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“A wonderful work in the fantasy tradition, yet full of touches that mark it as something startlingly new.”
—The Toronto Star
“A richly sensuous fantasy world, full of evocative history, religions, folklore, local customs, and magical rites.”
“Packed with action . . . I enjoyed it all!”
—The London Times
“An epic fantasy on the grand scale. . . . A beautifully executed and absorbing tale of exile, love, and loyalty.”
—Aboriginal Science Fiction
“Thrilling, poignant . . . Tigana is a name we won’t forget.”
“Brilliant and complex. . . . A consuming epic.”
“Massively satisfying . . . powerfully imagined . . . startlingly new. . . . A powerful and moving meditation.”
—The Toronto Star
“Boldly complex . . . generously populated, intelligently articulated.”
“A superior fantasy novel.”
“A masterpiece of fiction. . . . Leaves the reader breathless.”
“I’m not just impressed by The Summer Tree—I’m overwhelmed! It’s one of those rare books that change your perception of the world forever afterward.”
—Marion Zimmer Bradley
“The Summer Tree compares to the Lord of the Rings in depth and the characters are more attuned to our time and world. An outstanding work all the way around.”
“Careful world building and strong characterizations create a depth of story uncommon in most fantasy fiction. Highly recommended.”
“Kay has delivered such a magnificent conclusion . . . that I can’t praise it enough. It is a book that makes one proud to be working in the same genre as its author.”
—Charles De Lint, in Fantasy Review
“Kay’s commitment to the great ideals—to sheer human excellence—takes hold of the reader. It’s a remarkable achievement.”
“Complex and compelling. One of the most impressive fantasies in a long time.”
“A richly ornamental and tightly woven tapestry, a panoramic and compelling tale. . . . Kay masterfully sustains his superb story throughout, balancing one character against another, revealing one surprise after another until the whole of the tale lies before us in its embroidered complexity.”
“A Song for Arbonne is the best of commercial fiction, one of those books you wish would never end. A thoughtful, literate adventure filled with rich details and vivid characters, high drama, and graceful prose. A Song for Arbonne is a book to lose yourself in.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
GUY GAVRIEL KAY
IN THE SHAPING OF THIS WORK A GREAT MANY PEOPLE lent me their considerable skills and their support. It is a pleasure to be able to acknowledge that aid. Sue Reynolds once again offered me a map that not only reflected but helped to guide the development of my story. Rex Kay and Neil Randall offered both enthusiasm and perceptive commentary from the early stages of the novel through to its last revisions. I am deeply grateful to both of them.
I am indebted to the scholarship of a great many men and women. It is a particular pleasure to record my admiration for Carlo Ginzberg’s Night Battles (I Benandanti). I have also been stimulated and instructed by the work of, among others, Gene Brucker, Lauro Martines, Jacob Burckhardt, Iris Origo, and Johan Huizinga. In this regard, I wish also to pay grateful tribute to the memory of two men for whom I have long held the deepest respect, and whose work and sources of inspiration have so profoundly guided my own: Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves.
Finally, while it may often appear to be a matter of ritual or rote when an author mentions the role of a spouse in the creation of a book, I can only affirm that it is with both gratitude and love that I wish to acknowledge the sustaining encouragement and counsel I have received in the writing of Tigana, both in Tuscany and at home, from my wife, Laura.
A NOTE ON PRONUNCIATION
FOR THE ASSISTANCE OF THOSE TO WHOM SUCH THINGS are of importance, I should perhaps note that most of the proper names in this novel should be pronounced according to the rules of the Italian language. Thus, for example, all final vowels are sounded: Corte has two syllables, Sinave and Forese have three. Chiara has the same hard initial sound as chianti but Certando will begin with the same sound as chair or child.
All that you held most dear you will put by
and leave behind you; and this is the arrow
the longbow of your exile first lets fly.
You will come to know how bitter as salt and stone
is the bread of others, how hard the way that goes
up and down stairs that never are your own.
Dante, The Paradiso
What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than is necessary, it goes out; if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.
George Seferis, “Stratis the Sailor Describes a Man”
BOTH MOONS WERE HIGH, DIMMING THE LIGHT OF ALL but the brightest stars. The campfires burned on either side of the river, stretching away into the night. Quietly flowing, the Deisa caught the moonlight and the orange of the nearer fires and cast them back in wavery, sinuous ripples. And all the lines of light led to his eyes, to where he was sitting on the riverbank, hands about his knees, thinking about dying and the life he’d lived.
There was a glory to the night, Saevar thought, breathing deeply of the mild summer air, smelling water and water flowers and grass, watching the reflection of blue moonlight and silver on the river, hearing the Deisa’s murmurous flow and the distant singing from around the fires. There was singing on the other side of the river too, he noted, listening to the enemy soldiers north of them. It was curiously hard to impute any absolute sense of evil to those harmonizing voices, or to hate them quite as blindly as being a soldier seemed to require. He wasn’t really a soldier, though, and he had never been good at hating.
He couldn’t actually see any figures moving in the grass across the river, but he could see the fires and it wasn’t hard to judge how many more of them lay north of the Deisa than there were here behind him, where his people waited for the dawn.
Almost certainly their last. He had no illusions; none of them did. Not since the battle at this same river five days ago. All they had was courage, and a leader whose defiant gallantry was almost matched by the two young sons who were here with him.
They were beautiful boys, both of them. Saevar regretted that he had never had the chance to sculpt either of them. The Prince he had done of course, many times. The Prince called him a friend. It could not be said, Saevar thought, that he had lived a useless or an empty life. He’d had his art, the joy of it and the spur, and had lived to see it praised by the great ones of his province, indeed of the whole peninsula.
And he’d known love, as well. He thought of his wife and then of his own two children. The daughter whose eyes had taught him part of the meaning of life on the day she’d been born fifteen years ago. And his son, too young by a year to have been allowed to come north to war. Saevar remembered the look on the boy’s face when they had parted. He supposed that much the same expression had been in his own eyes. He’d embraced both children, and then he’d held his wife for a long time, in silence; all the words had been spoken many times through all the years. Then he’d turned, quickly, so they would not see his tears, and mounted his horse, unwontedly awkward with a sword on his hip, and had ridden away with his Prince to war against those who had come upon them from over the sea.
He heard a light tread, behind him and to his left, from where the campfires were burning and voices were threading in song to the tune a syrenya played. He turned to the sound.
“Be careful,” he called softly. “Unless you want to trip over a sculptor.”
“Saevar?” an amused voice murmured. A voice he knew well.
“It is, my lord Prince,” he replied. “Can you remember a night so beautiful?”
Valentin walked over—there was more than enough light by which to see—and sank neatly down on the grass beside him. “Not readily,” he agreed. “Can you see? Vidomni’s waxing matches Ilarion’s wane. The two moons together would make one whole.”
“A strange whole that would be,” Saevar said.
“’Tis a strange night.”
“Is it? Is the night changed by what we do down here? We mortal men in our folly?”
“The way we see it is,” Valentin said softly, his quick mind engaged by the question. “The beauty we find is shaped, at least in part, by what we know the morning will bring.”
“What will it bring, my lord?” Saevar asked, before he could stop himself. Half hoping, he realized, as a child hopes, that his dark-haired Prince of grace and pride would have an answer yet to what lay waiting across the river. An answer to all those Ygrathen voices and all the Ygrathen fires burning north of them. An answer, most of all, to the terrible King of Ygrath and his sorcery, and the hatred that he at least would have no trouble summoning tomorrow.
Valentin was silent, looking out at the river. Overhead Saevar saw a star fall, angling across the sky west of them to plunge, most likely, into the wideness of the sea. He was regretting the question; this was no time to be putting a burden of false certitude upon the Prince.
Just as he was about to apologize, Valentin spoke, his voice measured and low, so as not to carry beyond their small circle of dark.
“I have been walking among the fires, and Corsin and Loredan have been doing the same, offering comfort and hope and such laughter as we can bring to ease men into sleep. There is not much else we can do.”
“They are good boys, both of them,” Saevar offered. “I was thinking that I’ve never sculpted either of them.”
“I’m sorry for that,” Valentin said. “If anything lasts for any length of time after us it will be art such as yours. Our books and music, Orsaria’s green and white tower in Avalle.” He paused, and returned to his original thought. “They are brave boys. They are also sixteen and nineteen, and if I could have I would have left them behind with their brother . . . and your son.”
It was one of the reasons Saevar loved him: that Valentin would remember his own boy, and think of him with the youngest prince, even now, at such a time as this.
To the east and a little behind them, away from the fires, a trialla suddenly began to sing and both men fell silent, listening to the silver of that sound. Saevar’s heart was suddenly full, he was afraid that he might shame himself with tears, that they would be mistaken for fear.
Valentin said, “But I haven’t answered your question, old friend. Truth seems easier here in the dark, away from the fires and all the need I have been seeing there. Saevar, I am so sorry, but the truth is that almost all of the morning’s blood will be ours, and I am afraid it will be all of ours. Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” Saevar said quickly, and as firmly as he could. “This is not a war of your making, nor one you could avoid or undo. And besides, I may not be a soldier but I hope I am not a fool. It was an idle question: I can see the answer for myself, my lord. In the fires across the river.”
“And the sorcery,” Valentin added quietly. “More that, than the fires. We could beat back greater numbers, even weary and wounded as we are from last week’s battle. But Brandin’s magic is with them now. The lion has come himself, not the cub, and because the cub is dead there must be blood for the morning sun. Should I have surrendered last week? To the boy?”
Saevar turned to look at the Prince in the blended moonlight, disbelieving. He was speechless for a moment, then found his voice. “I would have gone home from that surrender,” he said, with resolution, “and walked into the Palace by the Sea, and smashed every sculpture I ever made of you.”
A second later he heard an odd sound. It took him a moment to realize that Valentin was laughing, because it wasn’t laughter like any Saevar had ever heard.
“Oh, my friend,” the Prince said, at length, “I think I knew you would say that. Oh, our pride. Our terrible pride. Will they remember that most about us, do you think, after we are gone?”
“Perhaps,” Saevar said. “But they will remember. The one thing we know with certainty is that they will remember us. Here in the peninsula, and in Ygrath, and Quileia, even west over the sea, in Barbadior and its Empire. We will leave a name.”
“And we leave our children,” Valentin said. “The younger ones. Sons and daughters who will remember us. Babes in arms our wives and grandfathers will teach when they grow up to know the story of the River Deisa, what happened here, and, even more—what we were in this province before the fall. Brandin of Ygrath can destroy us tomorrow, he can overrun our home, but he cannot take away our name, or the memory of what we have been.”
“He cannot,” Saevar echoed, feeling an odd, unexpected lift to his heart. “I am sure that you are right. We are not the last free generation. There will be ripples of tomorrow that run down all the years. Our children’s children will remember us, and will not lie tamely under the yoke.”
“And if any of them seem inclined to,” Valentin added in a different tone, “there will be the children or grandchildren of a certain sculptor who will smash their heads for them, of stone or otherwise.”
Saevar smiled in the darkness. He wanted to laugh, but it was not in him just then. “I hope so, my lord, if the goddesses and the god allow. Thank you. Thank you for saying that.”
“No thanks, Saevar. Not between us and not this night. The Triad guard and shelter you tomorrow, and after, and guard and shelter all that you have loved.”
Saevar swallowed. “You know you are a part of that, my lord. A part of what I have loved.”
Valentin did not reply. Only, after a moment, he leaned forward and kissed Saevar upon the brow. Then he held up a hand and the sculptor, his eyes blurring, raised his own hand and touched his Prince’s palm to palm in farewell. Valentin rose and was gone, a shadow in moonlight, back towards the fires of his army.
The singing seemed to have stopped, on both sides of the river. It was very late. Saevar knew he should be making his own way back and settling down for a few snatched hours of sleep. It was hard to leave though, to rise and surrender the perfect beauty of this last night. The river, the moons, the arch of stars, the fireflies and all the fires.
In the end he decided to stay there by the water. He sat alone in the summer darkness on the banks of the River Deisa, with his strong hands loosely clasped about his knees. He watched the two moons set and all the fires slowly die and he thought of his wife and children and the life’s work of his hands that would live after him, and the trialla sang for him all night long.
IN THE SOUL
• 1 •
IN THE AUTUMN SEASON OF THE WINE, WORD WENT FORTH from among the cypresses and olives and the laden vines of his country estate that Sandre, Duke of Astibar, once ruler of that city and its province, had drawn the last bitter breath of his exile and age and died.
No servants of the Triad were by his side to speak their rituals at his end. Not the white-robed priests of Eanna, nor those of dark Morian of Portals, nor the priestesses of Adaon, the god.
There was no particular surprise in Astibar town when these tidings came with the word of the Duke’s passing. Exiled Sandre’s rage at the Triad and its clergy through the last eighteen years of his life was far from being a secret. And impiety had never been a thing from which Sandre d’Astibar, even in the days of his power, had shied away.
The city was overflowing with people from the outlying distrada and far beyond on the eve of the Festival of Vines. In the crowded taverns and khav rooms truths and lies about the Duke were traded back and forth like wool and spice by folk who had never seen his face and who would have once paled with justifiable terror at a summons to the Ducal court in Astibar.
All his days Duke Sandre had occasioned talk and speculation through the whole of the peninsula men called the Palm—and there was nothing to alter that fact at the time of his dying, for all that Alberico of Barbadior had come with an army from that Empire overseas and exiled Sandre into the distrada eighteen years before. When power is gone the memory of power lingers.
Perhaps because of this, and certainly because he tended to be cautious and circumspect in all his ways, Alberico, who held four of the nine provinces in an iron grip and was vying with Brandin of Ygrath for the ninth, acted with a precise regard for protocol.
By noon of the day the Duke died, a messenger from Alberico was seen to have ridden out by the eastern gate of the city. A messenger bearing the blue-silver banner of mourning and carrying, no one doubted, carefully chosen words of condolence to Sandre’s children and grandchildren now gathered at their broad estate seven miles beyond the walls.
In The Paelion, the khav room where the wittier sort were gathering that season, it was cynically observed that the Tyrant would have been more likely to send a company of his own Barbadian mercenaries—not just a single message-bearer—were the living Sandreni not such a feckless lot. Before the appreciative, eye-to-who-might-be-listening, ripple of amusement at that had quite died away, one itinerant musician—there were scores of them in Astibar that week—had offered to wager all he might earn in the three days to come, that from the Island of Chiara would arrive condolences in verse before the Festival was over.
“Too rich an opportunity,” the rash newcomer explained, cradling a steaming mug of khav laced with one of the dozen or so liqueurs that lined the shelves behind the bar of The Paelion. “Brandin will be incapable of letting slip a chance like this to remind Alberico—and the rest of us—that though the two of them have divided our peninsula the share of art and learning is quite tilted west towards Chiara. Mark my words—and wager who will—we’ll have a knottily rhymed verse from stout Doarde or some silly acrostic thing of Camena’s to puzzle out, with Sandre spelled six ways and backwards, before the music stops in Astibar three days from now.”
There was laughter, though again it was guarded, even on the eve of the Festival, when a long tradition that Alberico of Barbadior had circumspectly indulged allowed more license than elsewhere in the year. A few men with heads for figures did some rapid calculations of sailing-time and the chances of the autumn seas north of Senzio province and down through the Archipelago, and the musician found his wager quickly covered and recorded on the slate on the wall of The Paelion that existed for just such a purpose in a city prone to gambling.
But shortly after that all wagers and mocking chatter were forgotten. Someone in a steep cap with a curled feather flung open the doors of the khav room, shouted for attention, and when he had it reported that the Tyrant’s messenger had just been seen returning through the same eastern gate from which he had so lately sallied forth. That the messenger was riding at an appreciably greater speed than hitherto, and that, not three miles to his rear was the funerary procession of Duke Sandre d’Astibar being brought by his last request to lie a night and a day in state in the city he once had ruled.
In The Paelion the reaction was immediate and predictable: men began shouting fiercely to be heard over the din they themselves were causing. Noise and politics and the anticipated pleasures of the Festival made for a thirsty afternoon. So brisk was his trade that the excitable proprietor of The Paelion began inadvertently serving full measures of liqueur in the laced khavs being ordered in profusion. His wife, of more phlegmatic disposition, continued to short-measure all her patrons with benevolent lack of favoritism.
“They’ll be turned back!” young Adreano the poet cried, decisively banging down his mug and sloshing hot khav over the dark oak table of The Paelion’s largest booth. “Alberico will never allow it!” There were growls of assent from his friends and the hangers-on who always clustered about this particular table.
Adreano stole a glance at the traveling musician who’d made the brash wager on Brandin of Ygrath and his court poets on Chiara. The fellow, looking highly amused, his eyebrows quizzically arched, leaned back comfortably in the chair he had brazenly pulled up to the booth some time ago. Adreano felt seriously offended by the man, and didn’t know whether his umbrage had been more aroused by the musician’s so-casual assertion of Chiara’s preeminence in culture, or by his flippant dismissal of the great Camena di Chiara whom Adreano had been assiduously imitating for the past half-year: both in the fashion of his verses and the wearing of a three-layered cloak by day and night.
Adreano was intelligent enough to be aware that there might be a contradiction inherent in these twinned sources of ire, but he was also young enough and had drunk a more than sufficient quantity of khav laced with Senzian brandy, for that awareness to remain well below the level of his conscious thoughts.
Which remained focused on this presumptuous rustic. The man had evidently journeyed into the city to saw or pluck for three days at some country instrument or other in exchange for a handful of astins to squander at the Festival. How did such a fellow dare sail into the most fashionable khav room in the Eastern Palm and thump his rural behind down onto a chair at the most coveted table in that room? Adreano still carried painfully vivid memories of the long month it had taken him—even after his first verses had appeared in print—to circle warily closer, flinching inwardly at apprehended rebuffs, before he became a member of the select and well-known circle that had a claim upon this booth.
He found himself actually hoping that the musician would presume to contradict his opinion: he had a choice couplet already prepared, about rabble of the road spewing views on their betters in the company of their betters.
As if on cue to that thought, the fellow slumped even more comfortably back in his chair, stroked a prematurely silvered temple with a long finger and said, directly to Adreano, “This seems to be my afternoon for wagers. I’ll risk everything I’m about to win on the other matter that Alberico is too cautious to ruffle the mood of the Festival over this. There are too many people in Astibar right now and spirits are running too high even with the half-measured drinks they serve in here to people who should know better.”
He grinned, to take some of the sting from the last words. “Far better for the Tyrant to be gracious,” he went on. “To lay his old enemy ceremoniously to rest once and for all, and then offer thanks to whatever gods his Emperor overseas is ordering the Barbadians to worship these days. Thanks and offerings, for he can be certain that the geldings Sandre’s left behind will be pleasingly swift to abandon the unfashionable pursuit of freedom that Sandre stood for in ungelded Astibar.”
By the end of his speech he was not smiling, nor did the wide-set grey eyes look away from Adreano’s own.
And here, for the first time, were truly dangerous words. Softly spoken, but they had been heard by everyone in the booth, and suddenly their corner of The Paelion became an unnaturally quiet space amid the unchecked din everywhere else in the room. Adreano’s derisive couplet, so swiftly composed, now seemed trivial and inappropriate in his own ears. He said nothing, his heart beating curiously fast. With some effort he kept his gaze on the musician’s.
Who added, the crooked smile returning, “Do we have a wager, friend?”
Parrying for time while he rapidly began calculating how many astins he could lay palms on by cornering certain friends, Adreano said, “Would you care to enlighten us as to why a farmer from the distrada is so free with his money to come and with his views on matters such as this?”
The other’s smile widened, showing even white teeth. “I’m no farmer,” he protested genially, “nor from your distrada either. I’m a shepherd from up in the south Tregea mountains and I’ll tell you a thing.” The grey eyes swung round, amused, to include the entire booth. “A flock of sheep will teach you more about men than some of us would like to think, and goats . . . well, goats will do better than the priests of Morian to make you a philosopher, especially if you’re out on a mountain in rain chasing after them with thunder and night coming on together.”
There was genuine laughter around the booth, abetted somewhat by the release of tension. Adreano tried unsuccessfully to keep his own expression sternly repressive.
“Have we a wager?” the shepherd asked one more time, his manner friendly and relaxed.
Adreano was saved the need to reply, and several of his friends were spared an amount of grief and lost astins by the arrival, even more precipitous than that of the feather-hatted tale-bearer, of Nerone the painter.
“Alberico’s given permission!” he trumpeted over the roar in The Paelion. “He’s just decreed that Sandre’s exile ended when he died. The Duke’s to lie in state tomorrow morning at the old Sandreni Palace and have a full-honors funeral with all nine of the rites! Provided”—he paused dramatically—“provided the clergy of the Triad are allowed in to do their part of it.”
The implications of all this were simply too large for Adreano to brood much upon his own loss of face—young, overly impetuous poets had that happen to them every second hour or so. But these—these were great events! His gaze, for some reason, returned to the shepherd. The man’s expression was mild and interested, but certainly not triumphant.
“Ah well,” the fellow said with a rueful shake of his head, “I suppose being right will have to compensate me for being poor—the story of my life, I fear.”
Adreano laughed. He clapped the portly, breathless Nerone on the back and shifted over to make room for the painter. “Eanna bless us both,” he said to him. “You just saved yourself more astins than you have. I would have touched you to make a wager I would have just lost with your tidings.”
By way of reply Nerone picked up Adreano’s half-full khav mug and drained it at a pull. He looked around optimistically, but the others in the booth were guarding their drinks, knowing the painter’s habits very well. With a chuckle the dark-haired shepherd from Tregea proffered his own mug. Self-taught never to query largesse, Nerone quaffed it down. He did murmur a thank-you when the khav was drained.
Adreano noted the exchange, but his mind was racing down unfamiliar channels to an unexpected conclusion.
“You have also,” he said abruptly, addressing Nerone but speaking to the booth at large, “just reaffirmed how shrewd the Barbadian sorcerer ruling us is. Alberico has now succeeded, with one decree, in tightening his bonds with the clergy of the Triad. He’s placed a perfect condition upon the granting of the Duke’s last wish. Sandre’s heirs will have to agree—not that they’d ever not agree to something—and I can’t even begin to guess how many astins it’s going to cost them to assuage the priests and priestesses enough to get them into the Sandreni Palace tomorrow morning. Alberico will now be known as the man who brought the renegade Duke of Astibar back to the grace of the Triad at his death.”
He looked around the booth, excited by the force of his own reasoning. “By the blood of Adaon, it reminds me of the intrigues of the old days when everything was done with this much subtlety! Wheels within the wheels that guided the fate line of the whole peninsula.”
“Well, now,” said the Tregean, his expression turning grave, “that may be the cleverest insight we’ve had this noisy day. But tell me,” he went on, as Adreano flushed with pleasure, “if what Alberico’s done has just reminded you—and others, I’ve no doubt, though not likely as swiftly—of the way of things in the days before he sailed here to conquer, and before Brandin took Chiara and the western provinces, then is it not possible”—his voice was low, for Adreano’s ears alone in the riot of the room—“that he has been outplayed at this game after all? Outplayed by a dead man?”
Around them men were rising and settling their accounts in loud haste to be outside, where events of magnitude seemed to be unfolding so swiftly. The eastern gate was where everyone was going, to see the Sandreni bring their dead lord home after eighteen years. A quarter of an hour earlier, Adreano would have been on his feet with the others, sweeping on his triple cloak, racing to reach the gate in time for a good viewing post. Not now. His brain leapt to follow the Tregean’s voice down this new pathway, and understanding flashed in him like a rushlight in darkness.
“You see it, don’t you?” his new acquaintance said flatly. They were alone at the booth. Nerone had lingered to precipitously drain whatever khav had been left unfinished in the rush for the doors and had then followed the others out into the autumn sunshine and the breeze.
“I think I do,” Adreano said, working it out. “Sandre wins by losing.”
“By losing a battle he never really cared about,” the other amended, a keenness in his grey eyes. “I doubt the clergy ever mattered to him at all. They weren’t his enemy. However subtle Alberico may be, the fact is that he won this province and Tregea and Ferraut and Certando because of his army and his sorcery, and he holds the Eastern Palm only through those things. Sandre d’Astibar ruled this city and its province for twenty-five years through half a dozen rebellions and assassination attempts that I’ve heard of. He did it with only a handful of sometimes loyal troops, with his family, and with a guile that was legendary even then. What would you say to the suggestion that he refused to let the priests and priestesses into his death-room last night simply to induce Alberico to seize that as a face-saving condition today?”
Adreano didn’t know what he would say. What he did know was that he was feeling a zest, an excitement, that left him unsure whether what he wanted just then was a sword in his hand or a quill and ink to write down the words that were starting to tumble about inside him.
“What do you think will happen?” he asked, with a deference that would have astonished his friends.
“I’m not sure,” the other said frankly. “But I have a growing suspicion that the Festival of Vines this year may see the beginning of something none of us could have expected.”
He looked for a moment as if he would say more than that, but did not.
Instead he rose, clinking a jumble of coins onto the table to pay for his khav. “I must go. Rehearsal-time: I’m with a company I’ve never played with before. Last year’s plague caused havoc among the traveling musicians—that’s how I got my reprieve from the goats.”
He grinned, then glanced up at the wager board on the wall. “Tell your friends I’ll be here before sunset three days from now to settle the matter of Chiara’s poetic condolences. Farewell for now.”
“Farewell,” Adreano said automatically, and watched as the other walked from the almost empty room.
The owner and his wife were moving about collecting mugs and glasses and wiping down the tables and benches. Adreano signaled for a last drink. A moment later, sipping his khav—unlaced this time to clear his head—he realized that he’d forgotten to ask the musician his name.
• 2 •
DEVIN WAS HAVING A BAD DAY.
At nineteen he had almost completely reconciled himself to his lack of size and to the fair-skinned boyish face the Triad had given him to go with that. It had been a long time since he’d been in the habit of hanging by his feet from trees in the woods near the farm back home in Asoli, striving to stretch a little more height out of his frame.
The keenness of his memory had always been a source of pride and pleasure to him, but a number of the memories that came with it were not. He would have been quite happy to be able to forget the afternoon when the twins, returning home from hunting with a brace of grele, had caught him suspended from a tree upside down. Six years later it still rankled him that his brothers, normally so reliably obtuse, had immediately grasped what he was trying to do.
“We’ll help you, little one!” Povar had cried joyfully, and before Devin could right himself and scramble away Nico had his arms, Povar his feet, and his burly twin brothers were stretching him between them, cackling with great good humor all the while. Enjoying, among other things, the ambit of Devin’s precociously profane vocabulary.
Well, that had been the last time he actually tried to make himself taller. Very late that same night he’d sneaked into the snoring twins’ bedroom and carefully dumped a bucket of pig slop over each of them. Sprinting like Adaon on his mountain he’d been through the yard and over the farm gate almost before their roaring started.
He’d stayed away two nights, then returned to his father’s whipping. He’d expected to have to wash the sheets himself, but Povar had done that and both twins, stolidly good-natured, had already forgotten the incident.
Devin, cursed or blessed with a memory like Eanna of the Names, never did forget. The twins might be hard people to hold a grudge against—almost impossible, in fact—but that did nothing to lessen his loneliness on that farm in the lowlands. It was not long after that incident that Devin had left home, apprenticed as a singer to Menico di Ferraut whose company toured northern Asoli every second or third spring.
Devin hadn’t been back since, taking a week’s leave during the company’s northern swing three years ago, and again this past spring. It wasn’t that he’d been badly treated on the farm, it was just that he didn’t fit in, and all four of them knew it. Farming in Asoli was serious, sometimes grim work, battling to hold land and sanity against the constant encroachments of the sea and the hot, hazy, grey monotony of the days.
If his mother had lived it might have been different, but the farm in Asoli where Garin of Lower Corte had taken his three sons had been a dour, womanless place—acceptable perhaps for the twins, who had each other, and for the kind of man Garin had slowly become amid the almost featureless spaces of the flatlands, but no source of nurture or warm memories for a small, quick, imaginative youngest child, whose own gifts, whatever they might turn out to be, were not those of the land.
After they had learned from Menico di Ferraut that Devin’s voice was capable of more than country ballads it had been with a certain collective relief that they had all said their farewells early one spring morning, standing in the predictable greyness and rain. His father and Nico had been turning back to check the height of the river almost before their parting words were fully spoken. Povar lingered though, to awkwardly cuff his little, odd brother on the shoulder.
“If they don’t treat you right enough,” he’d said, “you can come home, Dev. There’s a place.”
Devin remembered both things: the gentle blow which had been forced to carry more of a burden of meaning down the years than such a gesture should, and the rough, quick words that had followed. The truth was, he really did remember almost everything, except for his mother and their days in Lower Corte. But he’d been less than two years old when she’d died amongst the fighting down there, and only a month older when Garin had taken his three sons north.
Since then, almost everything was held in his mind.
And if he’d been a wagering man—which he wasn’t, having that much of careful Asoli in his soul—he’d have been willing to put a chiaro or an astin down on the fact that he couldn’t recall feeling this frustrated in years. Since, if truth were told, the days when it looked as if he would never grow at all.
What, Devin d’Asoli asked himself grimly, did a person have to do to get a drink in Astibar? And on the eve of the Festival, no less!
The problem would have been positively laughable were it not so infuriating. It was the doing, he learned quickly enough—in the first inn that refused to serve him his requested flask of Senzio green wine—of the pinch-buttocked, joy-killing priests of Eanna. The goddess, Devin thought fervently, deserved better of her servants.
It appeared that a year ago, in the midst of their interminable jockeying for ascendancy with the clergy of Morian and Adaon, Eanna’s priests had convinced the Tyrant’s token council that there was too much licentiousness among the young of Astibar and that, more to the point of course, such license bred unrest. And since it was obvious that the taverns and khav rooms bred license . . .
It had taken less than two weeks for Alberico to promulgate and begin enforcing a law that no youth of less than seventeen years could buy a drink in Astibar.
Eanna’s dust-dry priests celebrated—in whatever ascetic fashion such men celebrated—their petty triumph over the priests of Morian and the elegant priestesses of the god: both of which deities were associated with darker passions and, inevitably, wine.
Tavern-keepers were quietly unhappy (it didn’t do to be loudly unhappy in Astibar) though not so much for the loss of trade as for the insidious manner in which the law was enforced. The promulgated law had simply placed the burden of establishing a patron’s age on the owner of each inn, tavern, or khav room. At the same time, if any of the ubiquitous Barbadian mercenaries should happen to drop by, and should happen—arbitrarily—to decide that a given patron looked too young . . . well, that was one tavern closed for a month and one tavern-keeper locked up for the same length of time.
All of which left the sixteen-year-olds in Astibar truly out of luck. Along with, it gradually became evident through the course of a morning, one small, boyish-looking nineteen-year-old singer from Asoli.
After three summary ejections along the west side of the Street of the Temples, Devin was briefly tempted to go across the road to the Shrine of Morian, fake an ecstasy, and hope they favored Senzian green here as a means of succoring the overly ecstatic. As another, even less rational, option he contemplated breaking a window in Eanna’s domed shrine and testing if any of the ball-less imbeciles inside could catch him in a sprint.
He forebore to do so, as much out of genuine devotion to Eanna of the Names as to an oppressive awareness of how many very large and heavily armed Barbadian mercenaries patrolled the streets of Astibar. The Barbadians were everywhere in the Eastern Palm of course, but nowhere was their presence so disturbingly evident as it was in Astibar where Alberico had based himself.
In the end, Devin wished a serious head-cold on himself and headed west towards the harbor and then, following his unfortunately still-functioning sense of smell, towards Tannery Lane. And there, made almost ill by the effluence of the tanner’s craft, which quite overwhelmed the salt of the sea, he was given an open bottle of green, no questions asked, in a tavern called The Bird, by a shambling, loose-limbed innkeeper whose eyes were probably inadequate to the dark shadows of his windowless, one-room establishment.
Even this nondescript, evil-smelling hole was completely full. Astibar was crammed to overflowing for tomorrow’s start of the Festival of Vines. The harvest had been a good one everywhere but in Certando, Devin knew, and there were plenty of people with astins or chiaros to spend, and in a mood to spend them too.
There were certainly no free tables to be had in The Bird. Devin wedged himself into a corner where the dark, pitted wood of the bar met the back wall, took a judicious sip of his wine—watered but not unusually so, he decided—and composed his mind and soul towards a meditation upon the perfidy and unreasonableness of women.
As embodied, specifically, by Catriana d’Astibar these past two weeks.
He calculated that he had enough time before the late-afternoon rehearsal—the last before their opening engagement at the city home of a small wine-estate owner tomorrow—to muse his way through most of a bottle and still show up sober. He was the experienced trouper anyhow, he thought indignantly. He was a partner. He knew the performance routines like a hand knew a glove. The extra rehearsals had been laid on by Menico for the benefit of the three new people in the troupe.
Including impossible Catriana. Who happened to be the reason he had stormed out of the morning rehearsal a short while before he knew that Menico planned to call the session to a halt. How, in the name of Adaon, was he supposed to react when an inexperienced new female who thought she could sing—and to whom he’d been genuinely friendly since she’d joined them a fortnight ago—said what she’d said in front of everyone that morning?
Cursed with memory, Devin saw the nine of them rehearsing again in the rented back room on the ground floor of their inn. Four musicians, the two dancers, Menico, Catriana, and himself singing up front. They were doing Rauder’s “Song of Love,” a piece rather predictably requested by the wine-merchant’s wife, a piece Devin had been singing for nearly six years, a song he could manage in a stupor, a coma, sound asleep.
And so perhaps, yes, he’d been a little bored, a little distracted, had been leaning a little closer than absolutely necessary to their newest, red-headed female singer, putting perhaps the merest shading of a message into his expression and voice, but still, even so . . .
“Devin, in the name of the Triad,” had snapped Catriana d’Astibar, breaking up the rehearsal entirely, “do you think you can get your mind away from your groin for long enough to do a decent harmony? This is not a difficult song!”
The affliction of a fair complexion had hurtled Devin’s face all the way to bright red. Menico, he saw—Menico who should have been sharply reprimanding the girl for her presumption—was laughing helplessly, even more flushed than Devin was. So were the others, all of them.
Unable to think of a reply, unwilling to compromise the tattered shreds of his dignity by yielding to his initial impulse to reach up and whack the girl across the back of her head, Devin had simply spun on his heels and left.
He’d thrown one reproachful glance at Menico as he went but was not assuaged: the troupe-leader’s ample paunch was quivering with laughter as he wiped tears from his round, bearded face.
So Devin had gone looking for a bottle of Senzio green and a dark place to drink it in on a brilliant autumn morning in Astibar. Having finally found the wine and the tenuous comfort of shadows he fully expected to figure out, about half a bottle from now, what he should have said to that arrogant red-maned creature back in the rehearsal room.
If only she wasn’t so depressingly tall, he thought. Morosely he filled his glass again. Looking up at the blackened crossbeams of the ceiling he briefly contemplated hanging himself from one of them: by the heels of course. For old time’s sake.
“Shall I buy you a drink?” someone said.
With a sigh Devin turned to cope with one of the more predictable aspects of being small and looking very young while drinking alone in a sailor’s bar.
What he saw was somewhat reassuring. His questioner was a soberly dressed man of middle years with greying hair and lines of worry or laughter radiating at his temples. Even so:
“Thank you,” Devin said, “but I’ve most of my own bottle left and I prefer having a woman to being one for sailors. I’m also older than I look.”
The other man laughed aloud. “In that case,” he chuckled, genuinely amused, “you can give me a drink if you like while I tell you about my two marriageable daughters and the other two who are on their way to that age sooner than I’m ready for. I’m Rovigo d’Astibar, master of the Sea Maid just in from down the coast in Tregea.”
Devin grinned and stretched across the bar for another glass: The Bird was far too crowded to bother trying to catch the owner’s rheumy eye, and Devin had his own reasons for not wanting to signal the man.
“I’ll be happy to share the bottle with you,” he said to Rovigo, “though your wife is unlikely to be well pleased if you press your daughters upon a traveling musician.”
“My wife,” said Rovigo feelingly, “would turn ponderous cartwheels of delight if I brought home a cowherd from the Certandan grasslands for the oldest one.”
Devin winced. “That bad?” he murmured. “Ah, well. We can at least drink to your safe return from Tregea, and in time for Festival by a fingernail. I’m Devin d’Asoli bar Garin, at your service.”
“And I at yours, friend Devin, not-as-young-as-you-look. Did you have trouble getting a drink?” Rovigo asked shrewdly.
“I was in and out of more doorways than Morian of Portals knows, and as dry when I left as when I’d entered.” Devin rashly sniffed the heavy air; even among the odors of the crowd and despite the lack of windows, the tannery stench from outside was still painfully discernible. “This would not have been my first or my tenth choice as a place for drinking a flask of wine.”
Rovigo smiled. “A sensible attitude. Will I seem eccentric if I tell you I always come straight here when the Sea Maid is home from a voyage? Somehow the smell speaks of land to me. Tells me I’m back.”
“You don’t like the sea?”
“I am quite convinced that any man who says he does is lying, has debts on land, or a shrewish wife to escape from and—” He paused, pretending to have been suddenly struck by a thought. “Come to think of it . . .” he added with exaggerated reflectiveness. Then he winked.
Devin laughed aloud and poured them both more wine. “Why do you sail then?”
“Trade is good,” Rovigo said frankly. “The Maid is small enough to slip into ports down the coast or around on the western side of Senzio or Ferraut that the bigger traders never bother with. She’s also quick enough to make it worth my while running south past the mountains to Quileia. It isn’t sanctioned, of course, with the trade embargo down there, but if you have contacts in a remote enough place and you don’t dawdle about your business it isn’t too risky and there’s a profit to be made. I can take Barbadian spices from the market here, or silk from the north, and get them to places in Quileia that would never otherwise see such things. I bring back carpets, or Quileian wood carvings, slippers, jeweled daggers, sometimes casks of buinath to sell to the taverns—whatever’s going at a good price. I can’t do volume so I have to watch my margins, but there’s a living in it as long as insurance stays down and Adaon of the Waves keeps me afloat. I go from here to the god’s temple before heading home.”
“But here first,” Devin smiled.
“Here first.” They touched glasses and drained them. Devin refilled both.
“What’s news in Quileia?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, I was just there,” Rovigo said. “Tregea was a stop on the way back. There are tidings, actually. Marius won his combat in the Grove of Oaks again this summer.”
“I did hear about that,” Devin said, shaking his head in rueful admiration. “A crippled man, and he must be fifty years old by now. What does that make it—six times in a row?”
“Seven,” Rovigo said soberly. He paused, as if expecting a reaction.
“I’m sorry,” Devin said. “Is there a meaning to that?”
“Marius decided there was. He’s just announced that there will be no more challenges in the Oak Grove. Seven is sacred, he’s proclaimed. By allowing him this latest triumph the Mother Goddess has made known her will. Marius has just declared himself King in Quileia, no longer only the consort of the High Priestess.”
“What?” Devin exclaimed, loudly enough to cause some heads to turn. He lowered his voice. “He’s declared . . . a man . . . I thought they had a matriarchy there.”
“So,” said Rovigo, “did the late High Priestess.”
Traveling across the Peninsula of the Palm, from mountain village to remote castle or manor, to the cities that were the centers of affairs, musicians could not help but hear news and gossip of great events. Always, in Devin’s brief experience, the talk had been only that: a way to ease the passing of a cold winter’s night around an inn fire in Certando, or to try to impress a traveler in a tavern in Corte with a murmured confiding that a pro-Barbadior party was rumored to be forming in that Ygrathen province.
It was only talk, Devin had long since concluded. The two ruling sorcerers from east and west across the seas had sliced the Palm neatly in half between them, with only hapless, decadent Senzio not formally occupied by either, looking nervously across the water both ways. Its Governor remained paralytically unable to decide which wolf to be devoured by, while the two wolves still warily circled each other after almost twenty years, each unwilling to expose itself by moving first.
The balance of power in the peninsula seemed to Devin to have been etched in stone from the time of his first awareness. Until one of the sorcerers died—and sorcerers were rumored to live a very long time—nothing much would or could come of khav room or great hall chatter.
Quileia, though, was another matter. One far beyond Devin’s limited experience to sort out or define. He couldn’t even guess what might be the implications of what Marius had now done in that strange country south of the mountains. What might flow from Quileia’s having a more than transitory King, one who did not have to go into the Oak Grove every two years and there, naked, ritually maimed, and unarmed, meet the sword-wielding foe who had been chosen to slay him and take his place. Marius had not been slain, though. Seven times he had not been slain.
And now the High Priestess was dead. Nor was it possible to miss the meaning in the way Rovigo had said that. A little overawed, Devin shook his head.
He glanced up and saw that his new acquaintance was staring at him with an odd expression.
“You’re a thoughtful young man, aren’t you?” the merchant said.
Devin shrugged, suddenly self-conscious. “Not unduly. I don’t know. Certainly not with any insight. I don’t hear news like yours every afternoon. What do you think it will mean?”
One answer he was not to receive.
The tavern-keeper, who had quite efficiently succeeded in ignoring Rovigo’s intermittent signaling for another bottle of wine now strode to their end of the bar, black anger visible on his features even in the darkened room.
“You!” he hissed. “Your name Devin?”
Taken aback, Devin nodded reflexive agreement. The tavern-keeper’s expression grew even more malevolent.
“Get out of here!” he rasped. “Your Triad-cursed sister’s outside. Says your father’s ordered you home and—Morian blast you both!—that he’s minded to turn me in for serving an underage. You gutter-spawned maggot, I’ll teach you to put me at risk of being shut down on the eve of the Festival!”
Before Devin could move, a full pitcher of soured black wine was flung into his face, stinging like fire. He scrambled back, wiping at his streaming eyes, swearing furiously.
When he could see again it was to observe an extraordinary sight.
Rovigo—not a big man—had moved along the bar and had grabbed the ’keeper by the collar of his greasy tunic. Without apparent effort he had the man pulled halfway over the bar top, feet kicking ineffectually in mid-air. The collar was twisted to a degree sufficient to cause the helpless tavern-owner’s face to begin turning a mottled shade of crimson.
“Goro, I do not like my friends being abused,” Rovigo said calmly. “The lad has no father here and I doubt he has a sister.” He cocked an eyebrow at Devin who shook his dripping head vehemently.
“As I say,” Rovigo continued, not even breathing hard, “he has no sister here. He is also patently not underage—as should be obvious to any tavern-owner not blinded by swilling buckets of his own slop after hours. Now, Goro, will you placate me a little by apologizing to Devin d’Asoli, my new friend, and offering him two bottles of corked vintage Certando red, by way of showing your sincere contrition? In return I may be persuaded to let you have a cask of the Quileian buinath that’s sitting on the Sea Maid even now. At an appropriate price or course, given what you can extort for that stuff at Festival-time.”
Goro’s face had accomplished a truly dangerous hue. Just as Devin felt obliged to caution Rovigo, the tavern-owner gave a jerky, convulsive nod and the merchant untwisted the collar a little. Goro dragged fetid tavern air into his lungs as if it were scented with Chiaran mountain tainflowers and spluttered a three word apology to Devin.
“And the wine?” Rovigo reminded him kindly.
He lowered the other man—still without any evident exertion—enough for Goro to fumble below the bar and resurface with two bottles of what certainly appeared to be Certandan red.
Rovigo let slip another notch of the tightened collar.
“Vintage?” he inquired patiently.
Goro twitched his head up and down.
“Well then,” Rovigo declared, releasing Goro completely, “it appears we are quits. I suppose,” he said, turning to Devin, “that you should go see who is pretending to be your sister outside.”
“I know who it is,” Devin said grimly. “Thank you, by the way. I’m used to fighting my own battles, but it’s pleasant to have an ally now and again.”
“It is always pleasant to have an ally,” Rovigo amended. “But it seems obvious to me that you aren’t keen on dealing with this ‘sister,’ so I’ll leave you to do it in private. Do let me once more commend my own daughters to your kind remembrance. They’ve been quite well brought up, all things considered.”
“I have no doubt of that at all,” Devin said. “If I can do you a service in return I will. I’m with the company of Menico di Ferraut and we’re here through the Festival. Your wife might enjoy hearing us perform. If you let me know you’ve come I’ll make sure you have good places at either of our public performances, free of charge.”
“I thank you. And if your path or your curiosity leads you southeast of town, now or later in the year, our land is about five miles along the road on the right-hand side. There’s a small temple of Adaon just before and my gate has a crest with a ship on it. One of the girls designed it. They are all,” he grinned, “very talented.”
Devin laughed and the two men touched palms formally. Rovigo turned back to reclaim their corner of the bar. Devin, dismally aware that he was soaked with evil-smelling wine from light-brown hair to waist, with stains splotching his hose as well, walked outside clutching his two bottles of Certandan red. He squinted owlishly in the sunshine for a few seconds before spotting Catriana d’Astibar on the other side of the lane, scarlet hair blazing in the light, a handkerchief pressed firmly beneath her nose.
Devin strode briskly into the road and almost collided with a tanner’s cart. A brief and satisfying exchange of opinions ensued. The tanner rumbled on and Devin, vowing inwardly not to be put on the defensive this time, crossed the lane to where Catriana had been expressionlessly observing the altercation.
“Well,” he said caustically, “I do appreciate your coming all this way to apologize, but you might have chosen a different way of finding me if you were sincere. I rather prefer my clothes unsaturated with spoiled wine. You will offer to wash them for me, of course.”
Catriana simply ignored all of this, looking him up and down coldly. “You are going to need a wash and a change,” she said, from behind the scented handkerchief. “I hadn’t counted on that much of a reaction inside. But not having a surplus of astins to spend on bribes I couldn’t think of a better way to get tavern-owners to bother looking for you.” It was an explanation, Devin noted, but not an apology.
“Forgive me,” he said, with exaggerated contrition. “I must talk with Menico—it seems we aren’t paying you enough, in addition to all our other transgressions. You must be used to better things.”
She hesitated for the first time. “Must we discuss this in the middle of Tannery Lane?” she said.
Without a word Devin sketched a performance bow and gestured for her to lead the way. She started walking away from the harbor and he fell in stride beside her. They were silent for several minutes, until out of the range of the tannery smells. With a faint sigh Catriana put away her handkerchief.
“Where are you taking me?” Devin asked.
Another transgression, it seemed. The blue eyes flashed with anger.
“In the name of the Triad where would I be taking you?” Catriana’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “We are going to my room at the inn for a session of love-making like Eanna and Adaon at the dawn of days.”
“Oh, good,” Devin snapped, his own anger rekindling. “Why don’t we pool our funds and buy another woman to come play Morian—just so I don’t get bored, you understand.”
Catriana paled, but before she could open her mouth Devin grabbed her arm with his free hand and swung her around to face him in the street. Looking up into those blue eyes (and cursing the fact that he had to do that) he snapped:
“Catriana, what exactly have I done to you? Why do I deserve that sort of answer? Or what you did this morning? I’ve been pleasant to you from the day we signed you on—and if you’re a professional you know that isn’t always the case in troupes on the road. If you must know, Marra, the woman you replaced, was my closest friend in the company. She died of the plague in Certando. I could have made life very hard for you. I didn’t and I’m not. I did let you know from the first that I found you attractive. I’m not aware that there is a sin in that if it is done with courtesy.”
He released her arm, abruptly conscious that he had been gripping it very hard and that they were in an extremely public place, even with the early-afternoon lull. Instinctively he looked around; thankfully there were no Barbadians passing just then. There was a familiar tight feeling in his chest, as of the apprehended return of pain, that always came with the thought of Marra. The first true friend of his life. Two neglected children, with voices that were gifts of Eanna, telling each other fears and dreams for three years in changing beds across the Palm at night. His first lover. First death.
Catriana, released, remained where she was, and there was a look in her own eyes—perhaps at the naming of death—that made him abruptly revise his estimate of her age downwards. He’d thought she was older than him; now he wasn’t sure.
He waited, breathing quickly after his outburst, and at length he heard her say very softly, “You sing too well.”
Devin blinked. It was not at all what he’d expected.
“I have to work very hard at performing,” she went on, her face flushing for the first time. “Rauder is hard for me—all of his music. And this morning you were doing the ‘Song of Love’ without even thinking about it, amusing the others, trying to charm me . . . Devin, I have to concentrate when I sing! You were making me nervous and I snap at people when I’m nervous.”
Devin drew a careful breath and looked around the empty sunlit street for a moment, thinking. He said, “Do you know . . . has anyone ever told you . . . that it is possible and even useful to tell things like this to people—especially the people who have to work with you?”
She shook her head. “Not for me. I’ve never been able to talk like that, not ever.”
“Why do it now, then?” he risked. “Why did you come after me?”
A longer pause than before. A cluster of artisans’ apprentices swept around the corner, hooting with reflexive ribaldry at the sight of the two of them standing together. There was no malice in it though, and they went by without causing any trouble. A few red and golden leaves skipped over the cobbles in the breeze.
“Something’s happened,” Catriana d’Astibar said, “and Menico told us all that you are the key to our chances.”
“Menico sent you after me?” It was almost completely improbable, after nearly six years together.
“No,” Catriana said, quickly shaking her head. “No, he said you’d be back in time, that you always were. I was nervous though, with so much at stake. I couldn’t just wait around. You’d left a little, um, upset, after all.”
“A little,” Devin agreed gravely, noting that she finally had the grace to look apologetic. He would have felt even more secure if he hadn’t continued to find her so attractive. He couldn’t stop himself from wondering—even now—what her breasts would look like, freed from the stiffness of her high-cut bodice. Marra would have told him, he knew, and even helped him with a conquest. They had done that for each other, and shared the tales after, traveling through that last year on the road before Certando where she died.
“You had better tell me what’s happened,” he said, forcing his thoughts back to the present. There was danger in fantasies and in memories, both.
“The exiled Duke, Sandre, died last night,” Catriana said. She looked around but the street was empty again. “For some reason—no one is sure why—Alberico is allowing his body to lie in state at the Sandreni Palace tonight and tomorrow morning, and then . . .”
She paused, the blue eyes bright. Devin, his pulse suddenly leaping, finished it for her:
“A funeral? Full rites? Don’t tell me!”
“Full rites! And Devin, Menico’s been asked to audition this afternoon! We have a chance to do the most talked-about performance in the whole of the Palm this year!” She looked very young now. And quite unsettlingly beautiful. Her eyes were shining like a child’s.
“So you came to get me,” he murmured, nodding his head slowly “before I drank myself into a useless stupor of frustrated desire.” He had the edge now, for the first time. It was a pleasant turnabout, especially coupled with the real excitement of her news. He began walking, forcing her to fall in stride with him. For a change.
“It isn’t like that,” she protested. “It’s just that this is so important. Menico said your voice would be the key to our hopes . . . that you were at your best in the mourning rites.”
“I don’t know whether to be flattered by that, or insulted that you actually thought I’d be so unprofessional as to miss a rehearsal on the eve of the Festival.”
“Don’t be either,” Catriana d’Astibar said, with a hint of returning asperity. “We don’t have time for either. Just be good this afternoon. Be the best you’ve ever been.”
He ought to resist it, Devin knew, but his spirits were suddenly much too high.
“In that case, are you sure we’re not going to your room?” he asked blandly.
More than he could know hung in the balance for the moment that followed. Then Catriana d’Astibar laughed aloud and freely for the first time.
“Now that,” said Devin, grinning, “is much better. I honestly wasn’t sure if you had a sense of humor.”
She grew quiet. “Sometimes I’m not sure either,” she said, almost absently. Then, in a rather different voice: “Devin, I want this contract more than I can tell you.”
“Well of course,” he replied. “It could make our careers.”
“That’s right,” Catriana said. She touched his shoulder and repeated, “I want this more than I can say.”
He might have sought a promise in that touch had he been a little less perceptive, and had it not been for the way she spoke the words. There was, in fact, nothing at all of ambition in that tone, nor of desire in the way that Devin had come to know desire.
What he heard was longing, and it reached towards a space inside him that he hadn’t known was there.
“I’ll do what I can,” he said after a moment, thinking, for no good reason, of Marra and the tears he’d shed.
On the farm in Asoli they had known he was gifted with music quite early but it was an isolated place and none of them had a frame of reference whereby to properly judge or measure such things.
One of Devin’s first memories of his father—one that he summoned often because it was a soft image of a hard man—was of Garin humming the tune of some old cradle song to help Devin fall asleep one night when he was feverish.
The boy—four perhaps—had woken in the morning with his fever broken, humming the tune to himself with perfect pitch. Garin’s face had taken on the complex expression that Devin would later learn to associate with his father’s memories of his wife. That morning though, Garin had kissed his youngest child. The only time Devin could remember that happening.
The tune became a thing they shared. An access to a limited intimacy. They would hum it together in rough, untutored attempts at harmony. Later Garin bought a scaled-down three string syrenya for his youngest child on one of his twice-yearly trips to the market in Asoli town. After that there were actually a few evenings Devin did like to remember, when he and his father and the twins would sing ballads of the sea and hills by the fire at night before bed. Escapes from the drear, wet flatness of Asoli.
When he grew older he began to sing for some of the other farmers. At weddings or naming days, and once with a traveling priest of Morian he sang counterpoint during the autumn Ember Days on the “Hymn to Morian of Portals.” The priest wanted to bed him, after, but by then Devin was learning how to avoid such requests without giving offense.
Later yet, he began to be called upon in the taverns. There were no age laws for drinking in northern Asoli, where a boy was a man when he could do a day in the fields, and a girl was a woman when she first bled.
And it had been in a tavern called The River in Asoli town itself on a market day that Devin, just turned fourteen, had been singing “The Ride from Corso to Corte” and had been overheard by a portly, bearded man who turned out to be a troupe-leader named Menico di Ferraut and who had taken him away from the farm that week and changed his life.
“We’re next,” Menico said, nervously smoothing his best satin doublet over his paunch. Devin, idly picking out his earliest cradle song on one of the spare syrenyae, smiled reassuringly up at his employer. His partner now, actually.
Devin hadn’t been an apprentice since he was seventeen. Menico, tired of refusing offers to buy the contract of his young tenor had finally offered Devin journeyman status in the Guild and a regular salary—after first making clear how very much the young man owed him, and how loyalty was the only marginally adequate way to repay such a large debt of gratitude. Devin knew that, in fact, and he liked Menico anyway.
A year later, after another sequence of offers from rival troupe-leaders during the summer wedding season in Corte, Menico had made Devin a ten-percent partner in the company. After making the same speech, almost word for word, as the last time.
The honor, Devin knew, was considerable; only old Eghano who played drums and the Certandan deep strings, and who had been with Menico since the company was formed, had another partnership share. Everyone else was an apprentice or a journeyman on short-term contract. Especially now, when the aftermath of a plague spring in the south had every troupe in the Palm short of bodies and scrambling to fill with temporary musicians, dancers, or singers.
A haunting thread of sound, barely audible, plucked Devin’s attention away from his syrenya. He looked over and smiled. Alessan, one of the three new people, was lightly tracing the melody of the cradle song Devin had been playing. On the shepherd pipes of Tregea it sounded unearthly and strange.
Alessan, black-haired, though greying at the temples, winked at him over the busyness of his fingers on the pipes. They finished the piece together, pipes and syrenya, and humming tenor voice.
“I wish I knew the words,” Devin said regretfully as they ended. “My father taught me that tune as a child, but he could never remember how the words went.”
Alessan’s lean, mobile face was reflective. Devin knew little about the Tregean after two weeks of rehearsal other than that the man was extraordinarily good on the pipes and quite reliable. As Menico’s partner, that was all that should matter to him. Alessan was seldom around the inn outside of practice-time, but he was always there and punctual for the rehearsals slated.
“I might be able to dredge them up for you if I thought about it,” he said, pushing a hand through his hair in a characteristic gesture. “It’s been a long time but I knew the words once.” He smiled.
“Don’t worry about it,” Devin said. “I’ve survived this long without them. It’s just an old song, a memento of my father. If you stay with us we can make it a winter project to try to track them down.”
Menico would approve of that last bit, he knew. The troupe-leader had declared Alessan di Tregea to be a find, and cheap at the wages he’d asked.
The other man’s expressive mouth crooked sideways, a little wryly. “Old songs and memories of fathers are important,” he said. “Is yours dead then?”
Devin made the warding sign with his hand out and two fingers curled down.
“Not last I heard, though I’ve not seen him in almost six years. Menico spoke to him when he went through the north of Asoli last time, took him some chiaros for me. I don’t go back to the farm.”
Alessan considered that. “Dour Asolini stock?” he guessed. “No place for a boy with ambition and a voice like yours?” His tone was shrewd.
“Almost exactly,” Devin admitted ruefully. “Though I wouldn’t have called myself ambitious. Restless, more. And we weren’t originally from Asoli in fact. Came there from Lower Corte when I was a small child.”
Alessan nodded. “Even so,” he said. The man had a bit of a know-it-all manner, Devin decided, but he could play the Tregean pipes. The way they might even have sounded on Adaon’s own mountain in the south.
In any case, they had no time to pursue the matter.
“We’re on!” Menico said, hastily re-entering the room where they were waiting amid the dust and covered furniture of the long-unused Sandreni Palace.
“We do the ‘Lament for Adaon’ first,” he announced, telling them something they’d all known for hours. He wiped his palms on the side of his doublet. “Devin, that one’s yours—make me proud, lad.” His standard exhortation. “Then all of us are together on the ‘Circling of Years.’ Catriana my love you are sure you can go high enough, or should we pitch down?”
“I’ll go high enough,” Catriana replied tersely. Devin thought her tone spoke to simple nervousness, but when her gaze met his for a second he recognized that earlier look again: the one that reached somewhere beyond desire towards a shore he didn’t know.
“I’d very much like to get this contract,” Alessan di Tregea said just then, mildly enough.
“How extremely surprising!” Devin snapped, discovering as he spoke that he too was nervous after all. Alessan laughed though, and so did old Eghano walking through the door with them: Eghano who had seen far too much in too many years of touring to ever be made edgy by a mere audition. Without saying a word, he had, as he always had, an immediately calming effect on Devin.
“I’ll do the best I can,” Devin said after a moment and for the second time that afternoon, not really certain to whom he was saying it, or why.
In the end, whether because of the Triad or in spite of them—as his father used to say—his best was enough.
The principal auditor was a delicately scented, extravagantly dressed scion of the Sandreni, a man—in his late thirties, Devin guessed—who made it manifest, in his limp posture and the artificially exaggerated shadows that ringed his eyes, why Alberico the Tyrant didn’t appear to be much worried about the descendants of Sandre d’Astibar.
Ranged behind this diverting personage were the priests of Eanna and Morian in white and smoke grey. Beside them, vivid by contrast, sat a priestess of Adaon in crimson, with her hair cropped very short.
It was autumn of course, and the Ember Days were coming on: Devin wasn’t surprised by her hair. He was surprised to see the clergy there for the audition. They made him uncomfortable—another legacy of his father—but this wasn’t a situation where he could allow that to affect him, and so he dismissed them from his thoughts.
He focused on the Duke’s elegant son, the only one who really mattered now. He waited, reaching as Menico had taught him for a still point inside himself.
Menico cued Nieri and Aldine, the two thin dancers in their grey-blue, almost translucent, chemises of mourning and their black gloves. A moment later, after their first linked pass across the floor, he looked at Devin.
And Devin gave him, gave them all, the lament for Adaon’s autumnal dying among the mountain cypresses, as he never had before.
Alessan di Tregea was with him all the way with the high, heart-piercing grief of the shepherd pipes and together the two of them seemed to lift and carry Nieri and Aldine beyond the surface steps of their dance across the recently swept floor and into the laconic, precise articulation of ritual that the “Lament” demanded and was so rarely granted.
When they finished, Devin, traveling slowly back to the Sandreni Palace from the cedar and cypress slopes of Tregea where the god had died—and where he died again each and every autumn—saw that Sandre d’Astibar’s son was weeping. The tracks of his tears had smudged the carefully achieved shadowing around his eyes—which meant, Devin realized abruptly, that he hadn’t wept for any of the three companies before them.
Marra, young and intolerantly professional, would have been scornful of those tears, he knew: “Why hire a mongrel and bark yourself?” she would say when their mourning rituals were interrupted or marked by displays from their patrons.
Devin had been less stern back then. And was even less so now since she’d died and he had found himself rather desperately fighting back a shameful public grief when Burnet di Corte had led his company through her mourning rites in Certando as a gesture of courtesy to Menico.
Devin also knew, by the smoldering look the Sandreni scion gave him from within the smeared dark rings around his eyes, and the scarcely less transparent glance from Morian’s fat-fingered priest—why in the name of the Triad were the Triad so ill-served!—that though they might have just won the Sandreni contract he was going to have to be careful in this palace tomorrow. He made a mental note to bring his knife.
They had won the contract. The second number hardly mattered, which is why cunning Menico had begun with the “Lament.” Afterwards Menico carefully introduced Devin as his partner when Sandre’s son asked to meet him. He turned out to be the middle son of three, named Tomasso. The only one, he explained huskily, holding one of Devin’s hands tightly between both his own, with an ear for music and an eye for dance adequate to choosing performers equal to so august an occasion as his father’s funeral rites.
Devin, used to this, politely retrieved his fingers, grateful for Menico’s experienced tact: presented as a partner he had some slight immunity from overly aggressive wooers, even among the nobility. He was introduced to the clergy next, and promptly knelt before Adaon’s priestess in red.
“Your sanction, sister-of-the-god, for what I sang, and for what I am asked to do tomorrow.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the priest of Morian clench his chubby, ringed fingers at his sides. He accepted the blessing and protection of Adaon—the priestess’s index finger tracing the god’s symbol on his brow—in the knowledge that he had successfully defused one priest’s burgeoning desire. When he rose and turned, it was to catch a wink—dangerous in that room and among that company—from Alessan di Tregea, at the back with the others. He suppressed a grin, but not his surprise: the shepherd was disconcertingly perceptive.
Menico’s first price was immediately accepted by Tomasso d’Astibar bar Sandre, confirming in Devin’s mind what a sorry creature he was to bear such a magnificent name and lineage.
It would have interested him—and led him a step or two further down the head road towards maturity—to learn that Duke Sandre himself would have accepted the same price, or twice as much, and in exactly the same manner. Devin was not quite twenty though, and even Menico, three times his age, would loudly curse himself back at the inn amid the celebratory wine for not having quoted even more than the extortionate sum he had just received in full.
Only Eghano, aged and placid, softly drumming two wooden spoons on their trestle table, said, “Leave well enough. We need not hold out a greedy palm. There will be more of these from now on. If you are wise you’ll leave a tithe at each of the temples tomorrow. We will earn it back with interest when they choose musicians for the Ember Days.”
Menico, in high good humor, swore even more magnificently than before, and announced a set intention to offer Eghano’s wrinkled body as a tithe to the fleshy priest of Morian instead. Eghano smiled toothlessly and continued his soft drumming.
Menico ordered them all to bed not long after the evening meal. They’d have an early start tomorrow, pointing towards the most important performance of their lives. He beamed benevolently as Aldine led Nieri from the room. The girls would share a bed that night Devin was sure, and for the first time, he suspected. He wished them joy of each other, knowing that they had come together magically as dancers that afternoon and also knowing—for it had happened to him once—how that could spill over into the candles of a late night in bed.
He looked around for Catriana but she had gone upstairs already. She’d kissed him briefly on the cheek though, right after Menico’s fierce embrace back in the Sandreni Palace. It was a start; it might be a start.
He bade good night to the others and went up to the single room that was the one luxury he’d demanded of Menico’s tour budget after Marra had died.
He expected to dream of her, because of the mourning rites, because of unslaked desire, because he dreamt of her most nights. Instead he had a vision of the god.
He saw Adaon on the mountainside in Tregea, naked and magnificent. He saw him torn apart in frenzy and in flowing blood by his priestesses—suborned by their womanhood for this one autumn morning of every turning year to the deeper service of their sex. Shredding the flesh of the dying god in the service of the two goddesses who loved him and who shared him as mother, daughter, sister, bride, all through the year and through all the years since Eanna named the stars.
Shared him and loved him except on this one morning in the falling season. This morning that was shaped to become the harbinger, the promise of spring to come, of winter’s end. This one single morning on the mountain when the god who was a man had to be slain. Torn and slain, to be put into his place which was the earth. To become the soil, which would be nurtured in turn by the rain of Eanna’s tears and the moist sorrowings of Morian’s endless underground streams twisting in their need. Slain to be reborn and so loved anew, more and more with each passing year, with each and every time of dying on these cypress-clad heights. Slain to be lamented and then to rise as a god rises, as a man does, as the wheat of summer fields. To rise and then lie down with the goddesses, with his mother and his bride, his sister and his daughter, with Eanna and Morian under sun and stars and the circling moons, the blue one and the silver.
Devin dreamt, terribly, that primal scene of women running on the mountainside, their long hair streaming behind them as they pursued the man-god to that high chasm above the torrent of Casadel.
He saw their clothing torn from them as they cried each other on to the hunt. Saw branches of mountain trees, of spiny, bristling shrubs, claw their garments away, saw them render themselves deliberately naked for greater speed to the chase, seizing blood-red berries of sonrai to intoxicate themselves against what they would do high above the icy waters of Casadel.
He saw the god turn at last, his huge dark eyes wild and knowing, both, as he stood at the chasm brink, a stag at bay at the deemed, decreed, perennial place of his ending. And Devin saw the women come upon him there, with their flying hair and blood flowing along their bodies and he saw Adaon bow his proud, glorious head to the doom of their rending hands and their teeth and their nails.
And there at the end of the chase Devin saw that the women’s mouths were open wide as they cried to each other in ecstasy or anguish, in unrestrained desire or madness or bitter grief, but in his dream there was no sound at all to those cries. Instead, piercing through the whole of that wild scene among cedar and cypress on the mountainside, the only thing Devin heard was the sound of Tregean shepherd pipes playing the tune of his own childhood fever, high and far away.
And at the end, at the very last, Devin saw that when the women came upon the god and caught him and closed about him at that high chasm over Casadel, his face when he turned to his rending was that of Alessan.
• 3 •
EVEN BEFORE THE COMING OF CAUTIOUS ALBERICO FROM overseas in Barbadior to rule in Astibar, the city that liked to call itself “The Thumb that Rules the Palm” had been known for a certain degree of asceticism. In Astibar the mourning rites were never done in the presence of the dead as was the practice in the other eight provinces: such a procedure was regarded as excessive, too fevered an appeal to emotion.
They were to perform in the central courtyard of the Sandreni Palace, watched from chairs and benches placed around the courtyard, and from the loggias above, leading off the interior rooms on the two upper floors. In one of those rooms, marked by the appropriate hangings—grey-blue and black—lay the body of Sandre d’Astibar, coins over his eyes to pay the nameless doorman at the last portal of Morian, food in his hands and shoes on his feet, for no one living could know how long that final journey to the goddess was.
He would be brought down to the courtyard later, so that all those citizens of his city and its distrada who wished to do so—and who were willing to brave the recording eyes of the Barbadian mercenaries posted outside—could file past his bier and drop blue-silver leaves of the olive tree in the single crystal vase that stood on a plinth in the courtyard even now.
The ordinary citizens—weavers, artisans, shopkeepers, farmers, sailors, servants, lesser merchants—would enter the palace later. They could be heard outside now: gathered to hear the music of the old Duke’s mourning rites. The people drifting into the courtyard in the meantime were the most extraordinary collection of petty and high nobility, and of accumulated mercantile wealth that Devin had ever seen in one place.
Because of the Festival of Vines, all the lords of the Astibar distrada had come into town from their country estates. And being in town they could hardly not be present to see Sandre mourned—for all that many or most of them had bitterly hated him while he ruled, and the fathers or grandfathers of some had paid for poison or hired blades thirty years ago and more in the hope that these same rites might have taken place long since.
The two priests and Adaon’s priestess were already in their seats, seeming, in the manner of clergy everywhere, to be privy to a mystery that they collectively shielded from lesser mortals with the gravity of their repose.
Menico’s company waited in a small room off the courtyard that Tomasso had ordered set aside for their use. All the usual amenities were there, and some that were far from usual: Devin couldn’t remember seeing blue wine offered to performers before. An extravagant gesture, that. He wasn’t tempted though; it was too early and he was too much on edge. To calm himself he walked over to Eghano who was lazily drumming, as he always seemed to be, on a tabletop.
Eghano glanced up at him and smiled. “It’s just a performance,” he said in his soft sibilant voice. “We do what we always do. We make music. We move on.”
Devin nodded, and forced a smile in return. His throat was dry though. He went to the side-tables, and one of the two hovering servants hastened to pour him water in a gold and crystal goblet worth more than everything Devin owned in the world. A moment later Menico signaled and they went out into the courtyard.
The dancers began it, backed by hidden strings and pipes. No voices. Not yet.
If Aldine and Nieri had burned love candles late last night it didn’t show—or if it did, only in the concentration and intensity of their twinned movements that morning.
Sometimes seeming to pull the music forward, sometimes following it, they looked—with their thin, whitened faces, their blue-grey tunics and the jet-black gloves that hid their palms—truly otherworldly. Which was as Menico had trained his dancers to be. Not inviting or alluring as some other troupes approached this dance of the rites, nor a merely graceful prelude to the real performance, as certain other companies conceived it. Menico’s dancers were guides, cold and compelling, towards the place of the dead and of mourning for the dead. Gradually, inexorably, the slow grave movements, the expressionless, almost inhuman faces imposed the silence that was proper on that restive, preening audience.
And in that silence the three singers and four musicians came forward and began the “Invocation” to Eanna of the Lights who had made the world, the sun, the two moons and the scattered stars that were the diamonds of her diadem.
Rapt and attentive to what they were doing, using all the contrivances of professional skill to shape an apparent artlessness, the company of Menico di Ferraut carried the lords and ladies and the merchant princes of Astibar with them on a ruthlessly disciplined cresting of sorrow. In mourning Sandre, Duke of Astibar, they mourned—as was proper—the dying of all the Triad’s mortal children, brought through Morian’s portals to move on Adaon’s earth under Eanna’s lights for so short a time. So sweet and bitter and short a season of days.
Devin heard Catriana’s voice reaching upwards towards the high place where Alessan’s pipes seemed to be calling her, cold and precise and austere. He felt, even more than he heard, Menico and Eghano grounding them all with their deep line. He saw the two dancers—now statues in a frieze, now whirling as captives in the trap of time—and at the moment that was proper he let his own voice soar with the two syrenyae into the space that had been left for them to fill, in the middle range where mortals lived and died.
So Menico di Ferraut had shaped his approach to the seldom-performed Full Mourning Rites long ago, bringing forty years of art and a full, much-traveled life to the moment that this morning had become. Even as he began to sing, Devin’s heart swelled with pride and a genuine love for the rotund, unassuming leader who had guided them here and into what they were shaping.
They stopped, as planned, after the sixth stage, for their own sake and their listeners’. Tomasso had spoken with Menico beforehand, and the nobles’ progression past Sandre’s bier would now take place upstairs. After, the company would finish with the last three rites, ending on Devin’s “Lament,” and then the body would be brought down and the crowd outside admitted with their leaves for the crystal vase.
Menico led them out from the courtyard amid a silence so deep it was their highest possible accolade. They reentered the room that had been reserved for their use. Caught up in the mood they themselves had created, no one spoke. Devin moved to help the two dancers into the robes they wore between performances and then watched as they paced the perimeter of the room, slender and cat-like in their grace. He accepted a glass of green wine from one of the servants but declined the offered plate of food. He exchanged a glance but not a smile—not now—with Alessan. Drenio and Pieve, the syrenya-players, were bent over their instruments, adjusting the strings. Eghano, pragmatic as ever, was eating while idly drumming the table with his free hand. Menico walked by, restless and distracted. He gave Devin a wordless squeeze on the arm.
Devin looked for Catriana and saw her just then leaving the room through an inner archway. She glanced back. Their glances met for a second, then she went on. Light, strangely filtered, fell from a high unseen window upon the space where she had been.
Devin really didn’t know why he did it. Even afterwards when so much had come to pass, flowing outwards in all directions like ripples in water from this moment, he was never able to say exactly why he followed her.
Simple curiosity. Desire. A complex longing born of the look in her eyes before and the strange, floating place of stillness and sorrow where they now seemed to be. None or some or all of these. He felt as if the world wasn’t quite as it had been before the dancers had begun.
He drained his wine and rose and he went through the same archway Catriana had. Passing through, he too looked back. Alessan was watching him. There was no judgment in the Tregean’s glance, only an intent expression Devin could not understand. For the first time that day he was reminded of his dream.
And because of that, perhaps, he murmured a prayer to Morian as he went on through the archway.
There was a staircase with a high, narrow, stained-glass window on the first-floor landing. In the many-colored fall of light he caught a glimpse of a blue-silver gown swirling to the left at the top of the stairs. He shook his head, struggling to clear it, to slip free of this eerie, dreamlike mood. And as he did, an understanding slid into place and he muttered a curse at himself.
She was from Astibar. She was going upstairs as was entirely fit and proper to pay her own farewell to the Duke. No lord or newly wealthy merchant was about to deny her right to do so. Not after her singing this morning. On the other hand, for a farmer’s son from Asoli by way of Lower Corte to enter that upstairs room would be sheerest, ill-bred presumption.
He hesitated, and he would have turned back then, had it not been for the memory that was his blessing and his curse and always had been. He had seen the hanging banners from the courtyard. The room where Sandre d’Astibar lay was to the right, not the left, at the top of these stairs.
Devin went up. He took care now, though still not knowing why, to be quiet. At the landing he bore left as Catriana had done. There was a doorway. He opened it. An empty room, long unused, dusty hangings on the walls. Scenes of a hunt, the colors badly faded. There were two exits, but the dust came to his aid now: he could see the neat print of her sandals going towards the door on the right.
Silently Devin followed that trail through the warren of abandoned rooms on the first floor of the palace. He saw sculptures and objects of glass, exquisite in their delicacy, marred by years of overlaid dust. Much of the furniture was gone, much that remained was covered over. The light was dim; most of the windows were shuttered. A great many darkened, begrimed portraits of stern lords and ladies gazed inimically down upon him as he passed.
He bore right and again right, tracing the path of Catriana’s feet, careful to keep from getting too close. She went straight on after that through the rooms along the outer side of the palace—none that offered onto the crowded balustrades overlooking the courtyard. It was brighter in these rooms. He could hear murmuring voices off to his right and he realized that Catriana was walking around to the far side of the room where Sandre lay in state.
At length he opened a door which proved to be the last. She was alone inside a very large chamber, standing by the side of a huge fireplace. There were three bronze horses on the mantelpiece and three portraits on the walls. The ceiling was gilded in what Devin knew would be gold. Along the outer wall where a line of windows overlooked the street there were two long tables laden with food and drink. This room, unlike the others, had been recently cleaned, but the curtains were still drawn against the morning brightness and the crowd outside.
In the thin, filtered light Devin closed the door behind him, deliberately letting the latch click shut. The sound was a loud report in the stillness.
Catriana wheeled, a hand to her mouth, but even in the half-light Devin could see that what blazed in her eyes was fury and not fear.
“What do you think you are doing?” she whispered harshly.
He took a hesitant step forward. He reached for a witticism, a mild, deflecting remark to shatter the heavy spell that seemed to lie upon him, upon the whole of the morning. He couldn’t find one.
He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “I saw you leave and I followed. It . . . isn’t what you think,” he finished lamely.
“How would you know what I think?” she snapped. She seemed to calm herself by an act of will. “I wanted to be alone for a few moments,” Catriana said, controlling her voice. “The performance affected me and I needed to be by myself. I can see that you were disturbed too, but can I ask you as a courtesy to leave me to my privacy for just a little while?”
It was courteously said. He could have gone then. On any other morning he would have gone. But Devin had already passed, half-knowingly, a portal of Morian’s.
He gestured at the food on the tables and said, gravely, a quiet observation of fact and not a challenge or accusation, “This is not a room for privacy, Catriana. Won’t you tell me why you are here?”
He braced for her rage to flare again, but once more she surprised him. Silent for a long moment, she said at length, “You have not shared enough with me to be owed an answer to that. Truly it will be better if you go. For both of us.”
He could still hear muffled voices on the other side of the wall to the right of the fireplace and the bronze horses. This strange room with its laden, sumptuously covered tables and the grim portraits on the dark walls seemed to be a chamber in some waking trance. He remembered Catriana singing that morning, her voice yearning upwards to where the pipes of Tregea called. He remembered her eyes as she paused in the doorway they’d both passed through. Truly he felt as if he were not entirely awake, not in the world he knew.
And in that mood Devin heard himself say, over a sudden constriction in his throat, “Could we not begin then? Is there not a sharing we could start?”
Once more she hesitated. Her eyes were wide but impossible to read in the uncertain light. She shook her head though and remained where she was, standing straight and very still on the far side of the room.
“I think not,” she said quietly. “Not on the road I’m on, Devin d’Asoli. But I thank you for asking, and I will not deny that a part of me might wish things otherwise. I have little time now though, and a thing I must do here. Please—will you leave me?”
He had scarcely expected to find or feel so much regret, over and above all the nuances the morning had already carried. He nodded his head—there was nothing else he could think of to do or say, and this time he did turn to go.
But a portal had indeed been crossed in the Sandreni Palace that morning and in exactly the moment that Devin turned they both heard voices again—but this time from behind him.
“Oh, Triad!” Catriana hissed, snapping the mood like a fishbone. “I am cursed in all I turn my hands to!” She spun back to the fireplace, her hands frantically feeling around the underside of the mantelpiece. “For the love of the goddesses be silent!” she whispered harshly.
The urgency in her voice made Devin freeze and obey.
“He said he knew who built this palace,” he heard her mutter under her breath. “That it should be right over—”
She stopped. Devin heard a latch click. A section of the wall to the right of the fire swung slightly open to reveal a tiny cubbyhole beyond. His eyes widened.
“Don’t stand there gawking, fool!” Catriana whispered fiercely. “Quickly!” A new voice had joined the others behind him; there were three now. Devin leaped for the concealed door, slipped inside beside Catriana, and together they pulled it shut.
A moment later they heard the door on the far side of the room click open.
“Oh, Morian,” Catriana groaned, from the heart. “Oh, Devin, why are you here?”
Addressed thusly, Devin found himself quite incapable of framing an adequate response. For one thing, he still couldn’t say why he’d followed her; for another, the closet where they were hiding was only marginally large enough for the two of them, and he became increasingly aware of the fact that Catriana’s perfume was filling the tiny space with a heady, unsettling scent.
If he had been half in a dream a moment ago he abruptly found himself wide awake and in dangerous proximity to a woman he had seriously desired for the past two weeks.
Catriana seemed to arrive, belatedly, at the same sort of awareness; he heard her make a small sound in a register somewhat different from before. Devin closed his eyes, even though it was pitch-black in the hidden closet. He could feel her breath tickling his forehead, and he was conscious of the fact that by moving his hands only a very little he could encircle her waist.
He held himself carefully motionless, tilting back from her as best he could, his own breathing deliberately shallow. He felt more than sufficiently a fool for having created this ridiculous situation—he wasn’t about to compound his rapidly growing catalogue of sins by making a grope for her in the darkness.
Catriana’s robe rustled gently as she shifted position. Her thigh brushed his. Devin drew a ragged breath, which caused him to inhale more of her scent than was entirely good for him, given his virtuous resolutions.
“Sorry,” he whispered, though she was the one who’d moved. He felt beads of perspiration on his brow. To distract himself he tried to focus on the sounds from outside. Behind him the shuffling of feet and a steady, diffused murmur made it clear that people were still filing past Sandre’s bier.
To his left, in the room they’d just fled, three voices could be distinguished. One was, curiously, almost recognizable.
“I had the servants posted with the body across the way—it gives us a moment before the others come.”
“Did you notice the coins on his eyes?” a much younger voice asked, crossing to the outer wall where the laden tables were. “Very amusing.”
“Of course I noticed,” the first man replied acerbically. Where had Devin heard that tone? And recently. “Who do you think spent an evening scrounging up two astins from twenty years ago? Who do you think arranged for all of this?”
The third voice was heard, laughing softly. “And a fine table of food it is,” he said lightly.
“That is not what I meant!”
Laughter. “I know it isn’t, but it’s a fine table all the same.”
“Taeri, this is not a time for jests, particularly bad ones. We only have a moment before the family arrives. Listen to me carefully. Only the three of us know what is happening.”
“It is only us, then?” the young voice queried. “No one else? Not even my father?”
“Not Gianno, and you know why. I said only us. Hold questions and listen, pup!’
Just then Devin d’Asoli felt his pulse accelerate in a quite unmistakable way. Partly because of what he was hearing, but rather more specifically because Catriana had just shifted her weight again, with a quiet sigh, and Devin became incredulously aware that her body was now pressed directly against his own and that one of her long arms had somehow slipped around his neck.
“Do you know,” she whispered, almost soundlessly, mouth close to his ear, “I rather like the thought of this all of a sudden. Could you be very quiet?” The very tip of her tongue, for just an instant, touched the lobe of his ear.
Devin’s mouth went bone dry even as his sex leaped to full, painful erection within his blue-silver hose. Outside he could hear that voice he almost knew beginning a terse explanation of something involving pall-bearers and a hunting lodge, but the voice and its explanations had abruptly been rendered definitively trivial.
What was not trivial, what was in fact of the vastest importance imaginable was the undeniable fact that Catriana’s lips were busy at his neck and ear, and that even as his hands moved—as of their own imperative accord—to touch her eyelids and throat and then drift downward to the dreamt-of swell of her breasts, her own fingers were nimble among the drawstrings at his waist, setting him free.
“Oh, Triad!” he heard himself moan as her cool fingers stroked him, “Why didn’t you tell me before that you liked it dangerous?” He twisted his head sharply and their lips met fiercely for the first time. He began gathering the folds of her gown up about her hips.
She settled back on a ledge against the wall behind her to make it easier for him, her own breath now rapid and shallow as well.
“There will be six of us,” Devin heard from the room outside. “By second moonrise I want you to be . . .”
Catriana’s hands suddenly tightened in his hair, almost painfully, and at that moment the last folds of her robe rode free of her hips and Devin’s fingers slipped in among her undergarments and found the portal he’d been longing for.
She made a small unexpected sound and went rigid for just a second, before becoming extremely soft in his arms. His fingers gently stroked the deepest folds of her flesh. She drew an awkward, reaching breath, then shifted again, very slightly and guided Devin into her. She gasped, her teeth sinking hard into his shoulder. For a moment, lost in astonished pleasure and sharp pain, Devin was motionless, holding her close to him, murmuring almost soundlessly, not knowing what he was saying.
“Enough! The others are here,” the third voice outside rasped crisply.
“Even so,” said the first. “Remember then, you two come your own ways from town—not together!—to join us tonight. Whatever you do be sure you are not followed or we are dead.”
There was a brief silence. Then the door on the farthest side of the room opened and Devin, beginning now to thrust slowly, silently into Catriana, finally recognized the voice he’d been hearing.
For the same speaker continued talking, but now he assumed the delicate, remembered, intonations of the day before.
“At last!” fluted Tomasso d’Astibar bar Sandre. “We feared dreadfully that you’d all contrived to lose yourselves in these dusty recesses, never to be found again!”
“No such luck, brother,” a voice growled in reply. “Though after eighteen years it wouldn’t have been surprising. I need two glasses of wine very badly. Sitting still for that kind of music all morning is cursed thirsty work.”
In the closet Devin and Catriana clung to each other, sharing a breathless laughter. Then a newer urgency came over Devin, and it seemed to him it was in her as well, and there was suddenly nothing in the peninsula that mattered half so much as the gradually accelerating rhythm of the movements they made together.
Devin felt her fingernails splay outwards on his back. Feeling his climax gathering he cupped his hands beneath her; she lifted her legs and wrapped them around him. A moment later her teeth sank into his shoulder a second time and in that moment he felt himself explode, silently, into her.
For an unmeasured, enervated space of time they remained like that, their clothing damp where it had been crushed against skin. To Devin the voices from the two rooms outside seemed to come from infinitely far away. From other worlds entirely. He really didn’t want to move at all.
At length however, Catriana carefully lowered her legs to the ground to bear her own weight. He traced her cheekbones with a finger in the blackness.
Behind him the lords and merchants of Astibar were still shuffling past the body of the Duke so many had hated and some few had loved. To Devin’s left the younger generation of the Sandreni ate and drank, toasting an end to exile. Devin, wrapped close with Catriana, still sheathed within her warmth, could not have hoped to find words to say what he was feeling.
Suddenly she seized one of his tracing fingers and bit it, hard. He winced, because it hurt. She didn’t say anything though.
After the Sandreni left, Catriana found the latch and they slipped out into the room again. Quickly they reorganized their clothes. Pausing only long enough to seize a chicken-wing apiece, they hastily retraced their path back through the rooms leading to the stairway. They met three liveried servants coming the other way and Devin, feeling exceptionally alert and alive now, claimed Catriana’s fingers and winked at the servants as they passed.
She withdrew her hand a moment later.
He glanced over. “What’s wrong?”
She shrugged. “I’d as soon it wasn’t proclaimed throughout the Sandreni Palace and beyond,” she murmured, looking straight ahead.
Devin lifted his eyebrows. “What would you rather they thought about us being upstairs? I just gave them the obvious, boring explanation. They won’t even bother to talk about it. This sort of thing happens all the time.”
“Not to me,” said Catriana quietly.
“I didn’t mean it that way!” Devin protested, taken aback. But unfortunately they were going down the stairs by then, and so it was with a quite unexpected sense of estrangement that he paused to let her re-enter the room before him.
More than a little confused, he took his place behind Menico as they prepared to go back out into the courtyard.
He had only a minor supporting role in the first two hymns and so he found his thoughts wandering back over the scene just played out upstairs. Back, and then back again, with the memory that seemed to be his birthright focusing like a beam of sunlight upon one detail then another, illuminating and revealing what he had missed the first time around.
And so it was that by the time it was his own turn to step forward to end and crown the mourning rites, seeing the three clergy leaning forward expectantly, noting how Tomasso struck a pose of rapt attentiveness, Devin was able to give the “Lament for Adaon” an undivided soul, for he was confused no longer, but quite decided in what he was going to do.
He began softly in the middle range with the two syrenyae, building and shaping the ancient story of the god. Then, when the pipes of Alessan came in, Devin let his voice leap upward in response to them, as though in flight from mountain glen to crag to chasm brink.
He sang the dying of the god with a voice made pure in the caldron of his own heart and he pitched the notes to rise above that courtyard and beyond it, out among the streets and squares of high-walled Astibar.
High walls he intended to pass beyond that night—beyond, and then following a trail he would find, into a wood where lay a hunting lodge. A lodge where pall-bearers were to carry the body of the Duke, and where a number of men—six, the clear voice of his memory reminded him—were to gather in a meeting that Catriana d’Astibar had just done the very best she could short of murder to prevent him learning about. He strove to turn the acrid taste of that knowledge into grief for Adaon, to let it guide and infuse the pain of the “Lament.”
Better for both of us, he remembered her saying, and he could recapture in his mind the regret and the unexpected softness in her voice. But a certain kind of pride at Devin’s age is perhaps stronger than at any other age of mortal man, and he had already decided, before even he began to sing, here in this crowded courtyard among the great of Astibar, that he was going to be the judge of what was better, not she.
So Devin sang the rending of the god at the hands of the women, and he gave that dying on the Tregean mountain slope all he had to give it, making his voice an arrow arching outwards to seek the heart of everyone who heard.
He let Adaon fall from the high cliff, he heard the sound of the pipes recede and fall and he let his grieving voice spiral downward with the god into Casadel as the song came to its end.
And so too, that morning, did a part of Devin’s life. For when a portal of Morian’s has been crossed there is, as everyone knows, never a turning back.
• 4 •
ESCORTING HIS FATHER’S BIER OUT THE EASTERN GATE in the hour before sunset, Tomasso bar Sandre settled his horse to an easy walk and allowed his mind to drift for the first time in forty-eight intensely stressful hours.
The road was quiet. Normally it would have been clogged at this hour with people returning to the distrada before curfew locked the city gates. Normally sundown cleared the streets of Astibar of all save the patrolling Barbadian mercenaries and those reckless enough to defy them in search of women or wine or other diversions of the dark.
This was not a normal time, however. Tonight and for the next two nights there would be no curfew in Astibar. With the grapes gathered and the distrada’s harvest a triumphant one, the Festival of Vines would see singing and dancing and things wilder than those in the streets for all three nights. For these three nights in the year Astibar tried to pretend it was sensuous, decadent Senzio. No Duke in the old days—and not even dour Alberico now—had been foolish enough to rouse the people unnecessarily by denying them this ancient release from the sober round of the year.
Tomasso glanced back at his city. The setting sun was red among thin clouds behind the temple-domes and the towers, bathing Astibar in an eerily beautiful glow. A breeze had come up and there was a bite to it. Tomasso thought about putting on his gloves and decided against it: he would have had to remove some of his rings and he quite liked the look of his gems in this elusive, transitory light. Autumn was very definitely upon them, with the Ember Days approaching fast. It would not be long, a matter of days, before the first frost touched those last few precious grapes that had been left on chosen vines to become—if all fell rightly—the icy clear blue wine that was the pride of Astibar.
Behind him the eight servants plodded stolidly along the road, bearing the bier and the simple coffin—bare wood save for the Ducal crest above—of Tomasso’s father. On either side of them the two vigil-keepers rode in grim silence. Which was not surprising, given the nature of their errand and the complex, many-generationed hatreds that twisted between those two men.
Those three men, Tomasso corrected himself. It was three, if one chose to count the dead man who had so carefully planned all of this, down to the detail of who should ride on which side of his bier, who before and who behind. Not to mention the rather more surprising detail of exactly which two lords of the province of Astibar should be asked to be his escorts to the hunting lodge for the night-long vigil and from there to the Sandreni Crypt at dawn. Or, to put the matter rather more to the point, the real point: which two lords could and should be entrusted with what they were to learn during the vigil in the forest that night.
At that thought Tomasso felt a nudge of apprehension within his rib cage. He quelled it, as he had taught himself to do over the years—unbelievable how many years—of discussing such matters with his father.
But now Sandre was dead and he was acting alone, and the night they had labored towards was almost upon them with this crimson waning of light. Tomasso, two years past his fortieth naming day knew that were he not careful he could easily feel like a child again.
The twelve-year-old child he had been, for example, when Sandre, Duke of Astibar, had found him naked in the straw of the stables with the sixteen-year-old son of the chief groom.
His lover had been executed of course, though discreetly, to keep the matter quiet. Tomasso had been whipped by his father for three days running, the lash meticulously rediscovering the closing wounds each morning. His mother had been forbidden to come to him. No one had come to him.
One of his father’s very few mistakes, Tomasso reflected, thinking back thirty years in autumn twilight. From those three days he knew he could date his own particular taste for the whip in love-making. It was one of what he liked to call his felicities.
Though Sandre had never punished him that way again. Nor in any other direct manner. When it became clear—past the point of nursing any hope of discretion that Tomasso’s preferences were, to put it mildly, not going to be changed or subdued, the Duke simply ceased to acknowledge the existence of his middle son.
For more than ten years they went on that way, Sandre patiently trying to train Gianno to succeed him, and spending scarcely less time with young Taeri—making it clear to everyone that his youngest son was next in line to his eldest. For over a decade Tomasso simply did not exist within the walls of the Sandreni Palace.
Though he most certainly did elsewhere in Astibar and in a number of the other provinces as well. For reasons that were achingly clear to him now, Tomasso had set out through the course of those years to eclipse the memories of all the dissolute nobility that Astibar still told shocked tales about, even though some of them had been dead four hundred years.
He supposed that he had, to a certain degree, succeeded.
Certainly the “raid” on the temple of Morian that Ember Night in spring so long ago was likely to linger a while yet as the nadir or the paradigm (all came down—or up—to perspective, as he’d been fond of saying then) of sacrilegious debauchery.
The raid hadn’t had any impact on his relationship with the Duke. There was no relationship to impact upon ever since that morning in the straw when Sandre had returned from his ride a destined hour too soon. He and his father simply contrived not to speak to or even acknowledge each other, whether at family dinners or formal state functions. If Tomasso learned something he thought Sandre should know—which was often enough, given the circles in which he moved and the chronic danger of their times—he told his mother at one of their weekly breakfasts together and she made sure his father heard. Tomasso also knew she made equally sure Sandre was aware of the source of the tidings. Not that it mattered, really.
She had died, drinking poisoned wine meant for her husband, in the final year of the Duke’s reign, still working, to the last morning of her life, towards a reconciliation between Sandre and their middle child.
Greater romantics than were either the father or the son might have allowed themselves to think that, as the Sandreni family pulled tightly together in the bloody, retaliatory aftermath of that poisoning, she had achieved her wistful hope by dying.
Both men knew it was not so.
In fact, it was only the coming of Alberico from the Empire of Barbadior, with his will-sapping sorcery and the brutal efficiency of his conquering mercenaries, that brought Tomasso and Sandre to a certain very late-night talk during the Duke’s second year of exile. It was Alberico’s invasion and one further thing: the monumental, irredeemable, inescapable stupidity of Gianno d’Astibar bar Sandre, titular heir to the shattered fortunes of their family.
And to these two things there had slowly been added a third bitter truth for the proud, exiled Duke. It had gradually become more and more obvious, past all denial, that whatever of his own character and gifts had been manifested in the next generation, whatever of his subtlety and perception, his ability to cloak his thoughts and discern the minds of others, whatever of such skills he had passed on to his sons, had gone, all of it, to the middle child. To Tomasso.
Who liked boys, and would leave no heir himself, nor ever a name to be spoken, let alone with pride, in Astibar or anywhere else in the Palm.
In the deepest inward place where he performed the complex act of dealing with his feelings for his father, Tomasso had always acknowledged—even back then, and very certainly now on this last evening road Sandre would travel—that one of the truest measures of the Duke’s stature as a ruler of men had emerged on that winter night so long ago. The night he broke a decade’s stony silence and spoke to his middle son and made him his confidant.
His sole confidant in the painfully cautious eighteen-year quest to drive Alberico and his sorcery and his mercenaries from Astibar and the Eastern Palm. A quest that had become an obsession for both of them, even as Tomasso’s public manner became more and more eccentric and decayed, his voice and gait a parody—a self-parody, in fact—of the mincing, lisping lover of boys.
It was planned, all of it, in late-night talks with his father on their estate outside the city walls.
Sandre’s parallel role had been to settle visibly and loudly into impotent, brooding, Triad-cursing exile, marked by querulous, blustering hunts and too much drinking of his own wine.
Tomasso had never seen his father actually drunk, and he never used his own fluting voice when they were alone at night.
Eight years ago they had tried an assassination. A chef, traceable only to the Canziano family, had been placed in a country inn in Ferraut near the provincial border with Astibar. For over half a year idle gossip in Astibar had touted that inn as a place of growing distinction. No one remembered, afterwards, where the talk had begun: Tomasso knew very well how useful it was to plant casual rumors of this sort among his friends in the temples. The priests of Morian, in particular, were legendary for their appetites. All their appetites.
A full year from the time they had set things in motion, Alberico of Barbadior had halted on his way back from the Triad Games—exactly as Sandre had said he would—to take his midday meal at a well-reputed inn in Ferraut near the Astibar border.
By the time the sun went down at the end of that bright late-summer day every person in that inn—servants, masters, stable-boys, chefs, children and patrons—had had their backs, legs, arms and wrists broken and their hands cut off, before being bound, living, upon hastily erected Barbadian sky-wheels to die.
The inn was razed to the ground. Taxes in the province of Ferraut were doubled for the next two years, and for a year in Astibar, Tregea and Certando. During the course of the following six months every living member of the Canziano family was found, seized, publicly tortured and burned in the Grand Square of Astibar with their severed hands stuffed in their mouths so that the screaming might not trouble Alberico or his advisers in their offices of state above the square.
In this fashion had Sandre and Tomasso discovered that sorcerers cannot, in fact, be poisoned.
For the next six years they had done nothing but talk at night in the manor-house among the vineyards and gather what knowledge they could of Alberico himself and events to the east in Barbadior, where the Emperor was said to be growing older and more infirm with each passing year.
Tomasso began commissioning and collecting walking sticks with heads carved in the shape of the male organs of sex. It was rumored that he’d had some of his young friends model for the carvers. Sandre hunted. Gianno, the heir, consolidated a burgeoning reputation as a genial, uncomplicated seducer of women and breeder of children, legitimate and illegitimate. The younger Sandreni were allowed to maintain modest homes in the city as part of Alberico’s overall policy to be as discreet a ruler as possible—except when danger or civil unrest threatened him.
At which time children might die on sky-wheels. The Sandreni Palace in Astibar remained very prominently shuttered, empty and dusty. A useful, potent symbol of the fall of those who might resist the Tyrant. The superstitious claimed to see ghostly lights flickering there at night, especially on a blue-moon night, or on the spring or autumn Ember Nights when the dead were known to walk abroad.
Then one evening in the country Sandre had told Tomasso, without warning or preamble, that he proposed to die on the eve of the Festival of Vines two autumns hence. He proceeded to name the two lords who were to be his vigil-keepers, and why. That same night he and Tomasso decided that it was time to tell Taeri, the youngest son, what was afoot. He was brave, not stupid, and might be necessary for certain things. They also agreed that Gianno had somehow sired one likely son, albeit illegitimate, and that Herado—twenty-one by then and showing encouraging signs of spirit and ambition—was their best hope of having the younger generation share in the unrest Sandre hoped to create just after the time of his dying.
It wasn’t, in fact, a question of who in the family could be trusted: family was, after all, family. The issue was who would be useful and it was a mark of how diminished the Sandreni had become that only two names came readily to mind.
It had been an entirely dispassionate conversation, Tomasso remembered, leading his father’s bier southeast between the darkening trees that flanked the path. Their conversations had always been like that; this one had been no different. Afterwards though, he had been unable to fall asleep, the date of the Festival two years away branded into his brain. The date when his father, so precise in his planning, so judicious, had decided he would die so as to give Tomasso a chance to try again, a different way.
The date that had come now and gone, carrying with it the soul of Sandre d’Astibar to wherever the souls of such men went. Tomasso made a warding gesture to avert evil at that thought. Behind him he heard the steward order the servants to light torches. It grew colder as the darkness fell. Overhead a thin band of high clouds was tinted a somber shade of purple by the last upward-angled rays of light. The sun itself was gone, down behind the trees. Tomasso thought of souls, his father’s and his own. He shivered.
The white moon, Vidomni, rose, and then, not long after, came blue Ilarion to chase her hopelessly across the sky. Both moons were nearly full. The procession could have done without torches in fact, so bright was the twinned moonlight, but torchlight suited the task and his mood, and so Tomasso let them burn as the company cut off the road onto the familiar winding path through the Sandreni Woods, to come at length to the simple hunting lodge his father had loved.
The servants laid the bier on the trestles waiting in the center of the large front room. Candles were lit and the two fires built up at opposite ends of the room. Food, they had set up earlier that day. It was quickly uncovered on the long sideboard along with the wine. The windows were opened to air the cabin and admit the breeze.
At a nod from Tomasso the steward led the servants away. They would go on to the manor further east and return at daybreak. At vigil’s end.
And so they were left alone, finally. Tomasso and the lords Nievole and Scalvaia, so carefully chosen two years before.
“Wine, my lords?” Tomasso asked. “We will have three others joining us very shortly.”
He said it, deliberately, in his natural voice, dropping the artificial, fluting tone that was his trademark in Astibar. He was pleased to see both of them note the fact immediately, their glances sharpening as they turned to him.
“Who else?” growled bearded Nievole who had hated Sandre all his life. He made no comment on Tomasso’s voice, nor did Scalvaia. Such questions gave too much away, and these were men long skilled in giving away very little indeed.
“My brother Taeri and nephew Herado—one of Gianno’s by-blows, and much the cleverest.” He spoke casually, uncorking two bottles of Sandreni red reserve as he spoke. He poured and handed them each a glass, waiting to see who would break the small silence his father had said would follow. Scalvaia would ask, Sandre had said.
“Who is the third?” Lord Scalvaia asked softly.
Inwardly Tomasso saluted his dead father. Then, twirling his own glass gently by the stem to release the wine’s bouquet, he said, “I don’t know. My father did not name him. He named the two of you to come here, and the three of us and said there would be a sixth at our council tonight.”
That word too had been carefully chosen.
“Council?” elegant Scalvaia echoed. “It appears that I have been misinformed. I was naively of the impression that this was a vigil.” Nievole’s dark eyes glowered above his beard. Both men stared at Tomasso.
“A little more than that,” said Taeri as he entered the room, Herado behind him.
Tomasso was pleased to see them both dressed with appropriate sobriety, and to note that, for all the suavely flippant timing of Taeri’s entrance, his expression was profoundly serious.
“You will know my brother,” Tomasso murmured, moving to pour two more glasses for the new arrivals. “You may not have met Herado, Gianno’s son.”
The boy bowed and kept silent, as was proper. Tomasso carried the drinks over to his brother and nephew.
The stillness lasted a moment longer, then Scalvaia sank down into a chair, stretching his bad leg out in front of him. He lifted his cane and pointed it at Tomasso. The tip did not waver.
“I asked you a question,” he said coldly, in the famous, beautiful voice. “Why do you call this a council, Tomasso bar Sandre? Why have we been brought here under false pretenses?”
Tomasso stopped playing with his wine. They had come to the moment at last. He looked from Scalvaia over to burly Nievole.
“The two of you,” he said soberly, “were considered by my father to be the last lords of any real power left in Astibar. Two winters past he decided—and informed me—that he intended to die on the eve of this Festival. At a time when Alberico would not be able to refuse him full rites of burial—which rites include a vigil such as this. At a time when you would both be in Astibar, which would allow me to name you his vigil-keepers.”
He paused in the measured, deliberate recitation and let his glance linger on each of them. “My father did this so that we might come together without suspicion, or interruption, or risk of being detected, to set in motion certain plans for the overthrow of Alberico who rules in Astibar.”
He was watching closely, but Sandre had chosen well. Neither of the two men to whom he spoke betrayed surprise or dismay by so much as a flicker of a muscle.
Slowly Scalvaia lowered his cane and laid it down on the table by his chair. The stick was of onyx and machial, Tomasso found himself noticing. Strange how the mind worked at moments such as this.
“Do you know,” said bluff Nievole from by the larger fire, “do you know that this thought had actually crossed my mind when I tried to hazard why your Triad-cursed father—ah, forgive me, old habits die hard—” His smile was wolfish, rather than apologetic, and it did not reach his narrowed eyes. “—Why Duke Sandre would name me to hold vigil for him. He must have known how many times I tried to hasten these mourning rites along in the days when he ruled.”
Tomasso smiled in return, just as thinly. “He was certain you would wonder,” he said politely to the man he was almost sure had paid for the cup of wine that had killed his mother. “He was also quite certain you would agree to come, being one of the last of a dying breed in Astibar. Indeed, in the whole of the Palm.”
Bearded Nievole raised his glass. “You flatter well, bar Sandre. And I must say I do prefer your voice as it is now, without all the dips and flutters and wristy things that normally go with it.”
Scalvaia looked amused. Taeri laughed aloud. Herado was carefully watchful. Tomasso liked him very much: though not, as he’d had to assure his father in one diverting conversation, in his own particular fashion.
“I prefer this voice as well,” he said to the two lords. “You will both have been deducing in the last few minutes, being who and what you are, why I have conducted certain aspects of my life in certain well-known ways. There are advantages to being seen as aimlessly degenerate.”
“There are,” Scalvaia agreed blandly, “if you have a purpose that is served by such a misconception. You named a name a moment ago, and intimated we might all be rendered happier in our hearts were the bearer of that name dead or gone. We will leave aside for the moment what possibilities might follow such a dramatic eventuality.”
His gaze was quite unreadable; Tomasso had been warned it would be. He said nothing. Taeri shifted uneasily but blessedly kept quiet, as instructed. He walked over and took one of the other chairs on the far side of the bier.
Scalvaia went on “We cannot be unaware that by saying what you have said you have put yourselves completely in our hands, or so it might initially appear. At the same time, I do surmise that were we, in fact, to rise and begin to ride back towards Astibar carrying word of treachery we would join your father among the dead before we left these woods.”
It was casually stated—a minor fact to be confirmed before moving on to more important issues.