Authors: Lois McMaster Bujold
A fantasy novella in the World of the Five Gods
Lois McMaster Bujold
Copyright © by Lois McMaster Bujold
The morning light sloped across the meadows, breathing pale green into the interlaced branches of the woods beyond, picking out shy pink and white blossoms here and there among the new leaves. The spring air hung soft with promise. Penric’s mother, before she had gone off in the wagon with his sisters to oversee the final preparations, had turned her face to the cool blue sky and declared it a perfect day for a betrothal; surely the gods were smiling upon the House of Jurald at last! Penric had refrained from pointing out that the learned divines taught that the gods did not control the weather, and been rewarded for this filial forbearance with a sharp maternal injunction to hurry up, finish dressing, and follow! This was no time to be dragging his feet!
Penric stared glumly between his horse’s bobbing ears and reflected that it would have been an even better day to go fishing. Not the most exciting pastime, but it was the one thing he’d ever found to do that made people stop
at him. He tried to imagine the muddy, winding road going somewhere less familiar than Greenwell Town. He supposed it actually did, if you followed it far enough. As his elder brother Drovo had done? Not a happy thought.
He frowned down at the brown sleeves of his jacket, laced with orange and gold-colored thread betraying a brassy tarnish. Even for this, he was still wearing hand-me-downs. The fine suit had been new when Drovo had first worn it at age thirteen for his oath to the militant Son’s Order as a page-dedicat; not just as customary for his sex and age and rank, but true to his boisterous heart, Penric fancied. Drovo had outgrown the garb too swiftly for it to become much frayed or patched. Pulled out of a storage chest reeking of camphor, it had been fitted to the nineteen-year-old Penric merely by stealing a little fabric from the shoulders to lengthen the legs of the trousers. He tried to encourage himself with the thought that at least he wasn’t wearing hand-me-downs from his
, except that he was fairly sure the linen shirt, shabby and soft, under the jacket had once been a blouson.
Well, Drovo wouldn’t be outgrowing any more clothes now.
His death last year in Adria, of a camp fever before he’d even had a chance to help lose his mercenary company’s first battle, had been the second mortal disaster to befall the family in four years. The first had been the death of their father, of a swift infection in the jaw following a neglected abscess of a tooth. They’d all missed the jovial Lord of Jurald, if not, perhaps, his drinking and gambling. Penric’s eldest brother Lord Rolsch had seemed a soberer hand on the helm, if only he hadn’t been such a gull for every pious beggar, whether in rags or Temple robes, to come down the pike. And if the Lords of Jurald hadn’t ruled over a local peasantry whose main pastimes seemed to be archery, poaching, and tax evasion. So Drovo had taken his oath-money from the company recruiter, spent it in equipping himself, and gone off to the wars beyond the mountains, cheerily promising to come back rich with spoils to repair the family fortunes.
At least his fate had cured the clan of urging Penric to do the same . . .
Not that he’d ever been tempted. One rowdy Drovo had been enough to make Pen’s youth a misery; camp life with a whole company of like-minded bruisers was a nightmare in prospect. And that was before one even got to the grim battles.
“Pick up the pace, Little Pen,” his groom, Gans, advised him in the familiar terms of his childhood. “I shouldn’t like to hear it if I deliver you late.”
“Nor I,” Pen sighed agreement, and they kicked their horses into a trot.
Pen tried to drag his thoughts into a sunnier mode, matching the morning. The bed of the daughter of a rich cheese merchant certainly made a more attractive arena in which to try to better his lot than the battlegrounds of the north. Preita was as nice and round as the purse she came with. He wondered if she understood what a hollowed-out lordly title her family was buying for her. The three times they’d been allowed to meet, strictly chaperoned, she had seemed a trifle dubious about it all, if tolerably pleased in turn with Pen’s appearance. Shyness, or shrewdness? Pen’s sister-in-law Lady Jurald had found and fostered the match, through some connection with Preita’s mother. Well, presumably the girl’s parents understood what they were purchasing. It would be up to Pen to make sure she did not regret the bargain.
How hard could husbanding be?
Don’t drink, don’t gamble, don’t bring hunting dogs to the table. Don’t be terrified of tooth-drawers. Don’t be stupid about money. Don’t go for a soldier. No hitting girls.
He wasn’t drawn to violate any of these prohibitions. Assuming older sisters weren’t classified as girls. Maybe make that, No hitting girls
Perhaps, once he had secured his bride and her dowry, he might persuade her to move somewhere farther down the road? Pen imagined a cottage by a lake, with no servants he had not hired himself. But Preita seemed quite devoted to her own family. And neither half of the couple was likely to enjoy more than a modest allowance before Pen reached his majority. Until then, the purse strings would remain in Rolsch’s hands. Who was unlikely to be persuaded, while there was still room at Jurald Court, to part with unnecessary expenses for housing not under his fraternal eye. And Pen was fairly sure Preita hadn’t thought she was signing up for life in a cottage. Which would probably be given to damp, anyway.
Do your best
, Pen told himself firmly as they turned onto the main road to Greenwell, and then, his head coming up,
An odd collection of horses and figures was halted on the verge.
A man with a badge pinning jaunty blue and white feathers on his hat, marking him as of the Daughter’s Order, held four restive horses. The weapons of a Temple guardsman hung at his belt. A second guardsman and a woman in a superior sort of servant’s garb knelt by a figure laid out supine on a spread cloak. Had a rider in the party been thrown? Pen pulled his horse to a halt.
“Is someone hurt here?” he called. The supine figure, he saw at closer range, was a slight, elderly woman, gray haired and gray faced, in a muddle of robes of no particular colors. “Do you need help?”
The second guardsman rose and turned eagerly to him. “Young sir! Do you know how far it is to the next town, and do they have physicians of the Mother there?”
“Yes, Greenwell; not five miles up the road you’re on,” said Pen, pointing. “The Mother’s Order keeps a hospice there.”
The guardsman took the reins of three of their mounts from his fellow, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Go; ride for help. Get a litter—better, a wagon.” The man nodded and sprang to his saddle, wheeled, and clapped his heels to his horse’s flanks. It galloped off in a spray of dirt clods.
Pen dismounted and handed his own reins up to Gans, who stared at the scene in doubt. The middle-aged woman took in Pen’s neat, pious brown suit, and seemed to grow less wary. “Divine Ruchia has taken suddenly ill on the road,” she said, gesturing to the older woman, who lay breathing in short gasps. “She was struck by a great pain in her chest, and fell.”
“Oh, I was taken ill long before that,” the old woman commented between huffs. “I lingered too long in Darthaca . . .
the fools to bring the ceremony to me.”
Torn between curiosity, concern, and a reflection that if he’d left for town earlier as he’d been charged, he could have avoided all this, Pen lowered himself to the old woman’s side. Cautiously, he felt her forehead, as his mother had used to do for him; her skin seemed clammy, not feverish. He had not the first notion of what to do for her, but it seemed wrong to just remount and ride away, for all that Gans was now glaring in tight-lipped worry.
“I am Lord Penric of kin Jurald, barons in this valley,” he told her, gesturing back to the road they’d come from. He wasn’t sure what to say next. She seemed most in authority here, but surely least able to command, in her current distressed state. Her cloak slipped off her shoulder, revealing Temple braids pinned there marking a divine—not in the green and gold of the Mother of Summer, as he would have expected, or perhaps the blue and white of the Daughter of Spring, but the white, cream, and silver of the Bastard, the fifth god, master of all disasters out of season. He gulped, swallowing his surprise.
She wheezed a short laugh and stirred, lifting a claw-like hand to his face. “Pretty boy. There’s a better last sight than scowling Marda. Gift of sorts. But those colors don’t suit you, you know.”
He raised his head to the servant woman who, as he’d knelt, had retreated. “Is she delirious?”
The servant shook her head. “Can’t tell, can I? She’s been spouting things no one else understands since I was assigned to ride with her.”
The old woman’s lips twitched back. “Really?” she said. She did not seem to be addressing Marda. Or Penric. “
will throw the fools into a tizzy.” She fought for another breath. “Illogical to wish to see it, I suppose.”
Increasingly frightened, and feeling quite stupid and helpless, Pen tried: “Let me serve you in your need, Learned.”
She stared intently up at him for two more disrupted breaths, then wheezed, “Accepted.”
. Cold, slick, not like the fevered heat and stink of his father’s deathbed, but the advancing pallor was unmistakable. He wanted nothing so much as to run away, but her hand, falling back from his face, found his and gripped it weakly. He wasn’t enough something—cowardly, brave?—to shake it off. Both the servant and the guardsman, he saw out of the corner of his eye, were hastily backing away.
“Lord Bastard,” she breathed. “Y’r doorway
. ’D think y’ could arrange things better f’yr servants . . .”
If all he could do was hold her hand, Pen decided in desperation, well, that was what he would do. His grip tightened.
For a moment, her brown eyes seemed to flash with a deep violet light. Then, between one breath and . . . none, her eyes went dull and still.
No one was looking back at him now.
He heard a confusion of women’s voices babbling in half-a-dozen languages, most of which he didn’t recognize, crying out in terror and pain. His head, throbbing with tension, seemed to explode in a thick, tangled net of lightning, all white.
Then all black.
Strange dreams scattered as Penric woke to a fierce headache, a raging thirst, and a desperate need to piss. He was in a bed in a small chamber, high up under the eaves judging by the slope of the whitewashed ceiling, wearing only his shirt and trews. As he stirred and groaned, an unfamiliar face appeared over him. Pen was not quite reassured to see the man wore the green tunic of a dedicat of the Mother’s Order. A few minutes of bustle followed as the man helped him to a chamber pot, then drew him back from the window where Pen tried to put his head out. By his glimpse of the street and the sky, he was in Greenwell Town, probably at the Mother’s hospice. Still morning, so maybe he wasn’t in
much trouble yet? At the dedicat’s urging Pen reeled back into the bed and negotiated for a cup of water, which left him with only the headache and a vast confusion.
“How did I come here? I was on the road. Did I faint? Where is my suit?” He’d better not have lost or ruined the suit. Not to mention his good boots, also missing. “There was this sick old woman—a divine—”
“I will fetch Learned Lurenz,” the dedicat told him. “Don’t move!”
The man hurried out. Muffled voices sounded from the hallway, then steps thumping away. Pen spotted his suit, folded neatly atop a chest, with his boots beside it, which relieved him of one worry. He squeezed his eyes open and shut, and sat up to help himself to another cup of water. He was trying to decide if he could stagger across the room to retrieve his clothes when footsteps tapped once more, and he hurriedly tucked himself back under the sheets as instructed.
Without knocking, there entered tall, skinny Learned Lurenz, the Greenwell Town Temple’s chief divine; reassuringly recognizable, alarmingly tense. He bent over Pen as if about to feel his forehead, but then drew back his hand. “Which are you?” he demanded of Pen.