The rate we are going, we are never going to make it in time, thought Nicholas. The woman Rani, the one who looked like she came out of a scene in pastoral Switzerland, abandoned her search for the most sumptuous drapes she could find for her sitting-room, and insisted on accompanying them to the king's audience chamber. Dankar was too corteous to refuse her – or perhaps deemed it is best not to. From Geynir's hurried and somewhat vague explanation in his ear, Nicholas understood that she was not only Dankar's kin through his wife's clan, but also that her late husband had been a very rich and powerful nobleman.
Evil tongues took pleasure in whispering wicked tales of Rani; she was married very young to a man who was old and ugly, but by no means feeble, and it took many as a surprise that he died soon after they were wed. A decade passed since, and Rani still lived a life of easy wealth and continuous amusement. She did not marry again, but neither did she find it in herself to be too cruel to the many suitors that courted her favor – she took many of them into her bed, and made no secret of it, which earned her a doubtful reputation. However, she had many friends, and it was well known she could be formidable when a caprice of hers was met with refusal. And so, her sumptuous heavy palanquin hindered the progress of their horses, and when they came up at the castle gates, it was almost high noon and all petitioners would soon be dismissed.
"We had better hurry," said Dankar Gindur. He rode up to the guards, not bothering to slow. His confidence was well-justified – the guards knew him by sight, and promptly sprang apart to allow him and all their party to pass.
They dismounted and handed in the reins of their horses to serving men who hurried towards them. Rani's own servants helped her descend from the palanquin. As soon as her dainty feet touched the ground, she dismissed the men with a gesture of the hand; they lingered behind but did not go far, ready to depart again at her first call.
"Well," she said, looping her arm through Dankar's and glancing at Nicholas with badly concealed curiosity. "Hadn't we better go forward?"
When the doors before them swung open, Nicholas saw a long, splendid hall with rounded walls and a vaulted ceiling, full of noble-looking people in all their finery. Closer to the back of the hall, a flight of steps led up to the joining thrones of the king and queen – the queen's throne, a lower seat on the king's right, was empty. Dankar had told earlier that Queen Maviel did not often choose to grace the king's councils and audiences with her presence.
As they approached the stairs, Nicholas could not take his eyes off the man on the throne. King Alvadon the Ninth was young, and his face was smooth and unlined, but there was noble power and courage and wisdom in his handsome features. His eyes were fixed upon the approaching party, but he did not move. The king held his head up tall and proud as the sun glittered upon his crown and the silken mantle in the Tilirian colors of blue, green and white.
When they reached the base of the stairs, everyone knelt – Rani gracefully spreading her skirts. Nicholas hastened to go down upon one knee as well.
"Rise," said the king in a pleasant voice. "Which one of you is the visitor from The-World-Beyond?" His glance swept the party, all the members of which were dressed in respectable Tilirian fashion. Nicholas cleared his throat.
"It is I, Your Grace," he said, rather louder than he had intended. A whisper broke out throughout the hall; he saw people craning their necks, trying to get a better look at the inconspicuous stranger whom they let pass without a second glance a few moments earlier.
The king's handsome face wore an expression of deep fascination. "It is true, then," he said. "Be welcome, o alien nobleman. Your arrival is a boon from the Great Spirit."
This made Nicholas stir uncomfortably. "If I may be bold enough to say so, Your Grace," he said, adjusting his speech to fit the occasion, "I do not see myself as anything very special, that is to say – "
"I understand your meaning, my friend. Yet the opening of the Stormglass gates had ever promised great happenings in this land. I wish to confer in private with you," the king went on. "With you and with the brave Thadorn Tionae, who was charged with the task of bringing you here. Let him step forward."
Thadorn made a clumsy step, placing one of his feet upon the first stairs. His head was bowed in reverence. "Your Grace," he murmured.
The king swept downstairs and placed a hand upon Thadorn's shoulder. "I have heard much good of you, brave man," he said. "Come with me." He began to walk. The guards attending his royal person moved to follow, and so did his Councilors, who stood in a small, splendidly garbed group near the base of the throne steps. The king made them halt with a gesture of his hand. "My loyal Councilors. Do remain here, and see to the rest of the petitioners. We shall meet later." The noblemen, Nicholas noticed, looked none too pleased, yet none of them dared to protest.
They were led into a small, splendidly furnished chamber with an oval table. A serving man poured them goblets of light golden wine. A platter of dates, dried figs and white cheese with a coat of blue mold was brought forward as well, but not one of them spared the food so much as a second glance.
"I hope that your stay in Tilir has been both safe and enjoyable," the king said to Nicholas graciously.
"I have encountered no lack of hospitality or comfort," Nicholas said. King Alvadon gave a satisfied nod.
"That is good to hear. I do not know you, but I know you must be a friend of Tilir. Those who pass through the Stormglass gates are always such. And you, brave Thadorn, Commander of the Sea Guard," he said warmly to the big solemn warrior, "I thank you for responding to my summons with such promptitude."
"I came as soon as I could, Your Grace."
"You have done well. Even though we only met once before, I know you well by report, and I know that in Rhasket-Tharsanae there is not a man more trustworthy than you."
"That is kind of you to say, Your Grace."
For a moment, the king sat silent, apparently deep in thought. "I confess," he finally said, "that there is a – an office – I had in mind for you."
Thadorn looked wary. "I am yours to command, Your Grace."
"I did not doubt it, good and loyal man. I will put further trust in you and admit that I am troubled," he sighed. "We are besieged by enemies on all our borders, there are the queerest rumors about what is happening in the Emerald Mountains... and what is perhaps worst of all, I have no heir."
"Your Grace," Thadorn ventured to say. "You and Her Grace the queen are young yet. The Spirit may bless you with many sons still."
The king's smile was sad. "I fear that the Spirit revealed himself to me, my friend. The surface of the lake is still and bright under the summer sun, but the waters are deep and dark. I fear I will not live as long as my natural health may promise... and if I die childless, the land will be left in turmoil."
This was not an optimistic notion, and yet Nicholas did not understand why Thadorn suddenly appeared so concerned, so... yes, fearful, that was the only world. His brows were knitted together, and he went visibly pale.
"I have heard reports," the king went on mildly, wishing to smooth over the ominous effect of his words, "of people in the West, who claim to be warlocks, who call themselves the Shadowbinders, and who plan to bring Tilir under the hand of a dark and evil sorcery. I know your wife is with them," he spoke to Thadorn.
"Your Grace," Thadorn said with obvious difficulty. "My wife may have ideas that will yet be the ruin of her, but I would never betray – "
"I know," the king said, not unkindly. "If I questioned your loyalty, would I have brought you here? Rest assured, Thadorn, Head of the Tionae, I know you are a good man and true. And Rhasket is closer to the West. It is in Rhasket and Fort Sand that I wish you to assemble an army that will put a stop to whatever these Shadowbinders are doing."
An expression of uncertainty passed upon Thadorn's face. "An army, Your Grace? But would it... pray forgive me, but wouldn't that be an excessive measure? I mean, those might just be rumors, and..."
"Yes," said the king. "These so-called warlocks might be simply rebels. But either way, they are challenging me, and this challenge will not go unanswered."
"But why me, Your Grace? Why not one of your own commanders?"
"You would know the west better than commanders from Aldon-Sur; and the commander of Fort Sand, though a good and loyal man, is getting on in years and will not wish to stir from his place unless he can help it. And so, Thadorn, I temporarily release you from your duties at the Sea Guard and bid you to go west and south, stopping at Rhasket-Tharsanae and Fort Sand only long enough to gather your men."
Thadorn seemed to teeter on the verge of speech, then thought better of it. He dropped onto one knee and bent his head.
"Your Grace. I am your man. Sword and spear and shield, hand and word and thought and deed, I pledge myself to your service. There is no higher honor."
The king drew Thadorn back up to his feet again and kissed him on both cheeks.
"All my hopes are pinned on the loyalty of brave men such as you," he said. Then he turned to Nicholas.
"I do not know much about the lore of Stormstone," he said, "and therefore, I cannot tell why you are here, nor for how long you shall have to remain. I do know your coming must have had a good reason, though, and I ask that you accompany the brave Thadorn as he goes west."
Nicholas, who was already contemplating the tempting prospect of returning to the comfortable home of Rogell and Lya, was at a loss for words but thankfully, none were needed. Thadorn bowed his head again and said, "It shall be as you command, Your Grace."
Once they were shown out of the council chamber, the look upon Thadorn's face became deeply troubled. "No," he murmured in a low voice, shaking his head. "Surely not. A coincidence, yes, it can happen..."
"Is anything the matter?" asked Nicholas. Thadorn looked at him as though he had forgotten he was not alone. He was silent for a long moment.
"No," he finally said. "I had better hold my tongue. You will think me a fool – or worse. But how," his voice was reduced almost to a whisper as he spoke to himself again, "how did she know?"
They rejoined the rest of their party, which was showing signs of impatience. Dankar was obviously dismayed at having been excluded from the audience, and Akira Kotsar gave Thadorn a look that could have curdled milk once he heard of how Thadorn had been honored.
"And what will you do," he said plaintively, "if you find Jadine?"
"Akira," said Nog, raising his voice in a warning. Thadorn said nothing, but his face was stony.
The only one who seemed to be in good spirits was Rani, who insisted they must have their share of frolics before they are obliged to leave the capital, and insisted that they all sup with her at her manor. It was not at the Upper Esplanade – she had inherited a manse that had belonged to her late husband. It was located on the very outskirts of the city, and had large parks and pleasure grounds. Some whispered that she chose to remain there because the privacy of the place permitted her things that the fashionable buzz of the Upper Esplanade would not allow.
"And bring that lovely wife of yours, Dankar, did you hear me? I know I must be awfully boring for someone as clever as my cousin Kelena, but I do enjoy her company so."
"Kelena will be delighted to accept your invitation," said Dankar with a smile that did not extend to his eyes.
To Nicholas, however, it seemed that the fair lady Kelena looked anything but delighted. Her face was a mask of cool politeness when she heard of the evening engagement, and it was evident only her breeding and courtesy prevented her from saying what she truly thought.
Instead, all she said was, "Rani Kotsar had never been very solicitous about seeking my company."
"You are being unjust to Rani," Dankar told her. "I am not saying I would like you to be bosom friends with her, but she had always been fond of you."
"And besides, she is of our own clan," said Nog, as if it settled the matter. He seemed taken with Rani himself, as a boy on the cusp of manhood can be with a woman of worldly experience.
"I declare it is all a waste of time," Thadorn said briskly. "If I had my way, we would be gone this very night, armed with the royal decree His Grace gave us."
"And you would have galloped back all the way to Rhasket-Tharsanae, only to sweep over the town, gather every suitable man, and rush onward to Fort Sand," Dankar said with an ironic smile. "I admire your dedication, Thadorn, but I doubt His Grace expects you to ride by night."
"His Grace expects me to do his bidding with as much promptitude as possible."
"All the same," Dankar gave a lazy shrug of the shoulder. "You will not be able to set out before tomorrow, so why not enjoy this last free evening in Aldon-Sur?"
Thadorn, however, seemed not at all disposed to frolics. "Gathering men..." he muttered, shaking his head. "It will take time, too. I will be delayed. Since His Grace had deemed me fit for command, it would have been better if he had provided me with at least some swords..."
"But surely you understand, good-brother," Dankar said with a barely perceptible touch of haughtiness, "that King Alvadon cannot rid himself of swords at this time? He needs his men about him.'
"To be sure," said Thadorn. At that moment, there was a knock on the door.
"Whoever it is, they had better be quick," said Dankar. "We must get ready for the evening." But at the sight of the man who was ushered forward by the servants, his face brightened. "Torwen, my friend," he said. "What a marvelous opportunity to thank you for the service you rendered me this morning. You saved my lady quite a bit of needless concern for our long absence, I am sure."
"It was my pleasure," said the young man, and made a very correct bow in the direction of Dankar's wife, but his eyes were downcast, as if he knew he could not hide the warmth and shame and tremor in them if he lifted them up. "In truth," he went on, "I am here to speak to Commander Tionae."
"To me?" Thadorn seemed surprised.
"Yes," said Torwen. "I heard you are going west, Commander. It is my wish to go with you, if you would have me."
"I thought your intention was to return to Fort Sand, lieutenant," Kelena said civilly and carelessly, but the little color that was in her cheeks drained from them.
"And so it shall be, lady Kelena... for Commander Tionae will stop at Fort Sand on his way. Once there, I am certain I will be able to obtain permission to continue southwest among his troops."
"But how," said Thadorn, who was rendered momentarily speechless by the promptitude of this request, "how did you know so soon?"
"Rumors spread fast," said Torwen. "Half the city knows of how you had been distinguished..."
"... which is no more than my good-brother deserves," Dankar said graciously.
"I am certain that at dawn, men will assemble at the city gates, to wait for a chance to join you. Those who can be spared, that is. There won't be many, but they'll be willing."
"Which is just what I need," said Thadorn. "Willing men, and speedy. I do hope, my father," he turned politely to the learned man Geynir, "that you will not resent too much our necessity of leaving you behind."
"Oh, not at all, not at all," the old man said lightly. "I shall stay here very comfortably a few more days, trespassing upon the generous hospitality of my good kinswoman Kelena, and will make my way back to Rhasket in good time. You go upon the morrow, Thadorn, and may the Spirit speed you on your way."
"To have good speed, I had better have good sleep," Thadorn said grudgingly. "I am not at all in the mood to drink and jest half the night."
But now it was the lady Kelena who convinced him. "Do come," she told him, looping one of her arms through his, and the other arm through that of her brother, while she looked with tender affection from one man to the other. "It will be a comfort to have both of you near me, even for just one more night. Who knows when I might see you again, my brothers?"
To this, Thadorn could offer no further resistance.
...The road to Rani Kotsar's manse was long and tedious, but once they reached their destination Nicholas understood why she chose to remain on the outskirts of the city when she might have lived in the center. The manse was splendid and the grounds vast, though he could not appreciate their beauty in the dark. He only noticed that they passed many fantastic black shapes, and guessed those were masterly clipped bushes, and once or twice he heard the faint high trill of a night bird.
Lively music already sounded from the house as their carriage came to a halt. "I know very little of Rani if she only invited us," Dankar commented, as one of the serving men held up the lamp so that they will be able to dismount. "She is fond of a large company."
Sure enough, a large and noisy party was assembled inside, composed of people whose manners did not at all times match their finery. Nicholas heard at least one loud belch, and someone hastily pulled his feet off the table at their approaching.
Rani Kotsar was in her element; she wore a crimson dress with many layers of rustling skirts, in the fashion introduced in Tilir by Queen Maviel; the skirts were wide, but the dress was very snug about her waist, and decorated with golden embroidery of fantastic birds and beasts around the hem, sleeves and rather low-cut bodice. Her strawberry blonde hair was twisted up and decorated with chains of rubies; other than that, in defiance of the ancient custom, it was left uncovered.
She looked pleased to see them.
"How very kind of you to join my little party," she said. "Dankar, I declare you have not set foot in this house above three times, even though now we are kin. And you, sweet Kelena, we really ought to see more of each other - we are of the same clan, after all. How beautiful you look – I could never hope to look so elegant. Brave Thadorn, I know you were charged with an important task by His Grace the king. It is an honor to have you visit here before you go off on your important mission. Come along, all of you; no, a little further. I want you all to be seated by me."
You all, she said, but it so happened that Nicholas found himself seated on her left side – which meant that the greater share of Rani's conversation was for him, because Kelena sat on her right, and she was very determined to talk to no one but Thadorn, who was seated on her other side.
Rani rested her chin on the palm of her hand and stared at Nicholas with undisguised curiosity for a moment or two, but said nothing. Whatever her reputation was, she at least knew enough to act the part of the hostess. She kept a good cook, or several of them, as seemed more likely judging from the quantity and variety of the food; there were dishes Nicholas got used to seeing at almost every dinner in Tilir, like shellfish broth, but there was also roast swan and quails in jelly and a big dish of snails with garlic and herbs; there was fish baked with butter and mint, and many blackened skewers with crisply grilled, spiced meat, and when the sweets came, Dankar Gindur's house seemed the epitome of moderation by comparison, for the table was covered with various pies and tarts, fresh and dried and jellied fruit, cakes and figures of spun sugar of so many different kinds that one didn't know where to look first.
Even though supper was supposed to be nearing its end, the jugs of ale and wine and strange thick sweet liquor kept on being refilled by the serving men, and no one seemed in a hurry to leave the table - some because they were having a good time, goading the minstrels to sing bawdier and bawdier versions of famous songs, and some because they were too drunk to move.
Rani herself had drunk a good deal, and her face was flushed, but she looked perfectly composed as she looked at Nicholas and said, "It would please me to show you my gardens."
He could hardly refuse, even though he would much rather have stayed and waited for Dankar Gindur to finish bandying words with some exuberantly and preposterously dressed nobleman with a jeweled gold ring in his nose, dull as it all was. Be that as it may, he nodded politely and got up, and walked out after Rani.
Outside, the scent of her perfume was not so overpowering, and the rustle of her skirts was akin to the autumn leaves that drifted down gracefully from the trees onto the withering grass, where wind tossed them to and fro.
"It does not look as though you are enjoying yourself very much," Rani remarked in a pleasant tone, picking a late blooming flower from its pale green stem and twirling it between her fingers. Nicholas was startled, and fumbled for a proper reply.
"I am very flattered – " he began, but she cut across him with a laugh that seemed, unlike most of her behavior, quite unaffected.
"Oh, to be sure. Everyone feels very flattered to know me... but cautious as well. Being a frequent visitor to this house has tarnished many an unblemished reputation, have you heard of that?"
Nicholas didn't know whether to feel pleased or annoyed at his newfound ability to blush.
"My reputation," he finally said, "does not matter much. I am not here to stay."
Rani looked satisfied. "There is a bold man," she said with a nod.
"I am not bold. Merely reasonable." He was going to expand on this, but she pressed a finger to her lips. "Listen," she whispered, "it seems we are not the only ones to enjoy a breath of fresh air in my gardens tonight."
She made a few carefully measured steps in a certain direction, pulling him after her so that they finally stood, concealed, behind a tall, expertly clipped bush. On the other side of it, voices could be heard, hushed but apparently deep in heated conversation. Nicholas wouldn't put it past their hostess to eavesdrop, of course, but he wished with all his might he could have pulled away and walked quickly and quietly back to the crowded stuffy hall with its floating fumes of alcohol.
"... I do not understand why you must go," a woman's voice said, pleading, almost tearful.
"It is a noble mission," a man's voice responded, unnaturally dull.
"It is, but it was not assigned to you. You volunteered for it - why? Why do you wish to get away?"
"I would have stayed by your side always, no matter what," the man's voice spoke again, so low and passionate Nicholas felt intensely ashamed of himself for hearing it, while Rani listened with rapt attention, "I would have asked to be liberated from my duties at Fort Sand and sought a place here, but I cannot do this anymore. Your husband trusts me; he thinks it is me who ensures his security in you. I would challenge him to a duel, but these lies, this concealment make me feel like half a man. It cannot go on forever. A decision must be made, my lady."
"Do not ask me to... no, please. You do not know him, you do not know the things he is capable of. And my son... he will take him away from me, he will..." she trailed off, and it sounded as though a sob was muffled.
"My love," the man said with reverence, and Nicholas could imagine him gathering just enough courage to touch a silken sleeve or a stray lock of hair. "Please, do not distress yourself. You know I am yours – but you also know that I speak reason. You shall have time to think of how to arrange these matters in the best way. When I return, I will be a disengaged man. I will take you away with me. I am all for doing things in the open, but if we must, if you insist, we will run away."
There was a long silence. After it, when the woman finally spoke, she sounded as if she composed herself. "May it be so," she said quietly. "And now, my love, I will go back inside. It will not do to raise suspicion right now. Do not walk after me, wait a while."
There was a sound of light receding footsteps, and a minute or two later, another pair of feet began walking slowly in the same direction.
Only then did Nicholas chance another look at Rani. It unnerved him to see how satisfied she looked.
"That was..." he said, shaking his head. "You should never have..."
He had no doubt as to the nature of the conversation they had just overheard; it was like a final piece of a jigsaw falling into place, forming a picture that makes perfect sense. The woman, whose voice he recognized, was Dankar's beautiful wife Kelena - and the man none other than the young Torwen Mattar, the soldier who seemed so humble and honest.
"Have no fear," said Rani, smiling enigmatically. "I have no office in mind regarding what we just heard. I simply love to know things when no one else does... and with the amounts of wine I always have served at my dinners, I get to know a great deal of such things, some of them of a nature so dangerous I would be killed if anyone suspected I found out about them. This, however... it does not surprise me. Dankar is handsome and dashing, but there were the most shocking rumors about him some time ago, and Kelena was very young when her parents had given her away to him."
"Given her away?" repeated Nicholas. Rani's smile became a little strained.
"You have met some of our clan, have you not? The Kotsar are ambitious and proud, and they have none of the languor of some established noble clans. When they can climb another rung, they will, whatever it takes. Kelena's mother, Hinassi, would never have bypassed the chance of such a marriage, but I very much doubt Kelena herself had any say in it... no more than I did when I was married."
"I..." said Nicholas, who had no idea what to say. In the pale moonlight, Rani did not appear so rosy anymore, or so gay.
"I was fourteen when my betrothal was arranged," she said. "Of course, I was a silly, vain little thing, and I had my head filled with notions of what a great lady I would be, how rich and powerful a man my future husband is, how lucky I should consider myself... I even believed some of it, but when I arrived in Aldon-Sur and met that old wrinkled fat man with his sagging jowls and foul breath, I wanted to retch or run away. Neither of which I did, of course. I smiled pleasantly and made a graceful bow, and married him within a fortnight.
My husband was rich and noble, yes, and was even fond of me in his way... but he was soft of body and soft of mind. Even his cock was soft, and three times out of four he would grunt in frustration as he rolled off me, unable to have his way. He persisted, however, and I think it is this exertion that killed him so soon... not any ministrations on my part, despite what you might have heard."
The air was chilly, but Nicholas's face was burning hot, and he could think of absolutely nothing to say.
"I forget myself," said Rani, returning to her former easy, laughing manner. "I shocked you, which was the last of my intentions. You seem to be a good man, and honest, which is a rare trait. I will trust you not to repeat any of my words... just as I will not repeat Kelena's. Not that it will do her much good," she added with a sigh. "She underestimates Dankar. He is too clever for her, and she will not be able to fool him for long. Whether this poor boy Torwen challenges him to a duel or they run away, it will all be the same. Dankar will kill him."
A chill went through Nicholas, and once more, he was speechless. Rani was smiling as if she made nothing more than a comment about tomorrow's possible weather. She looked up at him, and in the moonlight her rubies seemed purple. Then she looped her arm through his and began steering him back towards the hall.
When it was time to say their farewells, the party was still in full swing, the laughter more raucous, the singing bawdier than before. A few couples broke into dance on an improvised platform of a table haphazardly cleared from its dishes and cloth. Rani herself showed them to the door and did a gracious curtsey which made the rubies twinkle in her fair hair. Kelena curtseyed in response, while the men bowed.
"Well," said Rani with a smile, "it has been a pleasure to have you all here. Dankar, Kelena, I hope this is the beginning of times when we all see each other more often. As for you, my brave warriors," she looked at Thadorn, Nog, Nicholas, her kinsman Akira and Torwen Mattar, "I wish you speedy journey... and a safe return." She pinched Nog's cheek, which made the lad turn crimson and stutter, then looked at Torwen with a hint of amusement which lingered in her eyes when they flickered towards Nicholas. She extended her hand to him, and he took it and bent over it and touched it briefly with his lips. He let go soon, but was left with the thought that perhaps this woman was not at all as vulgar and coarse as others would make her out to be.
Although they were scoffed at for being party-breakers and spoilers of good fun, more than half the night was already gone when they returned to Dankar's manse on the Upper Esplanade, and the cold scent of dawn wafted in the air. Nicholas staggered upstairs to his bedroom, his head buzzing and spinning from wine and liquor and the scent of spices and the echo of merry songs and overheard secrets. He fell almost instantly into a sleep so heavy and restless and so full of hazy dreams that it was a relief to be woken from it after a few short hours.