In the late afternoon of Octdi, Mykella dismounted at the base of the ramp leading to the north end of the Great Piers of Tempre. The top of the ramp ended some twenty yards short of the squarish one-story stone structure that held the portmaster and his clerks. Immediately to the north of the portmaster’s building stood the shimmering green tower that dominated the northern end of the Great Piers of Tempre.
Behind Mykella, her younger and taller sister Rachylana also dismounted, if reluctantly, as did two of the four Southern Guards, in their uniforms of spotless dark blue, assigned to guard them, for none of the three daughters of the Lord- Protector of Lanachrona went anywhere outside the palace without an escort.
Mykella hurried up the ramp, and Rachylana followed, the two guards bringing up the rear. At the top of the ramp, Mykella slowed and glanced back at her sister. “Do you want to come in?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
Instead of snapping that Rachylana might learn something, Mykella forced a smile. “I won’t be long.”
“Not more than a glass, I’d imagine. I’ll wait out here.” Rachylana walked farther west, her fl amelike mahogany hair barely kept in place by a dark maroon headband against the west wind coming off the water of the wide River Vedra. The wind was chill enough that the slightly acrid odor of the waters around the Great Piers was almost unnoticeable, and since the wind was directly from the west, it didn’t pick up the far more odoriferous scents from the pens to the southwest where the towing oxen were kept when they were not hauling barges upstream or riding them downstream to begin the process all over again.
Two of the guards waited with Rachylana, as the other two followed Mykella.
The Great Piers were composed of the long base, an expanse of unchanging gray eternastone that stretched nearly a vingt from north to south along the east side of the river, and the more than fifteen stubby river wharves, eternastone fingers some thirty yards in length jutting out into the river. At the far south end of the Great Piers stood a second green tower, identical to the first, each soaring more than sixty yards into the silver-green sky. The towers were hollow shells, each with a single door at the base, but without stairs or any sign within that there had ever been any way to reach the top. Nor were there any windows or signs of any rooms in the tops of the towers, or in the others—identical—scattered across all of Corus.
More than half the piers had either sailing craft or barges moored to them. Carts and wagons were scattered across the short piers, some being loaded, but the majority being unloaded. Seemingly ignoring the chaos on the piers, Mykella walked briskly to the portmaster’s door that faced the river and opened it. Two guards followed her step for step as she entered.
Inside, a squat white-haired man immediately rose and hurried to the long counter that separated the waiting area from the three clerks who appeared to be checking invoices for the purpose of levying the proper tariffs. One had only begun that process when he had seen Mykella, she noted.
“Portmaster Chaenkel,” Mykella said pleasantly.
“Mistress Mykella, let me bring you the summary ledgers.”
At the left end of the counter, a grizzled bargemaster glanced toward Mykella and the pair of guards behind her, then looked quickly away and back at the clerk who stood waiting for him to finish declaring his cargo so that the form could be completed and the proper tariff levied—after
Chaenkel set the ledger before Mykella.
She began to study the entries for the week, of the sailing traders and the numbers of barges that had ported and departed, both those towed laboriously upstream, and those headed downstream with the current and guided by long sweeps. Most of those headed downstream were departing lighter than they had arrived, since, as the capital of Lanachrona, Tempre was generally a destination port, although wines from the Vyanhills and glassware from Krost were sought throughout the entire west of Corus, from frigid Northport to Southgate.
The total number of barges and other vessels was only three less than the total for the previous week, and the total of tariffs levied was close to the same. Mykella nodded and straightened.
“Thank you, Portmaster. How do you think the trading and traffic have been?”
Chaenkel furrowed his brow, then tilted his head. “It’d be hard to say, Mistress. Not all that different from last week. It seems about the same as it should be for this time of year.” He smiled, ruefully. “When you get to be my age, the years blur, but I’d know if things were greatly different.” He nodded. “That I would.”
“Are we getting much trade from the east?”
“Not any more than one would expect now that we’re into winter. No less, either, from what I’ve seen. A bit more iron from the Iron Valleys. Nightsilk—who can say? That comes overland and under guard.”
Mykella nodded to that. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, Mistress.”
Mykella turned. As she walked from the building, followed by the two Southern Guards, behind her Mykella heard the bargemaster.
“. . . is she? Not seen her before . . .”
“Lord- Protector’s eldest . . . checks on tariffs . . . since midsummer . . .”
Had it been for less than two seasons? It seemed longer than that to Mykella.
Once back out on the Great Piers, Mykella continued to where Rachylana was standing. Just short of her sister, she paused to watch as a trading vessel eased out into the current and spread its sails, struggling upriver against the current. Was the trader bound for Borlan or farther east, perhaps to Salaan, the easternmost river port in Lanachrona before the Vedra became unnavigable?
“What was it like, I wonder, when people could travel upstream without sails or oars?” she asked.
“Do you really believe those absurd tales about the Alectors? How could anyone?” Rachylana sniffed. “I mean . . . flying on creatures with wings as wide as sails, and on ships that had no sails or oars at all, and the River Vedra boiling over when it all came to an end in the Great Cataclysm. And soarers—little winged women who floated in midair, yet destroyed giant Alectors. In hundreds of years, no one has ever found the remains of anything like that. Really, I could write a better story myself.”
“Perhaps you should,” Mykella said blandly, knowing patience to write anything of length was hardly one of her sister’s strengths.
“Why bother? Anyone with any sense thinks they’re just stories for children.”
“Then who built the eternastone highways, and why are the old buildings built so large?” asked Mykella. “We’ve both seen chairs in the storerooms that are too large for the largest man to sit in them, and the steps in the palace are all too high to be comfortable climbing them.”
“It’s all nonsense,” rejoined Rachylana. “They’re just ceremonial chairs built for past Lords- Protector who wanted to seem larger, and the stairs are to make anyone who enters uncomfortable in the presence of the Lord- Protector.”
Mykella refrained from pointing out that an overlarge throne or chair only made a large man seem smaller, and a man of average size seem insignificant. Rachylana wasn’t about to listen to anything that reasonable.
“You’re done, now, aren’t you?” Rachylana snapped, re-buttoning the top flap of her dark maroon jacket. “I’m freezing. It is winter, you know?”
“Barely,” replied Mykella. Octdi was the eighth day of the week, the last full working day before the end-days of Novdi and Decdi, and this particular Octdi was the second of the winter. Besides, Tempre never got as cold as the Iron Valleys did, the forbidding lands that stretched northward from the far side of the Vedra, reaching almost to the Ice Sands that bordered the Aerlal Plateau.
“I still don’t see why you need to come here every Octdi—”
“I’m checking with the portmaster to see how many traders ported this week, compared to the week before. The tariff ledgers in the palace just show the totals collected. It’s not the same.”
“I don’t see why you spend so much time checking on river traders and talking to people like the portmaster . . . or those bargemasters.” Rachylana offered her most serious frown. “You’re the Lord- Protector’s daughter, not a clerk like Kiedryn.”
“If Father’s brother can be Finance Minister, I can certainly supervise the accounting,” Mykella replied. In any instance, doing that was far less boring than speculating about which son of which ruler in what adjoining land might decide to make an offer for her hand. Mykella preferred to avoid thinking about that eventuality at all.
“It’s hardly supervising. Father’s just letting you do it so that . . .” Rachylana’s voice trailed off.
“So that what?”
“So that you’ll know more about accounts when you get consorted, I suppose.”
Mykella knew very well that what Rachylana had said was not what she’d started to say, but let it pass.
“Can we go now that you’re done with whatever it was?” added Rachylana.
“You didn’t have to come,” Mykella pointed out. “Or did you think that Berenyt might want to escort us?”
“I thought it might be more interesting than helping Nealia or Auralya plan the dinner menus for next week.” Rachylana’s tone suggested that she would rather have planned menus, at least if her cousin Berenyt didn’t happen to take charge of their guard detail. That was highly unlikely, because Berenyt was a captain in the Southern Guards in charge of a whole company, and captains didn’t do escort duties, except on ceremonial occasions.
Rather than say more, Mykella strode away from her sister toward the mounts and the two guards who had remained at the foot of the piers with the mounts. She skipped to her left to avoid a porter guiding a loading barrow stacked with kegs of something, then hurried down the long eternastone ramp, whose surface had remained smooth and hard against any kind of abuse for generations, possibly thousands of years if the old tales that Rachylana dismissed were in fact correct. The two guards trailed the two sisters.
Beyond the base of the ramp waited the remaining guards and the horses. Mykella mounted the gray gelding, hating the fact that she was so short that mounting was always an acrobatic exercise whenever she wasn’t near a mounting block. But she refused to have anyone give her a leg up. At least, with practice, she’d turned it into a graceful acrobatic maneuver. It helped that she usually wore trousers and boots, much to the dismay of her father.
Although she was half a head taller than Mykella, Rachylana accepted the aid offered by one of the Southern Guards, even though she was wearing split riding skirts— maroon to match her riding jacket—and could have mounted unaided.
Mykella eased the gelding around and flicked the reins to direct her mount along the stone-paved road that led eastward to the Lord- Protector’s Palace—hardly more than a vingt east of the north end of the Great Piers.
“You always do that, you know?” Rachylana said, drawing her mount alongside Mykella.
“Do what?” replied Mykella.
“Walk away when you don’t want to talk about something.” Rachylana leaned sideways in the saddle and lowered her voice. “At least Berenyt jokes about things, and he’s good to look at.”
“He is very good-looking.” Mykella offered a smile, one she didn’t feel, even though she knew her sister would see through her facade. “He can be very humorous and charming. I’d hoped Jeraxylt might have been able to escort us.” She knew that was unlikely, because their brother, younger than Mykella herself but older than Rachylana, was still in training, although he was officially a junior officer in the Southern Guards.
“He’s escorting a visiting Seltyr from Southgate, Salyna said,” Rachylana said, her voice still low. “He might be an envoy from one of the Twelve.”
Mykella concealed a wince. There was only one reason a Seltyr from one of the Twelve who jointly ruled the trading city- state of Southgate would be in Tempre, and that was to look for a bride for either a widowed Seltyr or his son. Not the only reason, Mykella corrected herself, but one of the few. From everything she had heard about Southgate, she had no desire to go there, not where women were virtual prisoners and where even the winter was unbearably warm.
She glanced to her right. On the south side of the road, for the half vingt east and west of the palace, were the gardens planted by her grandfather. Even though the trees that were not evergreens were bare, she still enjoyed looking at the stone walks and hedges and banked flower beds, and the bridges over the stone-walled small streams. For the moment, both riding and the view took her mind off her growing concerns.
Mykella couldn’t help but worry. Chaenkel’s ledgers showed a very normal flow of trade, both of barges and free-sailing traders, but the master finance ledgers showed a decline in tariff revenues. She had her suspicions, but, at the moment, that was all that they were, and there was little enough that she could say, because her father only allowed her to monitor the finance accounts as a favor— until a suitable match for her was available.
“What are you going to wear to the ball?” asked Rachylana.
“The ball? That’s weeks away. I hadn’t even thought about it.”
“I suppose you haven’t. You should have, especially if there’s going to be an envoy there. You need to plan ahead if you want a dress made.”
“I have plenty of dresses.” More than she would really ever need, if she had her way.
“People have seen you in every one.”
“I’ll think about it,” Mykella conceded. She was far more worried about the golds missing from the tariff accounts.
Excerpted from The Lord- Protector's Daughter by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Copyright © 2008 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Published in November 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.