In a land of unending winter, the High Magus Thryfe travels with haste to the city of Ruk Kar to warn Vuldir, King Accessorate, of a growing force of envy and darkness. One of Vuldir’s daughters, the seventeen-year-old Saphay, is to wed the Jafn chieftain Athluan, but Thryfe foresees that the marriage will lead to the destruction of all the Ruk kings, their lineage, and their people. Disregarding the magician’s ominous words, Saphay sets off toward the East and her betrothed—only to meet disaster.
Athluan, Saphay’s husband-to-be, hears rumors of a blond maiden in royal clothes entombed in a towering pyramid of ice. It is Saphay, and she is alive. The royal wedding ensues and soon—perhaps too soon—Saphay becomes pregnant. As time goes on, the son she births will show signs of a divine and heroic destiny.
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Cast a Bright Shadow
By Tanith Lee
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Tanith Lee
All rights reserved.
Red sky met white land. Between the two lay the city.
As he drove along Kings Mile, the great ice road that approached Ru Karismi from the south, the magician stared unblinking with his eagle's eyes. In the sunset, the city had that look it always had, and was intended always to have perhaps. Every wall and tower, every terrace and roof that showed above, seemed razor-carved from the surrounding snow.
Thryfe stood bracing his tallness against the onrush of the sleekar. The team of horned lashdeer appeared to fly, and the vehicle's runners barely touched the road's surface. If any had been out so late, they would have turned and gaped, knowing this smooth-streaming thing at once for the chariot of lord or Magikoy; few others could command such power. But the snowfields were empty by now, while only the occasional bank of smog or speed-smeared light revealed the steads that littered the city's outskirts.
The sun flashed and was suddenly down. Tinted glass parasols on the heights winked ruby and diamond, and went out. Half a minute more, and Thryfe had reached the outer wall.
Over Southgate the torches blazed. The gate stood open wide – they had seen him arriving. There was, of course, no challenge, and if he glimpsed the salutes of the guards, Thryfe did not acknowledge them. He raced through the gate and on up the streeted slopes of the city, to the Stair. Here he paused only to halt the chariot and dismount. Most men took breath before they climbed, and again later. But Thryfe, ascending the thousand-stepped staircase of white marble, between its diagonally set thousand statues of steel, did not stop once either to breathe or to admire the view.
At the top, far above the city, the Gargolem came from its alcove in a high and shadowy door.
'Greetings and welcome, Highness Thryfe.'
The Gargolem was mechanical. The Magikoy had made it centuries before. Its metallic body was like that of a human male, though far larger in height and somewhat in girth. Its head was that of an unknown beast, maned and fanged, yet it spoke like a man. It was always addressed in turn.
'Good evening, Gargo. I'm here for the kings.'
'They do not know. Did you send no word?'
'I will do it now. Proceed.'
The door opened as night strode over the sky. Beyond, in amber air, lay the lanterned garden terraces of uppermost Ru Karismi, starred with palaces, whose complacence Thryfe had come to spoil.
Ruk Kar Is had at present three kings. The mightiest of these, Sallusdon, King Paramount, was currently in the west. Now the two Kings Accessorate waited on their balcony, looking at Thryfe.
By Ruk law, both these kings were of equal importance. But, as with their build, they differed in the extreme. Bhorth was blond, a heavily muscled man run to fat, often argumentative, but weak. The other, Vuldir, sombre and slender, had an elegance of person and mind that were pitiless: the skins and tails of eighty black and white icenvels lined his exquisite mantle. He was known to dispatch humans with the same uneconomy.
The balcony jutted from the Kings Hall, out over the abyss of city night, which fell through a glitter of lighted windows and lamps to the Palest River three miles below. Dwarfed by distance, frozen, the Palest made another roadway, gleaming with torches. At this Thryfe gazed down. He ignored the kings, letting them loiter, for he was more powerful than they, and Vuldir at least needed reminding.
But it was Vuldir who spoke.
'What is this about, Magus? You've called us from dinner. My brother's belly will certainly never forgive you.'
His voice was acid. Brother Bhorth scowled.
Thryfe removed his gaze from the river, and met Vuldir's narrow eyes.
'The augurs that were taken, Vuldir, have changed aspect.'
Bhorth, the slow one, was still the one who swore.
Vuldir said, 'Which augurs, precisely?'
'Those that relate to the marriage of your daughter.'
'My daughter. You mean Saphay? But she sets out tomorrow, at first light.' Vuldir sounded bored. 'It's a minor affair, but may be useful. I believe you understand its relevance?'
'She is to wed into the Jafn Klow.'
'Exactly. Once our enemies, the Jafn are now our dear friends. This first marriage is tentative, naturally. If it blossoms, Sallusdon will consider a stronger match, one from his own and his queen's royal loins.'
'I am aware of that. I'm here to tell you something new. The augurs were taken at the betrothal and seemed sound. But today, gentlemen, I saw something else.'
'What? How? Did you go searching for it?' demanded Vuldir. Rings brightened on his hand as he made, inadvertently perhaps, a gesture of dismissal. With a lesser man than Thryfe it must have sent him from the room, but no king could order one of the Magikoy. They were the servants of common men, but the superiors of princes.
However, Thryfe answered, looking from Vuldir to Bhorth and back again.
'I don't have to tell you what I have seen, or how I have seen it, nor if I searched for it – although I did not. If I say to you it is, then you know I speak the truth.'
'You're too volatile, maybe,' said Vuldir.
Bhorth enquired, 'What's the nature of the possible harm?'
'The death of Vuldir's daughter. Or worse than her death – though further than her death I was unable to see for her, as is often the case. There is a massing of envy and darkness. Old foes, or fresh ones, in secret. If you send Saphay out of Ruk Kar Is, she'll be lost. And much will be lost with her. I'll tell you plainly, you will be accommodating some force which will eventually destroy you.'
'I?' Vuldir was amazed.
'You and all your line. All the line of the Ruk. The land, the people. It will set the world on its ear.'
'Unending Winter has done that,' grumbled Bhorth, 'five hundred years and more.'
'To this, Bhorth, Unending Winter will be Summertime.'
Far back beyond the balcony and its fretted screens, music played and candles fluttered like gold butterflies.
Bhorth turned uneasily, peering through frets at the warm world that was apparently threatened.
But Vuldir said, 'Well, you've aired your fears, Magus. Our thanks.'
Bhorth spluttered in alarm. Thryfe merely turned away. He had done what he must, with proper haste and authority. No more was asked of him.
Without offering any token of respect, he walked from the balcony, and back through the sunny candlelight of the Hall. He was bowed to on every side by men and women clad in silks and jewels. He paid them no attention, and said nothing else. Like many of the Magikoy, he believed himself a fatalist. To Thryfe's pitilessness, therefore, the small blind malice of a Vuldir was nothing.
On the east and coldest side of the Womens Pavilions, King Vuldir's fifteenth daughter had her apartments. The winds, when they woke, whistled and gnawed at the shutters and glazing, which were not always in repair. Let through, they gushed along the floors like waves of ice.
Tonight the evening was windless. Yet everything else here was in motion.
Women ran back and forth through the rose-lit rooms, their anklets jangling, voices calling, their arms full of clothing, bedding and other stuff selected for a journey.
Within the central room, Saphay, the fifteenth daughter, sat contrastingly still as stone in a chair, while her old nurse wept at her side.
'I shall never see her again,' wailed the nurse, 'never, never,'
'Yes, I shall send for you,' said the princess wearily. She had declared this many times, but neither she nor the old woman believed it.
'I am thought too shabby for this court of barbarians,' bitterly wept the nurse.
'No, you're thought too fine for it.'
'And too old – I'm too old. Oh, if she leaves me, I shall die. What else will be left for me?'
Saphay said nothing. She moved only a little, nodding as another woman asked her about some garment, who then ran busily away, bawling to others.
No dinner had been served them. Probably Saphay's apartment was forgotten, for a fifteenth female child, got by a secondary king on a much lesser concubina, was low in standing. Generally she ate in the Hall, in the place reserved for such persons.
Saphay had wondered if she would miss these chilly and unluxurious rooms, miss the grandeur of the palaces, the gardens with their frost-trees, glass parasols and statuary of steel and serpentine and ice; or the city itself spread always below. But she had lived since birth on the cold-shouldered east of the terraces, and so to be sent further eastward, to the land of the Jafn Klow, had an ironic rightness.
In her childhood another nurse, not this one, had told Saphay that the Jafn ate young girls, having first roasted them alive. But she had been told many things in childhood that were lies, and was still lied to, but now knew it.
Vuldir had bothered to come himself and tell her the facts of her impending use. She was to uphold the honour of the Ruk by marrying a Chaiord, a chieftain of the Jafn peoples.
Her father, whom mostly Saphay had seen only far off, while often hearing tales of his harshness and sense of fashion, looked her over that day, properly noticing her for the first time. 'Yes,' he remarked, 'you will do. Indeed, you're too good for this. Always remember that, girl. You're too good for the Jafn.'
Two of the apartment's little cluster of god-aspects were borne through. A violet mask glared at Saphay over a running shoulder. Then, as a mirror was hurried by, the young woman more strangely saw her own face rush past her. The glimpsed face was clouded round by topaz hair, its eyes dark as her father's, but of a different shape. Her skin, as in songs sung to others, was white as unmarked snow. But already the mirror had carried her face away.
A woman burst in at another door, bringing with her a blast of cold from the night outside. She stood, shaking off the coldness from her, wringing her hands and crying out, so all the other women stopped their activity, turning to look at her. Even the nurse did so.
'The High Magus Thryfe came to the Hall,' cried the woman who had entered. 'He took the Kings Accessorate aside. No one knows but they what he said, but he came out like an eagle, cloaked in storm. They say' – she stared at Saphay, who was not her mistress, only one more nobody the woman must serve – 'that the omens have changed. This marriage in the east is rotten and will bring only bad luck.'
Someone screamed. It was not Saphay herself. In the silence, Saphay stood up. 'Go about your duties,' she said to the woman who had come in. 'What do you know, you insect, of the mind of a Magikoy? And the rest of you, get on with your work. Or I'll send to my father to have you whipped.'
She was only a girl, not yet seventeen years of age, yet she had learned things in Ru Karismi. Inevitably, to be harsh was one of them – she was Vuldir's daughter. And now she was obeyed.
But in her heart, Saphay thought, It is true, I know it. It is darkness I go towards in the east, when the sun rises.
Thryfe rode back from Ru Karismi, out of the yawning gate, along the glacial highway of ice. One of his houses lay to the south, but few would find it save he or another of his Order.
Beyond the limits of the road, the velocitous sleekar took to the snow-hills without apparent effort.
Above, the first moon rose. It was white as the snow or a girl's pure skin. Thryfe did not bother with it.
After an hour or two, he drove up into the forests. The trees, runnelled pillars resembling black glass, canopied with snow and spears of ice, were busy with ice-spiders brought out by the moon. They glided, winking like opals, under its rays, spinning webs like thin steel. Yet the passage of the sleekar broke through hundreds of these webs, leaving them behind in tatters.
The second moon was rising, a quarter like a piece of a coin, when the mansion came in sight for Thryfe.
He saw the windows shone blue, a sign of his long absence and that nothing unlooked-for had occurred.
Unhuman grooms, a lesser type of gargolem, emerged to take charge of chariot and team in the courtyard. As he mounted the shallow steps, the torches on either side sprang alight, and the blue windows above altered with lamp flames. He touched the door only with his glance, and it opened as it would do for him alone.
So many hours had been wasted. Was it only time that was spilled away? After he had gone up into the towery, Thryfe began after all to feel anger.
The third moon rose on Ruk Kar Is.
By this brilliant triple light, bright now as the most freezing, whitest day, Thryfe cancelled his lamps and stood before the eye of the mansion's oculum. It was blank, demonstrating none of the disturbance he had witnessed earlier.
He was dissatisfied. For once he felt his youth and its passion of rage, although he was no longer quite young, and was a fatalist.
To the serene chamber, Thryfe said this: 'I shall regret not doing more. I notice the shadow of regret before me now.' He thought, And it outshines the night.
He had seen Saphay now and then, over recent years, in the Kings Hall. She was lovely and childish, finally almost full-grown. Unbound, her hair hung to the backs of her knees. Yet once he had beheld her slapping a waiting-woman who annoyed her, and how the ring on her hand had caught the woman's mouth, which bled. He had not been so charmed by Saphay after that. Like her father – yes, surely. Was it for this Thryfe had let her go so readily?
But her destiny was less than the land's, and the land too he had let go.
The globe of the oculum continued to give nothing. Only the moons drifted, a three-dropped necklet of porcelain, in the windows. Then the wind began to lift its wing across the plains.
I have done enough. Be damned to them all.
Eastward, where the moons and the wind had risen, there was a smell of burning on the air that night.
A considerable distance from the city of Ru Karismi spread an area known as the Marginal Land. It was located above the north borders of the Ruk, and cut into on the east side by the sea, which, frozen solid, extended the terrain on for miles of fluctuating, treacherous ice field. The place of burning was a day's ride inland from the ocean. Here, deep in the Marginal, ice-jungles matted the landscape, frigid tangles of obsidian and crystal, sometimes undone in clearings. In one of these lay the charcoaled embers of a large village, from which smoke yet poured.
Peb Yuve scrutinized, from the back of his flaxen transport, the sorry coffle of slaves driven off from the ruins by his men. Beside him, one of his seconds, Guri, also astride an ice-mammoth, counted gemstones, coins and bits of metal.
They were men of Olchibe, their dark yellow skin the shade of leopards in the dying arson-glow.
'Look at them, such weaklings. They'll fetch nothing in the markets of Sham.' This regretful remark was Guri's, as some of the coffle, mewling and whipped, fell down.
'No matter. This shows them, the lords in Rukar, what we may do. It's a symbol. As that it has worth for us to destroy these hovels and collect this rubbish for sale.' Peb Yuve nodded. 'Great Gods witness I have spoken.'
'Amen,' added Guri piously.
He put the cache of jewels and money into a pouch; then, like his prince, sat watching their raid's aftermath.
All about, under the static boughs of frozen figs, the Olchibe mammoths stirred like ghosts.
'The gods of these Rukar, they trouble me,' said Guri. He pushed back his fur cap, scratching at his braids.
'Why? They're false gods.'
'That's so, but nevertheless ... Each god of the Rukar is doubled, split in two – one cruel and one fair aspect – but is still the same god. Does that give them strength, or lessen them?'
Peb Yuve did not reply.
A war leader, he was also the priest of his band, which approximated five hundred men. He thought carefully, and Guri waited in humility.
'Their gods are nothing – weak, as they themselves are. Once I knew a man among the sluhtins of Olchibe. His brain was this way, too. One hour he would be brave and glorious. Then the next he would turn, like milk, and was insolent, and vicious as a fleer-wolf.'
'I shot him,' said Peb Yuve, 'with my woman bow, and with arrows for women.' He nodded again. 'I have no fear of the crack-brained gods of the Ruk.'
Excerpted from Cast a Bright Shadow by Tanith Lee. Copyright © 2004 Tanith Lee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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