Perhaps he suspected some ruse on Tan’s part. Tan would have been happy to have a ruse in mind, but he did not. Perhaps it was better so. As his trouble last night had so clearly demonstrated, he might in fact be safer in chains and surrounded by guards than he would have been slipping quietly through the city on his own. Especially with royal guardsmen set all about the great house.
“Here we are,” the guard captain said to Tan as they came up to a narrow, plain door set in the side of a plain, windowless building. “I see we had enough crows after all—and two or three guards would have been sufficient, after all.”
“Unless the force you displayed deterred my enemies,” Tan suggested blandly. “Esteemed Captain.”
The captain looked at him fixedly for a moment. But then he merely put out one massive hand and shoved the door open. It was not locked. They shed half the guards and all the crows as they went through it, and through a barren entryway, and at last into an unadorned reception room that contained nothing but a small table and one chair.
The chair was occupied. Bertaud son of Boudan—so Tan supposed—looked up. His gaze was intent and mistrustful, but not, Tan thought, actually hostile. At least, not yet. The young man Tan remembered from the court at Tihannad had grown into a solid, self-assured lord. He’d come to look a good deal like his father, which must surely gall him. But there was an interesting depth in his eyes, and lines around his mouth that Tan did not remember. Tan wondered how he had come by that compelling intensity.
Tan went to one knee before Bertaud’s chair, rested his bound hands on his other knee, and bowed his head for a moment. Then he lifted his head and looked Bertaud in the face. Their eyes met. Bertaud’s look became searching, then questioning. He drew breath to speak.
Before he could, Tan said quickly, “Hair darker than yours. Longer than yours, tied back with a plain cord. Ten fewer years, forty extra pounds, and no sense of style. A ring on my left hand—”
“A beryl,” Bertaud said. He straightened in his chair, frowning. “Set in a heavy iron ring. You were before my time.” He meant, before Iaor had made him lord of the king’s own guard. “I remember you with Moutres.” Lord Moutres had held that post of trust for Iaor’s father and then, for some years, for Iaor.
Rising, Bertaud came forward to examine Tan more closely. “How do you come here?”
“Ah…” Tan hesitated. He asked cautiously, “Do you know… what I did for, um, Moutres?”
Bertaud frowned again. “Not in detail.”
“The king knows—”
“His Majesty is otherwise occupied.”
There wasn’t a lot of give in that flat statement. Tan paused. Then he said, “I’ve just come across the bridge. From Teramondian. I was too closely pursued to get across the river farther north; I was forced to run south and even so I hardly made it out of Linularinum. But now I understand that His Majesty is here after all, so that’s well enough. If he’ll see me. Or if you will, my lord, but privately, I beg you.”
Bertaud simply looked at him for a long moment. Tan tried to look like an earnest servant of the king rather than a desperate fool who’d put a foot wrong in the Linularinan court and run home for rescue. After a moment, Bertaud said, “Teras son of Toharas, is it? Is that the name I should give to the king?”
Tan hesitated. Then he surprised himself by saying, “Tan. You may tell His Majesty it is Tan who has brought him a difficult gift.”
Tan shook his head. “Just Tan.” He was prepared for either suspicion or scorn, depending on whether the lord took him for insolently reticent or the son of a careless father. He certainly did not intend to lay out any explanations. Especially as both answers obtained.
But he saw neither suspicion nor scorn. Lord Bertaud only inclined his head gravely. “So I shall inform the king,” he said, gave the guard captain a raised-eyebrow look, and left the room.
The captain stared down at Tan and shook his head. “Huh.”
Tan bowed his head meekly and composed himself to wait.
After a surprisingly short time, however, the door swung open once more. Bertaud came in first, but stepped aside at once and personally held the door.
Iaor Daveien Behanad Safiad, King of Feierabiand and, more or less, of the Delta, clearly did not keep any great state when he visited Tiefenauer. He had brought no attendants nor guardsmen of his own; he wore no crown and no jewels save for a ruby of moderate size set in a heavy gold ring. But nevertheless, even if Tan had never seen him before, he would have known he was looking at the king.
King Iaor was broad, stocky, not overtall. But he held himself with more than mere assurance, with a presumption of authority that was unquestionably royal. Tan took a breath and waited for the king to speak first. But the king glanced impatiently toward the door, so Tan gathered they were in fact still waiting for someone—perhaps the king was not without attendants after all.
Lord Bertaud was still holding the door, with an air of amusement as well as impatience. A hurried tread was audible, and then a stocky, broad-shouldered young man of perhaps eighteen entered hastily, escorting a girl about his own age, trim-figured and pretty in a straightforward way, wheaten hair caught back with a ribbon.
“I beg your pardon, cousin,” the young woman said hastily to Bertaud, then bit her lip and turned to the king. “It’s my fault Erich’s late—I asked him where he was off to in such a hurry and then I made him bring me. If you—that is, if you don’t mind? Please?” She glanced sidelong at Bertaud.
“Mienthe—” began Bertaud, in a tone of exasperated affection.
“The fault was entirely mine,” declared the young man, who must be, Tan realized, Erichstaben son of Brechen Glansent. Or, as the Casmantians would have it, Prince Erichstaben Taben Arobern, first and only son of Brechen Glansent Arobern, the Arobern, King of Casmantium, currently a hostage at the court of King Iaor. Though the Casmantian prince certainly did not seem to feel his status as a hostage. He said to Iaor, in a deep voice that carried a guttural, clipped accent, “Your Majesty, if you will pardon my forwardness—”
“If you please—” began Bertaud sternly.
King Iaor held up a hand and everyone stopped.
A reluctant smile crooked Bertaud’s mouth. “You won’t permit me to scold them?”
The king said drily, “If Erich is to attend us here, then I can imagine no possible reason your cousin should not.” He gave the pair a long look and added, “Though if I send you away, I shall expect you to go without argument.”
Both Erich and Mienthe nodded earnestly.
The king returned a grave nod. Then he looked at Tan for a long moment, his expression impossible to read. Then he said, “Teras son of Toharas?” To Tan’s relief, his voice held recognition and a trace of amusement.
“I’ve gone by that name,” Tan said, a little defensively. “Not for some time, I admit.”
“No,” agreed the king. “Though I recall it. But it is your own name that brought me to hear you.” He sat down in the chair and raised his eyebrows. “Well? I understand you meant to come to me in Tihannad? You are far out of your way.”
“Fortunately, so is Your Majesty,” Tan said smoothly. He glanced around at the clutter of guardsmen. “You’ll want to speak to me privately. Or more privately than this, at least.” He thought he should ask the king to send away the Casmantian prince and Bertaud’s cousin, but he also thought Iaor would refuse. And at least he could be almost entirely certain that neither of them could possibly be a Linularinan agent.
King Iaor tilted his head to one side and glanced at Bertaud. Bertaud nodded to the captain. “You and your men may wait outside.” When the captain glowered in disapproval, he added, “If you would be so good, Captain Geroen.”
The disapproval became outright mulishness. “No, my lord. With His Majesty right here, and your lady cousin?”
“We know this man,” Lord Bertaud said patiently.
“You don’t, my lord, begging your pardon. You might have done once, but now he’s been in Linularinum, hasn’t he? For years, isn’t that so? And this is a man my guardsmen took up for mayhem and murder! He had two bodies at his feet when they found him, and him unmarked!”
Bertaud’s eyebrows rose. The king sat back in the chair, crooking a finger across his mouth. Erich grinned outright, but Mienthe looked solemn and a little distressed. The guardsmen all stared at their captain in horror.
The guard captain said grimly, “My lord, neither you nor His Majesty nor Lady Mienthe will be left alone with a dangerous prisoner while I’m captain of the prison guard. Nor I won’t resign. You can dismiss me, if it please you. But if you do, if you’ve any sense, my lord, you’ll call for someone you trust before you talk to this man. Dessand, maybe, or Eniad. Or some of His Majesty’s men.” He glared at Bertaud.
“I think,” Bertaud said gently, after a brief pause, “that you had better stay with us yourself, Geroen.”
Captain Geroen nodded curtly.
“Then, if you will free the prisoner’s hands, and dismiss your men—”
“Nor you won’t loose those manacles, my lord, not without you keep more than one man by you! No, it won’t do him any harm to wear iron a bit longer.”
This time the pause stretched out. But at last the lord said, with deliberate patience, “Perhaps you will at least permit me to dismiss your men?”
Geroen set his jaw. His heavy features were not suited to apology, but he said harshly, “I’d flog a man of mine for defiance, my lord, of course I would. I’ll willingly take a flogging on your order, just so as you’re alive to give the order! I beg your pardon, my lord, and beg you again not to take risks that, earth and iron, my lord, are not necessary.”
Tan was impressed. He rather thought the guardsmen had all stopped breathing. He knew they had all gone beyond horror to terror. If he’d meant to try some move of his own, this would surely have been the moment for it, with all attention riveted on the captain. Alas, he had no occasion to profit from the distraction.
“Captain Geroen, you must assuredly dismiss your men, if you are going to corrupt their innocence with so appalling an example,” Bertaud said at last, after a fraught pause. “You may do so now.”
The captain made a curt gesture. His men fled.
“I think,” Bertaud said drily to the king, “that this is all the privacy we will be afforded.”
The king was very clearly trying not to smile. “Your captain’s loyalty does you credit, my friend.” He transferred his gaze from Bertaud to Captain Geroen. “Of course, without discretion, loyalty is strictly limited in value.”
There was nothing Geroen could say to that. He set his heavy jaw and bowed his head.
“So,” Iaor said to Tan, his tone rather dry, “perhaps you will now tell us the news you’ve brought out of Linularinum.”
Tan glanced deliberately at Prince Erichstaben, at Lady Mienthe.
“I think we need not be concerned with Erich’s discretion,” King Iaor said.
“Certainly not with Mienthe’s,” Bertaud said crisply.
Tan sighed, bowed his head, and said, “I’m one of Moutres’s confidential agents, as you no doubt recall, Your Majesty. I don’t know whether you knew that I’ve been in Linularinum, in Teramondian, at the old Fox’s court? Been there for years, doing deep work, do you understand? And I won something for it. I got Istierinan’s private papers.”
“Istierinan Hamoddian?” King Iaor asked sharply.
Tan tried to look modest. “Why, yes. Himself. He was a little upset, as you might imagine. I got out of Teramondian two steps in front of his men. I’d intended to run for Tihannad, but they clung too close to my heel. By the time I got to Falle, they were only half a step behind, and less than that by Desamion.” Tan stopped, lifted his chained hands to rub his mouth. After a moment, he went on in a lower voice, “Earth and stone, I thought they had me twice before I made it across the river—” He stopped again. Then he took a hard breath, met the king’s eyes, and said, “They came across the river after me.”
“Did they?” King Iaor leaned forward, gripping the arms of the chair. “How did they dare?”
“I don’t know, Your Majesty. That surprised me, too, the more as they must have known you were here. Not a mark on me, Captain Geroen says. Earth and stone, every hair I own should be white after the past days. They pressed me hard enough I was barely able to keep upright by the time a brace of earnest guardsmen caught me standing flat over a couple of bodies in an alley. Caught in the street by the city guard! Moutres wouldn’t be the only one to laugh himself insensible, if he knew. But,” and Tan gave Geroen a little nod, “if they hadn’t picked me up, I don’t know that I’d have lasted the night. And if Captain Geroen hadn’t set an extra guard on me last night, and put half his men around me to bring me up here, the whole effort might have been wasted.”
The king slowly leaned back in the chair again. “Well, no surprise that the city had a restless night. What were these papers you stole?”
“Oh, everything,” Tan said briskly. “Lists of Istierinan’s agents, and lists of men he suspects are ours. Lists of men who aren’t agents, but dupes and useful fools, and of men who have been bribed. Comments about Linularinum’s own nobility and men of substance, which ones Istierinan is watching and which ones he thinks susceptible to bribes, and which ones are susceptible to blackmail—the notations there made fascinating reading, but the list of our people is even better.”
The king blinked. The Casmantian prince, young Erichstaben, looked, for the first time, as though he wondered whether he should be present to hear this. Mienthe’s gaze was wide and fascinated. Bertaud asked, “He had all that out in plain sight?”
“Locked in a hidden drawer, my lord, and all in cipher, of course. Three different ciphers, in fact. I broke them. Well, two of them. I already had the key for one.”
“I see. And where are these papers now?”
“He didn’t have them when he was picked up last night,” Geroen declared.
“I destroyed them, of course. After I memorized them.”
“You memorized them,” Bertaud repeated.
“I have a good memory.”
“I’ll give it all to you, now.” Tan glanced from Bertaud to the king and back. “Today. Right now, if you’ll permit me. I’d suggest at least a dozen copies to be sent north as well, to both the winter court in Tihannad and the summer court in Tiearanan. Any couriers who go openly by the road had better have fast horses and plenty of nerve, but Linularinum must not imagine they’ve stopped that information getting out. It’s very good His Majesty is here. Now that I’m in your hands, that should stop Istierinan’s agents flat where they stand, no matter their orders.”
“Yes,” said Bertaud. “I see that.” He hesitated, glancing at the king. Iaor made a little gesture inviting him to proceed. Bertaud turned back to Tan, regarding him with narrow intensity. “A secure room,” he said aloud. “With a desk and plenty of paper. And at least one clerk to assist you. You will permit a clerk to assist you?”
“Of course, my lord.” Though Tan didn’t much care for the idea. Nevertheless, he knew he would not have the strength to write out all the copies as swiftly as it had to be done. He said smoothly, “Anyone you see fit to assign the duty.”
“We’ll want guards,” Geroen put in grimly. “All around the house, not just the spy and his clerks. And in the stables. And around the couriers. And the couriers’ equipment.” He glanced at King Iaor. “I’ll ask His Majesty to set his own guardsmen all about his household.”
“And I shall see they coordinate with yours,” the king said to Bertaud, who nodded thanks.
“I’d ask for Tenned son of Tenned as a guard. And food,” Tan put in with prudent emphasis. “And wine. Well watered,” he added regretfully. He would have liked to add, and a bath, only truly he did not want to take that much time. He was intensely grateful that both Bertaud and Iaor seemed able to grasp the concept of urgency. If not of perfect discretion.
“All of that, yes. Very well. Free his hands, Geroen.” The lord’s tone brooked no argument. “I want you back with your men and on the job. You may leave this man to me. That is an order.”
The captain’s shoulders straightened. “Yes, my lord.”
The paper was crisp and fresh, the quills well-made, and the clerk glum but quick and with a fair hand—no surprise, as he looked to have Linularinan blood. There were no windows in this room. Three guards were posted outside each of its two doors, and Tenned son of Tenned inside the room, looking alert and nervous. Bread and soft cheese occupied a separate table, and wine cut half-and-half with water.
The clerk was horrified at what Tan wrote out for him to copy. “I shouldn’t know any of this,” he protested. “Earth and stone, I don’t want to know any of this!”
Tan looked him up and down. “Are you trustworthy? Discreet? You don’t babble when you’re in your cups, do you? You’re loyal to Feierabiand?”
“Yes!” said the clerk hotly. “No! I mean, yes! But—”
“Then you’ll do, man. Would you tell Lord Bertaud he should have selected a different man? Did you make these quills?”
“Good quills. Now be quiet and let me work.” Tan let himself fall into the cold legist’s stillness that let him bring forth perfect memories. That stillness didn’t come quite so easily as he’d expected—well, he was already tired. And distracted—he’d need to write an analysis to accompany these lists—later, later. No thought, no fretting, just memory. He let the quill fly across the paper.
He rose out of that trance of silence and speed much later to find Bertaud himself sitting at the table beside the clerk, writing out a copy in his own hand. He blinked, surprised—and then groaned, aware all at once of his aching hand and wrist. And back. And neck. In fact, he ached all over, far worse than usual. Pain lanced through his head, so sharp that for a moment he was blind. How long had he been working? Even his eyes felt gritty and hot. Tan laid the quill aside and pressed his hands over his eyes.
“That’s everything?” Bertaud asked.
Tan had very little idea what he’d just flung onto paper. But he shouldn’t have stopped unless it was. He opened his eyes and peered blearily down at the stack of pages. “I think so. It should be.” He shuffled rapidly through the papers. Everything seemed to be in order. Except—“I need to write a covering analysis. Broken stone and black iron! I don’t think I have the wit of a crow left at the moment.” He leaned back in his chair, stretching. Every bone and ligament in his body seemed to creak. Well, he’d had the bare bones of an analysis in his head since he’d left Teramondian. And the quill was still flowing with ink. Better still, with ink that resisted smudging. Sighing, he picked up the quill once more. The headache stabbed behind his eyes, and he couldn’t keep from flinching. But the analysis still needed to be written. After that he might be able to finally put the quill down and sleep.
Bertaud silently passed him more paper and looked through the just-finished lists. His eyebrows rose, and he shook his head. He passed half the lists over to the clerk, taking the other half to copy himself. He could at least work quietly, for he did not harass Tan with questions, but left him alone to try to bludgeon coherent phrases out of his exhausted mind and fair script out of his stiff fingers. The little sleep he’d gotten in the prison seemed days past… He finished at last, tossed down the quill, and blew on the ink to dry it.
Bertaud took the analysis without comment, read it through once quickly, then again more slowly. Then he gave Tan a long look.
“The ink isn’t smudged?” Tan asked blearily. “I didn’t transpose two phrases or lose half a paragraph?” His gift shouldn’t allow such mistakes, but he was so tired…
“No,” Bertaud said. He sat down again and began to copy out the document. He said absently, not pausing in his task, “You need rest, I know. I’ll send you to your bed shortly. Before I do, take a moment and think. Is there anything else I should tell Iaor when I bring him this?”
Tan rubbed his hands hard across his face. Then he poured himself some watered wine—well, he reached for the decanter, but Tenned was there before him and handed him a glass without a word. Tan nodded to the young guard and tried to collect his thoughts while he waited for Bertaud to finish the copy he was making and give the original to the clerk.
Then he said, “Tell His Majesty the whole lot could be false, deliberately put in my way to mislead us. One always has to remember that other men are also intelligent,” he added to Bertaud’s startled look. “But I don’t think that’s the case here, not from the way Istierinan stirred up all Linularinum and not from the feel of the information. Still, you might tell the king… remind him that the politest smile still hides teeth, and that no Linularinan smiles without calculating which way fortune is tending. All the rest is”—he waved a hand—“contained there.”
“Yes,” said the lord. He rose with his set of papers. And, after a moment of thought, gathered up an equal pile of blank pages, which he made into an identical packet. Tan nodded his approval.
“Twelve more full copies, and hand them out as they’re finished,” Bertaud said to the clerk. He added to Tan, “I’ve sent half a dozen couriers out already, for Tihannad and Tiearanan, but four of those were carrying blanks and the other two only had partial copies. I’ll send some of these with couriers, mostly across country, and some with soldiers. And I’ve arranged to send a couple out in, hmm, less-conventional hands.”
Tan inclined his head again, satisfied with all these arrangements. “And I?”
“You’ll stay here in my house. You need time to rest and recover.”
“My steward here is Dessand. Eniad is captain of the king’s soldiers quartered in Tiefenauer. Geroen you have met—”
“What, he’s still a captain of the guard?” Tan said in mock astonishment. “You didn’t flog the hide off his back?”
The lord smiled. “I did worse than that. He’s no longer merely a captain—he’s the captain now. I made him captain of the whole city guard. I’d been looking for a replacement for the post. Geroen will do well, I believe.”
Tan believed it, too. He scrubbed his hands across his face again, then pushed himself to his feet, all his joints complaining, and looked at young Tenned.
“Bath and bed, says my lord,” the guard said earnestly, answering all of Tan’s hopes. “Or supper first, if you like. Whatever you like, esteemed sir.” He gave Tan an uncertain look. “Teras son of Toharas? Or is it, uh, Tan?”
Lord Bertaud lifted an amused eyebrow.
For once, Tan honestly could not think of a single reason to claim a false name. Istierinan’s men knew very well who he was and would not care what name he used. And to the people on this side of the river, it should matter even less. “Tan will do,” he told the young man. “A bath, bed, supper… I can’t think of anything better. You’ll attend me?”
“Yes…” Tenned did not quite seem to know whether he thought this was a better assignment than standing guard in the prison or not.
Tan smiled. “Well, you look strong enough to catch me if I collapse on the stairs rather than making it all the way to that promised bath. Good. Hold high the lamp, then, and light well the path!”
The young man nodded uncertainly, clearly missing the reference. Lord Bertaud, however, caught the allusion. He smiled, though a little grimly.
Tan grinned and declared, “Wishing no one any ill in the world, my lord! Or no one who ought properly to be on this side of the river. By now, Istierinan’s agents will have realized it’s far too late to stop all that”—he waved a vague hand at the growing stack of paper—“from getting out, and away home they’ll go, feathers well ruffled and plucked. Then all good little boys will sleep safe in their beds, which is just as well.” He paused, suddenly realizing that he was speaking far too freely. “Bed,” he muttered. “Yes. Tenned—”
“Esteemed sir,” the young man said, baffled but polite, and held open the door for Tan.
He had, later, only the vaguest memories of the bath or of finding a wide bed swathed in linen and lamb’s wool, in a warm room lit by the ruddy glow of a banked fire and smelling, oddly enough, of honeysuckle. He must have felt himself safe, or else he was exhausted beyond caring, because he sank into the darkness behind the fire’s glow and let the scent of honeysuckle carry him away.
Excerpted from Law of the Broken Earth by Neumeier, Rachel Copyright © 2010 by Neumeier, Rachel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted October 25, 2010
In Feierabiand, her family ignored Mienthe as a child. In fact the gardener was the adult who served as a surrogate parent raising her. That changes when her older cousin Lord Bartaud (see Land of the Burning Sands) takes her under his wings.
Soon afterward, Bartaud's griffin mage friend Kairaithin arrives to inform him that the Wall that separates the land of the fierce griffin from the human kingdoms is splintering. As Bartaud ponders what to do evil Istierinan captures Tan the spy threatening him with torture. Meanwhile Mienthe struggles with her new lot in life as she finds becoming important within a family has a price. She is uncomfortable with learning her magical prowess at a time when her latent skills are needed.
The third Griffin Mage (see Lord of the Changing Winds) is a strong coming of age fantasy starring a wonderful reluctant heroine who prefers to be ignored as that is her comfort zone, but that is not longer an option. The Neumeier universe is cleverly drawn so that the audience will believe in the physics of magic and the wall coming down. The cast is strong except for somewhat the super villain who is too stereotypical of the genre. Still fans will relish the Law of the Broken Earth as Rachel Neumeier provides a powerful vivid realm anchoring a fabulous story line.
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