The Quantum Rose

Saga of the Skolian Empire (Volume 6 of 11)

Catherine Asaro

Tor Books

1
Ironbridge
 
First Scattering Channel
 
 
Kamoj Quanta Argali, the governor of Argali Province, shot through the water and broke the surface of the river. Basking in the day’s beauty, she tilted her face up to the violet sky. The tiny disk of Jul, the sun, was so bright she didn’t dare look near it. Curtains of green and gold light shimmered across the heavens in an aurora visible even in the afternoon.
Her bodyguard Lyode stood on the bank, surveying the area. Lyode’s true name was a jumble of words from the ancient language Iotaca, which scholars pronounced as light emitting diode. No one knew what it meant, though, so they all called her Lyode.
Unease prickled Kamoj. She treaded water, her hair swirling around her body, wrapping her slender waist and then letting go. Her reflection showed a young woman with black curls framing a heart-shaped face. She had dark eyes, as did most people in the province of Argali, though hers were larger than usual, with long lashes that right now sparkled with droplets of water.
Nothing seemed wrong. Reeds as red as pod-plums nodded on the bank, and six-legged lizards scuttled through them, glinting blue and green among the stalks. A few paces behind Lyode, the prismatic forest began. Up the river, in the distant north, the peaks of the Rosequartz Mountains floated like clouds in the haze. She drifted around to the other bank, but saw nothing amiss there either. Tubemoss covered the hills in a turquoise carpet broken by stone outcroppings that gnarled up like the knuckles of a buried giant.
What bothered her wasn’t unease exactly, more a troubled anticipation. She supposed she should feel guilty about swimming here, but it was hard to summon that response on such a lovely day. The afternoon hummed with life, golden and cool.
Kamoj sighed. As much as she enjoyed her swim, invigorated by the chill water and air, she did have her position as governor to consider. Swimming naked, even in this secluded area, hardly qualified as dignified. She glided to the bank and clambered out, reeds slapping against her body.
Her bodyguard continued to scan the area. Lyode suddenly stiffened, staring across the water. She reached over her shoulder for the ballbow strapped to her back.
Puzzled, Kamoj glanced back. A cluster of greenglass stags had appeared from behind a hill on the other side of the river, each animal with a rider astride its long back. Sunrays splintered against the green scales that covered the stags. Each stood firm on its six legs, neither stamping nor pawing the air. With their iridescent antlers spread to either side of their heads, they shimmered in the blue-tinged sunshine.
Their riders were all watching her.
Sweet Airys, Kamoj thought, mortified. She ran up the slope to where she had left her clothes in a pile behind Lyode. Her bodyguard was taking a palm-sized marble ball out of a bag on her belt. She slapped it into the targeting tube of her crossbow, which slid inside an accordion cylinder. Drawing back the bow, Lyode sighted on the watchers across the river.
Of course, here in the Argali, Lyode’s presence was more an indication of Kamoj’s rank than an expectation of danger. Indeed, none of the watchers drew his bow. They looked more intrigued than anything else. One of the younger fellows grinned at Kamoj, his teeth flashing white in the streaming sunshine.
“I can’t believe this, ” Kamoj muttered. She stopped behind Lyode and scooped up her clothes. Drawing her tunic over her head, she added, “Thashaverlyster.”
“What?” Lyode said.
Kamoj jerked down the tunic, covering herself with soft gray cloth as fast as possible. Lyode stayed in front of her, keeping her bow poised to shoot. Kamoj counted five riders across
the river, all in copper breeches and blue shirts, with belts edged by feathers from the blue-tailed quetzal.
One man sat a head taller than the rest. Broad-shouldered and long-legged, he wore a midnight-blue cloak with a hood that hid his face. His stag lifted its front two legs and pawed the air, its bi-hooves glinting like glass, though they were a hardier material, hornlike and durable. The man ignored its restless motions, keeping his cowled head turned toward Kamoj.
“That’s Havyrl Lionstar,” Kamoj repeated as she pulled on her gray leggings. “The tall man on the big greenglass.”
“How do you know?” Lyode asked. “His face is covered.”
“Who else is that big? Besides, those riders are wearing Lionstar colors.” Kamoj watched the group set off, cantering into the blue-green hills. “Hah! You scared them away.”
“With five against one? I doubt it.” Lyode gave her a dry look. “More likely they left because the show is over.”
Kamoj winced. She hoped her uncle didn’t hear of this. As the only incorporated man in Argali, Maxard Argali had governed the province for Kamoj in her youth. In the years since she had become an adult, Kamoj had shouldered the responsibility of leading her people and province. But Maxard, her only living kin, remained a valued advisor.
Lionstar’s people were the only ones who might reveal her indiscretion, though, and they rarely came to the village. Lionstar had “rented” the Quartz Palace in the mountains for more than a hundred days now, and in that time no one she knew had seen his face. Why he wanted a ruined palace she had no idea, given that he refused all visitors. When his emissaries had inquired about it, she and Maxard had been dismayed by the suggestion that they let a stranger take residence in the honored, albeit disintegrating, home of their ancestors. Kamoj still remembered how her face had heated as she listened to the outlanders explain their leige’s “request.”
However, no escape had existed from the “rent” Lion-star’s people put form. The law was clear: she and Maxard had to best his challenge or bow to his authority. Impoverished Argali could never match such an offer: shovels and awls forged from fine metals, stacks of firewood, golden bridle bells, dewhoney and molasses, dried rose-leeks, cobber-wheat, tri-grains, and reedflour that poured through your fingers like powdered rubies.
So they yielded—and an incensed Maxard had demanded that Lionstar pay a rent of that same worth every fifty days. It was a lien so outrageous, all Argali had feared Lionstar would send his soldiers to “renegotiate.”
Instead, the cowled stranger had paid.
With Lyode at her side, Kamoj entered the forest. Walking among the trees, with tubemoss under her bare feet, made her even more aware of her precarious position. Why had he come riding here? Did he also have an interest in her lands? She had invested his rent in machinery and tools for farms in Argali. As much as she disliked depending on a stranger, it was better than seeing her people starve. But she couldn’t bear to lose more to him, especially not this forest she loved.
So. She would have to inquire into his activities and see what she could discover.
The beauty of the forest helped soothe her concern. Drapes of moss hung on the trees, and shadow-ferns nodded around their trunks. Argali vines hung everywhere, heavy with the blush-pink roses that gave her home its name. Argali. It meant “vine rose” in Iotaca.
At least, most scholars translated it as rose. One fellow insisted it meant resonance. He also claimed they misspelled Kamoj’s middle name, Quanta, an Iotaca word with no known translation. The name Kamoj came from the Iotaca word for bound, so if this odd scholar was correct, her name meant Bound Quantum Resonance. She smiled at the absurdity. Rose made more sense, of course.
The vibrant life in the autumnal woods cheered Kamoj. Camouflaged among the roses, puff lizards swelled out their red sacs. A ruffling breeze parted the foliage to let a sunbeam slant through the forest, making the scale-bark on the trees sparkle. Then the ray vanished and the forest returned to its dusky violet shadows. A thornbat whizzed by, wings beating furiously. It homed in on a lizard and stabbed its needled beak into the red sac. As the puff deflated with a whoosh of air, the lizard scrambled away, leaving the disgruntled thornbat to dart on without its prey.
Powdered scales drifted across Kamoj’s arm. She wondered why people had no scales. The inconsistency had always puzzled her, since her early childhood. Most everything else on Balumil, the world, had them. Scaled tree roots swollen with moisture churned the soil. The trees grew slowly, converting water into stored energy to use during the long summer droughts and endless winter snows. Unlike people, who fought to survive throughout the grueling year, seasonal plants grew only in the gentler spring and autumn. Their big, hard-scaled seeds lay dormant until the climate was to their liking.
Sorrow brushed Kamoj’s thoughts. If only people were as well adapted to survive. Each Long Year they struggled to replenish their population after the endless winter decimated their numbers. Last winter they had lost even more than usual to the blizzards and brutal ices.
Including her parents.
Even after so long, that loss haunted her. She had been a small child when she and Maxard, her mother’s brother, became sole heirs to the impoverished remains of a province that had once been proud.
Will Lionstar take what little we have left? She glanced at Lyode, wondering if her bodyguard shared her concerns. A tall woman with lean muscles, Lyode had the dark eyes and hair common in Argali. Here in the shadows, the vertical slits of her pupils widened until they almost filled her irises. She carried Kamoj’s boots dangling from her belt. She and Kamoj had been walking together in comfortable silence.
“Do you know the maize-girls who do chores in the kitchen?” Kamoj asked.
Lyode turned from her scan of the forest and smiled at Kamoj. “You mean the three children? Tall as your elbow?”
“That’s right.” Kamoj chuckled, thinking of the girls’ bright energy and fantastic stories. “They told me, in solemn voices, that Havyrl Lionstar came here in a cursed ship that the wind chased across the sky, and that he can never go home because he’s so loathsome the elements refuse to let him sail again.” Her smile faded. “Where do these stories come from? Apparently most of Argali believes it. They say he’s centuries old, with a metal face so hideous it will give you nightmares.”
The older woman spoke quietly. “Legends often have seeds in truth. Not that he’s supernatural, but that his behavior makes people fear him.”
Kamoj had heard too many tales of Lionstar’s erratic behavior to dismiss them. Since he had come to Argali, she had several times seen his wild rides herself, from a distance. He tore across the land like a madman.
Watching her closely, Lyode lightened her voice. “Well, you know, with the maize-girls, who can say? They tried to convince me that Argali is haunted. They think that’s why all the light panels have gone dark.”
Kamoj gave a soft laugh, relieved to change the subject. “They told me that too. They weren’t too specific on who was haunting what, though.” Legend claimed the Current had once lit all the houses here in the Northern Lands. But that had been centuries past, even longer in the North Sky Islands, where the Current had died thousands of years ago.
The only reason one light panel worked in Argali House, Kamoj’s home, was because her parents had found a few intact fiber-optic threads in the ruins of the Quartz Palace.
The panel intrigued Kamoj as much as it baffled her. It linked to cables that climbed up inside the walls of the house until they reached the few remaining sun-squares on the roof. No one understood the panel, but Lyode’s husband, Opter, could make it work. He had no idea why, nor could he fix damaged components, but given undamaged parts he had an uncanny ability to fit them into the panels.
“Hai!” Kamoj winced as a twig stabbed her foot. Lifting her leg, she saw a gouge between her toes welling with blood.
“A good reason to wear your shoes,” Lyode said.
“Pah.” Kamoj enjoyed walking barefoot, but it did have drawbacks.
A drumming that had been tugging at her awareness finally intruded enough to make her listen. “Those are green-glass stags.”
Lyode tilted her head. “On the road to Argali.”
Kamoj grinned. “Come on. Let’s go look.” She started to run, then hopped on her good foot and settled for a limping walk. When they reached the road, they hid behind the trees, listening to the thunder of hooves.
“I’ll bet it’s Lionstar,” Kamoj said.
“Too much noise for only five riders,” Lyode said.
Kamoj gave her a conspiratorial look. “Then they’re fleeing bandits. We should nab them!”
“And just why,” Lyode inquired, “would these nefarious types be fleeing up a road that goes straight to the house of the central authority in this province, hmmm?”
Kamoj laughed. “Stop being so sensible.”
Lyode still didn’t look concerned. But she slipped out a bowball anyway and readied her bow.
Down the road, the first stags came around a bend. Their riders made a splendid sight. The men wore gold diskmail, ceremonial, too soft for battle, designed to impress. Made from beaten disks, the vests were layered to create an airtight garment. They never attained that goal, of course. Why anyone would want airtight mail was a mystery to Kamoj, but tradition said to do it that way, so that was how they made the garments.
On rare occasions, stagmen also wore leggings and a hood of mail. Some ancient drawings even showed mail covering the entire body, including gauntlets, knee boots, and a transparent cover for the face. Kamoj thought the face cover must be artistic fancy. She saw no reason for it.
Her uncle’s stagmen gleamed today. Under their vests, they wore bell-sleeved shirts as gold as suncorn. Their gold breeches tucked into dark red knee-boots fringed by feathers from the green-tailed quetzal. Twists of red and gold ribbon braided their reins, and bridle bells chimed on their green-glass stags. Sunlight slanted down on the road, drawing sparkles from the dusty air.
Lyode smiled. “Your uncle’s retinue makes a handsome sight.”
Kamoj didn’t answer. Normally she enjoyed watching Maxard’s honor guard, all the more so because of her fondness for the riders, most of whom she had known all her life. They served Maxard well. His good-natured spirit made everyone like him, which was why a wealthy merchant woman from the North Sky Islands was courting him despite his small corporation. However, today he wasn’t with his honor guard. He had sent them to Ironbridge a few days ago, and now they returned with an esteemed guest—someone Kamoj had no desire to see.
The leading stagmen were riding past her hiding place, the bi-hooves of their mounts stirring up scale dust from the road. She recognized the front rider. Gallium Sunsmith. Seeing him made her day brighten. A big, husky man with a friendly face, Gallium worked with his brother Opter in a sunshop, engineering gadgets that ran on light, like the mirror-driven pepper mill Opter had invented. Gallium also made a good showing for himself each year in the swordplay exhibition at festival. So when Maxard needed an honor guard, Gallium became a stagman.
Down the road, more of the party came into view. These new riders wore black mail, with dark purple shirts and breeches, and black boots fringed by silver fur. Jax Ironbridge, the governor of Ironbridge Province, rode in their center. Long-legged and muscular, taller than the other stag-men, he had a handsome face with strong lines, chiseled like granite. Silver streaked his black hair. He sat astride Mistrider, a huge greenglass stag with a rack of cloud-tipped antlers and scales the color of the opal-mists that drifted in the northern mountains.
Kamoj’s pleasure in the day faded. Still hidden, she turned away from the road. She leaned against the tree with her arms crossed, staring into the forest while she waited for the riders to pass.
A flight-horn sounded behind her, its call winging through the air. She jumped, then spun around. Apparently she wasn’t as well-concealed as she thought; Jax had stopped on the road and was watching her, the curved handle of a horn in his hand.
Kamoj flushed, knowing she had given offense by hiding. Her merger with Jax had been planned for most of her life. He had the largest corporation in the northern provinces, which consisted of Argali, the North Sky Islands, and Ironbridge. Argument existed about the translation of the Iotaca word corporation: for lack of a better interpretation, most scholars assumed it meant a man’s dowry, the property and wealth he brought into marriage. A corporation as big as Jax’s became a political tool, invoking the same law of “Better the offer or yield” as had Lionstar’s rent.
Ironbridge, however, had given Argali a choice. Jax made an offer Kamoj and Maxard could have bettered. It would have meant borrowing from even the most impoverished Argali farmers, but besting the amount by one stalk of bi-wheat was all it took. Then they could have declined the marriage offer and repaid the loans. She had been tempted to try. But Argali was her responsibility, and her province needed this merger with flourishing Ironbridge. So she had agreed.
Jax watched her with an impassive gaze. He offered his hand. “I will escort you back to Argali house.”
“I thank you for you kind offer, Governor Ironbridge,” she said. “But you needn’t trouble yourself.”
He gave her a cold smile. “I am pleased to see you as well, my love.”
Hai! She hadn’t meant to further the insult. She stepped forward and took his hand. He lifted her onto the stag with one arm, a feat of strength few other riders could manage even with a child, let alone an adult. He turned her so she ended up sitting sideways on the greenglass, her hips fitted in front of the first boneridge that curved over its back. Jax sat behind her, astride the stag, between its first and second boneridges, his muscular legs pressed against her hips and leg.
The smell of his diskmail wafted over her, rich with oil and sweat. As he bent his head to hers, she drew back in reflex. She immediately regretted her response. Although Jax showed no outward anger, a muscle in his cheek twitched. She tried not to flinch as he took her chin in his hand and pulled her head forward. Then he kissed her, pressing her jaw until it forced her mouth open for his tongue. Despite her efforts, she tensed and almost clamped her mouth shut. He clenched his fist around her upper arm to hold her in place.
A rush of air thrummed past Kamoj, followed by the crack of a bowball hitting a tree and the shimmering sound of falling scales. Jax raised his head. Lyode stood by the road, a second ball knocked in her bow, her weapon aimed at Jax.
The Argali and Ironbridge stagmen had all drawn their bows and trained their weapons on Lyode. They looked acutely uncomfortable. No one wanted to shoot Kamoj’s bodyguard. The Argali stagmen had grown up with her, and Gallium was her brother-in-law. Jax had visited Kamoj at least twice each short-year for most of her life, since their betrothal, so the Ironbridge stagmen also knew Lyode well. However, they couldn’t ignore that she had just sent a bow-ball hurtling within a few hand-spans of the two governors.
In a chill voice only Kamoj could hear, Jax said, “Your hospitality today continues to amaze me.” Turning to Gallium Sunsmith, he spoke in a louder voice. “You. Escort Lyode back to Argali House.”
Gallium answered carefully. “It is my honor to serve you, sir. But perhaps Governor Argali would also like to do her best by Ironbridge, by accompanying her bodyguard back.”
Kamoj almost swore. She knew Lyode and Gallium meant well, and she valued their loyalty, but she wished they hadn’t interfered. It would only earn them Jax’s anger. She and Jax had to work this out. Although their merger favored Ironbridge, it gave control to neither party. They would share authority, she focused on Argali and he on Ironbridge. It benefited neither province if their governors couldn’t get along.
Perhaps she could still mollify Jax. “Please accept my apologies, Governor Ironbridge. I will discuss Lyode’s behavior with her on the walk back. We’ll straighten this out.”
He reached down and grasped her injured foot, bending her leg at the knee so he could inspect her instep. “Can you walk on this?”
“Yes.” The position he was holding her leg in was more uncomfortable than the gouge itself.
“Very well.” As he let go, his fingers scraped die gash between her toes. Kamoj stiffened as pain shot through her foot. She didn’t think he done it on purpose, but she couldn’t be sure.
She slid off the stag, taking care to land on her other foot. As she limped over to Lyode, bi-hooves scuffed behind her. She turned to see the riders thundering away, up the road to Argali.
 
Copyright © 2000 by Catherine Asaro