ARGAUT, CONTINENT OF NORTHLAND
he light of the harbor torches fluttered on the waves and reflected back at the night sky, a dim imitation of the waxing moon that hung stubbornly above the end of the quay, ducking in and out of the clouds racing past on the wind.
Long into the dark hours, scores of even darker figures had sworn, sweated, and spat, reaching endlessly into the bowels of the ships that lined the jetty, dragging forth their treasures in the forms of barrels and chests and loose bales of goods bound for market in Ganth, then throwing them roughly into wagons or carrying them, corded muscles straining with exertion, into the dray sleds amid muttered cursing. The dray horses, sensing the onset of a night rain, danced in their hitchings, fearing the coming thunder.
Finally, when the docks were silent, the torches had burned down to the stalk joints, and no light remained but that of the obstinate moon, Quinn emerged from the belly of the
and made his way down the gangplank, glancing behind him several times until he reached the pier.
The longshoremen had joined the ship's crew in warmer, louder haunts, and were now undoubtedly drinking themselves into belligerent fits or pleasant stupors. The stench in their quarters the next morning would be a fine one, to be sure. But the smell of intestinal gas and sour vomit tomorrow would be welcome compared with what Quinn faced now at the end of the dark quay.
Quinn's eyesight had always been acute. He had sailor's eyes that scanned the endless horizon for a fleck of variation in the swimming expanse of monotonous gray-blue; he could tell a gull from a tern from the crow's nest in the glare of the sun at distances that befuddled his shipmates. Still, he always doubted the accuracy of his vision in the last few moments of this familiar walk, for the person he was meeting always seemed to change before his eyes as he approached.
Quinn was never quite certain, but it seemed as if the man
and grew more solid, his long, thin fingers subtly gaining flesh, the shoulders
broadening slightly beneath the well-made cloak. Once Quinn thought he had caught a glimmer of blood at the edge of the seneschal's eyes, but a closer look proved him to be mistaken. They were clear blue, cloudless as a summer sky, without a trace of red. The warmth of those eyes was almost enough to dispel the chill that never failed to creep though Quinn like a slithering vine whenever they met.
“Welcome back, Quinn.” The heat in the seneschal's voice matched that of his eyes.
“Thank ye, m'lord.”
“I trust your voyage was successful.”
The seneschal still did not favor him with a glance, but instead stared into the lapping waves cresting under the pier. “And was it she?”
Quinn swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. “I'd say sure as certain, m'lord.”
The seneschal turned finally, and looked down at Quinn with a contemplative expression. Quinn caught it then, that smell, the faint, foul reek of human flesh in fire. He knew the odor well.
“How do you know this, Quinn? I don't want to sail across the world for nothing; I'm sure you'd agree.”
“She wears the locket, m'lord, a shabby piece amongst all 'er jewels.”
The seneschal studied Quinn's face for a moment, then nodded distantly. “Well, then. I suppose it's time I paid her a visit.”
Quinn nodded dumbly in return, almost unaware of the raindrops that had begun to spatter the dockside planks.
“Thank you, Quinn. That will be all.” As if in enthusiastic agreement, the rippling glow of heat lightning undulated across the docks, punctuated a moment later by the rumble of distant thunder. The sailor bowed hurriedly and turned, scurrying back to the
and his tiny, dark hole belowdecks.
By the time he reached the gangplank and looked back, the figure had become part of the windy rain and the darkness again.
n the other side of the world it was raining harshly. Night was coming, bringing with it the relentless downpour that had been dogging Berthe's mood from the moment the storm had begun at dawn, though early on it had taken the form of a mild but insistent shower. Every hour or so a wayfarer had pounded on the scullery door, begging shelter and tracking rainwater and mud from the road over her newly washed floor.
By nightfall she was livid, berating the last of the men with language so
acid that the chamberlain himself had rebuked her, reminding her of the recentness of her hire and the strict standards of courtesy the Lady Cymrian expected to be in place at Haguefort, the keep of rosy brown stone in which the royal couple lived while the beautiful palace her husband was building for her nearby was being completed.
But the lady was away and had been for weeks, her absence evident in the ever-souring mood of her husband. Lord Gwydion was passing the remaining fortnight before her return in all-night meetings with his weary councilors, who privately expressed the hope that the next two weeks would come and go rapidly, given his ugly state of mind. Berthe had never met her, never even seen her, but unlike the rest of the palace staff, she did not pray for the lady's speedy return, the lord's bad mood notwithstanding. From what Berthe had been able to discern in her ten days' tenure at Haguefort, the Lady Cymrian was an odd duck given to some fairly strange ideas.
Now the vast kitchen was dark, the polished stones of the floor finally scrubbed clean, the firecoals burning down to flickering ash. Upstairs in the meeting rooms on the other side of the main wing lights still burned, and voices were occasionally raised in barely audible laughter or argument. Berthe leaned against the hearth wall and sighed.
As if in blatant mockery, the door knocker sounded.
“Be off wi' ya,” the scullery woman scowled through the latch. Silence reigned for a moment; then the knocker sounded again, louder this time.
“Go away!” Berthe roared back before her better sense took hold; she glanced around furtively, fearing the return of the chamberlain. When she had ascertained that no one important, or likely to report her to someone important, had overheard her, she lifted the bolt, cleared her throat, and opened the door a crack.
Before her was nothing but the gloom of the dreary night.
Seeing no one at the threshold, Berthe started to close the door, a growl of annoyance emanating from the wrinkled folds at her throat.
A flash of lightning blazed, and in its momentary light a figure could be seen lowering the hood of a cloak, the outline of which she could barely make out, and had caught no sight of the moment before. A crackle of electricity hummed over her skin as she peered out into the murkiness of the night. Berthe had to look closely through the sheeting rain to see even this shade of a person; had she not squinted into the darkness at the same moment as the flash, it was unlikely she would have noticed anything at all. She interposed herself in front of the figure that was preparing to step into her clean and buttoned-down kitchen.
“There's an inn down the road a piece,” she growled into the rain. “Everyone's
to bed. The buttery's closed down tight. I don't mean to keep the staff up all night.”
“Please let me in; it's very cold out here in the rain.” The voice was that of a young woman, soft and a little desperate, heavy with the weary tone of a tired traveler.
Berthe's annoyance was apparent in her answer, though she struggled to maintain the civility she had heard the lady was insistent upon, even to peasants. “What do you want? It's the middle of the night. Be off wi' you, now.”
“I want to see the Lord Cymrian.” The reply came as if from the darkness itself.
“Days of Pleas are next month,” Berthe answered, beginning to close the door. “Come back then; the lord and lady hear requests beginning at sunrise on the first day of the new moon.”
“Wait,” called the voice as the opening narrowed. “Please; if you'll just tell the lord I'm here, I think he will want to see me.”
Berthe spat in a puddle of dirty water forming near the scullery step. She had dealt with such women before. Her former employer, Lord Dronsdale, had a veritable flock of them, assigned to different nights of the week; they gathered outside the stable, waiting for the Lady Dronsdale to retire, then began preening beneath the back window, each hoping to be selected by the lord, who signaled his interest from the balcony. It had been her job to shoo away the girls not chosen on a given night, and an onerous task it was. She had hoped not to have to repeat it here at Haguefort.
“Well, now, aren't we the cheeky wench?” she snapped, her recent training forgotten. “It's past midnight, my girl, and you're here unannounced, on a day not in keeping with the law. Who are you that the lord would want to see you at this hour?”
The voice was steady. “His wife.”
Later Berthe realized that the clicking she heard following the words was the sound of her jaw dropping open; it remained thus for much too long. She closed her mouth abruptly and pulled the heavy door open wide, causing the metal hinges to scream in protest.
“M'lady, forgive me â I had no idea 'twas you.”
Who would expect the Lady Cymrian, dressed in peasant garb, unguarded, at the buttery door in the middle of the night?
she wondered, clutching her icy stomach.
The darkness shifted, and the cloaked figure hurried inside. Once she was silhouetted against the firelight, Berthe could see that the Lady Cymrian was no taller than she, and slight of frame. Her jaw trembled as the young woman untied the hood of her cloak amid a cloud of mist that rose from the folds of it, then pulled the garment from her shoulders.
First to emerge from the shadows of the plain blue-gray fabric was as fair a face as Berthe had ever seen, crowned with golden hair the color of sunlight pulled back in a simple black ribbon. The expression on that face was clearly one of displeasure, but the lady said nothing until she had carefully hung her cloak, still surrounded with an aura of mist, on a peg over the fire grate, followed by a quiver of arrows and a white longbow. Then she turned to Berthe.
When the lady's eyes, deep and green as emeralds in the shadows of the firelight, took in the scullery maid's face, however, the look of annoyance faded into a serious aspect devoid of anger. She brushed the rainwater from her brown linen trousers and turned back to the fire on the hearth, which leapt as if in welcome, warming her hands.
“My name is Rhapsody,” she said simply, looking at the scullery maid from the corner of her eye. “I don't believe we've met.”
Berthe opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She swallowed and tried again.
“Berthe, m'lady; I'm new here in the kitchen. And I apologize most humbly â I had no idea 'twas you at the door.”
The Lady Cymrian turned again, and folded her arms. “You didn't need to know it was me, Berthe; any traveler who has come to this door is to be let in and welcomed.” She saw terror come over the old woman's wrinkled face, and her hand went unconsciously to the tangled gold locket around her neck. She smoothed the chain and cleared her throat.
“I am sorry that this was not explained to you upon your hire,” she said hurriedly, casting a glance in the direction of the buttery's inner door. “And also for disturbing you so late in the evening. Welcome to Haguefort. I hope you will like working here.”
“Yes, mum,” Berthe muttered nervously. “I'll go tell the chamberlain to alert the lord you're here.”
The Lady Cymrian smiled, the firelight dancing off her locket. “No need of that,” she said pleasantly. “He already knows.”
The buttery door banged open with a force that made Berthe jump. She leapt even farther away as the maelstrom that was the Lord Cymrian rushed past her in a flurry of billowing garments and speed born of long musculature, his odd red-gold hair catching the light of the roaring fire and glinting ominously. Her hand went nervously to her throat, watching the man who was said to have the blood of dragons in his veins sweep down upon the small lady, gathering her into his arms. Berthe would hardly have been surprised to see him tear her limb from limb, or consume her, on the spot.
A moment later the buttery door opened rapidly again. Berthe leaned
against the wall for support as the chamberlain, Gerald Owen, and a number of the lord's royal visitors crowded in the opening, some of them with weapons drawn.
Owen's wrinkled face relaxed upon seeing the lady in the arms of the lord.
“Ah, m'lady, welcome home,” he said, pulling out a handkerchief and mopping his brow in the heat of exertion and the blazing hearth fire. “We weren't expecting you for another fortnight.”
The Lady Cymrian tried to extricate herself from the lord's embrace, managing to merely to raise her head above his shoulder.
“Thank you, Gerald,” she replied, the words partially muffled by the fabric of her husband's shirt. She nodded in. the general direction of the nobles crowding the buttery doorway. “Gentlemen.”
“M'lady,” returned an awkward chorus of voices.
The lady whispered something into the lord's ear that made him chuckle, then patted him and slid out of his arms. Lord Gwydion turned to his councilors.
“Thank you, gentlemen. Good night.”
“No, no, please don't abbreviate your meeting because of me,” the lady objected. “Actually I'd like to sit in; I have a few matters of state I need to discuss with some of these good nobles.” She looked back up at the lord, who stood a head taller than she. “Are Melisande and Gwydion Navarne to bed?”
Lord Gwydion shook his head as the chamberlain crossed to the fireplace and took her cloak down from its peg, still radiating its aura of mist. “Melly is, of course, but Gwydion is keeping council with us. Has made many good suggestions, in fact.”
The lady's smile grew brighter and she opened her arms as her husband's namesake, the tall, thin lad who would one day be the Duke of Navarne, made his way through the convocation at the doorway and came into her embrace. As they conferred quietly, the lord turned back to his councilors.
“Give us a few moments, please,” he said. “We'll resume our conversations â
at half the hour.” The nobles withdrew, closing the buttery door behind them.
Berthe eyed the chamberlain, gesturing nervously toward the back door to her chambers; Gerald Owen nodded pointedly. The scullery woman bowed clumsily and made a hasty retreat to her room, wondering if the Lady Dronsdale would consider taking her back.
he Lord Cymrian watched as Gerald Owen walked slowly over to his wife, who was unbelting her scabbard without breaking her conversation with their ward. Owen had been the chamberlain of Haguefort for many years,
serving both Gwydion Navarne's father, Stephen, and Stephen's own father before him. Even in his later years, his staunch loyalty and service to Stephen's children, and their guardians, was unfailing. He carefully took Rhapsody's sword and cloak, and left the buttery without causing so much as a pause in her conversation.
“Twenty center shots in the same round?” she was saying to Gwydion Navarne. “Excellent! I've brought you more of those long Lirin arrows you liked from Tyrian; they've fletched them in your colors.”
Gwydion's normally somber face was shining. “Thank you.”
The Lord Cymrian tapped his wife on the shoulder, gesturing toward the door through which Gerald Owen had left.
“I made a loan of my cloak of mist to you so that you might travel unseen by highwaymen and thieves,” he scowled with mock severity. “Not so that you could return without my notice.”
“Trust me, my return will garner your notice later,” she said teasingly. “But I really must speak to Ihrman Karsrick before he returns to Yarim; did I see him among the councilors in the doorway?”
“Good.” She slipped her hand inside the crook of her husband's arm. “Now, let's go attend to affairs of state â so that we can retire to our chambers and discuss the â er â state of affairs.”
s she walked arm-in-arm with both Gwydions through the towering hallways of Haguefort, past ancient statuary and carefully preserved tapestries from the First Cymrian Age, Rhapsody found herself suddenly battling a wave of conflicting emotions, some warm, some bitterly painful, all deeply held, none changed in any way by the passage of time.
The loss she and Ashe, as her husband was known to his intimates, still felt at the death three years ago of Lord Stephen, Gwydion Navarne's father and Ashe's dearest friend, was still acute. It was impossible to traverse the corridors of Haguefort, the keep that Stephen had lovingly restored and filled with priceless artifacts, or tend to his historic exhibits in the Cymrian museum on the castle's grounds without being overwhelmed with the memory of the young duke and the great joy he had held for life. Each time she left Haguefort, she returned to find his son resembling him more.