At the top of the rise, they broke from a trot into a gallop, thundering past the gatehouse like furies. Instead of turning in and crossing the drawbridge, they carried on, starting down the hill towards the long line of shops that led down the gentle slope towards the sea. They passed a half-dozen regal structures before the leader, atop the stallion, twitched his reins and led the great beast into a narrow alley between two stone walls.
The eastern line of shops backed onto the cliff overlooking the Gula that led from the harbour at Joyous Light to the sea. The rider nudged his horse through the narrow passage between the buildings and onto a broad patch of grass overlooking the strait between the eastern and western hills of the city. The other rider followed him, her mount dancing nervously on the small sward.
With an ease born of long practice, Kaltas vaulted out of his saddle and slid smoothly to the ground. Taking both bridles in one hand, he extended the other to his daughter. Jianni took it - she was nowhere near as experienced a horseman as her father, who had been knighted by Callaýian himself more than four hundred years earlier - and eased herself out of the high saddle. Kaltas helped her to the ground. Relieved of their riders, the horses calmed somewhat, and began cropping disinterestedly at the grass and flowers decorating the small lawn.
“I can’t see them,” Jianni said, shading her eyes with her hands. The Lantern had just dipped below the eastern horizon, sending beams of red and orange shooting skywards. On the heights, the light was still bright, in stark contrast to the harbour and the Gullet, which had fallen into shadow nearly an hour earlier.
“They’re moving,” her father replied. “Look; just alongside Killiat’s warehouse, there. The sails’re old, so they’re greying. You have to watch for motion, not colour.”
Jianni was silent for a moment. “I see them now,” she said at last. “They’re not moving very fast.”
“The land breeze is light this early, and the Gula is narrow,” Kaltas shrugged. “I wouldn’t want to take it at speed even in daylight. Fall’s just being cautious.” He sounded exhausted.
The elf-woman glanced at her father. “Are you well?”
“Just tired,” Kaltas replied with a wan smile. “It’s been an eventful week.”
“That’s one way to put it,” she snorted. “You lose a city to the forest. Then a group of sell-swords shows up in the palace followed by a trio of lamiata, solve the mystery of mother’s disappearance and Ally’s flight for you, talk to a personification of hutanibu and an ancient spirit of stone, discover a dragon transformed into a tree, intervene in our travails with the lustroares, defeat a monstrous perversion of the green, penetrate the secrets of Mancur Lamanya, and are off again. A busy seven-day indeed.”
“Plus, I got married,” Kaltas said drily.
The Duke shot a glance at the girl. “That sounded like something less than full-throated approval, daughter.”
Jianni shrugged. “It’s not disapproval, father. I’m delighted for you. It’s just...I’d always hoped that the failure of the priests to raise her spirit meant that mother would...would return someday. Not...”
“Not that she had been slain by a dread weapon of darkness,” Kaltas murmured, “that locked her spirit in the world beyond the world. I know.” He shook his head. “Hope can be a wonderful thing, Jianni. But it can also be a terrible burden.”
“She’s free now, though. Isn’t she?”
Kaltas shrugged. “I don’t know, dear. Thanos and the others...they told me that they destroyed Glycomon’s sword. That fact, and his death, should have broken the curse.”
“So she might...we...you could...” The elf-woman paused.
“You could bring her back,” Jianni whispered.
“Perhaps,” Kaltas admitted. “If we could find a priest with that kind of sanctity and power. And if she wanted to return.”
“Wouldn’t it be worth the attempt?” the elf-woman asked. “To have her back, if she would come?”
Kaltas said nothing.
“Don’t you want her back?” Jianni whispered.
The Duke sighed. “It’s not that simple, daughter. Rykki’s been gone a long time. This is not like restoring a friend who fell in battle an hour or a day ago; your mother won her victory and passed on into the Long Halls. She is part of another world now, and has been for more than sixty years. For decades I refused to give up hope, but at last I had to. Now, knowing what really happened to her...”
“Why does that change anything?” the elf-woman insisted. “Why shouldn’t we try -”
“I didn’t want to make the attempt,” Kaltas interrupted, “because I was afraid she would...would say no.”
“Oh,” Jianni said, her voice very small.
The ship was moving more swiftly now, passing beneath them, several hundred paces away and down. They could see the crewmen scampering about like ants, fiddling with the rigging and sails. Kaltas couldn’t distinguish any individuals amid the bustle, but he thought he could make out the vast, shadowy shape of the ranger’s leopard.
And a brief, heart-wrenching flash of green.
He turned to his daughter. “Did you think I declined to make the attempt because I desired Myaszæron?”
Jianni was silent for a long moment. At last, she said, “Yes. I’m sorry for that, father. It was an unworthy thought.”
“A natural one, though.” Kaltas smiled. “Do you dislike her?”
“Of course not,” the elf-woman sighed. “She’s wonderful. Like a sis...sister.” Sudden tears filled her eyes. “But I’m afraid now. For you.”
“Before, our connection to house Æyllian was distant enough for safety,” Jianni replied soberly. “Aunt Annalyszian’s mating with Landioryn kept us close, but at a secure remove from them throne. This, though...an alliance by marriage to someone actually in the line of succession...father, it puts us...you...in terrible danger.”
“Your newfound devotion to the green hasn’t erased your feel for politics, I see,” the Duke chuckled. “That’s a relief. I’d hate to think all my instruction had been wasted.”
“I remember enough to know a hazard when I see it!” the elf-girl insisted. “If things go ill in Starmeadow, this could put your head on the block!”
“Things are already going ill, as you put it,” her father replied soberly. “That’s one of the reasons I had to do what I did. I can’t do anything from Eldisle. I need power, position and authority to help save the realm. An alliance with Mya gives me all three.”
“It also ties you irrevocably to one of the factions. If...Forest Mother forfend, but if Æloeschyan gains the upper hand, you will not survive. None of us will,” Jianni said. “Duke Kaltas of Eldisle she might ignore; at worst, she might try to buy you off, or co-opt you. But Prince Kaltas, lifemate to Myaszæron Æyllian...he will go to the block.
“This changes everything, father,” the girl sighed.
“It changes nothing important,” Kaltas replied. “I was always loyal to the Queen. I was always going to spend my last breath fighting for her, against any threat to the throne, whether foreign or domestic. The Grim Duchess knows this already. All my marriage means is that I now have a more visible reason for my loyalty.”
“And why should visibility matter?” Jianni asked, clearly upset.
“Loyalty is an abstract,” the Duke sighed. “Intangible. You can’t touch it, see it, or spend it. To those who do not understand it, it is difficult to credit. When Ally...did what she did, my loyalty became open to question. It had never changed, not a jot. But her misadventures...
He laughed feebly. “Daughter, don’t mistake me. I don’t blame Alymyn. Thanos and...and Beck, eased my heart immensely with their tale. But your sister, by doing what she did, and in the way she did it...well, she gave plenty of red meat to the gossips and tongue-waggers.”
He shrugged, smiling. “And it created this situation, in a way, because it caused the Queen to send her grand-daughter here to keep an eye on me. If Ally hadn’t acted on impulse in the royal gardens that night, Myaszæron might never have set foot in Joyous Light. And I would never have passed the rose and the cup to her. Life’s wheel turns strangely sometimes.”
“Is that why your married her?” the elf-woman asked. “Just because she was here?”
“I married her because I love her,” the Duke replied sternly. “We are alike in so many ways that I can’t imagine not loving her. But I won’t deny that there are political advantages to our union. By taking Myaszæron to mate, I neutralize the slanderers. The common folk might not be able to grasp the extent or import of a lifetime of flawless, loyal service. But they can understand that I, and all my legions, will fight and fall for my lifemate’s family.”
“They’ll also understand,” Jianni said darkly, “that this puts you in the line of succession, alongside Myaszæron. That only...what , six? Six heads are all that stand between you and the coronet of the Prince Consort.”
He nodded. “Ælyndarka, Landioryn, Cæfalys, Airæszyllan, Gyennareen. And of course my new brother-in-law, that fool, Bræagond. Six throats to cut, and the golden chair is mine.” He shook his head. “There are those who will see it that way, no doubt. Including Annalyszian.
“And, if we’re lucky,” he added with a bleak smile, “the Grim Duchess. In fact, I’m counting on her seeing it that way.”
“I wonder how the Queen will see it,” Jianni murmured. “That’s all that really matters right now, isn’t it?”
The Duke nodded. He put his arm around his daughter. They stood in companionable silence, watching the broad, grey sails until they disappeared over the horizon, and the last of the Lantern’s light faded, and the stars sprang up in the clear night sky.
Far below, on the quarterdeck of Odergrav, the Duke’s new lifemate stood leaning against the railing, bracing herself against the gentle pitch of the rollers, and struggling to make out her love’s silhouette against the darkening sky.
Two paces away, Captain Fall stood at the wheelman’s shoulder, muttering terse instructions to the sailor, and to the enormous, glowering form of the first mate - the minotaur Kalatak. Fall was the sort of commander who preferred his deck clear of obstructions and idlers, and his pudgy face bore a scowl that suggested that he would dearly have loved to order the Princess below decks. He was not such a fool, of course; one never trifled with the moneyed classes anywhere, and especially not in the elf-realm, where the slightest perception of an insult could lead to drawn blades and slit throats. He’d never yet run into a passenger that Kalatak couldn’t handle - that was why he’d brought the unpredictable bull-head aboard in the first place - but this one looked like she knew her way around a blade.
And there were the others, too - the three humans, and the half-elf. They were a grim-faced, reticent lot, and Fall looked forward to the moment when he could watch them trot down the gangway and out of his life. He’d half-considered propositioning the little one, the Wandering Elf girlie; after all, she was a remarkable beauty, more stunning even than the princess - but something about her had stopped him dead in his tracks. Something in her eyes, her bearing, even the way she walked suggested that she was not quite what she seemed to be. Fall had a sixth sense for that sort of thing. It had kept him alive only because he paid attention to it, and he wasn’t going to start ignoring it now.
A few dozen paces away from where Fall was stewing in his doubts and misperceptions, Amorda and her hand-maiden, Reticia, stood against the windward railing, staring at the stern and watching the mortal drama unfold around them.
Reticia in particular was observing the princess. “Ah, to be young and in love,” the elf-woman drawled.
“She’s older than you, numb-wit,” Amorda laughed.
“Ah, to be noble-born, beautiful, rich, bursting with power, and straddling a stallion like Kaltas,” the hand-maiden amended.
The lady slapped her companion’s shoulder, stifling a giggle. “Reticio, Reticia!” she snorted. The ancilla’s name, after all, meant ‘dignified silence’, and Amorda, from time to time, found herself wishing that she would exemplify it.
“I can dream, can’t I?” the younger woman asked wistfully.
“Think a little while you dream. If you can,” Amorda laughed. “What did you think of our band of sell-swords?”
Reticia shrugged. “What about them?”
“Did they look different to you? When they boarded the ship, I mean?”
“I was seeing to your wardrobe, lady,” the hand-maiden said stiffly. “All two-score chests of it, winched below decks and stowed safely away. I had little time for idle observation.”
“Too bad. I think he looks different,” Amorda murmured.
“Who? Your lupino?”
The lady nodded.
Reticia frowned. “Is it something definite? Because I didn’t notice anything about any of them. Except for a few minor items of clothing and kit, maybe. The warrior Karrick’s sporting a new helm, for example, and that chemise the silver-eyed girl is wearing...that’s new. It’s something local. Must’ve bought it here.”
“She didn’t. It was Rykki’s,” Amorda sighed. “I saw her wear it once, at the College in Starmeadow. She was duelling Kalestayne.”
Reticia’s eyebrows shot up. “Duelling? The Master Magister?”
“A friendly wager, nothing more.”
“Why is he giving his wife’s wardrobe away?” Reticia asked. Then she nodded. “Oh, of course. Strenabitionae, yes? Parting gifts?”
“Likely enough,” Amorda agreed. “Although that doesn’t explain the thing riding on his shoulder.”
“What is it? A bird?”
“Nec. Some sort of fey creature. A pixie, or some such, I should guess.”
Reticia blinked. “Why in all the hells would Kaltas give some adventurer a pixie?” She thought about that for a moment, then added, “And where would he get a pixie, anyway?”
“I don’t think it was from Kaltas,” Amorda murmured. “There’s something going on with that boy, and I mean to find out what it is.”
“So if not the fairy bug,” Reticia asked, “then what did Kaltas give him?”
Amorda pursed her lips. “What indeed?”
Reticia laughed. “ You’re hoping for a medallion of bear’s endurance, aren’t you?”
The lady shrugged, a tiny smile tugging at her lips.
“Gods,” the hand-maiden sniggered. “It went on long enough the last time you coupled. You nearly caught fire then. How much more do you think you can stand? Starmeadow’s only a seven-day away!”
“I think that’s enough from you, my duck,” Amorda warned.
“Oak planks can only take so much punishment, you know,” Reticia chortled. “If he pounds you through the deck and into the bilge -”
“Hara Sophus!” Amorda exclaimed. “Am I going to have to cut your tongue out?”
Reticia laughed. “Men would mourn from Eldisle to the Wastes!”
“I’m starting to think you ought to be packed away in the hold as well,” Amorda muttered.
“I could use the rest,” the hand-maiden shrugged. “But then, who’d ply the crew for information, while you’re honey-talking that sweet-hipped semiferus and his comrades?”
“Forget the crew,” Amorda ordered. “They won’t know anything useful. I’ve heard some unsettling rumours. Troops being summoned, movements up and down the old battlefronts in Niriam Vale...that sort of thing. I need to know how things stand in the Empire. Why don’t you try Captain Fall?”
“Gah!” Reticia nearly gagged. “The man’s a toad, and he smells like a midden. I’d rather tumble the minotaur.” She nodded at the bull-headed mate, who roamed the planking, dispensing blows of his massive fists as chastisement to dilatory deckhands.
“Be my guest,” the lady chuckled. “But have a care; they’re said to be insatiable. He looks like he might even be able to outlast Beck.”
The hand-maiden smirked narrowly.
“If your stomach’s not strong enough for the captain,” Amorda suggested, “there’s always the weatherworker. His name’s Khalash. I marked him when we came aboard.”
“Which one is he?” Reticia asked, glancing at the swirling array of humanity as the sailors worked Odergrav around onto a south-westerly course.
“By the wheel. Brown-skinned, black-haired and serious-looking.”
Reticia squinted at the quarterdeck. “Him? He’s a wizard?”
“Sorcerer, more like,” Amorda replied. “Gasparri, from Illostina, or so I’m told. He probably speaks the sylvan tongue,” she added as an afterthought, “so we’d best stick to the court dialect for secrets.”
“He looks like a brigand,” the hand-maiden sniffed. “I’d’ve expected a staff or something.”
“I’m sure he has one somewhere,” the lady grinned. “No doubt he’ll show it to you, if you ask him the right way.”
Reticia shot her mistress a narrow glance, and Amorda laughed.
The great raft was comforting, in a way. It reminded him of previous water crossings. Many times had he crossed the salt lake with the Clan. For the last paw of crossings, ever since he had succeeded Terbekar Secercah as First, he had been First among the Companions, looking to Besar Pengikut, the chieftain. Terbekar had known the way of it; he had felt his legs growing weary and his fangs dull, and had sought out the strongest of his get, and bent the knee to him, offering the new First his throat. Akhir had nipped only lightly, not wishing to humble so great a forebear, and had led the howl for his sire when the great bronze monster had slipped, silent as ever, into the woodlands.
Now he was First. But First of what? He had no Clan. They were gone. He had no Companions; they too were gone, having slipped into the new forest around the ancient tree-swallowed stone-city once it became clear that the Clan would not return. First his mate, Perkasa Macan, then his mate’s Look-To Companion...now this. He had no complaints; the green was the green, and took as often as it gave. His new Look-To Companion was wise and silent, a good tracker and a swift hunter. Akhir approved of him. But he was not Clan. He was something else.
The great raft was moving now, moving swiftly, like low cloud scudding across sky. The Clan rafts had never swum the salt lake with this sort of speed. The two-legs had planted trees atop their rafts, and had spread great stretched cloths over them. That must be the difference, he decided. Padding softly across the hard boards, he poked his enormous, furry snout here and there, starting the quaking two-legs with moist snorts and the tickling of whiskers. All those he approached quaked like mice, squeaking and squawking their fear. They had complained to their leader - a towering two-leg with a head like a plains steer, graced with vast, curving horns. This creature was not like the other two-legs; he was as large and as heavy as Akhir himself. He had held out a clawed fist to Akhir, and Akhir had sniffed him, curious to learn how he differed from the other two-legs. One brief snort had been enough. The bull-head was a kindred spirit, and Akhir indicated his approval by lapping at the proffered fist (like everything else aboard the raft it was salty) and then butting his furry head gently into the monster’s midriff. His reward had been a savage scritching around the neck, eliciting a delighted rumble that had set the deck-planks trembling.
The bull-head had called for a half-keg of water and a flitch of bacon, and Akhir had spent the next quarter-hour indulging his baser appetites. He scarcely came up for air until his Look-To Companion appeared on deck, breathing deeply of the sea air. Akhir sympathized. He had sampled the stagnant air of the ‘tween-decks, and far preferred the biting sea breezes of spring.
When the darkness was complete, the bull-head called for lights, and oil lamps were hoisted into the rigging. The light was fitful and flickering, but it was sufficient for the two-legs on deck. To Akhir, it was as bright as day. His Companion crouched beside him, seeking shelter from the wind against the great cat’s hulking shoulders. Akhir, as was his wont when the weather turned foul, curled himself into a thick knot, draping the hirsute cable of his tail over his nose. His Companion snuggled into the rumbling, fuzzy heap. Together, they dropped into intermittent sleep.
From time to time, as cats do, Akhir roused himself, picking up his great head and glancing around to take stock of changes in his surroundings. His Companion, by contrast, scarcely moved. He did not appear to sleep; his violet eyes remained wide open and staring, fixed on the uninterrupted blanket of stars overhead. Akhir followed his gaze, but could not see what his Companion was looking at.
It did not matter. By the time the first streaks of dawn coloured the western skies and the two-legs were stirring, he was well-rested and alert.
And hungry again.