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"He who ever trusts a bird,
Never speaks another word."
SALD HARL was running, running as hard as he had ever run in his life. He clutched a bulky bundle in both arms and pounded along the ornate pavement with the low sun at his back. His long, spindly shadow jigged endlessly before him, running just as hard as he.
Running in the palace grounds was forbidden. Wearing a flying suit in the palace grounds was forbidden also, but he had already broken so many regulations that a few more would not matter, and if he was going to be late for a royal summons, then perhaps nothing would matter much anymore.
If he twisted an ankle ... The roadway was paved in squares of white alabaster and black basalt, but generations of feet and hooves had worn the softer alabaster into toe-catching hollows, and the carriages and landaus jolting past him set up a continuous clamorous rattle over them.
He had no time to admire the sculptures ornamenting the marble balustrades which flanked the avenue or the swans swimming on their reflections in the ornamental lake on his right. To his left the gilded pheasants strutted unseen on silk-smooth grass amid the blazons of the rose garden. Sald had not visited the palace since he was a child. Contrary to his expectations, it did not seem smaller than he remembered; it seemed much, much larger, and he was very, very late.
Splendid ladies and elegant gentlemen strolled along, pouting in haughty disapproval, as he zigzagged between them, dodged the wheeled traffic, and ran, ran, ran ...
A flying suit was not designed for running. It was a great garment for keeping off the cold at the top of a thermal, upin the nose-bleeding roof of the sky. Down in the murderous heat of the rice level, swooping above taro fields or date palms, he could unfasten it down to his crotch, but not here, and it was cooking him.
Then he caught his toe against one of the basalt edges and fell flat on his face.
The bundle cushioned his fall, except for his elbows. He winced, took a couple of deep breaths, started to rise, and then saw that he was lying before a pair of very shiny boots. Military boots. His eyes flicked from side to side, and he saw more boots. He scrambled to has feet and saluted.
Oh, God! Of all the officers in the entire Royal Guard, this one had to be Colonel Lord Pontly, Commandant of Training School--Pork Eyes himself.
Sald Harl was much better at malting friends than enemies. There were not many people in the world who disliked him and few whom he disliked, but Lord Pontly qualified on both counts. On the occasion of Sald's class graduation, for example, there had been the episode of the pig in the bed ...
Colonel Lord Pontly was a short man, no taller than Sald himself, but twice the width and thrice the depth. His uniform gleamed and sparkled impeccably, and his puffy face bore a very thin mustache, capable of registering extreme disapproval at times. This was one of those times.
"Harl?" he murmured. "Harl, isn't it?"
"And an ensign now, I see? When did that accident occur?"
"About a hectoday ago, my lord," Sald said between puffs. He blinked as sweat trickled into his eyes.
"I think we can correct the error." Lord Pontly glanced at the commander beside him, who smiled obediently.
"Disorderly conduct, my lord," he said. "Improper dress."
"Oh, surely we can find a few more atrocities?" his lordship muttered. "Stealing washing, from the look of it. What exactly are you carrying, Ensign?"
Sald was trembling with the effort of standing still when every nerve was screaming frantically at him to hurry.
"Court dress, my lord."
Pontly's eyebrows were as linear as his mustache, and they rose in graceful astonishment. "Whose court dress?"
The colonel looked at the commander, and the surrounding troopers looked at one another.
"And why would you be needing court dress, Ensign?"
"Sir, I am summoned to the Investiture," Sald said, trying not to moan the words.
Pontly's globular face flushed slightly. "If I recall correctly, Ensign, you are not of noble birth?"
"Sir, my father is a baronet."
Sald could sense their disbelief. A commoner never received a royal summons. He groped in his pocket and produced the royal writ. He tried desperately not to fidget as Pontly read it through from start to finish.
Pontly turned very red. "You are going to be late, Ensign!"
"Sir, that was why I was running."
Pork Eyes went redder still. Running within the palace grounds was a trivial indiscretion compared to insulting the king. "You will disgrace the entire Guard! Explain!"
Sald gulped. "The courier sought me at my posting--at Jaur, my lord. I was on furlough at my parents' house, Hiando Keep. I did not receive the writ until yesterday."
At that news, colonel and commander exchanged thoughtful glances. There was little love misplaced between the royal couriers and the Guard. Sald could see the temptation fermenting in their minds. If Ensign Harl was late for the start of the Investiture, then he would not be admitted at all. There would be a court-martial. The fault could be laid to the courier.
That would not save Ensign Harl, of course--nothing would--but it might muddy the royal couriers a trifle.
"Hiando Keep is on Rakarr, is it not?" the commander said. "Eight hours' flight from Rakarr to Ramo, more or less?"
"What time exactly yesterday did the courier arrive?" Pontly demanded, a predatory expression on his rotund face.
"Just before two bells, my lord," Sald said. Get on with it! For a moment he considered an appeal to Pork Eyes's better nature: Let Sald go about his business now and report back to him later. But he knew it would not work. The sun would move first.
Pontly frowned. "And when did you leave Rakarr Peak?"
Sald could lie, of course, but if there was going to be a trial, then there would be witnesses called. "A little after three bells, my lord."
Pork Eyes's eyes widened; the charge sheet was filling up. Sald had flown from Rakarr to Ramo faster than even the couriers did, perhaps faster than it had ever been done, but time like that could be made only by detouring out over the plains, riding the giant thermals of the desert, risking immense changes in altitude, which could bring on sky sickness, crippling or even killing. The desert was very much against Guard regulations. The desert was death.
"Six hours?" the commander muttered. The surrounding troopers were pursing lips and exchanging looks.
"Well?" Pontly barked. "Why did you delay so long after you received the writ?"
"Court dress, my lord," Sald said desperately. He tried to explain quickly that he did not own court dress. Only the nobility ever needed it. Boots, hose, breeches, doublet, cloak, plumed hat--some of those he had scrounged from neighbors in a hasty flight around the local manors and castles, and the rest his father had rummaged out of the attics. But the coat of arms--his mother and sisters had worked all through third watch, while the rest of the world was abed, sewing, embroidering, cutting, and stitching.
"Why would His Majesty summon a--a mere ensign in the Guard to an Investiture?" the commander asked softly.
That was a very good question, and Sald would dearly have loved to know the answer. He could not expect an honor or a title or an award, certainly; therefore he must have been called for an appointment of some sort. The courier had told Sald all he knew. The Investiture had been a surprise to the whole court, but Prince Shadow was dead, killed by a wild in the line of duty. His most probable replacement was Count Moarien. That would leave a vacancy in the king's bodyguard ... and so on. Obviously the required shuffle had turned out to be large enough to justify a General Investiture, and when everyone had rolled one place up the bed, there was going to be a gap at the bottom, some very humble slot into which Ensign Sald Harl would apparently fit. Assistant Bearer of the Royal Chamber Pot, perhaps?
Pontly looked at the commander. The commander looked at Pontly.
"I think he might just make it, my lord, on wheels."
His lordship's mustache curled in anger. Reluctantly he nodded: His prey was going to escape him. The couriers were evidently not at fault, and if there was a court-martial, then he might be asked why he had delayed the accused.
"Get him there!" he barked.
The next passing landau was halted, and its protesting occupant summarily evicted. Sald Harl went roaring off along the avenue, wheels drumming on the paving, hooves clattering, coachman's whip snapping, and pedestrians bounding to safety. Sald leaned back, clutching his bouncing bundle, sweat still running down his ribs. He looked at the commander, who had boarded beside him.
"Thank you, sir," he said.
He knew the commander also. An elderly man, close to retirement, he lectured on pathfinding in Training School; Sald had flown with him a few times. He was studying Sald now with a quizzical expression. "How many hops?" he demanded.
"About twelve, sir," Sald said uneasily.
"And who chose the thermals--you or your mount?"
"I did, sir."
The commander hung on tight as the landau went around a corner. He looked thoroughly disbelieving. "Six hours from Rakarr?"
Sald hoped that his face was already red enough that a blush would not show. "Er ... I did let him give me a few hints, sir."
The commander shook his head angrily. "I warned you about that a dozen times, Harl! And just because he didn't kill you this time, don't think he won't try in future!" He scowled. Then he smiled admiringly. "Six hours, huh?"
"More or less, sir," Sald said.
It had been much closer to five.
He made it with minutes to spare, reeling into the robing room with his bundle, heart thundering and the inside of his head hammering like a smithy.
The room was packed with nobility being groomed and preened in front of mirrors by teams of valets. The only space he could find was next to an elderly and obese duke, whose cloak was being arranged by his attendant as though it were a priceless and timeless masterpiece of sculpture. Sald started to strip, ignoring both amusement and disapproval among the onlookers. Full court dress was not designed to be put on without assistance; tight hose would not pull over sweaty legs. He grabbed a passing page, a spotty youth a full head taller than himself, and ordered him to fasten the buttons on the back of his coat.
Then he crumpled his flying suit into a bundle and stuffed it behind the mirror and looked at himself.
It was even worse than he had imagined, from antique boots and wrinkled hose all the way up to tousled curls and a hat which fortunately he need only carry, as it fell over his ears if he tried to wear it. And the coat of arms--not all the red in his face was from hurry. The workmanship would probably pass, but the heraldry it displayed was ludicrous in this company: He had only two quarterings. The fat duke next to him had at least thirty, his coat a kaleidoscope of minute armorial symbols, an ancestry stretching from the Holy Ark itself.
Two quarterings! He was a molehill among mountains. His left side was just passable, four quarterings. His mother had once been a lady-in-waiting to the queen herself, qualified by that breeding, but on the right, his father's side, there were only two. Sald Harl was privately convinced that this whole horrible experience must be the result of some error by a palace scribe who had somehow put the wrong name on the writ. Even Lady Harl had admitted that she had never heard of a man with only two quarterings being presented at a formal court function.
He was apparently the youngest man summoned to the dubbings, which could be a source of pride if the summons were not an error. He was also the shortest, which was equally gratifying. But he was by far the most lowly.
Mirrors did not normally bother him. He was young, slim, and fit--and short. But what he could see in this mirror was going to create a scandal if it were allowed into the Great Courtyard. He had not even thought to bring a comb.
The valet beside him had a portable table littered with all sorts of equipment, including at least three combs. Sald braced himself to address a senior peer, and at that moment the duke decided that he was perfect. He turned from the mirror in Sald's direction, and Sald bowed.
It was as if he were not there. The noble eyes passed right through him as their owner continued his turn and then moved off toward the center of the room. The mirror showed Sald's face turning even more furiously red than before.
The valet was an elderly, wasted, and elongated man, but he had noticed. Watery old eyes gleaming with amusement, he produced a damp cloth and silently wiped the goggle marks from Sald's face; Sald had not seen those. Then he splashed some liquid into his hands and applied it to Sald's hair, briskly and efficiently.
A door opened, and the noisy hubbub died a lingering death. Out of the corner of his eye Sald saw that Feather King of Arms had entered with followers. God! They were ready, then. The valet started doing hasty things with a comb--evidently this ramshackle young trooper was an interesting challenge for him.
And all this for what? Ever since the courier had burst in on the Harls' dinner, Sald had wrestled with that problem, and he kept coming back to the same answer: He was about to be named equerry to some snot-nosed juvenile aristocrat, some duke's grandson who fancied himself as a skyman and wanted a private instructor on hand. Yes, my lord, no, my lord, may I kiss your arm, my lord. Royal appointments could not be refused.
Yet such a trivial indenture would normally rate only a line in the court gazette, not a dubbing at a General Investiture. It just did not make sense!
King of Arms was lining them up by rank.
The valet was struggling with the coat, pursing his lips and still not saying a word. Then he stepped back, his face inscrutable. Sald opened his mouth to speak, but stopped when he heard his own name spoken.
"Ensign Harl?" It was Feather King of Arms, supreme heraldic officer of Rantorra; with parchment face and glacier eyebrows, he was stooped and ancient and dignified as death itself. His livery outshone anything else in the room.
Sald bowed and received a barely visible nod.
King of Arms swept his eye over that despicable coat. He could have recited every family represented after that glance, minor though they all were.
"Five, four, three, king, queen, prince, king again, one more; the reverse on the way out?" King of Arms said quietly.
"Certainly!" Sald was not that ignorant.
King of Arms motioned his monumental head toward the end of the line of nobles and was about to vanish into the crowd.
"A question, my lord," Sald said brashly, this man being a relatively safe target for his bitterness. "There has not, perhaps, been an error?"
The faded old eyes flamed. "Did you say error, Ensign?"
"Yes!" Sald snapped. "I always understood that presentation at court was reserved to persons of higher lineage than mine."
"So did I," King of Arms said icily, and walked away.
The valet had started to tidy his equipment. Sald reached for his money pouch, but of course it was in his flying suit, behind the mirror. "You have been most kind," he stuttered.
"It was an honor, Ensign," the old man said, beaming down at him.
The line had started to move. "No, it was a kindness," Sald insisted. "Hardly an honor, after a duke."
The valet's smile became cryptic. "An honor to help those who serve our beloved sovereign and his family."
With his mouth still open, Sald dashed to take his place at the end of the fast-vanishing line. What had that meant? His mother, he recalled, always said that the servants knew more than anyone else in the court.
He stepped out into sunlight--and the vastness of the Great Courtyard. Trumpets blared barbarically. Finely groomed ladies and elegant gentlemen, the high nobility of the realm, the elite of Rantorra glittering in splendor, rose with a hiss of silk and brocade as the noble appointees came into their midst. A matching line of ladies emerged to join the men, and together they paraded down a center aisle toward the distant and empty thrones.
All around the high walls, on tiered balconies, the lesser nobility and some of the commonality stood in silence to study their betters. Even men with less than two quarterings, perhaps.
There were more men than women in the procession, so only the men near the front had partners. At the end of the line came Ensign Harl: youngest, shortest, loneliest.
When the fat duke reached the open space before the thrones, he stopped. The next man moved to his right, and the next to his. When Sald arrived, he paraded along the whole line of highborn hindquarters and found barely space to squeeze between the last man and the wall, turning to face the dais and the thrones. The fabrics whispered again as the audience sat down.
The thrones faced the assembly and also faced sunward. High above, on top of the wall, a fixed mirror jutted out at an angle so that the rays of the unchanging sun were reflected downward and the thrones glowed, brilliant in the shady courtyard.
There were a few minutes of expectant silence.
Unnoted in his edge position, Sald gaped around like the hick country boy he was. The Great Courtyard was the largest enclosed space he had ever seen. High above, slowly circling in the azure sky, were four--no, six--guards. What happened, he wondered, to a trooper whose bird crapped on the court? A posting to the hot pole to make ice cream, perhaps?
Far beyond the courtyard wall he could see the distant craggy top of Ramo Peak, but it could not compare with the view he had had from the desert, a view few men had ever seen: the Range in all its splendor. Even his home peak of Rakarr he had never seen so well, set off by the hazy backdrop of the Rand itself, a crumbled rampart rising miles above the plain, glowing bright against the midnight blue of the sky over Darkside, itself glittering with the distant reflection of ice. But Rakarr was a tiny peak, barely high enough to catch rain, and hence poor for cultivation. Ramo Peak, as he had seen it from the desert, had been breathtaking--its immense vertical extent from airless, waterless rocky uplands, faint and remote, down through pastures and then all the crop levels, barley and wheat and the others, to the lowest habitable, rice; and below that the useless jungle, and then the barren foothills clothed in the dense and poisonous "red air" of the desert and the crucible plains.
The congregation rose again.
The royal fanfare was played.
The entourage entered: guards and priests and court functionaries.
The king and queen followed.
It had been a long time since Sald had been close to the king, but he could see little change. The famous flaxen hair might be turning to silver in parts, but when the king stepped into the carpet of sunlight around the thrones, his hair blazed as brightly as the gold circlet it bore. The fair-skinned face was the same, the darting, penetrating eyes. Diamond decorations sparkled on his royal-blue court dress. No quarterings there; the front of his coat bore the eagle symbol only. Aurolron XX, King of Rantorra, tiny and immensely regal.
But Queen Mayala! Sald was stunned. Where now was the legendary beauty which had once been the toast of the kingdom? Like a woodland sprite, Mayala had floated on the edges of his childhood, a fairy-tale queen with trailing honey hair and a smile for which men would cheerfully have died. She floated no more; eyes downcast, hunched, shrunken inside her royal-blue gown, no taller than the king himself, servile even, she shuffled along beside him. Her hair looked dyed, her face waxen. If this was the best they could do with her for an Investiture, how did she look in private? He had heard no rumors.
Side by side, the royal couple advanced toward the thrones. Immediately behind the king walked King Shadow, wearing identical clothes--minus decorations, plus a black baldric--a portly yet a somber man.
Then came Crown Prince Vindax.
He had not changed--the jet hair, the beak nose, the easy athlete's walk were just as Sald remembered. His eyebrows had grown perhaps even bushier. No quarterings for him, either--he wore sky-blue and the talon symbol of the heir apparent. Prince Shadow was dead, so Vindax's brother, Jarkadon, walked directly behind him, filling the post until Count Moarien's appointment became official. The king and queen settled on the thrones, and Vindax took his place at his father's side, Jarkadon still at his back. The senior officials moved smoothly to their appointed places.
Vindax's eyes scanned along the waiting fine of hopefuls and found Sald. There was no change of expression, but the royal eyes noted the shabby boots, the baggy hose, the despicable coat. Then the study ended, and Vindax looked away.
But his interest had been observed, and necks craned to see who had been so honored.
There, thought Sald, was his problem. His mother had been a lady-in-waiting. As a child he had attended the palace school, and he was the same age as Vindax--few ensigns in the Guard had ever been on first-name terms with the crown prince. Later they had met again, when Vindax was learning flying from the Guard trainers. So when some young courtier had mentioned that he wanted an equerry who was a good skyman, the prince himself would have graciously mentioned the name of Harl. Amusing type, knows his manners, clean about the house ...
The anthem was played, then the archbishop prayed, inaudibly to mortal ears.
Vindax looked no more at Sald, but Sald studied him. The prince was amazingly unlike the rest of his family. Could flax and honey produce jet? Certainly that thought must have been mulled over a million times by thousands of people since the prince's birth, but to speak even a hint of it would be treason. Jarkadon, by contrast, looked more like the king than the king did.
The lord chancellor read the proclamation, finally bidding all those etcetera draw nigh. Nobody moved.
A herald removed the scroll from the chancellor's hand and substituted another.
"...know therefore that it is our pleasure..."
There must be forty dubbings to come. Three or four minutes had to be allowed for each to be called, to advance, to receive a few gracious words from the monarch ... it was going to be a long time until they got to Sald Harl.
And the chancellor reached the end of the first citation:
"...our right trusty Sald Harl, Esquire, ensign in our Royal Guard."
It was like hitting a sudden downdraft. He hardly registered the shocked bubbling of the court around him.
First? He had been planning to watch the others.
His feet moved by themselves, and he floated balloonlike above them, along the line to the center. Turn. Bow. Five paces. Bow. Four paces--make them longer. Bow again. He was within the hot circle of sunlight ...
Shadow? Had that proclamation said "Shadow"?
Oh, Great God Who Guided the Ark!
Bow to king, queen, prince, king again. Take one step. Then he stood at the edge of the dais, white-faced and sick to the roots of his soul.
Aurolron XX rose and paced forward, King Shadow at his back.
The penetrative power of the royal gaze was legendary. It was said that no man in the kingdom could face it. But that was not true when the kingdom had just crumbled into rubble and buried you up to your ears, when every muscle had frozen with shock. The twin sapphire flames burned above Sald, and he stared back into them with no trouble at all--an easy feat for one whose life had been totally ruined without warning. Chosen career, skymanship, private life, family, friendships--all had been snatched away in an instant.
For a lifetime the blue eyes and the black stayed locked, and the king's eyebrows rose in mild amusement.
"And how is NailBiter?' the king asked softly.
"Well, Your Majesty." They had researched him, of course.
The royal brows frowned at the brevity. "Out of DeathBreak by SkyHammer." The king's interest in his bloodstock was famous, and his knowledge encyclopedic. "We had great hopes of that pairing--yet there has been but one chick, and it seems that only one man in our entire Guard is capable of handling him."
Five minutes ago, that royal compliment would have sent Sald Harl into delirium.
"An exaggeration, Majesty. And I am teaching him better manners."
The long eye contact ended as the king blinked. He almost seemed to smile. He spoke even more softly. "Perhaps you can do the same for our son?" But no answer was expected to that.
The king raised his hand, and a page paced forward with a black baldric on a scarlet cushion. Sald's knees found the edge of the dais. The king laid the baldric in silence over Sald's head and across his chest--and by that royal act turned a man into a shadow.
Sald rose. He moved one pace back and was about to bow--
No! Up from his childhood, from classes in protocol in the palace school, seeped a long-forgotten maxim: Shadow bows to no one. He froze.
Should he play it safe and begin his new job with a major display of ignorance before the entire court? Never! But if he was wrong, then he would be guilty of lese majesty at the very least. He looked to King Shadow and got the merest hint of a head shake.
So the commoner awarded the king a barely perceptible nod, the sort of nod a fat duke might so easily have given an ensign, and moved one pace to the side. Appointments took effect immediately. He looked to Vindax, and this time the signal was positive. Certain he was dreaming, he stepped up on the royal dais and walked toward the two princes. Jarkadon backed away for him, smiling sardonically.
Sald moved into place behind Vindax: his place now. The place from which nothing must remove him, save only death.
There were more appointments, honors and decorations and awards. The peacocks and the butterflies strutted and fluttered in the sunlight, but Sald saw almost none of it. Only once did he take notice, when his fat neighbor from the antechamber waddled forward to be inducted into the Order of the Golden Feather: His Grace, the duke of Aginna. It was a travesty! That great slob could not have ridden a bird in his life.
He thought of the news arriving at Hiando Keep. His father would swell with pride. His mother would be horror-struck, his sisters full of tears.
The court whirled in iridescent grandeur.
The end came. The royal party withdrew--and the fifth person in that party was Sald Harl.
No, it was Shadow. Prince Shadow, if he need be distinguished from King Shadow, but normally just Shadow.
He must adjust to life without a name.
The procession proceeded along corridors. Without warning, Vindax turned to a door, but Sald had been expecting that and did not miss a step. As he pushed the door shut behind them, he noted crystal and silver on carved sideboards, and one small window; this must be some sort of pantry. A cowering little man was waiting.
Vindax walked to the nearest wall and then swung around, black eyes glinting with amusement. "Welcome, Shadow!" he said.
The prince's eyes said that he had made an error.
"I don't know this stuff!" Sald said angrily.
"Then you've forgotten it! Shadow is never presented, so you know nobody. Rank only, rarely title. Never formal address--not even names unless you must."
"Thank you, Prince."
Vindax raised a cynical eyebrow. "It isn't quite that bad."
Sald knew that his resentment was obvious, that he was therefore showing ingratitude, and that he was being mocked because of it. He liked to remember Vindax as a childhood friend, back when they had both been too small to appreciate the chasm between a baronet's heir and a king's. He tried not to remember the adolescent Vindax of flying classes, when a commoner struggling to get by on ability alone must never upstage the heir apparent.
"Why me?" he demanded.
The prince shook his head and leaned back against the wall. Except in the security of the royal apartments he must always have a wall behind him--or Shadow. "Strip," he said. "We haven't much time."
The timid little man was fussing with clothes. Sald reached up to remove the damnable black baldric.
"We're the same size, more or less," Vindax said. "You'll wear my second best until we get some for you."
Cloak and coat ... Shadow would wear the same garb as the prince, except for the decorations. He would taste his food, possibly sleep in the same room.
"But why me, Prince?"
"Many reasons, for many people. My father, for example?"
He hadn't changed a fraction--he was still all arrogance, mockery, charm. And wits.
The breeches went next, and the valet had produced underwear, to show that this was to be no half effort. Sald must start matching wits again. It had never been easy. "You would tell the king that I am nothing, so I am your creation and owe everything to you. You alone have my loyalty."
He had scored. "Close."
"You would have told the queen that I am an expert skyman."
The prince smiled. "Right reasons, wrong parents. Chief of protocol?"
"You told him that the appointment of a nobody would not disturb the balance of court factions." Obviously he was right again. "And the truth?"
"You're the best man, of course."
Sald could not believe that. "I heard Count Moarien--"
"Moarien sniffs. Sniff, sniff, all day long. Probably snores."
He was being mocked again.
The new breeches were silk, the softest material he had ever handled. "Many don't sniff. Why me?"
The dark eyes studied him carefully. "You're my second Shadow. You heard what happened to the first?"
"A wild struck him."
"It wasn't a wild. Idiot Farin Donnim had been feeding his bird batmeat. He lost control. It took Shadow in an instant."
Half into a coat which proclaimed him to be crown prince of Rantorra, Sald paused. "What happened to Donnim?"
"Nothing--his uncle's a duke. But you do it to me and they'll cut you into meatballs with blunt scissors."
NailBiter must learn his manners quickly, then. Every time he flew now, he would have a prince stretched out under his beak, a tempting royal breakfast within easy reach of a quick strike.
But they would take NailBiter from him. How much flying did Vindax do, anyway? A few state visits here and there, a bit of hunting. Sald Harl's sky days were apparently over.
The valet adjusted the black baldric with care.
Vindax was still studying him with sardonic amusement. "My father's on his fifth Shadow. One tried breathing through a hole in his back, the second was heard to remark that the soup tasted bitter, and two were mistaken for rabbits."
"You're trying to scare me."
"I want you scared." Vindax lacked the king's penetrating gaze; his eyes were a blunt instrument.
The valet bundled up the discarded clothes as though planning to burn them. He probably was. The trooper flying suit was back in the anteroom--it didn't matter. Sald's money was still in the pockets, his keys ... None of those mattered. His two quarterings did not matter. He had no name and no rank.
The valet bowed and vanished, never having said a word. Vindax straightened up.
"My duties?" Sald asked.
Vindax looked at him with fake astonishment. "My life, of course. At the cost of your own, if necessary."
"I know that bit," Sald said.
The prince shrugged. "You are seen and silent, that's all."
"Do I have any authority?"
Vindax smiled faintly. "Normally, no. But in any affair which pertains to my safety, you are paramount. You can even give orders to the king, although I don't recommend it. No limits at all."
So he could keep NailBiter, but he would have no time for training. "King Shadow?"
"You outrank him."
If a choice must be made, the prince's life would take precedence. The arrogance was understandable.
"The flying part I can handle," Sald said. That had been the original purpose of Shadow. "It's the stiletto and strychnine part."
"Today is the banquet," Vindax said irritably, anxious to be off. "I've set aside tomorrow for learning. As Shadow you're head of my bodyguard. You have a staff--hire and fire as you please, but some of them have been at this for kilodays. King Shadow will give you pointers."
"That's still not the truth, Prince," Sald said. "You're wearing exactly the expression NailBiter does when he's snatched a mutebat and thinks I haven't noticed."
The prince flushed. "And what do you do then?" he asked, dangerously.
"I make him as mad as I can. If he gets mad enough, he spits it out."
The black eyes glared, and Vindax reddened further. "Get insolent with me, fellow, and I'll have your head!"
"That's what NailBiter thinks."
The prince gasped audibly and then burst into a roar of laughter, but laughter with a curious metallic ring to it. "All right! I'll spit. Back when we flew together, how would you rate me?"
Sald--Shadow, now--hesitated and then saw that flattery was certainly not part of his job. "Potentially good. You had the courage, the reflexes. Not patient enough. Inclined to be reckless. That's my fault also, so I can't judge it. But you never got enough practice."
"Of the twenty days before Shadow's unexpected resignation," Vindax said, "I flew nineteen. I expect to fly every day for the next thousand, with a few exceptions. Some days only a couple of hours, true, but some are going to be long, long hops."
Now it was Sald who gasped, and Vindax nodded with pleasure at the effect.
"I'm going to explore my inheritance, Shadow," he said. "From one end to the other, from salt to ice, Range and Rand. My father never did, but he agrees that it is a good idea. Far too much this court does nothing but gossip, and knows nothing. So I'm getting my practice in now, and the jaunts start soon. You were chosen because you're a damned good skyman, and I need one."
Sald sighed with relief. "Then I am truly grateful--and honored. And I swear that I will gladly serve as Prince Shadow, and to the limits of my ability."
When NailBiter had spat out the mutebat, he was rewarded with a tasty morsel. Vindax smiled in satisfaction at the speech. "And for a start," he said smugly, "we'll do the big one: the Rand. All the way!"
For a moment Sald did not comprehend. Leftward, the Rand led only to Piatorra, and relations between the two kingdoms were supposedly strained at the moment. Rightward lay wild, poorly settled country: frontier. He knew almost nothing about it, for Rantorrans normally thought only of the Range. But the Rand there was habitable, for it roughly paralleled the terminator. And "all the way" must mean all the hundreds of miles to where it swung abruptly darkward and vanished into the ice layer on Darkside.
He gasped. "To Allaban?"
A black glare barbecued him. "To Ninar Foan!"
Of course. The rebels still held Allaban--Sald had forgotten his history as well as his protocol. The siege of Allaban ... the keeper of the Rand ... Queen Mayala ...
It was curious that Aurolron had never even attempted to recover Allaban. Was Vindax planning a war, now or when he came to the throne?
"Reconnaissance?" Sald asked cautiously.
"Partly." Then the prince grinned. "Also the duke of Foan is premier nobleman of the realm, and he has a daughter."
A long way to go for a date!
"And no son," Vindax added. "So if she has buckteeth or one tit bigger than the other, then we'll marry her to my brother and he can be the next keeper at Ninar Foan. Don't tell him that! Politically she's the obvious match for me. We'll see if she's beddable. Now we must go mix with the rabble."
Sald needed to know what he was required to do--where to stand, when to sit, how much to drink when he tasted the wine--but his mind was still caught up in the thought of the Rand. "How long?"
"About a hectoday, there and back."
A hundred days in the air: new country and watch after watch of soaring, finding the thermals, analyzing the terrain--his heart began to pound at the thought. It would be the adventure of a lifetime and the best thing NailBiter could get. It would not give Sald back his freedom, but it would help.
Vindax had apparently misread his expression. "Don't worry--you cover me, but the others will cover you."
"Why?" Sald demanded, and his stupidity provoked royal impatience.
"Because otherwise you'll crack like an egg."
Sald bristled. Was his courage being questioned? Or his skill? He was as alert as any, and NailBiter would see danger long before he would. "NailBiter can dodge anything in the sky," he said--and stopped.
Shadow's job was to not dodge: a great honor and a very short life expectancy.
Vindax read his expression correctly this time and nodded in grim satisfaction. He headed for the door without another word.
The crown prince's enforced absence from public view was ended. He walked out to play his role in the life of the court, followed one pace behind, as always, by Shadow.
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