His majesty is in a rare mood this morning.”
His majesty, having flung back the shutters to let in the newborn sunlight, turned in the flood of it and laughed. “His majesty is his majesty this morning. What’s rarer than that?”
Vanyi stretched in her tangle of pillows and coverlets. She was warm all through, and not with sunlight.
He was bathing in it, pouring it over him like water. Sun’s child, that one, morning-born, bearing the Sun in his hand. It flamed there, gold born in the living flesh, mark and price of his lineage: Ilu’Kasar, brand of the god.
She, who would have welcomed more sleep, still found it in her to smile at the god’s youngest child. “Oh, there are rarities, my lord, and there are rarities. But not every day sees a ten years’ regency ended, or a throne taken that’s sat empty so long.”
He came out of the light, but it was on him still, limning with gold the arch of a cheekbone, the angle of a shoulder. “I should be terrified, I think,” he said.
“Probably,” said Vanyi. She sat up, drawing knees to chest and clasping them. She shivered. It was not the warmest of mornings, bare spring that it was, and the sun though bright was cool.
Warmth wound about her: coverlet, and Estarion’s arms about that, and his white smile. “I had all my panic terrors yesterday. Today I’ll be pure arrogance.”
“Joy,” said Vanyi. “Leave a little room for that.”
He left more than a little: enough for both of them several times over.
She noticed before he did that they had a watcher. Green eyes blinked at them. Ivory fangs bared in a yawn.
“And a fair morning to you,” said Vanyi, “milady ul-cat.”
The great cat-body poured itself across their feet, rumbling with purr. Vanyi worked her toes into fur the color of shifting shadows, sleek and almost stiff without, soft as sleep within. Estarion ran a teasing finger down her ribs. She yelped and attacked him until he cried for mercy.
* * *
The next visitor announced herself more properly than the cat had. The page was young enough to look everywhere but where his master was. There was no telling if he blushed: he was a northerner, and dark as Lady Night. “My lord,” he said. “Sire. The Empress Regent—The Lady—Your mother—She—”
“Let her come in,” said Estarion before Vanyi could speak. She could have hit him. She scrambled at blankets, cursed the hair that knotted and tangled and got in the way, and added a choice word for young idiots of all-but-emperors who did not care who saw them naked in the morning.
He kissed her into fuming silence. Knowing—damn him—what his mother would see: her son making free of his favors with his lady of the moment.
“Not that,” he said, drawing back, smoothing her hair. Reading her through all her shields and her magery, and hardly aware that he did it. “Never that, my love.”
Vanyi let her gaze fall. Even when she was angry, his touch could make her body sing.
The empress found them almost decorous: Vanyi with the coverlet drawn to her chin, Estarion stretched across her feet with the cat. He raised himself on his elbow and smiled his sweetest smile. “Mother! I hadn’t thought to see you here so early.”
“Hardly early,” said the empress. “The sun has been up for a long hour.” But she smiled, and kissed him on forehead and cheeks with ceremony that was all love.
One could see, thought Vanyi, where Estarion had his darkness and his slimness, and much of his height. He did not have his mother’s beauty. His face was pure Varyani: high-cheeked, hawk-nosed, neither ugly nor handsome but simply itself. He looked like his firstfather, people said, Mirain, who had called himself the son of the god: gone these fourscore years, and four emperors since, and Estarion the fifth of them, sixth in the line that sprang from the Sun. From Ganiman his father he had the thick curling hair of the western blood, and the family profile; and, through some alchemy of breeding, his eyes.
He was born to be stared at, but he hated to be stared at for that. When he was younger he had cultivated a concealment of flamboyance, made a fashion of hats and hoods, or worn garments so outrageously cut or colored that lookers-on forgot his single, and singular, oddity. He had grown out of that. But he still would not linger in front of a mirror, or happily remind himself that he was at least in part a westerner.
It might have been simpler if the rest of him had not seemed pure northern tribesman. But his eyes were Asanian, and worse than that: royal Asanian. Eyes of the Lion, they called them in the west. Pure and burning gold, seeming whiteless unless he opened them very wide; astonishing in that dusk-dark face.
He was not thinking of them now, regarding his mother with every evidence of content. But he said, “Do you mind terribly? That I’m taking your titles away?”
“I mind,” she said, “that I am laying all the burdens on you, and you so young still.”
He sat up sharply. The cat growled, startled. He soothed her with an absent hand. “I’m hardly a child any longer.”
“You are a man,” his mother agreed willingly, “and most well grown. And yet…”
“It’s time,” he said. His voice was steady.
“Time and past time,” said the empress regent. “No; that office I lay down in all gladness. But I am still a mother, and to a mother her child is always and ever that, though he wear a beard of august silver, and hold empires under his sway.”
Estarion’s hand went to his chin. There was no silver in the stubble there, nor would be for a while yet, Vanyi reckoned.
The empress smiled and held out her hand. “Come, Starion. Your servants have been waiting this past hour and more.”
He was up almost before she finished speaking, kissing her hand, casting himself upon the mercies of his bath-servants. The empress did not move to follow him. Vanyi, who had known better than to think herself forgotten, restrained herself from pulling the blanket over her head. She met the dark stare steadily. “Lady,” she said.
“Priestess,” said the empress. Her tone was cool.
“Are you sorry,” Vanyi asked, “that virginity is no longer a requirement of priesthood?”
“Hardly,” said the empress. “My son would object strenuously if you were sentenced to the sun-death.”
“Ah,” said Vanyi, “but would you?”
Her heart was beating hard. She had been Estarion’s lover these past three seasons, and yet she had never exchanged more than brief courtesy with Estarion’s mother. Vanyi knew what the court thought of her who had walked straight from the road of her priestess-Journey into the emperor’s bed. What the empress thought, no one knew. Vanyi was mageborn and priestess of the Sun. The Lady Merian was a wisewoman of the north, priestess of the goddess who was the dark behind the sun, mistress of mages. Her soul was a blinding brilliance, her thoughts a shape of silence.
She said, “My son is very fond of you.”
“I rather think he loves me,” Vanyi said. There was a snap in it.
“He has a warm heart,” said the empress. “And you were his first woman.”
Vanyi’s cheeks were burning. No doubt they blazed scarlet. It was all the color they ever had. Corpse-woman, people called her here, because she was as white as new milk, and they were all black or brown or ruddy bronze. Even the Asanians were, at worst, old ivory.
But Estarion loved her pallor; loved to cup his dark hand over her white breast, and marvel at the play of blue veins under the skin.
“Yes, he fancies that he loves you,” the empress went on, gentle and cruel. “He knows he cannot marry you. You are a commoner, and an Islander at that.”
“You tell me nothing I haven’t long known,” Vanyi said. “Why didn’t you stop me when I first set eyes on him? I might have gone away then. I was appalled at myself: that I had such thoughts, and he so high.”
“I trusted in your good sense,” the empress said. Vanyi stared. The empress smiled. “You know what you are, and what you are not. You will not be empress: you are too thoroughly unsuitable. But you give yourself no airs; you claim no advantage, though he would give you the moons if you asked for them. You bear him no child, nor shall, while the bonds of the Journey seal your womb. And,” she said, “you are very good for him.”
Vanyi had nothing to say. The words had drained out of her.
“Remember,” the empress said, “how his father died. How he had taken his son with him into Asanion after too long a sojourn in the east, for the heir to the throne must know all of the empire he would rule; and how, when he came to the city of kings, to Kundri’j Asan, his death was waiting for him. No clean death in battle, but poison in a cup, and malice wound about it, and sorcery sealed within it.”
Vanyi knew. Estarion never spoke of it, but others did, round about; and she was a mage of the temple in his city. His father had died as he watched. He had known the poison for what it was. He found the mage who had wrought the poison, and mustered all his power of heart and soul and mind, and made of it a weapon, and killed the man who had killed his father. He lost his power for that, and nearly his mind. He was twelve years old. A child, but never a child after.
His power had come back, but slowly, and never in the measure that it had had. Of memory he had nothing, save that sometimes he dreamed, and woke screaming. And he would not go to Asanion, or speak of it save as he must, or grant more than cold courtesy to its people who came to pay him homage.
“Before you came,” his mother said, “we had begun to fear for him. He had seemed to be recovered from the black days, in mind if not in magery; and then once more, as he became a man, the darkness closed in. Never a night passed but that he dreamed, and dreamed ill. He strove to hide it, to wall it with such power as was left to him. But we knew. We were in great dread for his sanity.”
“He is perfectly sane,” said Vanyi, more stiffly than she liked.
“He is,” said the empress, unruffled. “We owe you a debt for that.”
“But not enough to give us leave to marry.”
“His empress must be bred to it,” said the daughter of a mountain chieftain.
“And I was bred to the nets and the boats and the fish.” Vanyi considered rage, but found it insufficient. “What, when he takes his proper bride, and I take my leave? What if the dreams come back? What will you do then?”
“We shall settle that when we come to it,” the empress said. “No law forbids him a concubine, or a lover of choice apart from the woman who shares his throne.”
“His empress might have something to say of that,” said Vanyi.
“She may,” the empress said. “She may not.” She bent her head. It was almost a bow. “For this day and for the days until he takes his bride, you have my blessing. Prosper well, priestess of the Sun, Guardian of the Gates. Cherish my son.”
“Always,” said Vanyi. That much at least she could promise.
* * *
Time was in the north when the king came naked to his throne, and proved to his people that he was male and whole and fit to rule. Estarion might have liked that: he had no shame of his body, and he loved to be outrageous. But the south was a staider place.
Estarion had not wanted excessive ceremony, and he would not suffer the tenfold robe of the western emperors. In the end he consented to be a southerner in trousers and embroidered coat, with his hair in the single plait of a priest, and no ornament but the heavy golden torque of his priesthood. The high soft boots and the trousers were white unblemished, and the coat was cloth of gold. Against it he was all the darker, his eyes all the more brilliantly gold. He did not, for once, try to hide them.
Vanyi, anonymous among the priests and the lesser nobles, watched as he passed in procession. He was aware of her: a ghost-hand lay brief against her cheek, a ghost-smile warmed her from within. Most of him was centered on the rite. For a moment she walked within him down the long aisle between the white pillars, from sun to shade and back to sun again, and before him, looming larger as he came closer to it, the simple chair set on its dais. The wall behind it burst and bloomed in gold, the rayed sun of his fathers, image and remembrance of the god. But he saw nothing of the gold, no more than he saw of the people who thronged the hall and filled the courts without. The throne was waiting.
He had never sat in it. He was too young and it too strong, his regents had thought, for the fragility of his mind. It was a simple thing, a chair carved of pale stone, neither silver nor grey but somewhere between. But there was mighty magic in it. It was carved of dawnstone, the stone that woke to the coming of the sun, and imbued with the power of his line.
It was glimmering, Vanyi thought. Faintly; difficult to see from so far, with so many bodies between. But it was more silver than grey.
He was closed to her now. For a moment she was empty, bereft; then she shook herself, bolstering the wards about her thoughts. Far behind them, deep and safe, she allowed herself to smile. A year yet, and four days: that long she had to wait until her Journey was done. Then the oath was ended. The bonds of her womb were loosed. And she would give him the gift she most longed to give: an heir of her body. Let another be empress if it would please his princes and his lady mother. Vanyi would bear his son.
The throne gleamed clearly now, a pure light that though pale was never cold, like the sky at the coming of the sun. She could not see Estarion’s face. She knew that it was rapt, like the rest of him. Drawn toward it; bound to it.
He paused at the foot of the dais, with the high ones about him. The empress in royal white, tall and cold and beautiful. The chancellor of his empire, elegant southern prince with his startling bright hair. Priests of Sun and Shadow, god and goddess, torqued in gold and in black iron. The lords of his council in their manifold splendor, from bearded, kilted, glittering northerner to clean-shaven trousered southerner to robed and turbaned syndic of the Nine Cities. And one lone westerner in the fivefold robe of a prince, wearing an ambassador’s fluted hat.
They surrounded their emperor, overwhelming him. Then he mounted above them. His mother followed, and his chancellor, a step behind, at right hand and left. On the last step he paused. They passed him and turned. They were of a height, northerner and southerner, dark woman and bronze-skinned man with his hair the color of new copper. They bowed to one another and held out each a hand.
Estarion laid his hands in theirs and let them draw him upward. He was taller than either, and for a moment he seemed very slight, almost frail.
He straightened. Vanyi saw his head come up, his shoulders go back. They were broad, those shoulders, for all the narrowness of the rest of him. He inclined his head to each of his regents. They bowed in return.
He turned. His face was a shadow against the sudden blaze of thronelight. His eyes were full of it.
Without great ceremony, but without haste, he sat. The thronelight blazed like the full sunrise. Vanyi staggered with the power and the glory of it—the great singing surge of exultation. Terrible, magical, awful thing: it knew its lord and servant. It took him to itself.
Copyright © 2003 by Judith Tarr