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Authors: Gael Baudino

Strands of Starlight

 

Strands of Starlight
Gael Baudino
A Signet Book
New American Library
A Division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

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Copyright © 1989 by Gael Baudino

All rights reserved

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Signet, Signet Classic, Mentor, Onyx, Plume, Meridian and NAL Books are published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc., 1633 Broadway, New York, New York 10019

First Printing, November, 1989

Printed in the United States of America

This is for Mirya
Et ades sera l'alba!”
PART ONE
Planh
Chapter One

Rain.

It fell steadily on the city of Hypprux, a promise of the coming spring, but a cold, grudging one to be sure. The men who were repairing the roof of the cathedral had given up shortly after noon, and the shopkeepers had admitted defeat only a little while later, packing up their wares with numbed fingers, trudging into their homes soaked and shivering. The church bells had only recently rung nones, but the flickering glow of rushlights and tallow dips was already seeping through the cracks of shuttered windows on this dark February day.

George Darci made his way along Domino Crossing. Wind now. The almost-sleet stung his eyes and he paused to wipe his face on his sleeve and pull his hood up a little further. He did not often visit Hypprux, and somehow, with the rain and the cold and the lack of people on the streets, he had become thoroughly lost. Standing in the porch of a small, run-down church, he peered up through the drops, searching for landmarks. Thomas had mentioned in his letter that there had been changes in the city, but surely something had to be familiar..

He made out the spires of the cathedral that poked up above the rooftops, and at last the towers of the Chateau. Wading through the river of mud and sewage that was now flowing down the street, he took the next turning, his steps confident, crossed a small market square that lay deserted in the wet, smiled when he at last found the Street of Saint Lazarus, broad and familiar, tripped over some scaffolding that was lying across the way, and went sprawling.

The cobblestones were hard, cold, and covered with muck; and as he lay, half-stunned, he was glad for the first time since he had left the inn that the streets were empty. People were always inclined to laugh when a fat man took a tumble, but if there were no people, there would be no laughter. He caught his breath, grimacing at the filth that now covered him, and began to struggle to his feet.

A sharp pain in his ankle sent him into the filth again.

“Oh, dear . . .” He managed to sit up. Even through the thick leather of his boot, the swelling was already perceptible. “By Our Lady . . .”

Walking was out of the question. So was rising. Crawling was, at best, doubtful. It seemed that he would have to sit in the street until the evening watchmen made their rounds. But considering the wretched weather, George would not have been surprised if they skipped the whole business and stayed in a warm, dry tavern with some pretty girls. He could possibly spend the night in the open and catch a fever.

The rain pattered down. He had to laugh at himself. “George Darci,” he said under his breath, “mayor of Saint Blaise, dead of a broken ankle.”

He saw a dark shape move along the other side of the street, under cover of the overhanging balconies. “Ho there!” he cried. “Can you help me?”

The shape halted.

“You, boy! Come help me and I'll give you some money. I'm hurt.”

It started forward slowly. “I know you're hurt, curse it.” The voice was a rough soprano, and a small, dark girl came and knelt at his side. “Hold still.”

“What?”

“I said
hold still
. Don't keep me.” Her hair was coarse and matted with the rain, and her sharp black eyes caught his and silenced him. “I don't have time for talk. I wish I hadn't found you, but I've no choice in this now.” She was shaking.

Her hands came down on George's ankle, and he felt a sudden surge of warmth, like the flash of a sunbeam. The pain vanished.

The girl rose, trembling fiercely, and turned away. George caught her arm.

She tried to pull away. “You're healed. Leave me alone.” Her face was cut and bruised. George saw blood on her arms and realized that there was blood pooling around her feet also.

He stared. She was badly wounded. “Who did this to you?”

“Let go of me.”

“Who did this?” He was shouting, outraged. The girl was small, thin, not more than thirteen by the look of her. Who could possibly—

She stopped pulling and looked him full in the face. Her black eyes seemed those of an animal about to chew its leg off in order to escape a trap. “Bishop Aloysius Cranby did this to me. Are you satisfied now?” She bit the words off one by one. “You owe me your life, or at least your foot. Pray say nothing to anyone about this.”

He sat, stunned, for a moment, then got slowly to his feet. There was no pain. His whole leg felt better than new. “I want to help you.”

“Then let me go, damn you.”

George thought quickly. “Here, please,” he said, fumbling at his purse. “Take this. Go in peace. Forgive me for troubling you.” He filled her hands with coins, hesitated, took off his cloak, and fastened it about her.

She stared at the coins, looking up at him. “Why?”

“You healed me.”

“I didn't have any choice. I never have any choice.”

“Go child. Find someone to tend you. May you find happiness.”

She turned away in silence. In a moment the green cloak was indistinguishable among the shadows of a cold, dark afternoon. George looked after her for many minutes, heedless of the icy rain. For the second time in his life, he had been saved by one persecuted by the Church.

***

She was cold and wet, and the pain in her legs, already intolerable, was getting worse.

She dragged herself into a church porch and propped herself against a pillar that someone had rudely marked with green paint. This was not the best place in which to take shelter, but her vision was blurring with the pain, and she could ill afford to push herself further. If she were lucky, her escape would not be noticed for another hour, when the inquisitors came to question her again. It was just possible that she could make the gates of the city. She might have a chance . . . if her legs did not give out.

It was too dark to see clearly, so she permitted herself a look at her calves. They had stopped short of breaking her shinbones, but not by much. Perhaps that would have been next. As it was, she would scar badly.

She permitted herself a harsh laugh. She was worried about scarring? Of the body? How ludicrous!

She left the porch and moved on. Her vision blurred again, and she grabbed for a wall to steady herself. “My name is Miriam.” She forced herself through the litany that had shored up her sanity during hours of questioning and torture. “My name is Miriam. I have black hair. I have black eyes.” She coughed, tasted blood. “My name is Miriam—“

The coins the fat man had given her weighed her down and she was inclined to throw them away. But she would need money, possibly a great deal of it. Her wounds were many, and deep. The fat man was right: she had to find someone to tend her. She would have to pay if she wanted to survive.

She pushed off from the wall, stumbled down the street. Ironically, the weight of her purse could keep her from making the gate at all.

In the haze of pain, she took a wrong turn and wound up looking down Street Gran Pont. Even through the rain, she could see the Chateau, walled and guarded, illuminated by torches and bright lamps. But she had escaped from it.

You won't take me alive again.

Reeling, she turned away and tottered along the street toward the city gate, the cold rain stinging her face and soaking her even through the fat man's heavy cloak.

She was within sight of the gate when her legs finally gave out. She fell, but she felt nothing by then.

***

George eased back in the tub, letting the hot water lap at the nape of his neck, watching the steam fantasies in the air. After a minute, he lifted his foot and propped it on the wet wood above the water. His once-broken ankle showed not a sign of injury. Whoever that stranger lass was, her powers were remarkable.

“Well, George, you're still wet, but you look considerably better than when you came to my door. Don't you people from the Free Towns believe in cloaks?” Thomas a'Verne stroked a short, gray beard and grinned at him from the doorway.

“I feel considerably better, thank you, Thomas. And, yes, we believe in cloaks.”

“But not in the rain.”

“True. Not in the rain.” George picked up a bath brush and scrubbed at his foot. The smell of raw sewage was fading slowly from the back of his throat. He never could quite understand: Saint Blaise coped with the problem quite effectively. So why not Hypprux? With a glance at Thomas, he flicked the brush expertly, sending a shower of drops in the direction of his father-in-law.

Thomas was sixty-three, but nimble enough to dodge. “Next time, George, I'll make sure the bath is cold.”

George looked toward the window. Outside, the rain still fell. “It
was
cold, Thomas.”

The nobleman handed George a towel. “What happened?”

“I fell and hurt my ankle,” George said as he dried off.

“Remarkable recovery.”

“Yes, remarkable.”

“Ready for dinner?”

“Quite. Shall I wear the towel, or are we being formal?”

The fur-lined robe was much better than the towel, and the two men ate dinner alone in the large hall of Thomas's house. Over the fireplace hung a portrait of the nobleman's long-dead wife. The house was very quiet save for their voices and the sound of the rain.

Thomas helped George to some pork roast and filled his wine cup. The older man's voice was casual when he said: “And how are my daughter and granddaughter?”

“Right as rain, Thomas.” George looked at the window. Outside the icy rain was still falling.

Thomas laughed. “Better than that, I hope.”

“Anne couldn't come with me because of the weather. Her lungs are still weak from that fever she had last year.” George broke off a large piece of bread. “But otherwise she's fine. Did you know she's learning to read?”

“Really?” Thomas thought for a moment. “I suppose it's all for the best, though I don't know what I would have said fifteen years ago if my new son told me he was going to turn my daughter into a scholar.”

“I had nothing to do with it. She made the decision herself when she was arranging for a tutor for Janet. Now they sit together with Otto, spelling out their letters.”

“Janet too?”

“Janet too. You'd be proud to see her, Thomas. Thirteen years old, straight and tall like you. Mind as quick as a squirrel. She argues with Otto in Latin—Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferio—and gets the better of him.”

“Thirteen . . .” Thomas mused as he cut into his pork. “They grow up fast. Have you . . . have you thought about a suitable marriage for her?”

“I've spoken with Janet and with Anne about it. Janet would like to wait until she's a little older. Maybe eighteen.” George had been buttering a piece of bread, but his words reminded him of the stranger lass in the street. He frowned suddenly.

“George?”

“It's nothing. A thought, no more.”

“Something happened tonight. I should have sent a servant.”

“No. It's quite all right.” He thought for a moment. “I broke my ankle. I thought I would spend the night on the street.”

“Your ankle is fine.” Thomas's voice was grave. Outside, in the distance, someone began blowing a horn, and they could hear the faint clang of a metal gong.

George refilled his cup with raisin wine. Simply, he told Thomas of the girl, of what she had done.

Thomas cast his eyes to the ceiling. “George,” he said. “You're a fool. You have a heart of gold, though, and I'm sure you'll go directly to heaven after the Inquisition burns you at the stake.”

“She was hurt.”

“And newly escaped from the keep, I daresay.” The horn and gong continued their clamor. Thomas cocked his head. “The alarm. She's been missed.”

“I hope she gets away. She didn't want any help from me, though. So I gave her money and my cloak—“

Thomas went the color of his beard. “You what? Your cloak, man? Sweet Jesus, have you no sense? If she's taken with that cloak, you'll be implicated. I can't save you from the Inquisition, George.”

“I don't expect you to. I'll tell them it was stolen.”

“And Aloysius Cranby will, of course, believe you. Of course. And you the mayor of the chief of the Free Towns.”

The gong continued to sound. “What does that have to do with it?”

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