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* * * * Chapter 1
The Silk Palace perched in the end of year sunshine high atop Whiterock, all great grey battlements and fluttering pennants, invulnerability made manifest.
Now it was out of sight of the riders below, even when they craned their necks. Many of them rode leaning outwards, away from the massif, as if oppressed by it. Rearing heavenward from the flat grasslands, the white rock seemed to fill their world, their long column snaking round its massive bulk. It wasn't completely white, but speckled with impurities and moss. Over the millennia, trickling water had cut tiny vertical riverbeds into the rock, and elsewhere sporadic outcroppings bulged overhead. Once they rode so close, Bluestocking reached out and scratched a flake off and licked it. Her finger tasted bitter.
"It might be poisonous," Halarbur said.
As always when he was around, Bluestocking couldn't help thinking, Does he know?
The Prince's valet rode with hands holding up the reins as if to show her how to grasp them. His thinning grey hair was combed forward and chopped in a bowl shape. As usual, his square face gave nothing away. For all that, she sensed disapproval; he never called her by name or title. As if he knew that she wasn't all she pretended to be. "Then I'll be ill." Her tone dared him to argue with her, but he looked away.
Above the caravan, delta-winged gliders quartered the open sky away from the rock, riding the rising thermals, their mage-pilots weaving their defensive web of spells. The sun was high in the sky, finally breaking through the clouds, and Bluestocking's spirits lifted with its warmth. She wrung out her jerkin'srain-soaked sleeve.
A shadow passed overhead. Unable to stifle a cry of surprise, she flinched.
The other riders guffawed. "She shrieked like that time Pasceb goosed her," Luer wiped her eyes between fits of laughter.
It was all Bluestocking could do not to scream at them. To show she wasn't scared, she ostentatiously craned her neck, leaning so far back in her saddle that she almost toppled from Fourposter's back. She looked down at the ground, where countless hooves had churned the mud to a quagmire and shuddered at the thought of falling into it.
"My apologies, Milady," the officer leading their escort said in his barbarous language, while the glider vanished as suddenly as it appeared, "on behalf of that idiot."
They rode together for a few moments, and he cleared his throat several times as if his voice was rusty. "Do all Princes in the Karnaki Empire have ladies-in-waiting who speak our tongue so well?"
If that's an attempt to strike up a conversation, it's a decidedly clumsy one, she thought. She wondered whether he was mocking her, or the Empire, or both, but accepted the question as serious. "I'm no lady-in-waiting. I'm from the Karnaki Imperial Library, to translate the Scrolls of Presimionari." She took pleasure in watching his eyes widen, and he gestured northwards, as she'd seen them do before; clenched fist in front of the eyes, palm forward, fingers splaying open. She said, "Prince Casimiripian kindly offered me an escort from Ravlatt," and added, "That's a city in the Empire."
"Your name's Bluestocking, Maestress?" He used the formal name for scholar, clearly impressed by her mentioning the scrolls, but he mangled her name badly, pronouncing it Dzahrminah, rather than Dzahrmini. You're only being pedantic again, she thought. You shouldn't let it irritate you. It was easier thought than done.
"Doubtless named for your dzahr eyes," he grinned, openly flirting as he mangled the dialect word for 'blue' to unrecognizability, "or your garments."
She blushed. "A Bluestocking is a female scholar, who attends The Woman's University," she said crisply. "My father knew what he wanted for me from the day I was born--a good education." A lie of course, but this oaf would never know that.
Prince Casimiripian rode up. "Are you all right, Bluestocking?" He lifted his lightweight helmet and wiped sweat off a freckled forehead below cropped brown hair. His cheerful countenance had changed to a concern so exaggerated that he might have been a travelling actor. She was unsure whether it was genuine, or whether, as she suspected of his courtly manners, he was mocking her. He seemed not to hear the other rider's sniggers.
"I'm very well, thank you, Majesty." Go away! she thought.
"I'm glad to hear it, my dear," the Prince said, faintly emphasising the last two words. "If these yokels frightened you, I'll have them flogged. They need to learn manners."
The officer said, "I'll signal the pilot to maintain an appropriate distance."
"No need, Majesty." She realised with a sudden rush of compassion that the Prince was probably more nervous than anyone in the caravan. It's not every day that he finally meets his intended bride, she thought. "It wasn't the pilot's fault. I was wool-gathering."
Softening, he said, "No doubt thinking about your books." He made them sound as exotic as a Cimetrian dragon from the arctic wastes. To an outdoorsman, I suppose they are.
"No doubt," she said to his back--he'd already spurred his great grey stallion back to his place near the head of the line. She sneaked a look at their escort's officer; he was white-faced and trembling with rage or fear. "I'm sorry about what he said."
The officer hawked up phlegm, and spat. "No need to apologise to me. A Prince can say what he likes."
To fill the lengthening silence, she said, "The clouds seem very regular. Does the king regulate the weather?" Ask stupid questions, Sister Lucretia once told her. The old woman thought all men drank liquor morning, noon and night, and beat their women for pleasure, but Bluestocking knew her own intellect intimidated many men, so for once it seemed sound advice.
He was silent for so long that she didn't think he'd answer. Then, "The King has most of his wizards working the weather; says it keeps them out of mischief. They stand along the North wall of the palace like a line of black crows, waving their arms, and chanting their nonsense. Most rain falls at night, but they've got some schedule that means it always rains some time during the day. Mostly on that side." He gestured northwards again.
Despite herself, she giggled. "He'd hate all that untamed weather where I live. We have few mages. Most are busy squabbling amongst themselves, or working for rich folk, but the ones we have try to move passing clouds off their patch onto another's. Some clouds bounce round like ping-ping balls."
"That's the Empire," the soldier scoffed. "This is the free Kingdom of Whiterock." He quickened his horse's pace slightly, and rode away.
"No use trying to engage these peasants in civilised converse," Halarbur said.
Before she could snap an answer, an Imperial guard distracted her, saying, "How are we supposed to climb it? There isn't a step anywhere."
"Perhaps," she said, "there are hidden tunnels in the rock." She added, quietly, so he wouldn't hear, "As long as we don't have to climb it, I don't care."
They had their answer soon enough.
* * * *
The caravan had stretched out. Fifty Imperial guards and twice as many hangers-on, all mounted, escorted the Prince. The troops had their own horses, fake bat-wings and serpent's tails to scare the enemy in battle, while the camp followers had 'borrowed' mounts, old nags mostly, or shared them with the baggage. For every rider and horse were two mules, laden almost to collapse. By an Imperial Prince's standards, Bluestocking thought wryly, he's travelling light. Their hosts had provided another fifty troops at the border, nowhere near as grandiosely decorated as the Imperial mounts, but the curving horns collared to their horse's heads made them nearly twice as tall as without them.
The Prince had rejoined them. "Where do the people who work in the Palace live?"
"In the warrens beneath, Majesty."
They've tunnelled into the rock, Bluestocking thought. Perhaps that's where the famous Silk Spiders are?
In the distance were a score of what Bluestocking thought were spherical buildings. They were the strangest things she'd seen since the Floating Towers at Lake Mairain. When they drew close, Bluestocking saw people scurrying around the structures. Each globe was taller than ten tall men. The globes were huge spherical bags, each painted like a playground attraction in gaudy reds, blues and yellows, while beneath hung a basket, crammed with people, moored to steps leading down to a gantry.
Several men guarded each gantry. They moved away from one, untethering the basket. The huge bag rose gracefully and, to Bluestocking, terrifyingly, up the side of the rock. Each basket was held tight on its course by a thin wire that ran skyward from the scaffold at perhaps fifteen degrees from vertical. Bluestocking's gut knotted with fear. She could see no other way of reaching the summit; and could not possibly sit in such a contraption without dying of terror.
"We'll be able to get off these damned nags soon," one Imperial soldier said to another. "Think they'll have cock-fights here? I missed them in Langedor. Typical of His Nibs to leave so early we'd need to bed down by sunset."
"I can think of better uses for cocks than fighting," one of the comfort women said.
I've never heard someone leer before, Bluestocking thought.
"Away with you, woman!" The soldier said, laughing. "D'you never think of owt else?"
"Only money," the woman said, "And drink."
Bluestocking studied the nearest of the huge bags.
A long metal tube poked up into the gap at the bottom of the bag. An attendant stretched up and dropped something into the tube. After a few seconds, a blue-white flame blazed out of the top of the tube with a whoosh, visible even through the thin material of the bag. It looked so hot that for a moment, Bluestocking thought it would set fire to the bag.
Oh, she thought. Balefire; that's how they do it, of course, no ordinary flame would burn bright, and strong enough. I suppose the bag's safe--they must practice constantly to perfect the dosage. A mantra ran through her head--you can do this, you can overcome your fear; you can do this.
As they reached the gantry, the lead riders dismounted, handing their reins to attendants, the troops nuzzling their mounts goodbye with an affection that surprised Bluestocking and climbing into the baskets. One after the other, those behind followed, until it was Bluestocking's turn. She could put it off no longer. She dismounted, stomach hollow, her knees weak. She licked her lips.
"Are you all right, Milady?" asked the man taking Fourposter's reins.
"I'm fine," she snapped. She rubbed the horse's nose.
"We'll look after him, fear not."
"I--" she nearly admitted her fear but, voice quavering, said instead, "Is it always so busy?"
"This time and the morning rush are the worst times of day, when all the travellers are on their way. The King's decree; all travellers through the kingdom must pay a tax. The only place they can pay is at the Sheriff's office." The man's ruddy face split into a grin. "Which is only open an hour before curfew. Shame that, all they travellers having to stay over and pay a night's lodging."
"There's no other way up the mountain?" There, she'd asked it.
"T'other way's worse," the man said cheerily. "Sit in a sack with holes cut in the corners to take your legs, and get hoisted up--or down. The Poor Man's Rise, they call it. The rope has a habit o'breakin', but 'cause they's only pauper's takin' that rise, no one cares too much. You'll be fine," he said gently, patting her shoulder.
The prince called, "Bluestocking! With me!"
"We're in the first basket," he said, and grinned. "The sooner we leave, the sooner we arrive. Come on! Halarbur, you'll fly with the baggage afterwards."
"Majesty," Halarbur bowed, his face impassive as ever. His gaze flicked over Bluestocking with what she was sure was disdain. At least he won't be there to see you make a fool of yourself, she thought.
An attendant helped her to climb into the basket. She reached out and fondled a stray piece of fabric hanging down like a talisman. "Silk," someone said, and she nodded.
Amongst the crowd she thought she saw--"No, it can't be!"
"Bluestocking?" Casimiripian said.
She laughed nervously. "I thought I saw someone I knew, Majesty."
"From Ravlatt?" Casimiripian said. "Unlikely."
No, further east again, she thought. "You're probably right."
Soon a dozen of the prince's people and two locals packed into the basket, all men except for her.
"Shut your eyes," the man said.
Bluestocking half shut her eyes and looked away as the man dropped a ball of straw into the tube. He mumbled a spell and the straw, which had been soaked in an acrid concoction, burst into flame with a hollow whoof! Spots of light danced in front of her now-closed eyes.
A second attendant held onto the basket, reciting a string of what Bluestocking guessed were wardings. Elementals weren't the only predators in the skies; a dozen people rising slowly would feed an afreet nest for days.
"You can open your eyes now," their host said. "Take a look around you. You'll have a magnificent view."
She knew that she shouldn't open her eyes; if she did, she'd see how far they had to fall. In her mind's eye she saw the basket break, her body tumbling to splatter on the ground. She opened her eyes anyway and nearly fainted. The Kingdom of Whiterock lay below her, a green patchwork of trees, fields and buildings, and animals and people scurrying about.
"Look," the attendant said.
From this high, Bluestocking could see the road on which they'd ridden since leaving Langedor at first light. Following the muddy road, she was sure she could see the nominal frontier-post they'd crossed just before mid-morning. The frontier was too long to fence and required too many men to guard. But protocol demanded they enter at the wooden hut with its twin flags of the Empire and the Kingdom and join the waiting honour guard sent to escort them to the Palace.
Beyond the frontier post, the serrated peaks of the Northern Spine were hidden in a wall of drizzle, but Bluestocking still felt their monolithic presence dwarfing even the white rock.
South of an invisible line, farmers worked in gentle spring sunshine, tending the green domes of mulberry trees that lined the hillsides in artificially straight ranks. Beyond those gently sloping hills, the Southern Spine rose more gradually than its Northern half, but these mountains were even higher, and distant snow-capped peaks reflected the sunlight. Where sunshine and rain jostled for supremacy, the ground steamed in a line creeping northwards.
"Are those tents?" The Prince pointed at a sprawl of canvas around the foot of the southern side of the rock.
"Aye, Majesty," one of their escort replied. "Fairhaven. Pretty deserted at the moment, but much more crowded during winter. Where most of the slaves live. The freeborn workers and their families live in the town opposite. Northside."
"Fairhaven, eh?" The Prince said. "I'm surprised you let them live on the nicer side."
The outrider grinned, showing rotting stumps for teeth. "It's only nice in the daytime, when most of them are out working in the fields. At night, when the King's decreed it's their turn to be rained on, they wail and moan and beg The Gods to stop pissing on them."
"Look," an Imperial Guard gasped, pointing. Bluestocking looked.
Now they were higher up, Bluestocking had a better view of individual clouds, and their movement toward the storm, which crept northwards at walking pace. The wizard's magic would hurtle clouds at dizzying speed from where nature had allowed the breeze to carry them to slam into the main mass. Tiny lightning flashes sparked off the impact. Sometimes the rain fell as white drops; Bluestocking had been caught in a hailstorm soon after entering the Kingdom. It had only lasted thirty seconds, but she still felt the sting of the stones on her arm.
Where the clouds had been before, the air rippled and eddied, seeking equilibrium. For a moment she thought she saw a face and wondered if an elemental had become entangled. Probably not, she decided. They'd have exorcised it.
A vortex of spinning air circled over the rock in a whirl of blue and white; the still-point, drawing energy from the clouds' movement. Around it the sky was a mottled grey, as if it were fevered from all the activity.
She looked from the cloud to the focal point of the strangeness. Even though they still had to look up, from up here it was easier to see the top of the rock and what was actually a small walled city that sprawled across the plateau.
A reed in the wicker floor snapped, her stomach lurched and stifling a scream, she clutched the nearest support--the Prince's arm.
"Be calm," the Prince said. Wincing, he prised her fingers away, leaving livid imprints on his arm. "It's nothing to worry about."
Bluestocking felt her face burn as a trickle of liquid ran down her thighs. She was acutely aware of it and was convinced that everyone around her would smell it.
"Why do you all make that gesture when you look northwards?" the Prince asked the pilot. He referred to the hand-opening gesture she realized and knew he meant to distract her. For a moment, she could have kissed him.
"It's asking the Gods to stay on Mount Halkyan, Majesty," the second attendant said.
"Your gods live there?"
"They do, Majesty." There was a long pause, and the man asked. "Is it true? That your gods live among you all year round?"
The Prince said. "Of course. It seems strange not to have them here. We miss them, but they don't travel well. At least you're spared foreign gods visiting you."
"Amen," the pilot said.
Bluestocking made herself open her eyes again. Taking deep breaths, she stared at the rock, trying not to think about falling. She prayed: Nangharai, Mother of the Gods, let me walk on solid ground, and I'll light you a candle every night again. Of course, Nangharai wouldn't listen. Even if Bluestocking's prayer carried all the way back to Ravlatt, why would the goddess heed the prayer of someone who'd turned her back on the gods?
"Blue," the Prince said, so quietly she almost missed it. "Blue, take my hand. No one will know." She looked up at him, then away from the pity in his eyes, but took his hand. "Look outwards," the Prince said as gently as to a skittish colt. "Look across, not down."
Gripping the basket with her free hand, Bluestocking made herself look northwards. The rain had cleared, revealing the nearest peaks of the northern Spine stabbing the bright blue sky.
"You could gallop across this Kingdom in a day on a fresh horse," the Prince said. "So small, yet a fulcrum for the world."
He's right, she thought, glancing westwards toward the distant hills shimmering in the afternoon sun, toward the easternmost of the ragbag caliphates and emirates that made up The Western Alliance. I wonder if it's true that they're all fanatics and madmen, and the greatest threat our empire has ever faced.
The Kingdom of Whiterock provided the only lowland crossing of the Spine Range that separated the Empire and the Alliance. Other passes required that the traveller overcome altitude sickness, bitter winds, snow and the risk of snow-trolls sending avalanches down onto the unwary.
Looking back, beyond the waist-high tumuli that they'd ridden past earlier, a faun ducked for cover. "Not a house to be seen," Bluestocking muttered. She watched the peasants bowed double over rows of cabbages stretching into the distance, probably all the way to the marshes at Llamarghesa that were the Kingdom's Northern Frontier and separated it from the mountains. "If they all live in those tent-towns, it must get very crowded."
A sudden gust caught them; the basket wobbled. Bluestocking redoubled her prayers, just in case the priests told lies and the goddess listened even to heretics.
"Milady," the Prince said. "You must loosen your grip, unless I'm to be in the care of a physic for the next few weeks." He added, "And I swear I do not jest."
With a huge effort, she loosened her grip. He grimaced in relief. Despite her terror, she almost laughed. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
He sighed. "No matter."
They cleared the outer wall that ran around the lip of the rock. Now if this thing collapses, Bluestocking thought with grim humour, I'll only have a short fall before dashing my brains out.
"I dare say you'll be pleased to get there, won't you?" The Prince said softly.
She nodded, tears prickling, suddenly homesick for relief from three weeks of shared rooms in lodges or taverns, and respite from the noise from the next room of the comfort women's grunted, groaning couplings with the soldiers. While her room had often been bigger than her rented chamber back in Ravlatt, there'd been no privacy or peace with the paper-thin walls.
The rope tautened and they were reeled into a huge open square in front of the palace, full of soldiers in gaudy uniforms whose helmets gleamed in the sunlight. The basket was hauled to rest against a gantry like those on the ground, wooden planks ten feet above the cobbled expanse. Hands reached in, and the Prince pushed her forward. "Take the lady first," he said.
Out of the corner of her eye, Bluestocking glimpsed a wizard performing an invocation.
She stood unsteadily and gripped the hand of the man nearest her as if she were drowning and he were a lifeline. He helped her down the steps to the ground, saying, "There, there. No need for tears." His kindness almost undid her, but somehow she stayed on her feet, reaching down to touch the cobbles for reassurance that they were real.
"My name is Ariel," the man said. He was a rotund little figure with a mouth slightly too wide for his features, which gave the impression that he was smiling all the time. His eyes protruded, and his tongue flicked in and out. An ornate cap only partly covered sandy hair. A huge gold chain hung round his neck over his dark robes.
As the others disembarked, Bluestocking looked up at the walls of the citadel. In front of them, a small group watched the new arrivals. The Prince led his group forward.
At the front of the waiting group, a giant of a man towered above the others, robes trailing on the floor. Square-headed with a bull-like neck, red-gold hair tumbled in curls to his shoulders, while his short beard was flecked with grey. Below a simple crown half-covering his forehead, wide-set eyes studied them, passing over her in an instant, dismissing her as unimportant. In that instant, she felt the King's terrible, restless energy and his willpower that changed the very course of wind and rain. The moment passed, and once again he was simply a big man lording it over a tiny backwater.
The King bowed from the waist. "Welcome to Whiterock, Prince Casimiripian."
The Prince seemed taken aback. He paused, as if collecting his thoughts, then laughing bowed too. "A short, simple, yet elegant greeting, your Majesty. I'd prepared a long flowery response full of pomp and wind. Instead, I'll simply say that I'm very pleased to be here."
The King nodded a half-dozen times, then grinned, his teeth whiter and more regular than any Bluestocking had ever seen. "Well said. There'll be enough time for speeches later. We're simple people here, slow of thought and direct of speech." He threw open his arms. Casimiripian hesitated, but stepped forward into the King's bear-hug. Lifting his hands, he patted the King's back.
Beside the King stood a dark-haired woman, only as tall as his shoulder. Her face was pinched, thin and sour-looking. But when the King touched her arm, she looked up at him with a tender look that transformed her face. The King said, "My wife, Queen Juliophelana."
"Majesty," the Prince bowed again.
The Queen curtsied and said in a lilting voice, "Call me Ana, son-in-law to be."
Ana? Bluestocking thought. They talk as if they're mere commoners!
"Let others worry whether shortening their names erodes their status," the King added. "Life's too short; we know who we are. We don't have to parade our names to remind us."
"Then call me Cas," the Prince said with a nervy laugh, and Bluestocking wondered how much that concession cost him.
A large, pug-nosed woman stood to the King's right, looking, Bluestocking decided, as if she could smell something nasty. The King introduced the Prince to, "My eldest daughter, Princess Evivalesinan. Evi is High Priestess of the Church of Brighannon."
The Princess boomed, "The main church of Whiterock."
To Evi's right stood a slightly younger woman who shared her father's red-gold hair but whose features were more delicate. "The Princess Lexnovoswartoner," the King said. "Lexi is betrothed to the Emir of Blackwater."
Lexi never took her eyes off Prince Cas except when he kissed her hand, when she closed them. "My fiancé's ambassador, the Vizier of Talaben," she said in a low voice and waved vaguely at her left shoulder, behind which stood a bronze-skinned man. His nose was a hooked beak, and the fierce eyes which scanned them all in turn were set in a face whose triangular shape was emphasised by a white, pointed beard. His left arm, which was slightly withered, hung at an awkward angle.
To Lexi's right stood a girl with Queen Ana's dark complexion but the King's open features. "My youngest, your fiancé," the King said. "Princess Cavendsilperisha. Cavi."
"Majesty," the Prince knelt at her feet.
"Arise, Your Majesty," Cavi said, laughing. "May I also call you Cas?"
"You can call me anything you want, Cavi," the Prince said, standing up.
"You'll be tired from your long journey," the King's voice boomed over the breeze. "But before we retire, we'll stroll around the castle walls and show you our surroundings."
They followed the Royal party up the path from the square, through the main gate into a shaded antechamber. Inside the walls was another courtyard, but rather than cross it, they turned right. Something small and dark scuttled into a doorway, but when they passed there was nothing there, although the door had stayed closed.
A little way along the corridor they climbed up one, two, three and even a fourth flight of corkscrewing stone stairs up to the grey stone battlements. On the way they passed a chanting mage who glanced up without pausing in his ritual. "He's strengthening the fortifications," Cavi explained. "Those who would harm Whiterock constantly try to undermine us."
Looking around at the fields laid out below the gap in the walls in a pastoral scene of apparent tranquillity, Bluestocking wondered whether everyone in Whiterock believed in invisible enemies and whether or not they were paranoid.
They stood on the very walls themselves, with only a thin chest-high lip of stone between them and infinity. Bluestocking's heart hammered both from exertion and sheer terror.
Turning to her, Cas murmured, "Bluestocking, please walk before me."
With a thin smile, Bluestocking obeyed.
The wind up here tore at their hair, plucked at their sleeves. Despite the warm south wind, it was cold; Bluestocking shivered. Cas murmured to one of his men, who wrapped his cape around Bluestocking's shoulders. She mumbled thanks and looked up to see Cavi watching her. She felt the flush rise up her neck.
A shape flashed close by. There was a flare, a shriek and the sound of frying bacon, and she saw the amorphous, semi-transparent shape of an elemental impaled on the palace's invisible defences.
No one seemed concerned. "I thought that we'd start here," Princess Cavi said, smiling. The King seemed happy to let her do the talking now. "This whole edifice," she waved vaguely around her, "is just the latest layer of skin on a scab dating back centuries." She added, "The other reason for taking you on this little tour is that it's a good excuse to indulge another of our guests. Lexi and I believe that Daragel doesn't see his homeland often enough."
"I have her Majesty's beauty as consolation," the vizier replied with a flash of brilliant white teeth in his bronzed face, bowing to Lexi. "And helping to look after both her and my Prince's interests is a great solace."
"The other reason," Cavi ignored Daragel's flattery, "is that this is probably the nearest Cas has been to the alliance. True?"
The Prince nodded.
Daragel said, "You see, Majesty, we are mere mortals, nothing to fear."
Cas smiled acknowledgment.
"There it is," the Princess waved at the distant hills, now partly obscured in low clouds. "The Alliance of Free Rulers. The Western Alliance, as it's known in the Karnaki Empire. It has almost as many names as there are Kingdoms, Emirates and protectorates within it." She added, "Please correct me if I talk nonsense, Daragel."
"I'm sure that won't be necessary, Your Highness."
"Most of the territories beyond are semi-desert," Princess Cavi said. "The people there believe in letting the gods dictate their climate or if you echo their beliefs, in letting Mother Earth choose when to water the soil. If we allowed this to happen to Whiterock, we'd have weather similar to theirs."
"Do you believe that this is a good thing?" Cas asked. There was a sharp intake of breath from someone nearby.
"What I believe is unimportant," the Princess said, smiling, putting a finger to the Prince's lips. He looked dazed.
Cavi resumed. "The palace walls are made from stone quarried from the Southern Spine. Stone from Whiterock, while moderately hard, wouldn't withstand siege engines. We've had peace for centuries, but the palace predates our tranquil times. Let's walk around the battlements."
As they walked, Prince Cas whispered, "Are you all right?"
Bluestocking nodded, gripping the inside wall of the battlements. "I'm ... all right," she waved her free hand to emphasize the word, "as long as I'm away from the outer walls, and I have something to hold onto." She was exaggerating how safe she felt--the wind was like a siren song, plucking her toward the wall--but she didn't want the pity of strangers.
Bluestocking grew increasingly restless at their snail-like pace. Preoccupied with the scrolls, her thoughts turned to The Great Library. Even deep within the Karnaki Empire, scholars knew of the vast trove of books, manuscripts, scrolls and letters that comprised the greatest repository of knowledge in the known world--Whiterock Library. She wanted to be at those books with a gnawing hunger that grew minute by minute.
Toward the southern end, they passed an open square. The Prince asked, "What's there?"
"Gallows Square," Cavi said, and the subject was dropped. Even the small town where Bluestocking had grown up had its Gallows Square.
At last they returned to their starting point.
Cavi said, "Let's go below."
They descended the steps and went indoors. "Are we near The Great Library?" Bluestocking blurted. No one answered. I'll find it on my own, then, she thought.
As they passed a side corridor, Ariel had Bluestocking separated from the others and taken down it by a page. "These are your quarters, madam. There wasn't space for you to be with the Prince's party, so we put you in this block."
"Where do I go to pay the tax?" Seeing his puzzled look, Bluestocking added, "I thought that all travellers had to pay a tax?"
Ariel smiled. "You needn't worry about that." He threw open the door for her, and his footsteps receded down the corridor.
Bluestocking pushed the heavy door shut with her foot. "Well, I'm here at last," she said to the empty room.
Her jaw dropped.
* * * * Chapter 2
This isn't a bedroom," she muttered, perching upon the huge high four-poster bed, "it's a silk-sheeted warehouse." She thought, the bed is bigger than my chamber in Ravlatt.
Drapes and throws festooned the room, softening the harshness of its dark polished wood. Sketches of deer, horses and a hippogriff hung on the walls. The bed was soft, and it was with a conscious sense of virtue that she made herself climb off it and study the map drawn in ink next to the room's only window. It told Bluestocking that the country outside was Thamwesh, part of the Western Alliance.
The room was hot, so she removed her jerkin, still soggy from the earlier rain, stared in the full-length mirror at her wind-burnt face and blue eyes and decided that she looked no worse than usual. She ran her fingers through her hair, blonde streaked with premature grey, cut short to level with her ear-lobes in a futile attempt to keep it tidy. She practised a smile, revealing the gap in her top teeth the Prince professed to find so appealing.
She walked into the next room, which was barely three paces wide by four long and as tall again. The floorboards had been polished until they were treacherous to stockinged feet. Two upright wooden chairs with upholstered seats flanked a small table, all stained mahogany to match the colour of the floor.
She shook her head in wonderment. "The gods only know what they've put the Prince into." She grinned. "Unless I've got his rooms, by mistake."
Someone knocked at the door. "Yes?" she called.
The door swung open, and clutching her travel-scuffed sack stood a skinny youth in the same red and gold livery as the Whiterock soldiers. He said, gazing at his feet, "Yer bag, mum." He turned away, still not looking at her.
"Wait!" she called. "Can you show me where the Library is?"
He shook his head, looking anxious. "Don't know where it is, mum. I'm supposed to carry the bags, mum."
"Is it up here, at the top of the palace?" Bluestocking asked patiently as if he were an idiot child.
He shook his head again, looking as though he might burst into tears at any moment. She allowed exasperation to creep into her voice. "Where are you going now?"
"The courtyard." He looked happier at being able to actually answer her.
"Then I'll walk with you."
* * * *
After he waved airily in no particular direction and said, "The library's that way, mum," they parted, and Bluestocking was soon hopelessly lost.
She'd learned that she needed to descend several levels. Each was slightly narrower and gloomier than the one above, but fortunately all ended in a sun-lit open square.
At one point, she passed a group of pilgrims. "This window commemorates the battle between Brighannon and the Dead God, Ralac," their guide intoned in a bored voice.
While she walked, she puzzled over the familiar face down at the air-bag station. His clothes, a long coat with many pockets from which tools and geegaws protruded, marked him as an itinerant peddler. She was sure that she hadn't seen him in Ravlatt, or on the way here. So she must have seen him before she entered the nunnery. Don't panic, she thought. He'll probably only stay one night. It'll be another three weeks yet before you're supposed to leave Ravlatt to return to the nunnery. And that journey's another four weeks. She'd worked it out before accepting the invitation. Seven weeks should be enough for her to either make such an impression on the King that he'd petition the Gods for a pardon or for her to fail miserably and slip away into obscurity.
Without warning, she emerged onto a brawling, densely crowded street with walls several times a tall man's height that made it even more claustrophobic. There was an astonishing variety of races here, fair like Bluestocking, copper-skinned like Daragel, a few with epicanthrically-folded eyes, and even a couple of black-skinned people who had presumably travelled down the Spine from their tribes in the far north, all of whom were testament to the importance of Whiterock's position as a cross-roads on the trade routes.
Most of the crowd, though, were pallid, short and stocky; many stared at her open-mouthed. Bluestocking reeled at the stench of cooking odours and sweat, bad breath, flatulence and stale excreta.
The noise echoing off the walls was constant and almost overwhelming. Hucksters bellowed from each corner from underneath conical hats, "Get yer lucky charms, ladeez and gennelmen! Jilted by yer lover? Cheated by yer neighbours? I've got everything yez need! Whether it's dragon's feet, four-leaf clovers, a unicorn's sweat, or the bones of a saint, you can change your life right now!"
Others sold vegetables, clothes, a puppy, even a set of knives. Despite, or perhaps because of the buffeting, Bluestocking felt at home for the first time in months. For the first time since the prince took his 'interest' in antiquarian texts, she thought.
She had backed out of a doorway, her arms full of scrolls--common, ten-a-kopleck texts used to establish whether students had the makings of scholars or were just wasting their father's fortunes--and collided with someone who trod on her foot. Lunging for her now-scattered armful, she swore, ending with, "clumsy cretin."
The man, who she suddenly realised wore an imperial uniform, yanked her head back by her hair.
He stopped at a drawl. "I wouldn't do that, captain. Unless you wish your next posting to be cold, wet, and very uncomfortable."
Her face aflame, she crouched down, picking up the scrolls. As she gathered the last, a pair of ornately stitched boots stood directly in front of her. She stayed down, but the boots didn't move. At last the drawl said, "Can I help you with those?"
She muttered, "No, thank you, My Lord." He obviously was a lord, if he could threaten a captain. Slowly, hoping that he would get bored and leave, she looked up into the smiling face of the Lieutenant-Governor of Ravlatt, Prince Casimiripian.
She groaned inwardly, but managed to stammer an apology to the glaring captain.
"Don't worry," the prince said, smiling. "But it usually helps if your eyes face vaguely in the direction you're going. What's your name?"
"Bluestocking, Majesty," she said. So the lie that she lived became treason.
Now someone jostled her, snapping her back to the present. "Watch it, Dollymop!"
Another man, brown--robed with a thin face asked, "Do you need sanctuary, young lady?" Beneath a few strands of hair, dandruff sprinkled his shoulders. "Throw yourself on the mercy of Raesh, and you'll be spared when the unbelievers are swept away!"
She backed away from the fanaticism in his eyes and trod on a foot.
"Milady?" The woman's pockmarked face was lined with three vertical scars on each cheek and was blacker even than those Bluestocking had seen on the levels above, darker than the face of anyone she'd ever met in the Empire. Her front teeth were missing, but for all her ferocious appearance, she seemed friendly. "Are you lost?"
Bluestocking nodded. "I'm looking for the Library."
"Follow me," the woman said. "It's not a good time to be down here." She added, turning, ponderous as a wind-galleon on the steppes, showing her heavy pregnancy, "We'll drop my shopping off first. My rooms are close by. Though they'll not be as grand as you're used to, you'll be safe enough."
"I'm sure they'll be fine," Bluestocking said, smiling thinly. "I'm very grateful."
"I'm Mari," the woman said. "I'll put my arm around you now, to make sure we aren't separated."
"I'll carry a basket. I insist," Bluestocking said over Mari's protests. "Or you'll need three arms. When's it due?" She nodded to the woman's bulging belly.
"In about two months, mayhap less," Mari said.
"They say if it shows at the front, it'll be a boy. Is that your belief, as well?"
Mari nodded. "The seers say it's a boy."
Together, they shoved through the crowds. Bluestocking even found time to look at the small kiosks jammed full of produce on either side of the street. In one hung onions and other vegetables. In another, flies buzzed around great cuts of meat. Bluestocking wondered absently, What huge beast yielded them? She'd seen few animals in the fields.
"Watch that some pickpocket doesn't lift your purse," Mari said.
"They'll be disappointed," Bluestocking laughed. "It may sound foolish, but I never brought it with me." She'd grown used in the Prince's company to not needing to bother with trivialities like cash. Everything was provided, as if by magic. I must learn to stop thinking that way, she thought. That way lies dependence on him. And now, here I am without a single kopleck on me. Helpless as a new-born!
"Must be nice to not have to worry about money." Mari radiated unspoken disapproval.
"I have no local scrip. Is Karnaki currency acceptable here?"
Mari laughed a short sharp bark. "They'll take any money here, my dear."
They needed ten minutes and another flight of steps to reach Mari's rooms. Bluestocking grew increasingly anxious at the stares and glares of the locals. A man spat at their feet in passing, drawing curses in return from Mari. On what turned out to be the last street, she noticed that people shied away from the walls, but there were too many to see why. Until the crowd parted for a moment and Bluestocking saw a long, thin snout, a verdigris-stained copper collar that scraped against a stone neck as it moved and mean little eyes. "Stranger," the creature hissed, sounding as if its teeth were loose in its mouth. "Beware." As Mari tugged her along, Bluestocking wondered whether it was warning the locals against her, or vice versa.
Releasing Bluestocking, Mari reached into the folds of her long skirt, producing a bunch of keys to unlock the door. She grimaced. "This will be nothing to write home about by your standards."
"It's very nice," Bluestocking said, adding, "honestly."
While Mari unpacked fruit and vegetables and a brick-like loaf of bread, Bluestocking said, "What did you mean when you said it wasn't a good time to be down here?"
Mari let the silence hang for a few moments. "Last night's was the third death in a month." She laughed mirthlessly. "The old goat that fell over the body nearly died of fright." She chopped the laugh short and added, "Don't misunderstand me. People down here are no angels; but whenever the local lads get out of hand, someone will give them a little tap to the back of the head and knock some sense into them."
Bluestocking nodded. "Everyone knows everyone else, so there's little crime, is that right?"
"Exactly! Unless somebody wanders off their own patch into another, like you have. And word soon gets out who's done the deed. But since someone found the second victim a week ago--a young boy with his throat cut, dumped into one of the middens--everyone's become a little twitchy. Some say that it's because of the royal visit. Others have their own ideas. But whatever the reason, people are scared. Scared people do silly things, especially to strangers." Mari searched Bluestocking's face. "May I speak honestly?"
"If you return unharmed, that'll be all the thanks I need." Mari said. "I want to get you back without a knife in your back and without seeing some lad's foolishness leading to the royal guards driving my neighbours from their houses at dead of night." She added with a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring, "Now sit yourself there. I'll be back in fifty heartbeats."
A few minutes later Mari returned with a bedraggled crone with tattoo-covered arms. The women ushered her out, Mari again putting her arm around Bluestocking. They led her up the levels, the old crone muttering constantly. Mari said, "It's a spell to disguise you. To a casual glance, it looks as if we're moving a basket of washing."
Their journey was uneventful until they reached the library. "Damn!" Bluestocking rattled the handle of the locked door and knocked.
"You there, woman!" A male voice rang out. "What brings you up here?"
Bluestocking wheeled around, and realised that the guard was talking to the crone. He hadn't noticed Bluestocking. She interrupted. "They were showing me where the library was. I'm sorry if I brought them somewhere I shouldn't have. It's my fault."
"Who are you?" The man's tone was guarded.
"Bluestocking. I arrived today with Prince Casimiripian of the Karnaki Empire. You know who he is?" Without waiting for an answer, she plunged on. "Your Prime Minister invited me here to translate the scrolls of Presimionari. I got lost on the way, and these kind ladies took pity, and showed me to the Library. Unfortunately, it seems to be closed."
"It closes at four hours after the noon," the guard said, mollified.
"I didn't know," Bluestocking said mock-sweetly. "And you are?"
"Overly cautious, Milady," the guard said. "I didn't see you there, and if I had, of course I would have understood." He flicked a couple of small coins at Mari and the crone. "Thank you."
The crone pocketed her coin, but Mari looked as if she wanted to throw hers back at him, though she took it.
Bluestocking touched her arm. "Thank you. I mean it sincerely."
Mari nodded, smiled thinly, and went.
"Is there not free passage in Whiterock?" Bluestocking said. "No one warned me there were restrictions on people's movements."
"Commoners and slaves are allowed up above this point," the guard said. "This is a free city. But they must have a reason, and the higher the level, the better the reason."
"Well, Sir Overly Cautious," Bluestocking said. "You'd better tell me how to return to my rooms."
* * * *
Bluestocking opened her door. "Who are you?" she asked.
The girl removing Bluestocking's clothes from her travel-bag looked up.
Bluestocking almost stopped breathing. The girl was beautiful, black-haired and thin-limbed. "Well?"
The girl's voice was low, husky. "My name is Kyr," she said, in a thick local dialect.
"Ke-er?" Bluestocking repeated.
"No, Milady. Kyr. One syllable: As befits a slave." Her lips were painted a dark pink matching the ribbons in her hair. She wore a white smock beneath a plain black jerkin, with a thick leather collar and metal clip around her neck. She knelt at Bluestocking's feet, her own poking out from beneath the smock. They were filthy, with a mole showing through a rare clean patch of skin. "How would you like me to serve you?" Her eyes were the darkest blue that Bluestocking had ever seen, almost black.
"Is there a bath here?" In the little towns and villages where Bluestocking had grown up, baths were considered weakening, but the sisters had inculcated her to believe cleanliness to be synonymous with godliness, and on arrival in Ravlatt, she had discovered the luxury of bathing.
"Of course, Milady. We're quite civilized." Kyr looked up, then ducked her head again, but not before Bluestocking glimpsed a look that jolted her to the core. There was mischief in Kyr's eyes, wantonness, and a knowing look that verged on mockery.
"Then I'll have a bath." Bluestocking drew away.
Kyr padded into the next room. From it issued a mighty groan, followed by two loud bangs and a slow, rhythmic clanking. She returned. "It will take a few minutes, Milady." She resumed unpacking Kyr's bags.
When Kyr finished, she picked up the sword and looked for somewhere to put it. "You're a warrior, mistress?"
"No." Bluestocking laughed. "The Prince suggested I learn to use one. I think he believed it might be dangerous here, so he had his servant teach me the basics. We finished the lessons last night."
Kyr put it in a drawer. "Your bath should be ready now." She led Bluestocking into a small chamber with floorboards partly covered with rugs and panelled with dark-stained wood.
A marble bath that looked big enough for a whole family stood on four great copper feet shaped like bird's talons. Tendrils of steam rose from it. Kyr felt the water, and ran the other tap. "It'll scald you, else." She added, "I'm to disrobe you. Unless in the Empire you bathe fully clothed?"
Bluestocking raised an eyebrow, but Kyr seemed serious. I'd rather remove my own clothes, she thought, but shrugged. "Do I just stand here?"
"Yes, mistress." Kyr unbuttoned the front of Bluestocking's tunic. Bluestocking was acutely conscious of Kyr's fingers, and as if drawn by gravity, looked slightly down again, into her eyes. Kyr looked up, seemingly innocent, and Bluestocking felt her stomach flip over. "May I slide this off?" Kyr reached around Bluestocking so that the slave's breasts pressed against her. Kyr's hair smelt faintly of cinnamon. Her body though, reeked of sweat and sex. Close up, one jaw-line was dotted with spots. Bluestocking swallowed, allowed her blouse to slide off. Kyr stepped away, and Bluestocking remembered to breathe.
Bluestocking dipped her toes into the water, then climbed in. She was unsettlingly aware of Kyr humming.
As the slave watched her bathe, Kyr said, "Shall I scrub your back for you with a soapstone?"
"That sounds ... interesting," Bluestocking said doubtfully.
Kyr picked up the rectangular stone from the windowsill and rubbed Bluestocking's back, gently at first, then more vigorously, her right hand pressed flat against Bluestocking's back, her palm holding the soapstone, while her fingers on either side of the stone brushed against Bluestocking's skin. She gripped Bluestocking's shoulder with her free hand for purchase; Bluestocking felt Kyr's warm breath on her neck and experienced an uneasy mix of excitement and queasiness.
"Lean back," Kyr murmured, and pushing Bluestocking's shoulder, changed the hand holding the soapstone. She worked it down Bluestocking's forearm and back to her clavicle, in slow, small circular movements. "Is that nice?" she said. Bluestocking looked up to see her smiling down. Kyr worked it down from Bluestocking's clavicle to her breast, and her fingers brushed a nipple.
Struggling to breathe, Bluestocking pressed her buttocks against the base of the bath; parting her legs slightly, she bit her lower lip. Kyr stroked a nipple and her lips brushed the other woman's jaw. Her teeth nipped Bluestocking's earlobe and she whispered, "Is there anything else I can do for you, Milady? I'm your slave. I'll gladly do whatever you want." In the silence Bluestocking felt her pulse throbbing in her ears. Kyr whispered, "Anything." Bluestocking turned her head so that Kyr's lips touched hers. Kyr's tongue flicked and touched Bluestocking's top teeth.
In the distance something banged. One man laughed and another swore.
Bluestocking pushed Kyr away. "Get away from me!"
"I'm sorry," Kyr stammered, looking pitiful. "I thought you wanted me."
"Just get out of here," Bluestocking hissed.
Kyr fled, slamming the door.
Bluestocking thought she heard weeping, or laughter. She preferred to think that it was the latter. It gave her strength. Then her rage left like the tide, and she lay back in the bath, disgusted with herself, until the water grew cold, and her skin wrinkled like an old grape.
* * * *
Bluestocking was dressing when someone knocked at the door, interrupting her daydream. "Yes?" she said in a small voice.
She groaned silently. "What do you want?"
After a long pause Halarbur replied too-evenly, "The Prince has sent me to fetch you. He wishes to escort you tonight. You hadn't forgotten that there's a welcoming banquet?"
"Of course not," she lied. There had been talk of it, but she'd assumed she wasn't invited. "Prince Casimiripian knows that ladies are always late," she said, resorting to a girlish flirtation she normally despised. "But I must look my best; which will of course take a long time. Perhaps he'll let me know when I should be ready?" It's now, of course, you stupid girl, she thought, but the ruse might buy her a few minutes.
"I'll speak to His Majesty." The acid in Halarbur's voice should have burnt through the door.
In a feverish whirl, she tried every piece of clothing she possessed, before finally settling on the second item she'd rejected, a plain black dress that showed off her figure, without looking gaudy, cheap or fussy. Why can't I stay in the background? she thought. I don't want to meet nobility.
She possessed no jewellery, necklaces, or bracelets; only an amulet in the form of Styris, a monkey god so ineffectual even the nuns who'd raised her hadn't objected to her buying it from an itinerant relic-monger. "But it is the Day of the Monkey," she said, after she'd checked the days off on her fingers, kissing its head, "so at least it's appropriate."
A few minutes later, she called, "Coming," to another knock.
She opened the door and stepped into the corridor. "Majesty," she stammered. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting."
"Don't be," the Prince said. "I needed a little tour of the Palace. Exercise aids appetite and digestion, so the wise men tell me." He looked her over with the sardonic gleam in his eye that she knew well. "You look wonderful."
A local pageboy led them and the Prince's guards through twisting corridors. Sometimes Bluestocking saw what might have been elves or imps lurking, and once a big, fat, golden spider scuttled up the wall.
They entered a great vaulted room to stand uneasily upon a dais overlooking a banqueting hall. Portraits of horse-faced women and smug-looking men lined the walls. Drapes in the corners formed red and gold waterfalls. The Master of Ceremonies boomed, "His Highness, Prince Casimiripian of the Karnaki Empire."
Looking both annoyed and sheepish, the Prince descended some steps in front of the dais. Bluestocking followed the bodyguards to where a group waited for them. The Whiterock royal family stood at the front, ringed by pompous-looking men in ermine and gold, plump women who held their men's arms while covertly studying their rivals, servants waiting for the signal to move into position and hard-eyed soldiers watching them all.
One of the others was a familiar figure. The King said to Prince Cas, "You've met my Prime Minister, Arial, son of Kylar of Demonda," and added, "His wife, Jasmina."
Jasmina towered over her husband. She was strikingly good-looking, but pancaked make-up couldn't quite hide her wrinkles. Her blonde hair was piled high, while the rings that bedecked the fingers the Prince kissed were even grander than her earrings. Cold grey eyes raked Bluestocking, who looked down. No need to ask what attracted you to little froggy, she thought. Money and power.
Someone of indeterminate gender stood nearby, stout, red-faced, with heavy jowls and pudding-basin haircut, wearing a migraine-inducing red, yellow and orange shapeless smock. "I present," the King said, "Myleetra of Ahern, Grandmother-Superior Elect of the covens of Whiterock." Bluestocking thought she heard a snort from Princess Evi's direction.
"Enchanted." Bowing, Cas kissed her hand.
"Your Majesty honours us with your presence," Myleetra said in an adenoidal voice, fondling hair which was the fine yellow of cornfields.
"I wanted to meet as many people as possible," Prince Cas said. "To get to know my fiancée's subjects." He added, "I present Mistress Bluestocking, one of the finest translators in the Empire." Bluestocking curtsied, face burning.
"You're the translator," the King said, impaling her with his gaze. "Come to spread the glory of our history to the wider world."
"Majesty," Bluestocking stammered, but he had already turned away.
"Ah, you're the scholar," Evi boomed from beside her. Bluestocking smiled, trying to look at ease.
"Is it true," Evi asked, "that you worship different Gods in this Empire of yours?" She leaned her face into Bluestocking's.
"We have different names for the Gods, but many of them look the same when you see the hieroglyphs on scrolls, Majesty."
"Highness," Evi corrected her absently. "Father is Majesty. The rest of us are just Highnesses. And you have a different calendar?"
Bluestocking made a non-committal gesture. "The days are named differently in some cases. You have no sea-creatures such as lobsters in your calendar, but you have others, such as the lion. The day-keepers simply wear a different garb on certain days. We have seven days in a phase and twenty-eight days to a moon, the same as you."
"But you have a First Day, not a Last Day, so there must be some imbalance."
"A little, but such things even out, Highness. And every fourth year, we have an extra day, the same as you."
"But on the last day of the year, not on the first, when we have our Free Day." Evi gnawed at her lower lip. "I must consult with the priests and the augurs. To a layman, these differences may seem slight, but to the educated--"
"They may be significant." Bluestocking had read of wars started over how many priests should perform a service, never mind the days of the year. She opened her mouth to speak, but Evi had gone again.
The King motioned them toward their seats. Bluestocking sat at one end of a long table beside Myleetra, opposite Arial and Jasmina. At the other end Cas sat with the royal family. Others watched from adjoining tables, hungry for power and influence. The waiters ferried platters to each table, weaving around each other, narrowly avoiding collisions.
Jasmina ignored her, which suited Bluestocking.
Arial said, "Should we call you Bluestocking, or just 'Blue'?"
Bluestocking swallowed. Does he know something? She said cautiously, "The King seems to prefer informality. I've no wish to give offence."
"King Redoutifalia is a visionary, but not everyone agrees with his views. Milady," Arial leaned forward intently, "Honesty offends no one, surely? Your reticence tells me you're a traditionalist."
And you called the King by his full name. She nodded.
"Then Bluestocking you shall be." Bluestocking sensed that she'd won his approval and was abashed to be so pleased.
"We revere Redoutifalia," Arial said gravely, "but even we, his staunchest supporters, fear he risks the wrath of the Gods for this heresy. Few religions in the Karnaki Empire, the Western Alliances, the other free cities, or here, agree on anything--save that a name defines its bearer's status and can only be changed by their regent, or divinity. How else are we to know someone's true place in society?"
"Unless they lie," Myleetra said. At his in-drawn breath, she added, "I don't condone malpractice, Arial, but it happens. You surely admit that? When such deception is exposed, it's never through divine hands, but always through mortal means."
Arial nodded, looking pensive. "Unless you believe that mortal means may be divine agency concealed."
"Perhaps," Myleetra conceded after a long, thoughtful silence. "But you must admit that while the King may be eccentric, he's hardly a heretic. We know who he is. He's not adding extra syllables to gain advantage, but dropping them. How can a man profit from claiming to be less than he is?" Arial nodded pensively, and Myleetra continued, "The Gods condemn those who deceive for profit, material or otherwise. All he's doing is extending the practice we all give to families and friends to call us by pet names, as surely you and Jasmina do at home?" She smiled, to soften the point.
Arial's face creased into a reluctant smile, heightening his similarity to a frog. "You're right."
In the silence, a woman further down the table said, "Arial, I believe we're summoned to a Retribution tomorrow." A little frisson of excitement ran round the table.
"Apparently so," Arial said. "He's a freeman trying to pass himself off as a better. As he's a freeman, not a slave, we've no choice; until the square is full, all freeborn must attend."
The woman said. "What fool thought he could get away with it?"
"Are you alright, my dear?" Myleetra asked Bluestocking. "You've spilt some of your wine."
* * * *
For the next two courses, a juggler, a jongleur and a deliberately inept comedy-magician entertained them. Arial alternated between telling Bluestocking about Whiterock, which required only monosyllables from her, and asking about her background. That was the last thing she wanted, and her answers revealed little more than her polite noises to his statements. She kept thinking of the freeman who had tried to pass himself off as his better and the Retribution that awaited him, his family and any accomplices.
She sipped her thick red wine too quickly. "A local vintage," Arial said. "Grown on south-facing walls, wherever we have space. If you prefer a white," Bluestocking shook her head, "we have a much lighter grape from between the mulberry plantations and our border."
Only when Arial asked what she missed most from home, did Bluestocking start to relax. Once she drained another glass, she couldn't really understand why she'd been so nervous before.
"There's a large lake at home," she said, "almost an inland sea, sacred to many local cults. We used to visit on holy days. I learned to swim there. The nuns threw me in."
"We have a Lido here," Myleetra said. In answer to Bluestocking's puzzled look, she said, "It's a pool, surrounded by a stone deck for the bathers to dry on."
"And you use it?" Arial looked surprised.
"Yes! You should try it!"
"I don't really have time." Arial looked sheepish.
Jasmina blurted: "You can't swim anyway, so I don't know why you're even talking about it."
Arial's face took on a closed look, as if he'd drawn shutters down over his eyes. Not before Bluestocking had glimpsed sadness, disappointment and hurt.The conversation around them st
opped dead, the others assuming a studiedly disinterested look. What kind of love is it that needs to humiliate the one we love? Bluestocking wondered.
She ducked her head and concentrated on chewing the stringy meat and mopping the grease off the wood with some unleavened bread that was as tough as the wood, and about as tasty. The other courses had been put in front of her and whirled away so quickly that she'd barely had time to do more than nibble at them. Already her head swam. Every time she took a sip, someone seemed to be at her shoulder, refilling her glass.
Someone said at conversation-stopping volume to Myleetra, "So what's the difference between your quackery and Princess Stuffy-britches?" It must have been someone else, she thought as Arial choked on his bread, even you wouldn't be so rude.
"My quackery," Myleetra said, "comes from within, whereas each church relies on its own god." She pushed up her sleeve, revealing an arm like a thick ham, tattooed with intricate designs. She pointed to a tattoo; "Strength." To another; "Endurance. Foresight. Invisibility. But we work our magic, not gods."
"You mean you're all atheists?" Bluestocking shrieked.
"If anything, we're all pantheists," Myleetra said. "Even omnitheists--acknowledging all gods, but unwilling to bend the knee to any particular one, so unable to call on them. Our magic is self-derived, so not prone to their whims." She added, "It's weaker than church-magic, but we believe our freedom's worth it."
"Do you have tattoos on your hands? Is that why you wear those gloves?"
Myleetra nodded. "But these are just the externals of who and what we are. There's as much within as without."
Bluestocking saw the uncomfortable looks on the other's faces. Polite Whiterock society clearly doesn't talk about such things, she thought. Common sense told her to change the subject, but drink-fuelled mischief made her ask, "Can anyone work magic?" She took another, deeper draught from her goblet, and a server appeared djinn-like to refill it. She giggled quietly at the djinn-imagery.
Myleetra shrugged. "Almost anyone. You need abili