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West and North
His wing-span as wide as a man was tall, the speckled blue eagle floated high in the sky above the silvery waters of Grail Lake. The day was calm and warm, the thermals inviting, but for the moment the eagle resisted climbing any higher. He tilted his head slightly, his predatory gaze undimmed by his vast age, taking in the pink and cream stone walls and the gold- and silver-plated roofs of the city of Carlon. The eagle's gaze was only casual, for it was almost noon, and the streets so busy that all rodents would have secreted themselves deep in their lairs many hours previously. The eagle was not particularly concerned. He had feasted well on fish earlier, and now he tilted his wings, sweeping over the white-walled seven-sided tower of Spiredore.
The power emanating from the tower vibrated the eagle's wings pleasantly, and made the old bird reflect momentarily on the changes in this land over his lifetime. When he had been newly feathered and only just able to stay aloft, he'd flown over this same lake and tower with the eagle who had fathered him. Then the tower had been still and silent, and the land treeless. Men had scurried below, axes in their hands and the Plough God Artor in their hearts. Ice had invaded from the north and Gryphon--creatures whom even eagles feared--had darkened the skies. But all that had changed. A great battle had been fought in the icy tundra far to the north, the ice had retreated and the Gryphon had disappeared from the thermals. In the west, enchanted forests had reached for the sky, and the white tower below had reverberated with power and song. The armies that had crawled about the land in destructive, serpentine trails disbanded, and now the peoples of this enchanted land--those who called themselves human, Icarii and Avar--shared their lives shoulder to shoulder in apparent harmony.
Contented, knowing that the score of chicks he had raised over his lifetime would have nothing more to fear than the anger of a sudden storm, the eagle tipped his wings and spiraled higher and higher until he was no more than a distant speck in the sky.
Leagh stood at the open windows of her apartments in the north wing of the Prince of the West's palace in Carlon, watching the eagle fade from sight. Sighing, for watching the bird had calmed the ache in her heart, she dropped her gaze slightly to the ancient Icarii palace that loomed above the entire city. It seemed to Leagh that the palace looked lonely and sad in the bright sunshine. And so it should, she thought, for StarSon Caelum so rarely leaves Sigholt now that he only uses his palace in Carlon every three or four years.
Leagh did not covet the magnificent Icarii palace. Her older brother Askam's palace was spacious and elegant, and grand enough for Leagh, who was a woman of conservative tastes and temperate habits. She dropped her eyes yet further, down to the gently lapping waters of the lake. A gentle easterly breeze blew across the waves, lifting the glossy nut-brown hair from her brow and sweeping it back over her shoulders in tumbling waves. Leagh had the dark blue eyes of her mother, Cazna, but had inherited her hair, good looks and calm temperament from her father, Belial. She had loved her father dearly, and still missed him, even though he'd been dead a decade. He'd been her best friend when she was growing up, and to lose him when she'd been sixteen had been a cruel blow.
"Stop it!" she murmured to herself. "Why heap yet more sadness and loneliness on your heart?"
Gods, why could she not have been born a simple peasant girl rather than a princess? Surely peasant women had more luck in following their hearts! Here she was at twenty-six, all but locked into her brother's palace, when most women her age were married with toddlers clinging to their skirts.
Leagh turned back into the chamber, and sat at her work table. It was littered with scraps of silk and pieces of embroidery that she had convinced herself she would one day sew into a waistcoat for the man she loved--but when everyone around her apparently conspired to keep them as far apart as possible, what was the point? Would she ever have the chance to give it to him? Her fingers wandered aimlessly among several scraps, turning them over and about as if in an attempt to form a pattern, but Leagh's thoughts were now so far distant that she did not even see what her fingers were doing.
Leagh's only wish in life was to marry the man she loved--Zared, Prince of the North, son of Rivkah and Magariz. Yet it would have been easier for me, she thought wryly, if I'd fallen in love with a common carter.
The problem was not that Zared did not love her, for he did, and with a quiet passion that sometimes left her trembling when she caught his eyes across a banquet table. Yet how long was it since they'd had the chance to share even a glance? A year? More like two, she thought miserably, and had to struggle to contain her tears. More like two.
Nay, the problem was not only that Zared and she loved too well, but that a marriage between them was fraught with so many potential political problems that her brother, Askam, had yet to agree to it. (Though doubtless he would have let her marry a carter long ago!) Leagh loved her brother dearly, but he tried her patience--and gave her long, sleepless nights--with his continued reluctance to grant approval of the marriage.
Leagh's eyes slowly cleared, and she picked up a star-shaped piece of golden silk and turned it slowly over and over in her hands. Power in the western and northern territories of Tencendor was delicately balanced between their two respective princes, Askam and Zared. Should she marry Zared, then the grave potential was there that one day West and North would be united under one prince. Askam had married eight years ago, but his wife Bethiam had yet to produce an heir. For the moment Leagh's womb carried within it the entire inheritance of the West.
And, with its burden of responsibility and inheritance, thus did her womb entrap her.
If I were a peasant woman, Leagh suddenly thought, I would only have to bed the man of my choice and get with his child for all familial objections to our marriage to be dropped. She crushed the golden silk star into a tight ball, and tears of anger and heartache filled her eyes. Askam would not let her get within speaking distance of Zared, let alone bedding distance!
Frustrated with herself for allowing her emotions to so carry her away, Leagh smoothed out the silken patch and laid it with the others. The political problems were only the start of Askam's objections, for Askam not only disliked Zared personally, but resented and felt threatened by Zared's success in the North. The West encompassed much of the old Achar--the provinces of Romsdale, Avonsdale and Aldeni. Each year the lands produced rich harvests, and for decades Carlon had grown fat on the trade with the rest of Tencendor and the Corolean Empire to the far south. But despite its natural abundance, the West was riven with huge economic problems. As Prince of the West, Askam had managed to mire himself deep in debt over the past seven years. For three years he had entertained the entire eight-score strong retinue of the Corolean Ambassador while, on Caelum's behalf, he had thrashed out an agreement for Tencendorian fishing rights in the Sea of Tyrre. When the agreement had finally been concluded, and the Ambassador and his well-fattened train once more in Coroleas, Askam had personally funded the outfit of a massive fishing fleet, only to have three-quarters of the boats lost in a devastating storm in their first season. Thinking to recoup his losses, Askam had loaned the King of Escator, a small kingdom across the Widowmaker Sea, a vast sum to refurbish the Escatorian gloam mines in return for half the profit from the sale of gloam, only to have the mines flooded in a disaster of epic proportions, and the new king--the previous having drowned in the mine itself--completely repudiate any monies his predecessor had borrowed.
These were only two of the investment disasters Askam had made over the past few years. There were a score of others, if not so large. Smaller projects had failed, other deals had fallen through after considerable cash outlay. Askam had been forced to raise taxes within the West over the past two years which, though they made but a small dent into the amount he owed, had caused hardship among farmers and traders alike. Yet who could blame Askam for the economic misfortune of the West? Sheer bad luck seemed to dog his best endeavors.
In total contrast, Zared's North--the old province of Ichtar--had blossomed in unrivaled prosperity. In the days before Axis had reunited Tencendor, the old Ichtar had been rich, true, but it had relied mainly on its gem mines for wealth. The gem mines still produced--and a dozen more had opened in the past ten years--but Zared had also opened up vast amounts of previous wasteland for cropping and grazing. Zared had enticed the most skilled engineers to his capital of Severin, in the elbow of the Ichtar and Azle Rivers, with high wages and the promise of roomy housing and good schooling for their children. These engineers had designed, and then caused to be built, massive irrigation systems in the western and northern parts of the realm. Zared had then attracted settlers from all over Tencendor to these vast and newly watered lands by offering them generous land leases and the promise of minimal--and in some cases no--taxation for the first twenty-five years of their lease. Unlike the West, all farmers, traders and craftsmen in the North were free to dispose of their surplus as they chose. As a result, a brisk trade in furs had grown with the Ravensbundmen in the extreme north, which were then re-traded to the southern regions of Tencendor. And add to that the trade in beef, lamb, gems and grain . . .
The mood of the North was buoyant and optimistic. The income of families grew each year, and men and women knew their futures were strong and certain. Trade, working and taxation restrictions were so slight as to be negligible, and success waited for all who wished to avail themselves of it.
The picture could not have contrasted more with the West, where it seemed that month after month Askam was forced to increase taxes to meet debt repayments.
It was not his fault, Leagh told herself, willing herself to believe it. Who could have foreseen that a storm would virtually destroy Askam's entire fishing fleet, or that the gloam mines of Escator would be flooded? But Askam's misfortunes did not help her situation. Especially not when Askam was aware that each week saw more skilled craftsmen and independent farmers of the West slip across the border to avail themselves of the opportunities created by Zared's policies.
She jumped, startled from her thoughts. Askam had entered her chamber, and now walked toward her.
"You wanted to see me, sister?"
"Yes." Leagh stood up and smiled. "I trust I have not disturbed you from important council?"
Askam waved a hand for her to sit back down, and took a seat across the table. "Nothing that cannot wait, Leagh."
His tone turned brisk, belying his words. "What is it I can do for you?"
Leagh kept her own voice light, not wanting to antagonize her brother any more than she had to. "Askam, it is many weeks since you have made any mention of my marriage."
Askam's face tightened and he looked away.
"--to Zared." Leagh shifted slightly, impatiently. "Askam, time passes, and neither Zared nor myself grow any younger! I long to be by his side, and--"
"Leagh, be still. You are noble born and raised, and you understand the negotiations that must be endured for such a marriage to be agreed to."
"Negotiations that have been going on for five years!"
Askam looked back at his sister, his eyes narrowed and unreadable. "And for that you can only thank yourself for choosing such a marriage partner. Dammit, Leagh, could you not have chosen another man? Three nobles from the West have asked for your hand. Why not choose one of them? They cannot all be covered with warts and possessed of foul breath!"
"I love Zared," Leagh said quietly. "I choose Zared."
Askam's face, so like his father's with its mop of fine brown hair and hazel eyes, closed over at the mention of love. "Love has no place in the choosing of a noble marriage partner, Leagh. Forget love. Think instead of a marriage with a man which would keep the West intact and independent."
He paused, let vent an exasperated sigh, then smiled, trying to take the tension out of their conversation. "Leagh, listen to me, and listen to reason, for the gods' sakes. I wish you only happiness in life, but I must temper that wish with knowing that I, as you," his tone hardened slightly, "must always do what is best for our people, not what is best for our hearts."
Leagh did not reply, but held her brother's gaze with determined eyes.
Askam let another minute slide by before he resumed speaking. "Leagh, it is time you knew that the yea or nay to this marriage has been taken from my hands."
"What? By whom?" But even as she asked, Leagh knew.
"Caelum. He is as disturbed as I by the implications of a union between you and Zared. Last week I received word from him to delay a decision until he could meet with me personally to--"
"And yet he does not wish to speak to me, or to Zared?"
"Caelum sits the Throne of the Stars, Leagh. He has heavier responsibilities than you can imagine."
Leagh bridled at her brother's school-masterish tone, but held her tongue.
"Caelum knows well that the continued well-being of Tencendor matters before the wishes of any single person. Leagh, you are a Princess of Tencendor. As such you enjoy rights and privileges beyond those enjoyed by other Tencendorians. But these rights and privileges mean you also carry more responsibility. You simply can not live your life to the dictates of your heart, only to the dictates of Tencendor. I have tried these past five years to discourage you from choosing Zared, but you have not listened. Now, perhaps, you will listen to Caelum."
Both his words and his tone told Leagh everything she needed to know. Caelum would not assent to the marriage either.
As Askam rose and left the room, Leagh finally gave in to her heartache and let tears slide down her cheeks. The very worst thing to bear was that she understood everything that stood in the way of her marriage. Why couldn't she have accepted the hand of a nobleman from the West? It would be so much easier, so much more acceptable for the current balance of power. But what she understood intellectually didn't matter when she'd totally given her heart to Zared. All she wanted in life was the man she loved.
Far to the north Zared straightened his back, refusing to let weariness slump his shoulders. He'd spent an entire week clambering over the ruins of Hsingard with several of his engineers to see if there was any point in trying to rebuild the town, only to come to the conclusion that the Skraelings had so destroyed the buildings that all Hsingard could be used for was as a stone quarry. Now he'd spent ten days riding hard for Severin, and even though he was lean and fit, the week at Hsingard and the arduous ride home had exhausted him.
But now Severin rose before Zared and, in spite of his tiredness, a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. It was a beautiful town, built not only with sandstone and red brick to withstand the harsh winters of the north, but also with skill and imagination, so that the structural strength of each building was perfectly married with grace of line and beauty of feature. Severin was a town built to satisfy the spirits as much as it was to harbor the bodies of those who lived within.
Thank the gods for my parents' foresight, he thought. Rivkah and Magariz had lived out the final twenty-five years of their lives in the town they'd had built, and had loved it almost as much as they had loved each other and the son they'd made between them. His parents had not only laid the foundation stones of Severin, but also of the territory Zared had inherited from them. The North had been the most severely ravaged region of Tencendor during the wars between Axis SunSoar and his brothers Borneheld and Gorgrael. Once it had crawled with ice, and worse--IceWorms, Skraelings, and Gryphon. Now fields ripened and cattle fattened, and any man, woman or child could travel from the Fortress Ranges to the coast of the Andeis Sea and encounter nothing more dangerous than the chill of a northern breeze.
Zared pulled his horse in slightly, waiting for his escort to catch up with him. He was a tall, spare but striking man with his father's dark good looks and his mother's light gray eyes. Even though he was now in early middle-age, Zared was as agile as most young men, and could still best any swordsman in the country. He had been bred in an age of war, and his father had spent many years training him in the arts of war, although for what, Zared was not sure. For forty years, since Axis had finally bested Gorgrael, Tencendor had lain peaceful and largely prosperous in the sun. Axis had ruled well and wisely--a glib enough statement, but true. And since, nine years ago, Axis had handed over control of Tencendor to his eldest son, Caelum had continued to lead Tencendor with the integrity that was the hallmark of the House of the Stars. And yet . . . and yet Zared would rest the easier once Caelum had proved his worth in true crisis.
His escort now directly behind him, Zared rode his horse through the gates in the town walls, returning the salutes of the guards standing to either side. For an instant the walls blocked out the noon-day sun and, as their shadow settled over Zared, so his mind turned to the one shadow in his own life--Askam.
He drove the thought from his mind almost as soon as it had surfaced, reining back his horse to a walk in the crowded streets. It was too warm a day to let thoughts of Askam cloud it over.
Zared's path back to his palace on the hill overlooking the town was slowed, not only by the crowds, but by the individuals who called out greetings and, occasionally, stopped him for a quick word. Zared had never been a distant prince, not only holding open court in his palace every Thursday afternoon when he was in residence so that any citizen of the North had the chance to gain his ear, but making sure that he did not ride the streets of Severin so encased by retainers that all his people ever saw of him was a brief glimpse of a linen shirt or glittering sword hilt.
Now a man--a carpenter, Zared thought, by the tools at his belt--called out a cheerful greeting in unmistakable southern brogue. Zared grinned widely as he nodded back at him. That man was from Romsdale. Yet another who had chosen Zared over Askam.
It cheered Zared to think that so many skilled craftsmen and farmers chose to relocate to the North, but at the same time it concerned him. The tension between himself and Askam was a decade old, and growing stronger with each passing year. Every carpenter, every brickworker, every field-hand who moved north deepened the tension just that fraction more.
Ah! There was Askam again, intruding on his thoughts! Zared's face lost its humor, and he pushed as quickly as was polite through the remaining streets to reach his palace. There, after a few words to the captain of the guard and a smile of thanks for his escort, Zared handed the reins of his horse over to a stableboy and hurried inside.
A bath and a meal later, Zared felt more refreshed. As his personal manservant cleared his table, Zared took a glass of wine and wandered into the reception gallery of his residence. His home was a palace in name only, a term designated by his subjects who somehow thought that as a prince he ought to live in a palace. Built initially by Rivkah and Magariz, the house was a roomy, elegant mansion that spread over the hill which rose on the northern borders of the town. When Zared was twenty-seven he had taken a wife, Isabeau, sister of Earl Herme of Avonsdale, and had added on a light and airy southern wing that together they'd planned to fill with the laughter of their children.
Zared's steps slowed at the first portrait that lined the gallery. Isabeau. Her dark red hair cascaded about her shoulders, her mouth curled in secret laughter, her bright eyes danced with love for him. The portrait had been painted eighteen months into their marriage. Two weeks after it had been finished Isabeau was dead, crushed beneath the body of her horse which had slipped and fallen during the excitement of the hunt.
She had been five months pregnant with their first child.
Zared had never forgiven himself for her death. He should never have given her that horse--but she was so skilled a horsewoman. She should never have been riding at that stage in her pregnancy--but she was so healthy, so vibrant. He should have forbidden her to follow the hounds and hawks--but she did so love the hunt.
He'd never ridden to the hunt again. The day after her death Zared had given away his hawks, and the hunting horses in his stable. His huntmaster had drifted away, seeking employment with lords to the south.
And Zared had promised himself never to love so deeply again, and never again to expose himself to such hurt.
He took a mouthful of wine and moved along to the next portrait. His father, Magariz. And next to his portrait, that of his mother, Rivkah.
They were, Zared supposed, the reason he had succumbed to love again. Magariz and Rivkah had lived life so completely in love, and so contented in that love, that Zared just could not imagine living himself without a soulmate to share his life with. For years after Isabeau's death he'd kept himself distant from women, keeping to his promise . . . and then he'd met Leagh.
Re-met her, actually, for Zared had known Leagh as a tiny girl in Belial's arms. But once he'd assumed the Princedom of the North, his responsibilities had kept Zared away from Carlon, and he didn't see Leagh again until she was twenty-one.
They'd met, not at Carlon, but at Sigholt. Wreathed in its magical blue mists, Sigholt was normally the province only of the enchanted SunSoar family, but the year Leagh turned twenty-one she'd traveled to Sigholt with Askam for a meeting of the Council of the Five First Families. Askam and Zared, as the heads of the two leading families, had attended, along with FreeFall SunSoar, the Icarii Talon, Sa'Domai, the Ravensbund Chief, and Prince Yllgaine of Nor. Leagh had gone, partly at Caelum's invitation--a gift for her coming of age--and partly because she was close friends with Caelum's youngest sister, Zenith.
Zared had found himself alone with her late one night atop the Keep of Sigholt, both there for the night air. They'd spent the night talking, laughing, and--as they both discovered to their amazement--falling deeply in love.
Loving her was the easy part, Zared reflected. Being together, spending their lives together, seemed all but impossible. He'd come home from that Council so optimistically in love that he'd ordered the private apartments of his residence to be redecorated in the blue of Leagh's eyes.
Almost immediately he'd opened the diplomatic negotiations needed for such a high-ranking marriage, only to be confronted with a wall of distrust from Askam. Certainly the two had never liked each other, and they'd been economic rivals for years, but Zared had never thought that such matters would come between him and Leagh.
It was naive of him. Stupid of him.
Zared's fingers tightened about his wineglass, and he moved a little farther down the gallery. He didn't want to be so close to his parents' portraits. Now the likenesses only reminded him that his parents had spent some thirty years apart, and Zared didn't want to think that he and Leagh might have to endure a similar separation.
Damn Askam! If he hadn't got himself into such dire debt, if he hadn't imposed such heavy taxes, then maybe the West would prosper as much as did Zared's North. And maybe Askam would not feel so threatened by a marriage between his sister and Zared.
Zared was not a proud man, but neither was he foolishly modest. He knew that if he had been Prince of the West, he would not have made such risky investments as had Askam, nor would he have made his subjects pay for his mistakes. If he was Prince of the West as well as of North, then virtually the entire human population of Tencendor would live lives of heady prosperity. If. If. Damned ifs!
Now Zared stood in front of portraits of Rivkah's brother, Priam, and her father, Karel. They had once ruled as kings of Achar, a vast realm that had stretched between the Andeis and Widowmaker seas and from the Icescarp Alps to the Sea of Tyrre.
But as Achar was no more, so too had the monarchy died. Acharite lands had been split up between Avar, Icarii and human, its territory incorporated into the larger Tencendor, its peoples divested of their king.
As he stared at the portraits of his uncle and grandfather, Zared remembered how well both had reigned. True, they had supported the Brotherhood of the Seneschal, an organization that had brought only evil to all those who lived in the land, but in their own way Priam and Karel had ruled well and wisely. The monarchy had been brought into disrepute only when Zared's older half-brother, Borneheld, had murdered Priam and taken the throne.
There was no portrait of Borneheld. Zared's mouth quirked. Borneheld was a son and brother best forgotten.
He swallowed the last of his wine, still staring at the likenesses of Priam and Karel. What would it be like to govern (Zared's mind shied away from the word "reign") over such a large territory? What would he do with it? How would he improve it? How might he best help the West recover from the debts Askam had saddled it with?
Ah! These thoughts were treason!
Zared blinked, and started to turn away, but as he did so his eyes were caught by the golden circlet on Priam's brow, and he stopped, his thoughtful gaze lingering on the gleam of gold as the shadows of dusk gathered about him.
Copyright © 2004 by Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty Ltd.