The flat of Alberich’s practice-blade cracked against Talia’s ill-guarded side. She hadn’t seen the blow coming, she truly hadn’t. That had hurt, and she would lay money on having a bruise despite the padded jerkin that had absorbed most of the blow. The practice blades may have only been wood, but Alberich tended to wield them all the harder for that.
“Faugh!” he spat in disgust, and came at her again before she had recovered from the last blow. This time he connected with her knife-arm, right at the elbow. She yelped, the arm went numb, and she lost her blade entirely.
The hawklike eyes glared at her with no trace of pity, and the scar-seamed face was a demonic mask as he passed judgment on her performance.
He was at least in his mid-forties, if not older, but he hadn’t lost a fraction of his edge or agility in the five years Talia had known him. She was panting with exertion—he might as well have been taking a leisurely stroll. His well-worn, dark leathers (he was the only working Herald in Talia’s experience who never wore Whites) showed not so much as a tiny sweat stain. The afternoon sun pouring down on all of them had made him look as thin and insubstantial as a shadow. And he had been just as hard to catch.
“A pity it is that Skif is not here to see you. Die of laughter he surely would!” he growled. “Eighteen you are—one would think you eight. Slow, clumsy, and stupid! Paugh! Had I been a real assassin—”
“I would have died of fright before you touched me.”
“Now it is jokes! This is a battle-practice—not a comedy. If I wish amusement, I shall find a jester. Once again—and correctly, this time.”
Once she was ready to drop with exhaustion, he turned his attention to Elspeth. Now that both of them deserved special tutelage he had changed the hour of their lessons to one shared by no one else, so that he could give his full devotion to the Queen’s Own and Heir-presumptive. Rather than being held on the training grounds outside, the two had their drills in the salle. This was a barn-like building with a sanded wooden floor, lined with mirrors, with high clerestory windows to admit the maximum amount of light. Lessons were always held here during inclement weather, but it was too small for mass practices and classes for the combined Heraldic-Bardic-Healer’s Collegium students. Only those “privileged” to receive private lessons with Alberich took those lessons habitually in the salle.
Now that his attention was off her, Talia found her thoughts drifting back to her surprise of this afternoon.
* * *
Talia tugged and wriggled impatiently until she had succeeded in getting the supple, soft, white leather tunic over her head. Pulling it into place over the white raime shirt and leather breeches, she finally turned to admire the effect in the polished metal mirror in front of her.
“Havens!” she laughed, not a little surprised, “Why don’t the Grays ever look like this?”
“Because,” a harsh voice drawled from the next room, “You youngsters would have your minds on anything but your studies if they did!”
Talia laughed, turned back to the mirror, and preened. Today was the anniversary of her first class at Herald’s Collegium—a fact that she’d forgotten until Keren and Sherrill (senior Heralds both, and instructors at the Collegium as well as Talia’s longtime friends) arrived at her room with their arms full of white uniforms and wearing broad grins.
For the Heraldic Circle had considered—for less than five minutes, all told—had voted—and had passed Talia into full Herald status with the rest of her year-mates—no surprise to anyone in the Collegium, though by tradition the trainees were not to know when they were to be evaluated until the evaluation had already been made and they had passed.
Keren and Sherrill had claimed the right to give her the good news.
They didn’t even give her a chance to think, either—just appeared at her door, swept her up one on either side, and herded her down the long, dark wood-paneled hall of the Collegium dormitory, down the stairs to the first floor, and out the double doors at the end.
From there they had taken her off to the Seneschal’s office to claim her new quarters. Now she stood in the bedroom of the suite she’d chosen, marveling at her reflection.
“I look like a real grownup for a change!”
“That is the general idea,” Sherrill laughed richly.
She cocked her head to one side, regarding the tiny, slender figure in the mirror. Her unruly red-brown curls were as tousled as ever, but somehow gave an impression now of being tumbled the way they were on purpose. The huge, deep-brown eyes that had been utterly guileless seemed somehow wiser; the heart-shaped face no longer so childlike. And all that change wrought by the magic of a new uniform!
“Talia, your head is going to swell like a spongetoad in rainy season if you’re not careful.” Keren interrupted her train of thought a second time. By craning her neck to peer around the doorframe Talia could see the riding instructor grinning sardonically from where she was sprawled on the wooden-backed, red-cushioned couch in the other room.
“Don’t you know what the Book of the One says?” Sherrill added piously over her mate’s shoulder. “‘Great pride shall earn equal humiliation.’”
Talia left her bedroom to join them. They were lounging comfortably in her sparsely-furnished outer room, sharing the lone couch.
“I suppose you’re both going to claim that you never spent so much as a minute in front of the mirror when you first got your Whites,” Talia taunted, strolling toward them with her hands clasped behind her back.
“Who? Me?” Sherrill replied in artificial innocence, lifting an airy hand and batting thick black lashes over wide hazel eyes. “And feed my vanity? W-e-l-l, maybe a little.”
“I happen to know for a fact that you spent half the day there. I’m told you were trying every hairstyle you could twist that black mane of yours into, seeing which one went best with the new outfits,” Keren countered dryly, running her fingers through her own close-cropped, graying brown hair.
Sherrill just grinned and crossed her legs elegantly, leaning back into the cushions. “Since I can’t claim equal knowledge of what you did on that august occasion, that’s hardly a fair blow.”
“Oh, I did my share of mirror-gazing,” Keren admitted with mock reluctance. “When you’re as scrawny as a sapling and flat as a boy, it’s rather astonishing to see yourself in something that actually flatters you. I swear I don’t know how they do it—it’s the same pattern for everybody, and not that dissimilar from the Student Grays—”
“But Lord, the difference!” Sherri concluded for her. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t look fantastic in their Whites. Even Dirk manages to look presentable. Rumpled, but presentable.”
“Well, what do you think of me?” Talia asked, turning on her toes in front of them, and grinning impishly into Keren’s eyes.
“What do I think? That you look fabulous, you young demon. Keep fishing for compliments, though, and I’ll likely dump you in the horse trough. Have they told you anything about your internship?”
Talia shook her head, and clasped her hands behind her again. “No. All they said was that the Herald they want to pair me with is in the field, and they won’t tell me who it is.”
“That’s pretty much to be expected. They don’t want you to have time to think of things to impress him with,” Sherrill replied. Suddenly her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Oh, but I can think of one prospect that would give Nerrissa a litter of kittens!”
“Who?” Talia asked, head to one side.
“Kris and Dirk are due back in the next few weeks, and Dirk got the last greenie—as you should know, since it was Skif—so it’s Kris’ turn next! Nessa would die!”
“Sherri, it’s only my internship assignment.”
“A year and a half Sector-riding, most of it spent alone together, and you say it’s only an assignment? Talia, you must have ice water for blood! Do you have any notion of the number of hours Nessa—and half the females of the Circle, for that matter—spend on their knees praying for an assignment like that? Are you sure you don’t have leanings our way?”
Talia chuckled, and wrinkled her nose at them. “Quite sure, darlings. Just what is Kris’ attraction for Nessa, anyway? She’s got most of the males of the Circle panting at her heels as it is.”
“The lure of the unattainable, or so I would surmise,” Keren supplied, lids half-closed lazy with only a glint of brown iris showing. “He hasn’t taken a vow of chastity, but he’s so circumspect about his dalliances you’d never know it. It drives Nessa wild, and the harder she chases, the faster he runs. She’s as caught up now by the chase as by the face.”
“Well, she can chase him all she wants. I am not at all impressed by Kris’ handsome face,” Talia replied firmly.
“Or the gorgeous body—?” interjected Sherrill.
“Or the gorgeous body. Nessa can have all the gorgeous bodies in the Circle, for all I care. Holderkin men are handsome specimens, and I can do without them—my father could have given Kris stiff competition in his younger days, and I’ve told you what kind of a petty tyrant he was. And my late-but-not-lamented brother Justus was actually handsomer, if you favor blonds, and he was the foulest person I’ve ever known. I’d rather have a good heart and plain packaging.”
“Yes, but Kris is a Herald—” Sherrill pointed out, tapping one long finger on her knee for emphasis. “That guarantees the good heart without having to settle for a homely exterior. No handsome, smiling bastards in our ranks—”
“Sherri, this is all sheer speculation. Until I find out who I’m interning with, I refuse to worry about the subject,” Talia replied firmly.
“You are no fun at all.”
“I never said I was.”
“Hmm. Dirk’s interning that scalawag Skif—” Keren said thoughtfully. “You and Skif were very thick there for a while. In fact, as I recall, you and he had a rumor or two floating about your heads. Is that why you aren’t interested in Dirk’s partner?”
“Maybe,” Talia smiled enigmatically. The fact that their “romance” had been entirely without any result was Skif’s secret—and hers. The streak of ill-luck and accident that had plagued their meetings had not had any effect on their friendship: except that they had never managed to be more than just that—friends. Oddly enough, though, except for a brief period of anxiety when word had come that Skif had been hurt during his first three months in the field, Talia had thought less of Skif, and more of his counselor. To her own amazement—and for no reason, logical or fanciful, that she could think of—when her thoughts strayed in the direction of the former thief and his internship assignment, it was in Dirk’s direction that they tended to wander. This was annoying; she’d met the man all of three times in her life, and had never been in his company for more than an hour or two at most. Yet, that homely face and those wonderful blue eyes kept lingering stubbornly in her thoughts. It did not make sense.
She shook her head to free it of those fanciful images. She had little enough time, and had none to spare in daydreams.
“Well, this little wardrobe change of yours ought to surprise little Elspeth,” Sherrill said, changing the subject.
“Oh, Lady Bright—” Talia sat down with a thump on one of her cushions, joy extinguished. It almost seemed to her at that moment that the bright sun-rays pouring through her windows had dimmed. “Poor Elspeth—”
“Something up?” Keren asked, one eyebrow rising.
“Just the usual.”
“What’s usual? You know I don’t get around the Court.”
“Intrigue rising beyond gossip. She’s almost fourteen and still not Chosen; there’s muttering in the Court that she’s still the Brat under the skin and she’ll never be Chosen. In Council meetings one or more of the Councilors is usually trying to pressure Selenay into naming an Heir—‘pro tem,’ as they put it—”
“Who?” Sherrill asked in alarm, sitting straight up. “Who’s stirring up the water?”
“You know I can’t tell you that! Anyway it isn’t just those particular Councilors; it’s more than half of the Court. Elspeth doesn’t say much, but it’s got her very depressed, poor baby. Their timing couldn’t be worse. She’s already moody enough with the normal adolescent woes, and this has got her in near-tears on a regular basis. When I’m not getting my shoulder soggy, I keep finding her at Companion’s Field whenever she’s free, sort of lurking—”
“Hoping any minute to be Chosen. Gods, no wonder she’s wearing a long face whenever I see her. What’s Rolan got to say about this?”
“Be damned if I know!” Talia gifted Keren with a look of exasperation. “You know he doesn’t Mindspeak me in words.”
“Sorry,” Keren winced, “I keep forgetting.”
“He’s worried, but it could be as much over the machinations and power-maneuverings at Court as anything else. The current candidates are Jeri, Kemoc, and your oh-so-lovely Kris.”
“Wonderful people in and of themselves,” Keren observed, “But with some not-so-wonderful relatives lurking in the family trees. One would think Kris’ uncle Lord Orthallen would have his hands full enough as chief Councilor without wanting to be the Heir’s uncle—”
“That man will never have enough power to satisfy him,” Talia snapped bitterly.
Keren raised an eyebrow at the outburst, and continued. “Kemoc’s horde of lazy cousins would swarm the Court, looking for sinecures—and Kemoc’s such a soft touch he’d try to manage it. And Jeri—Lady Bright! Her mother!”
“We’d have a battle royal every day between Jeri and Lady Indra over how Jeri’s Council votes should go. I wish her husband would lock her away. Or buy a gag for her.”
“Amen. Pity none of them come without baggage. Not my idea of a fun situation. And poor catling caught in the middle.”
Talia sighed in agreement. “Speaking of no fun, I’d better scramble. Alberich informed me in no uncertain terms that my new status does not exempt me from his special lessons. I have the sinking feeling that he intends to slap my inflated pride down to pre-student levels, and probably with the flat of his blade.”
“Can I watch?” Keren asked wickedly.
“Why not? Elspeth’s always there, and there’s nothing like being worse at something than a thirteen-year-old girl to really deflate your opinions of yourself. Well, that ought to reinflate her self-esteem a bit. Ah, me, it’s a pity to have to get these lovely new clothes all over dirt and sweat—”
As they descended the cool darkness of the spiraling staircase, Keren and Sherrill in the lead with their arms casually linked, Talia reflected that bringing them together was probably the best thing she’d ever done. The bond between them was easily as strong as the one Keren had shared with Ylsa—and had Ylsa lived, they might very well have formed one of the relatively rare, permanent threesomes. There was no doubt that they were very good for each other. Poor Ylsa . . .
Talia’s chosen living quarters were at the very top of her tower at the end of the Herald’s wing. The suites in the four towers were seldom used—probably because they were more than a bit inconvenient. The walk up and down the darkened stone staircase was a long one, but she felt that the view (and the privacy) were worth it.
But the trudge was likely to bring complaints from Talia’s friends—and Keren voiced the first of many.
“I’ll tell you one thing, my fine young Herald,” Keren grumbled a little when they finally reached the ground floor. “Visiting with you on a regular basis is going to keep your friends in shape. Why you chose to roost with the birds is beyond me.”
“Do you truly want to know why I chose that particular suite?” Talia asked with a grin.
“Pray remember, if you will, what my Gift is—I’m an empath, not a mindspeaker. Either of you remember who my neighbor was?”
“Mm. Destria, wasn’t it?” Sherrill replied after thought. “Turned out to be a good Field Herald, despite her—ah—”
“Randiness,” Keren supplied with a hint of grin. “That girl! Anything in Grays or Whites, so long as it was male! Havens, when did she ever have time to study?”
“Then you both know about her habit of ‘entertaining’ with great frequency and—um—enthusiasm. What I couldn’t shield I could most certainly hear! Between her nocturnal activities and Rolan’s, I got a quite thorough education, let me assure you! That’s when I swore my privacy was worth any inconvenience. I don’t want to eavesdrop on anyone else’s fun ever again, and I certainly don’t want anyone eavesdropping on mine!”
“Talia, I don’t believe a word of it,” Sherrill giggled. “What could you possibly have to fear from eavesdroppers? You’re practically a temple virgin compared with the rest of us!”
“You ought to believe it, since it’s all true. Well, here’s where we part company. Wish me luck—I’m going to need it!”
* * *
Pity that they hadn’t wished her luck—she might have gotten a few less bruises. Talia fanned herself with a towel while she paced back and forth to keep from stiffening up, and watched Elspeth with unforced enjoyment. The girl was a pleasure to observe, moving through the sparring bout with the grace and agility of a dancer, and making it all seem effortless and easy. She was much better even than Jeri had been at her age, but then she had had the benefits of four years of Alberich’s remorseless training; Jeri had only had the finest arms-tutors money could obtain. No amount of money could buy Alberich’s expertise.
She ran through the assigned exercises with careless grace. Then, at the end of a bout, she unexpectedly executed one of the spin-and-tumbling-rolls that Alberich had been trying to train into Talia—a move that was not one Alberich had been teaching her. And she scored a kill on him.
He stared at her in startled amazement for a long moment, as both Talia and Elspeth waited breathlessly for the roar of disapproval they were certain would come.
“Good!” he said at last, as Elspeth’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Very good!” Then, lest she dare to grow careless because of the compliment, “But next time must be better.”
Despite this unexpected kudos, Talia found when she brought Elspeth a damp towel at the conclusion of the lesson that the girl was subdued and depressed.
“What’s wrong, catling?” she asked, seeing how like her mother Elspeth was, despite the brown hair and eyes rather than Selenay’s blond and blue. At this moment the shadow on her face matched the one the Queen wore when troubled. She knew the answer already, but it would do the girl good to talk it out one more time.
“I can’t do anything right,” Elspeth replied unhappily, “I’ll never be as good as you, no matter how hard I try.”
“You can’t be serious—”
“No, really, look at you! You spent half your life on a backwoods dirt-farm; now you can’t be told from Heralds that were highborn. You got good marks in your classes; I’m abysmal in all of mine. And I can’t even manage to be Chosen. . . .”
“I suspect it’s the last that’s eating at you the most.”
Elspeth nodded, the corners of her mouth drooping.
“Catling, we’re two different people with wildly different abilities and interests. In the five years I’ve been here I’ve never once managed to earn a ‘good’ from Alberich, much less a ‘very good’! I’m still so stiff when I dance that they say it’s like dancing with a broom.”
“Oh, huzzah, I’m a marvel of coordination. I can kill anything on two legs. That’s a terrific qualification for being Heir.”
“Catling, you’ve got the qualifications. Look, if I live to be two hundred, I will never understand politics. Think back a minute. At the last Council meeting, I could sense that Lord Cariodoc was irritated, but you were the one who not only knew why and by whom, but managed to placate the old buzzard before he could start an incident. And your teachers assure me that though you may not be the best in your classes, you aren’t the worst by any stretch of the imagination. As for being Chosen, catling, thirteen is only the average age for that. Think of Jadus—he was sixteen and had been at Bardic for three years! Or Teren, for Lady’s sake—a man grown and with two children! Look, it’s probably only thatyour Companion just hasn’t been old enough, and you know very well they don’t Choose until they’re ten or better.”
Elspeth’s mood seemed to be lightening a bit.
“Come on, love, cheer up, and we’ll go see Rolan. If riding him will bring some sun to your day, I’m sure he’ll let you.”
Elspeth’s long face brightened considerably. She loved riding as much as dancing and swordwork. It wasn’t often that a Companion would consent to bear anyone but his Chosen; Rolan had done so for Elspeth in the past, and she obviously counted those moments among the finest in her life. It wasn’t the same as having her own Companion, but it was at least a little like it. Together they left the training salle, and headed for the wooded enclosure that was home to the Companions at the Collegium (partnered, unpartnered, and foals) and that also held the Grove, that place where the Companions had first appeared hundreds of years ago.
And although she took pains not to show it, Talia was profoundly worried. This situation with Elspeth’s status hanging fire could not be maintained for much longer. The strain was telling on the Queen, the girl, and the Heraldic Circle.
But Talia had no more notion of how to solve the problem than anyone else.
* * *
Talia woke with a start, momentarily confused by the strange feel and sounds of the room in which she found herself. She couldn’t see a blessed thing, and over her head was a rattling—
Then she remembered where she was; and that the rattling was the shutter of the window just over the head of her bed. She’d latched it open, and it was rattling in the high wind that must have begun some time during the night.
She turned over and levered herself into a kneeling position on her pillow, peering out into the darkness. She still couldn’t see much; dark humps of foliage against barely-lighter grass. The moon was less than half full, all the buildings were dark, and clouds racing along in the wind obscured the stars and the moonlight. The wind smelled of dawn though, and sunrise couldn’t be far off.
Talia shivered in the chill, as wind whipped at her; she was about to crawl back under her warm blankets when she saw something below her.
A person—a small person—hardly more than a dim figure moving beyond the fence of Companion’s Field, visible only because it was wearing something light-colored.
And she knew with sudden surety that the one below was Elspeth.
She slid out of bed, wincing at the cold wood under her feet, and grabbed clothing by feel, not waiting to stop to light a candle. Confused thoughts tumbled, one over the other. Was the girl sleepwalking? Was she ill? But when she reached unthinkingly and tentatively with her Gift, she encountered neither the feel of a sleeping mind, nor a disturbed one; only a deep and urgent sense of purpose.
She should, she realized in some dim, far-off corner of her mind, be alarmed. But as soon as she had touched Elspeth with her Empathic Gift, that sense of calm purpose had infected her as well, and she could no more have disobeyed its promptings than have launched into flight from her tower window.
In a dreamlike state she half-stumbled out into the middle room, fumbled her way to the door, and cautiously felt her way down the spiraling staircase with one hand on the cold smoothness of the metal railing and the other on the rough stone of the wall beside her. She was shivering so hard her teeth rattled, and the thick darkness in the stairwell was slightly unnerving.
There was light at the foot of it, though, from a lamp set up on the wall. The dim yellow light filled the entranceway. And the wood-paneled corridor beyond was lighted well enough by farther wall-hung lamps that Talia felt safe in running down the stone-floored passageways to the first door to the outside she could find.
The wind hit her with a shock; it was a physical blow so hard that she gasped. It nearly wrenched the door out of her hands and she had to struggle for a moment she had not wanted to spare to get it closed behind her. She realized that she had gotten only a hint of its force from her window; her room was sheltered from the worst of it by the bulk of the Palace itself.
She found herself at the exterior bend of the L-shaped Herald’s wing; just beyond her bulked the Companion’s stables. Elspeth was nowhere in sight.
More certain of her ground now than she had been in the unfamiliar wing of the Palace, Talia would have run if she could, but the wind made that impossible. It plastered her clothing to her body, and drove unidentifiable debris at her with the velocity of crossbow bolts. She couldn’t hear anything now with it howling in her ears; she knew no one would hear her calling. Now she became vaguely alarmed; with the wind this strong and in the dark, it would be so easy for Elspeth to misstep and find herself in the river—
She mindcalled Rolan for help—and could not reach him—
Or rather, she could reach him, but he was paying no attention to her whatsoever; his whole being was focused on—what it was, she could not say, but it demanded all his concentration; for he was absorbed in it with such intensity that he was shutting everything and everyone else out.
It was up to her, then. She fought her way around the stables toward the bridge that led across the river to the main portion of Companion’s Field. It was with incredible relief that she spotted the vague blur of Elspeth ahead of her, already across the river, and headed with utter single-minded concentration in the direction of—
There was only one place she could be heading for—the Grove.
Talia forced her pace to the fastest she could manage, leaning at an acute angle into the wind, but the girl had a considerable head start on her, and had already entered the Grove by the time she had crossed the bridge.
The pale blob was lost to sight as the foliage closed around it, and Talia stumbled over the uneven ground, falling more than once and bruising hands and knees on the stones hidden in the grass. The long grass itself whipped at her booted legs, tangling her feet with each step. She was halfway to the Grove when she looked up from yet another fall to see that it was—gods!—glowing faintly from within.
She shook her head, blinking, certain that her eyes were playing tricks on her. The glow remained, scarcely brighter than foxfire, but unmistakably there.
She started to rise, when the entire world seemed to give a gut-wrenching lurch, disorienting her completely. She clutched at the grass beneath her hands, as the only reality in a suddenly unreal world, the pain of her bruised palms hardly registering. Everything seemed to be spinning, the way it had the one time she’d fainted, and she was lost in the darkness with the wind wailing in a whirlwind around her and the Grove. There was a sickening moment—or eternity—when nothing was real.
Then the world settled, and normality returned with an almost audible snap; the wind died away to nothing, sound returned, the disorientation vanished, all in the space of a single heartbeat.
Talia opened her eyes, unaware until that moment that she’d been clenching both eyes and jaw so tightly her face ached. Less than five feet away stood Elspeth, between the supporting shoulders of two Companions. The one on her left was Rolan, and he was back in Talia’s awareness again—tired, though; very tired, but strangely contented.
Talia staggered to her feet; the gray light of the setting moon was lightening the sky, and by it, she could make out the girl’s features. Elspeth seemed dazed, and if the contrast between the dark mass of her hair and the paleness of her skin meant anything, she was drained as white as paper.
Talia stumbled the few steps between them, grabbed her shoulders and shook her; until that moment the girl didn’t seem to realize she was there.
“Elspeth—” was all she managed to choke out around her own nerveless shivering.
“Talia?” The girl blinked once, then dumbfounded her mentor by seeming to snap into total wakefulness, smiling and throwing her arms around Talia’s shoulders. “Talia—I—” she laughed, almost hysterical with joy, and for one brief moment Talia feared she’d lost her mind.
Then she let go of the Herald and threw both of her arms around the neck of the Companion to her right. “Talia, Talia, it happened! Gwena Chose me! She called me when I was asleep, and I came, and she Chose me!”
Talia knew every Companion in residence, having spent nearly as much time with them as Keren, and having helped to midwife many of the foals. That name didn’t belong to any of them.
And that could only mean one thing; Gwena, like Rolan—and unlike any other Companion currently alive—was Grove-born. But why? For centuries only Monarch’s Own Companions had appeared in the Grove like Companions of old.
Talia started to say something—and abruptly felt Rolan’s presence overwhelming her mind, tinged with a feeling of gentle regret.
* * *
Talia shook her head, bewildered by the sensation that she’d forgotten something, then dismissed the feeling. Elspeth had been Chosen; that was what mattered. She remembered the mare vaguely now. Gwena had always been one of the shyer Companions, staying well away from visitors. All her shyness seemed gone, as she nuzzled Elspeth’s hair with possessive pride. Rolan, who had been supporting Elspeth on the left, now paced forward in time to give Talia a shoulder to lean on, for her own knees were going weak with reaction, and she felt as drained as if she’d had a three-candlemark workout with Alberich. Birds were breaking into morning-song all around them, and the first light of true dawn streaked the sky to the east with festive ribbons of brightness among the clouds.
“Oh, catling!” Talia released her hold on Rolan’s mane and flung both her arms around Elspeth, nearly in tears with joy.
It did not occur to either of them to wonder why no one else had been mustered out of bed by that imperative calling both of them had answered—and why no one else had noticed anything at all out of the ordinary even yet.
* * *
Talia managed to convince Elspeth—not to go back to her bed, because that was an impossibility—but to settle with Gwena in a sheltered little hollow, with a blanket purloined from the stable around her shoulders. Talia hoped that when her excitement faded the child would doze off again; the gods knew she’d be safe enough in the Field with her own Companion standing protective guard over her. She wished devoutly that she could have done the same, but there were far too many things she had to attend to.
The first—and most important—was to inform the Queen. Even at this early hour Selenay would be awake and working, and likely with one or more Councilors. That meant a formal announcement, and not what Talia really wanted to do, which was to burst into Selenay’s chamber caroling for joy.
However pleased Selenay would be, that sort of action would only give the Councilors a very poor impression of the Queen’s Own’s maturity.
So Talia stumbled back to her room again, through the sweet breeze of a perfect dawn, through bird choruses that were only a faint, far echo of the joy in her heart, to get redressed. And this time, as neatly and precisely as she could manage, cringing inwardly at the grass stains left on the knees of the pair of breeches she’d just peeled off. Then she walked—walked—decorously and soberly down through the silence of the Herald’s wing to the “New Palace” wing that held the suites of Queen and Court.
As usual, there were two blue-clad Guardsmen stationed outside the doors to the Royal chambers. She nodded to them, dark Jon to the right, wizened Fess to the left; she knew both of them well, and longed to be able to whisper her news, but that wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t be dignified, and it would absolutely shatter protocol. As Queen’s Own, she had the right of entry to the Queen’s chambers at any time of night or day, and was quickly admitted beyond those heavy goldenoak doors.
As she had expected, Selenay was already hard at work in her dark-paneled outer chamber; dressed for the day in formal Whites, massive desk covered with papers, and both Lord Orthallen and the Seneschal at her shoulders. She looked up at Talia’s entrance, startled, blue eyes seeming weary even this early in the day. Whatever brought those two Councilors to her side, it did not look to be pleasant. . . .
Perhaps Talia’s news would change all that.
She clued Selenay to the gravity of her news by making the formal half-bow before entering, and that it was good news by a cheerful wink so timed that only Selenay noted it. Protocol demanded exactly five steps across that dark-blue carpet, which took her to exactly within comfortable conversational distance of the desk. Then she went to one knee, trying not to flinch as her bruises encountered the floor. Selenay, tucking a strand of gold hair behind one ear and straightening in expectation, nodded to indicate she could speak.
“Majesty—I have come to petition the right of a trainee to enter the Collegium,” Talia said gravely, with both hands clasped upon the upright knee, while her eyes danced at the nonsense of all this formality.
That got the attention not only of Selenay, but of both Councilors. Only highborn trainees needed to have petitions laid before the Crown, for becoming a Herald often meant renouncing titles and lands, either actual or presumptive.
Talia could see the puzzlement in the Councilors’ eyes—and the rising hope in Selenay’s.
“What Companion has Chosen—and what is the candidate’s name and rank?” Selenay replied just as formally, one hand clutching the goblet before her so tightly her knuckles went white.
“The Companion Gwena has Chosen,” Talia barely managed to keep from singing the words, “And her Choice is the Heir-presumptive, now Heir-In-Right, the Lady Elspeth. May I have the Queen’s leave to enter the trainee in the Collegium rolls?”
* * *
Within the hour Court and Collegium were buzzing, and Talia was up to her eyebrows in all the tasks needed to transfer Elspeth from her mother’s custody to that of the Collegium. Elspeth spent the day in blissful ignorance of all the fuss—which was only fair. The first few hours were critical in the formation of the Herald-Companion bond, and should be spent in as undisturbed a manner as possible. So it was Talia’s task to see to it that when Elspeth finally drifted dreamily back through the gates of Companion’s Field, everything, from room assignment to having her belongings transferred, had been taken care of for her.
And toward day’s end it occurred to Talia that it behooved her to take dinner with the Court rather than the Collegium. The Queen might make dinner the occasion for the formal announcement of choice of Heir.
She finished setting up Elspeth’s class schedule with Dean Elcarth, and sprinted to her quarters and up the stairs as fast as her sore knees would permit. After a quick wash, she rummaged in the wooden wardrobe, cursing as she bumped her head against one of the doors. After making what she hoped was an appropriate selection, she dressed hastily in one of the velvet outfits. With one hand brushing her hair, half-skipping as she wedged her feet into the soft slippers that went with it, she used the other hand to snatch the appropriate book of protocol from among the others on her still-dusty desk. While wriggling to settle the clothing properly and using both hands to smooth her hair, she reviewed the brief ceremony attendant on the coronation of the Heir. She shot a quick look at herself in the mirror, then took herself off to the Great Hall.
She slipped into her seldom-used seat between Elspeth and the Queen and whispered “Well?”
“She’s going to do it as soon as everyone arrives,” Elspeth breathed back. “I think I’m going to die. . . .”
“No you won’t,” Talia answered in a conspiratorial manner, “You’ve been doing things like this for ages. Now I may die!” Elspeth was relaxing visibly now that Talia was there to share her ordeal.
Talia had only taken meals with the Court a handful of times since she’d arrived at the Collegium, and the Great Hall never ceased to impress her. It was the largest single room in the Palace, its high, vaulted ceiling supported by slender-seeming pillars of ironoak that gleamed golden in the light from the windows and the lamp- and candle-light. There were battle-banners and heraldic pennons that went clear back to the Founding hanging from the rafters. Talia’s seat was at the table placed on the dais, which stood at a right angle to the rest of the tables in the Hall. Late sunlight streamed in through the tall, narrow windows that filled the west wall, but the windows to the east were already beginning to darken with the onset of nightfall. The courtiers seated along the tables below her were as colorful as a bed of wild-flowers, and formed a pleasing grouping against the panels and tables of golden ironoak.
When the Great Hall was filled, the Queen arose as the stewards called for silence. It would have been possible to hear a feather fall as she began. Every eye in the Hall was riveted on her proud, White-clad figure, with the thin circlet of Royal red gold (it was all she would wear as token of her rank) encircling her raival-leaf golden hair.
“Since the death of my father, we have been without an Heir. I can understand and sympathize with those of you who found this a disquieting and frightening situation. You may rejoice, for all uncertainty is at an end. This day was my daughter Elspeth Chosen by the Companion Gwena, making her a fully eligible candidate for the position of Heir. Rise, daughter.”
Elspeth and Talia both rose, Elspeth to stand before her mother, Talia to take the silver coronet of the Heir from the steward holding it. She presented it to the Queen, then retired to her proper position as Queen’s Own, behind and slightly to Selenay’s right. She was pleased to note that although Elspeth’s hands trembled, her voice, as she repeated her vows, was strong and clear. Elspeth caught her eyes and held to Talia’s gaze as if to a lifeline.
* * *
Elspeth was frightened half to death, despite her lifelong preparation for this moment. She could clearly see Talia’s encouraging expression, and the presence of the Queen’s Own gave her comfort and courage. For one panicked moment halfway through her vows, she forgot what her mother had said just the instant before. She felt a flood of gratitude when she noticed Talia’s lips moving, and realized that she was mouthing the words Elspeth had just forgotten.
There was more to it than just having a friend at hand, too—with her mental senses sharpened and enhanced by having been Chosen, Elspeth could dimly feel Talia as a solid, comforting presence, like a deeply-rooted tree in a wild windstorm. There would always be shelter for her beneath those branches, and as she repeated the last words of her Oath, she suddenly realized how vital that shelter would be to one, who as ruler, must inevitably face the gales; and more often than not alone. There was also, distinctly, though distantly, the sense that Talia loved her for herself, and as a true friend. And that in itself was a comfort. As she finished the last words and her mother placed the silver circlet on her head, she tried to put all her gratitude to her friend in the smile she gave her.
* * *
As the Queen placed the coronet on her daughter’s hair, a spontaneous cheer rose that gladdened Talia’s heart. Perhaps now the Brat could be forgotten.
But as they resumed their seats and the serving began, the unaccustomed dainties of the Queen’s table suddenly lost their appeal as Talia realized that there was yet another ceremony to be endured, one about which she knew nothing. As soon as the powers of the Kingdom could be gathered there must be a great ceremony of fealty in which the Queen’s Own would play a significant role. Talia reached blindly for her goblet to moisten a mouth gone dry with panic.
Then she took herself firmly in hand; Kyril and Elcarth, as Seneschal’s Herald and Dean of the Collegium, would surely know everything about this occasion—and just as surely would be aware that Talia didn’t. There was no need to panic. Not yet, anyway.
The meal seemed to be progressing with ponderous slowness. This was Talia’s first High Feast—and it seemed incredibly dull. She sighed, and the Queen caught the sound.
“Bored?” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
“Oh, no!” Talia replied with a forced smile.
“Liar,” the Queen replied with a twinkle. “No one but a moron could avoid being bored by all this. You sit and sit, and smile and smile, till your face and backside are both stiff. Then you sit and smile some more.”
“How do you manage this day after day?” Talia asked, trying not to laugh.
“Father taught me a game; Elspeth and I play it now. What are we doing this time, catling?”
“We’re back to animals,” Elspeth replied, as her mother nodded to an elderly duke in response to some comment he’d mumbled. “You try and decide what animal the courtiers most remind you of. We change each time. Sometimes it’s flowers, trees, rocks, landmarks—even weather. This time it’s animals, and he’s a badger.”
“Well if he’s a badger, his lady’s a watchdog. Look how she raises her hackles whenever he smiles at that pretty serving girl,” Talia said.
“Oh, I’d never have thought of that one!” Elspeth exclaimed. “You’re going to be good at this game!”
They managed to keep straight faces, but it wasn’t easy.
* * *
Talia sought out Kyril the next day before the thrice-weekly Council meeting to learn that she had three weeks in which to prepare for Elspeth’s formal investiture. He and Elcarth pledged to drill her in all she needed to know, from protocol to politics, every day.