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Authors: Dave Duncan

Magic Casement

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Magic Casement

Book 1 of A Man Of His Word

Dave Duncan

 

 

ONE

 

Youth Departs

 

1

Since
long before the coming of Gods and mortals, the great rock of Krasnegar had
stood amid the storms and ice of the Winter Ocean, resolute and eternal.
Throughout long arctic nights it glimmered under the haunted dance of aurora
and the rays of the cold, sad moon, while the icepack ground in useless anger
around its base. In summer sun its yellow angularity stood on the shining white
and blue of the sea like a slice of giants’ cheese on fine china. Weather
and season came and went and the rock endured unchanging, heeding them no more
than it heeded the flitting generations of mankind.

Two
sides fell sheer to the surf, pitted with narrow ledges where only the crying
seabirds went, but the third face ran down less steeply, and on that long mad
slope the little town adhered as grimly as a splatter of swallows’ nests.
Above the humble clutter of the houses, at the very crest of the rock, the
castle pointed black and spikey turrets to the sky.

No
mere human hand could have raised those stones in a land so remote or a setting
so wild. The castle had been built long centuries before by the great sorcerer
Inisso, to serve as palace for himself and for the dynasty he founded. His
descendants ruled there still, in direct male line unbroken... but the present
monarch, good King Holindarn, beloved of his people, had but a single child-his
daughter, Inosolan.

Summer
came late to Krasnegar. When inhabitants of milder lands were counting their lambs
and chicks, the brutal storms still rolled in from the Winter Ocean. While
those lucky southerners gathered hay and berries, the wynds and alleyways of
the north lay plugged with drifts. Even when night had been almost banished
from the pallid arctic sky, the hills ashore stayed brown and sere. Every year
was the same. Every year a stranger might have given up hoping and assumed that
summer was not about to happen at all. The locals knew better and in patient
resignation they waited for the change.

Always
their faith was rewarded at last. With no warning, a cheerful wind would
blunder in to sweep the ice floes from the harbor, the hills would throw off
their winter plumage almost overnight, and the snowdrifts in the alleyways
would shrink rapidly to sullen gray heaps sulking in shadowed corners. A few
days’ rain and the world was washed green again, fair weather following
foul as fast as a blink. Spring in Krasnegar, the inhabitants said, had to be
believed in to be seen.

Now
it had happened. Sunlight poured through the castle windows. The fishing boats
were in the water. The tide was out, the beaches were clear of ice and
obviously eager to be ridden on. Inos came early down to breakfast, busily
spinning plans for the day.

The
great hall was almost deserted. Even before the fine weather had arrived, the
king’s servants had driven the livestock over the causeway to the
mainland. Others would now be outside attending to the wagons and the harbor,
cleaning up the winter’s leavings, and preparing for the hectic work of
summer. Inos’s tutor, Master Poraganu, was conveniently indisposed with
his customary springtime rheumatics; there would be no objections from him, and
she could head for the stables as soon as she had grabbed a quick bite.

Aunt
Kade sat at the high table in solitary splendor.

Momentarily
Inos debated the wisdom of making a fast retreat and finding something to eat
in the kitchens, but she had already been noticed. She continued her approach,
therefore, practicing poise and trusting that a regal grace would compensate
for shabby attire.

“Good
morning, Aunt,” she said cheerfully. “Beautiful morning.”

“Good
morning, my dear.”

“You’re
earlier than-ooof!” Inos had not intended to make that last remark, but
her breeches tried to bite her in half as she sat down. She smiled uneasily,
and her sleeves slid quietly up her wrists.

Aunt
Kade pursed her lips. Aunts could be expected to disaprove of princesses
arriving at meals in dirty old riding habits. “You appear to have
outgrown those clothes, my dear. “

Kade
herself, of course, was dressed as if for a wedding or a state function. Not
one silver hair was out of place, and even for breakfast she had sprinkled
jewelry around her neck and over her fingers. In honor of the arrival of
summer, she had donned her pale-blue linen with the tiny pleats. Inos
restrained an unkind impulse to remark that Kade appeared to have outgrown the
pale-blue linen. Kade was short,

Kade
was plump, and Kade was growing plumper. The wardrobe she had brought back with
her two years ago was barely adequate now, and the local seamstresses were all
at least two generations out of date in fashioning attire for ladies of
quality.

“Oh,
they’ll do,” Inos said airily. “I’m only going along
the beach, not leading a parade. “

Aunt
Kade dabbed at her lips with a snowy napkin. “That will be nice, my dear.
Who is going with you?”

“Kel,
I hope. Or Ido... or Fan...” Rap, of course, had long since departed for
the mainland. So had many, many others.

“Kel
will be helping me.” Kade frowned. “Ido? Not the chambermaid?”

Inos’s
heart sank. It would not help to mention that Ido was an excellent rider and
that the two of them had been out six or eight times already recently in much
worse weather than this. “There’ll be somebody. “ She smiled
thanks at old Nok as he brought her a dish of porridge.

“Yes,
but who?” Kade’s china-blue eyes assumed the tortured look they
always did in these confrontations with her willful niece.

“Everyone
is very busy just now. I shall need to know who is going with you, my dear. “

“I’m
a very competent horsewoman, Aunt.”

“I’m
sure you are, but you must certainly not go out riding without suitable
attendants. That would not be ladylike. Or safe. So you will find out who is
available and let me know before you leave?”

Restraining
her temper, Inos made noncommittal noises to the porridge.

Kade
smiled with relief... and apparently with complete innocence. “You
promise, Inos?”

Trapped!
“Of course, Aunt.”

Such
babying was humiliating! Inos was older than Sila, the cook’s daughter,
who was already married and almost a mother.

“I
am having a small salon this morning. Nothing formal, just some ladies from the
town... tea and cakes. You would be very welcome to join us.”

On
a day like this? Tea and cakes and burgesses’ fat wives? Inos would
rather muck out stables.

Disaster!
There was no one. Even the youngest and most inadequate stableboy seemed to
have been assigned duties of world-shattering importance that could not be
postponed. A frenzy of activity possessed everyone still remaining in the
castle, and there were few of those anyway. The boys had gone to the hills or
the boats. The girls were busy in the fields or the fish sheds. There was no
one.

No
one of her rank! That was the real problem. All of Inos’s friends were
the children of her father’s servants, for Krasnegar possessed no
nobility below its king, and no minor gentry either, unless one counted the
merchants and burgesses. Her father counted them; Aunt Kade did so unwillingly.
But servants and gentry alike, the boys were vanishing into trades, the girls
into matrimony. There was no one around with leisure to escort a princess, and
the prospect of that spirited gallop along the sands began to fade like a
mirage.

The
stables were almost deserted, by man and beast both. As she went in, Inos
passed Ido bearing a bundle of washing on her head.

“Looking
for Rap?” Ido inquired.

No,
Inos was not looking for Rap. Rap had long since gone landward with the others
and would not be back before winter. And why should everyone always assume that
it had to be Rap she wanted?

She
spent a wistful while agrooming Lightning, although he did not need it. What he
needed was more exercise. She had inherited Lightning from her mother, and if
her mother had still been alive, then they... well, no point in thinking about
that. As Inos left the stable, she passed old Hononin, the hostler, a gnarled
and weatherbeaten monument whose face seemed to have been upholstered in the
same leather used to make his clothes.

“Morning,
miss. Looking for Rap?”

Inos
snorted a denial and pranced by him, although snorting was not regal. And
probably that way of departing was what the writers of romances called a “flounce,”
and that would not be regal either. She would not be able to go riding, and
Aunt Kade would know she was still around the palace. Would she hunt down her
niece to impose the tea-and-cake torture on her? With some relief, Inos decided
that Aunt Kade probably wanted her at the affair no more than she wanted to
attend. Unfortunately, Kade might decide that duty required her to promote Inos’s
education in the social graces.

At
that point in her misery, Inos found herself out in the bailey, and there was a
wagon heading for the gate.

She
had promised Kade that she would not go riding alone. No one had said she could
not go down to the harbor unaccompanied... or at least into the town itself...
not recently, anyway. The guard was the problem. The token sentry would not
likely say anything; but nosy old Sergeant Thosolin liked to sit in the guard
room and watch who came and went all day. He might consider that he had
authority to question Princess Inosolan. Even if he didn’t, he probably
would.

She
hurried across the cobbles to the wagon, then strolled casually beside it as it
clattered and jingled through the archway. There was just room for a slim
princess to walk between the high rear wheel and the greasy black stones. The
noise reverberated astonishingly in that narrow space. She was shielded from
the guard room; she marched past the sentry without a glance; a moment later
she was in the outer court, feeling like an escaped ferret.

If
a king could safely walk unaccompanied around the town, then his daughter
could, yes?

Inos
did not ask the question aloud, so no one answered it. She was in no danger. Her
father was a popular monarch and Krasnegar a very law-abiding place. She had
heard tell of large cities where what she was doing might be foolish, but she
was certain that she would come to no harm in Krasnegar. Aunt Kade might object
that being unaccompanied was unladylike, but Inos could see no reason why her
father’s independent kingdom need be bound by the customs of the Impire.

A
single wagon road zigzagged down the hill, but Inos preferred the narrow
stairways and alleys. Some of those were open, some roofed over. Some were
bright and sunny, some dark, others partly lighted by windows and skylights.
They were all steep and winding, and this fine day they bustled. Inos was
recognized often. She received smiles and salutes, frowns and surprised glances,
all of which she acknowledged with a confident and regal little nod, as her
father did. She was growing up-they must expect to see her around often in
future. And yet, hurrying down the steep little town, Inos saw no one of any
interest, only thick-shouldered porters and wide-hipped matrons, tottering
crones and stickymouthed toddlers. None but the dull remained in Krasnegar in
summer.

From
time to time she caught glimpses of slate roofs below her and the harbor below
those. Two ships had arrived already, the first of the season, and there she
was headed. The early arrivals always made Krasnegar nervous, for in some years
they brought sickness that would slash through the town like a scythe-it was
less than two years since one such epidemic had carried off the queen. But the
harbor was where the excitement would be, where the fishermen and whalers of
Krasnegar itself mingled with visitors come to trade, stocky, urbane ships’
captains from the Impire and the foreboding flaxen-hair jotnar of Nordland-tall
men with ice-blue eyes that could send shivers down Inos’s arms. She
might even see a few sinister goblins from the forest, each leading a party of
his wives, loaded with bundles of furs.

BOOK: Magic Casement
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