Book excerpt

Wyrms

Orson Scott Card

Tor/Forge

WYRMS (Chapter 1:The Heptarchs Daughter)

Her tutor woke her well before dawn. Patience felt the chill of the morning through her thin blanket, and her muscles were stiff from sleeping on a hard mat on the floor. Summer was definitely over, and she allowed herself to wish, however briefly, that the north-facing window of her room might be glazed--or at least shuttered--for the winter.

It was all part of Father's training, to harden and toughen her, to make her despise the luxuries of court and the people who lived for them. She assumed that Angel's ungentle hand on her shoulder was a part of the regimen. What, did I smile in my sleep? Did it look like my dreams were sweet? Thank you, Angel, for rescuing me before I was corrupted forever by some imaginary delight.

But when she saw Angel's face, his worried look told her that something was quite wrong. It was not so disturbing that he worried, as that he let her see he worried; ordinarily he could hide or show any emotion at will, and had trained her to do the same.

"The King has a task for you," whispered Angel.

Patience cast off her blanket, took up the bowl of icy water on the windowsill, and poured it over her head. She refused to let her body flinch at the cold. She toweled herself roughly with burlap until the skin all over her body tingled.

"Does Father know?" she asked.

"Lord Peace is in Lakon," said Angel. "Whether he knows or not is no help to you here."

She knelt quickly beneath the ikon that was her room's only decoration. It was a shimmering engraving of the starship Konkeptoine, cut into bright green crystal. It was worth more than the price of a poor man's house. Patience liked the contrast between the deliberate poverty of her room and the opulence of her religious display. The priests would call it piety. She thought of it as irony.

Patience murmured the Come Kristos in eight seconds--she had it down to a science--kissed her fingers and touched them to the Konkeptoine. The crystal was warm. After all these years, still alive. No doubt it was almost hot when her mother touched it, when she was a girl. And long before Patience would have a daughter, it would be cold and dead, the light gone out of it.

She spoke to Angel over her shoulder. "Tell me the task King Oruc has set for me."

"I don't know. Only that he called for you. But you can guess, can't you?"

Angel was testing her, of course. It was the story of her life, test after test. She complained about it, sometimes, but the truth was she enjoyed it, took pleasure in solving the diplomatic puzzles that Father and Angel constantly put to her.

So--what could King Oruc want her to do? The Heptarch had never called for her before. She had often been in Heptagon House, of course, but only when summoned to play with one of the Heptarch's children, never to perform a task for the Heptarch himself. Which was to be expected. At the age of thirteen, she was hardly old enough to expect a calling from the King.

Yesterday, though, an embassy had arrived from Tassali, a kingdom in the East which, in ancient times, had once been under the suzerainty of the Heptarch of Korfu. That meant little: All seven parts of the world had once been ruled by the Heptarchy, and Tassali had been free of Korfu for a thousand years. Prekeptor, the only prince and heir presumptive of Tassali, a sixteen-year-old boy, had come with an array of high-ranking Tassaliki and very expensive gifts. From this information Patience had already concluded the obvious--that the embassy was there to conclude a marriage treaty with one of King Oruc's three daughters.

The dowry had no doubt been negotiated a year ago, before the embassy set out. One does not send a royal heir to meet the bride until most of the details of the treaty are set. But Patience could guess easily enough that one remaining point of negotiation was bound to be the question: Which daughter? Lyra, the eldest daughter, fourteen years old and second in line to the Heptarchy? Rika, who was only a year younger than Patience and easily the brightest of the Heptarch's children? Or the baby, Klea, now only seven years old but certainly old enough to be married off if politics demanded it?

Patience could think of only one task she might perform in connection with this visit. She was fluent in Tassalik, and she seriously doubted that Prince Prekeptor spoke a word of Agarant. They were quite provincial in Tassali and clung to their dialect tenaciously. If a meeting were to take place between Prekeptor and one of Oruc's daughters, Patience would be an excellent interpreter. And since Klea was an unlikely candidate and Rika could speak passable Tassalik, it was most likely that the chosen daughter was Lyra.

All this reasoning took place while Patience pulled on her silk chemise. She turned to face Angel then, and smiled. "I'm to be the interpreter between Prekeptor and Lyra, when they meet today so they can decide whether they detest each other so much it is worth causing an international quarrel to avoid being married."

Angel smiled. "It seems the most likely thing."

"Then I must dress to take part in an official meeting between future sovereigns. Would you call Nails and Calico to me?"

"I will," said Angel. But he stopped at the door. "You must realize," he said, "that Prekeptor will know who you are."

It was a warning, and Patience understood very well that King Oruc was playing a dangerous game, putting her in the middle of a political situation so closely involved with royal succession. Especially with Father away. Oruc must have planned this for some time, to have Father away on a trivial matter. Ordinarily, Lord Peace would have been at the heart of the negotiations over such a vital alliance.

Nails and Calico, her dressing maids, came in, trying to seem light and cheerful, when obviously they had been aroused from deep--and, in Calico's case, drunken--slumber. Patience selected her gown and wig and endured their ministrations as they turned her into a poppet.

"Called to the King," Nails kept saying. "What honor, for a daughter of a slave."

It was annoying to have her father called a slave over and over again, but she knew that Nails was not being malicious, merely stupid. And as Father always said, Never be angry when fools behave like fools. It's better when fools identify themselves, Patience reminded herself. It removes so much uncertainty.

When the women were finished, the sun was just coming up. She dismissed them and opened the small brass case that contained the diplomatic equipment Father and Angel had decided she was old enough to use discreetly.

For self-defense, a loop, of course. It was a long strand of incredibly strong plastic, so fine that it was almost invisible. It could cut through flesh with only a little pressure. It had knobs of plastic on both ends, so Patience could grasp it without slicing off her fingers.

And for attack, a glass pendant which contained a swarm of pinks, almost invisibly tiny insects that homed in on human eyes and in a matter of minutes would build honeycomb nests that always resulted in blindness within hours. If the eyes were not removed quickly, the pinks would bore through to the brain and cause chronic, permanent palsy. A vicious weapon, but Angel always said that a diplomat who is not prepared to kill had better be prepared to die. She tipped back her head and put drops in her eyes, of a liquid that would kill pinks on contact. It would stay in her eyes for hours. As Father said, Never carry a weapon that can be used against you.

As she prepared herself, she tried to figure out what King Oruc had in mind for her. There were other interpreters he could use. The choice of Patience was fraught with implications, especially if Prekeptor knew who she really was. There was no circumstance Patience could think of where anything would be helped by using her as interpreter; and she could think of dozens of things that might go wrong, to have the daughter of Lord Peace standing beside the daughter of King Oruc, when the heir to a powerful kingdom came to meet his possible wife.

Patience had been aware throughout her childhood that she was not an ordinary slave in the Heptarch's household. One of the first lessons a child in King's Hill had to learn was to treat each slave according to the strictest protocols of rank. Whores and chamberslaves needed no more respect than dogs; ambassadors and ministers of state, like her father, Peace, were treated with as much honor as any lord except the Heptarch himself or the heads of the Fourteen Families.

But even among the children of the most noble of the King's slaves, Patience was given special treatment. Adults whispered when they saw her; many of them surreptitiously found opportunities to touch her lips with the back of a hand, as if in a symbolic kiss.

She had told Father of this one day when she was five. He immediately grew stern.

"If anyone does it again, tell me at once. But better than tell afterward, try to stand away from them, and not give them an opportunity."

He was so serious that she was sure she had done something wrong.

"No, child," said Father. "First, do not show me that you are afraid and ashamed. Your face must never show such things."

She relaxed her face, as her tutor, Angel, had taught her.

"And second," said Father, "you have done nothing wrong. But for these adults, who should know better, to do such things is--"

Patience expected him to say something like "wrong" or "sinful," because the priests had been hinting about certain things that people did with children's bodies that were very bad.

So she was startled when he said, "Treason."

"Treason?" How would it injure the Heptarch to touch the lips of the daughter of a slave?

Father studied her calmly, then said, "I have decided you can know, now, or else you won't be able to protect yourself against these thoughtless traitors. Your grandfather was Heptarch until the day he died. I have no brothers or sisters."

She was only five. She knew something of the laws of succession, but it did not occur to her to apply them to herself. Father pointedly glanced toward the parlor, where the servants would be listening. All the servants except Angel were chosen by the King, and frankly spied for him. Father smiled at her and said, "How is your Geblic?" Then he wrote in Geblic on a piece of paper:

Compose a brief letter to this person:Agaranthamoi Heptest

She had been trained in the protocols of names and titles from her first words. The labyrinthine network of precedence, rank, and royal favor was second nature to her. So were all the ins and outs of the royal titles. The surname of the ruling Heptarch's family was always rooted in Hept; the forename of any person of royal blood was always rooted in Agaranth.

She also knew that only the ruling Heptarch could bear the surname Heptest, and Agaranthamoi meant "eldest son and only child." Thus, Agaranthamoi Heptest by definition meant the Heptarch, who had no brothers or sisters. Since Oruc, the ruling Heptarch, had several siblings, his dynastic name was Agaranthikil. This could not possibly be his name, and to call any living person but Oruc by the surname Heptest was treason.

But the test was not merely to decipher the meaning of the names, she knew. Father had just told her that her grandfather was ruling Heptarch all his life, and Father was his only child. Therefore Agaranthamoi was a perfectly proper forename for him. Father was telling her that he was the rightful King of Korfu.

So she wrote a short letter:

Agaranthamoi Heptest, Lord and Father:

Your unworthiest daughter begs you to be discreet, for to utter your name is death.

Humbly, Agaranthemem Heptek

Her hand trembled as she signed this strange name for the first time. Agaranthemem meant "eldest daughter and only child." Heptek meant "heir to the reigning Heptarch." It was a name as treasonable as the one her father had written. But it was her true name. Somehow, in the movement of history, her father had been deprived of his throne, and she of her place as his heir. It was a staggering burden for a child of five to bear. But she was Patience, the daughter of Lord Peace and pupil of Angel the Almost-Wise, and in the eight years since then she had never once uttered either name, or given the slightest sign to anyone, by word or act, to show that she knew what her rank and birthright ought to be.

Father burned the paper with their names on it, and combed the ashes to dust. Ever since that day, Patience had watched her father, trying to determine what his life meant. For King Oruc had no more faithful and loyal slave than Lord Peace, the man who should be Heptarch.

Even in private, even when no one could hear, Father often said to her, "Child, King Oruc is the best Heptarch the world could hope for at this time. In the five thousand years since the starship first brought human beings to the world Imakulata, it has never been more important to maintain a King on his throne than it is, today, to preserve King Oruc."

He meant it. He did everything he could to prove to her that he meant it.

It caused her untold agony of heart, trying to discover why Father gave such love and loyalty to the man who exercised power and received honor that by rights should have belonged to Lord Peace. Was Father so weak that he could not even reach for what ought to be his own?

Once, when she was ten years old, she hinted to him of how this question perplexed her. And his only answer was to place his fingers on her lips, not as some traitors had done, to receive the kiss of blessing from the mouth of the King's daughter, but to silence her.

Then, gazing intently into her eyes, he said for the first time: "The King cares only for the good of the King's House. But the King's House is all the world."

That was the only answer she got from him. In the years since then, though, she had begun to grasp what he meant. That the Heptarch, the true Heptarch, always acted for the benefit of the whole world. Other lords could act to preserve their dynasty or enrich themselves, but the true Heptarch would even give up the Heptagon House and let a usurper rule in Heptam, the capital of Korfu--if, for some unfathomable reason, such a thing was to the greater benefit of the whole world.

What she could never understand was how her father's displacement from his proper place benefited anyone. For as she grew more learned and skillful in the arts of diplomacy and government, observing the great public councils and hearing of the delicate negotiations and compromises that gathered ever more power to Heptagon House, she saw plainly that the most brilliant mind, the prime mover in consolidating King Oruc's hold on Korfu, was Lord Peace.

As always, she had finally had to conclude that her education was not complete. That someday, if she learned enough and thought enough, she would understand what Father was trying to do by working so loyally to keep the usurper in power.

Now, however, she did not face so theoretical a problem. She was thirteen years old, far younger than the age at which a diplomatic career usually began, and King Oruc had called her to begin service. It was so obviously a trap that she almost believed his purpose might be innocent. What good could possibly come to King Oruc by inserting the rightful heir to the throne into the middle of a delicate dynastic negotiation? How could it help Oruc to remind the Tassaliki that his own family had held the Heptagon House for a mere fifty years? That there was a marriageable daughter of the original ruling family, whose claim to the Heptarchy went back hundreds of generations, five thousand years to the first human beings to set foot on Imakulata? It was so reckless that it was hard to believe Oruc stood to gain anything that might offset the potential risk.

Nevertheless. I will go where the King requests, do what the King desires, to accomplish the King's hopes.

He did not receive her in the public court. It was too early for that. Instead she was led to the Heptarch's chambers, where the smell of the breakfast sausage still spiced the air. Oruc pretended not to notice her at first. He was engaged in intent conversation with the head of Lady Letheko, who had been his Constable until she died last year. She was the only one of the King's household slaves who understood as much of the nuances of protocol as Lord Peace did; in his absence, it was not surprising that King Oruc had ordered her head brought in from Slaves' Hall to advise him during the visit of the Tassal embassy.

"There may be no wine served," Letheko insisted. She moved her mouth so vigorously that it set the whole jar moving. King Oruc let go of her air bladder to steady the jar. No sense in spilling the gools that kept her head alive, or slopping messy fluids all over the fine rugs of the chamber floor.

Deprived of air, she nevertheless kept moving her mouth, as if her argument was too important to wait for such a trifle as a voice. Oruc resumed pumping.

"Unless you want them to think of you with contempt as a winebibber. They take their religion seriously, not like some people who act as if they thought Vigilants were mere . . ."

Again Oruc let her bladder run out of air. He waved a servant to take away Letheko's head, and turned to Patience. "Lady Patience," he said.

"The Heptarch is kind to speak so nobly to the daughter of his lowest slave." It was pro forma to talk that way, but Patience had her father's knack of making the trite phrases of diplomatic speech sound sincere, as if they had never been spoken before.

"How lovely," said King Oruc. He turned to his wife, who was having her hair brushed. "Hold up your mirror, my love, and look at her. I heard she was a pretty girl, but I had no idea."

The Consort lifted her mirror. Patience saw in it the reflection of the woman's pure hatred for her. Patience responded as if it had been a look of admiration, blushing and looking down.

"Lovely," said the Consort. "But her nose is too long."

"The Lady Consort is correct," said Patience, sadly. "It was a fault in my mother's face, but my father loved her anyway." Father would have been annoyed at her for reminding them, however subtly, of her family connections. But her tone was so flawlessly modest that they could not possibly take offense, and if the Consort continued in trying to provoke her, she would only make herself look increasingly boorish, even in the eyes of her husband.

Oruc apparently reached the same conclusion. "Your hair is sufficiently beautiful for the needs of the day," he said. "Perhaps, my love, you could go and see if Lyra is ready."

Patience noted, with satisfaction, that she had guessed correctly which daughter was meant to be the price of the Tassal treaty. She also enjoyed watching the Consort's attempt at seeming regal as she stalked out of the room. Pathetic. King Oruc had obviously married beneath the dignity of his office. Still, she could understand the Consort's hostility. By her very existence Patience was a threat to the Consort's children.

Of course she showed none of these thoughts to King Oruc. He saw nothing but a shy girl, waiting to hear why the King had called her. Especially he did not see how tense she was, watching his face so carefully that every second that passed seemed like a full minute, and every tiny motion of his eyebrow or lip seemed a great flamboyant gesture.

He quickly told her all that she had already figured out, and ended with the command that she had expected. "I hope you'll be willing to help these children communicate. You're so fluent in Tassalik, and poor Lyra doesn't know more than ten words of it."

"You do me more honor than I can bear," said Patience. "I'm only a child, and I'm afraid to put my voice into such weighty affairs."

She was doing what her father said a loyal slave must do: warn the King when the course he had chosen seemed particularly dangerous.

"You can bear the honor," he said drily. "You and Lyra played together as children. She'll be much more comfortable, and no doubt so will the prince, if their interpreter is a child. They'll be, perhaps, more candid."

"I'll do my best," Patience said. "And I'll remember every word, so that I can learn from my mistakes as you point them out to me afterward."

She did not know him well enough to read his calm expression. Had he really been asking her to spy on Lyra and the Tassal prince? And if so, did he understand her promise to report afterward all that they said? Have I pleased him or offended him, read too much into his commands, or not enough?

He waved a hand to dismiss her; immediately she realized that she could not yet be dismissed. "My lord," she said.

He raised an eyebrow. It was presumptuous to extend one's first meeting with the King, but if her reason was good enough, it would not harm her in his eyes.

"I saw that you had the head of Lady Letheko. May I ask her some questions?"

King Oruc looked annoyed. "Your father told me that you were fully trained as a diplomat."

"Part of the training of a diplomat," she said softly, "is to get more answers than you think you will need, so you'll never wish, when it's too late, that you had asked just one more question."

"Let her speak with Letheko's head," said Oruc. "But not in here. I've heard enough of her babbling for a morning."

They didn't even give her a table, so that Lady Letheko's canister sat directly on the floor in the hallway. Out of courtesy, Patience stepped out of her skirt and sat cross-legged on the floor, so Letheko would not have to look up to see her.

"Do I know you?" asked Letheko's head.

"I'm only a child," said Patience. "Perhaps you didn't notice me."

"I noticed you. Your father is Peace."

Patience nodded.

"So. King Oruc thinks so little of me that he lets children pump my sheep-bladder lung and make my voice ring out harshly in this shabby hallway. He might as well send me out to Common Hall on the edge of the marsh, and let beggars ask me for the protocols of the gutter."

Patience smiled shyly. She had heard Letheko in this mood before, many times, and knew that her father always responded as if the old lady had been teasing. It worked as well for her as it had for Father.

"You are a devil of a girl," said Letheko.

"My father says so. But I have questions that only you can answer."

"Which means your father must be out of King's Hill, or you'd ask him."

"I'm to be interpreter between Lyra and Prekeptor at their first meeting."

"You speak Tassalik? Oh, of course, Peace's daughter would know everything." She sighed, long and theatrically, and Patience humored her by giving her plenty of air to sigh with. "I was always in love with your father, you know. Widowed twice, he was, and still never offered to take a tumble with me behind the statue of the Starship Captain in Bones Road. I wasn't always like this, you know." She giggled. "Used to have such a body."

Patience laughed with her.

"So, what do you want to know?"

"The Tassaliki. They're believers, I know, but what does that mean in practical terms? What might offend Prekeptor?"

"Well, don't make jokes about taking a tumble behind the statue of the Starship Captain."

"They don't think he was the Kristos, do they?"

"They're Watchers, not Rememberers. They don't think Kristos has ever come to Imakulata, but they watch every day for him to come."

"Vigilants?"

"God protect us from Vigilants. But yes, almost. More organized, of course. They do believe in warfare, for one thing. As a sacrament. I do protocols, you know, not theology."

"Warn me of whatever I need to be warned of."

"Then stop pumping."

Patience stopped pumping air, and lay supine before the severed head in order to read its lips and catch the scraps of sound that an unbreathing mouth can produce.

"You are in grave danger. They believe the seventh seventh seventh daughter will bring Kristos."

Patience wasn't sure whether she had heard correctly. The phrase meant nothing to her. She let her face show her puzzlement.

"No one told you?" asked Letheko. "God help you, child. An ancient prophecy--some say as old as the Starship Captain--says that the seventh seventh seventh daughter will save the world. Or destroy it. The prophecy is vague."

Seventh seventh seventh daughter. What in the world did that mean?

"Seven times seven times seven generations since the Starship Captain. Irena was first. You are the 343rd Heptarch."

Patience covered Letheko's lips with her fingers, to keep her even from mouthing such treason.

Letheko smiled in vast amusement. "What do you think they can do to me, cut off my head?"

But Patience was no fool. She knew that heads could be tortured more cruelly and with less effort than would ever be possible with a living human being. If she were wise, she would stop this dangerous conversation with Letheko at once. And yet she had never heard of this prophecy before. It was one thing to know she was in the dangerous position of being a possible pretender to the throne. But now to know that every true believer in every human nation of the world thought of her as the fulfiller of a prophecy--how could Father have let her go on for so many years without telling her all of what others thought she was?

Letheko wasn't through. "When you were born, a hundred thousand Tassaliki volunteered to form an army to invade Korfu and put you on the throne. They haven't forgotten. If you gave the Tassaliki so much as a hope that you would join them, they would declare a holy war and sweep into Korfu in such numbers and with such fury as we haven't seen since the last gebling invasion. King Oruc is insane to put you in the same room with a young Tassal prince who wants to prove his manhood."

Again Patience covered Letheko's mouth to stop her speech. Then she lifted herself on her hands, leaned forward, and kissed the wizened head on the lips. The stench of the fluids in the canister was foul, but Letheko had risked great suffering to tell her something far more important than how one behaves properly with a devout Tassal prince. A gool sloshed lazily in the canister. A tear came to the corner of the old woman's eye.

"How many times," mouthed Letheko, "I wanted to take you in my arms and cry out, My Heptarch, Agaranthemem Heptek."

"And if you had," whispered Patience, "I would be dead, and so would you."

Letheko grinned maniacally. "But I am." Patience laughed, and gave Letheko air to laugh aloud. Then she called the headsman to take the old lady back to Slaves' Hall.

Patience walked through the great chambers of the court, seeing the people on their errands there in a different light. Most of them wore crosses, of course, but that was the style. How many of them were believers? How many were Watchers, or even secret Vigilants, harboring mad thoughts of her saving--or destroying--the human race, ushering in the coming of Kristos to Imakulata? More to the point, how many of them would die in order to bring down King Oruc and restore Peace to Heptagon House as its master, and Patience as his daughter and heir?

And as thoughts of bloody revolution swam through her head, her Father's cool voice came to the surface and said, through a hundred memories, "Your first responsibility is the greatest good for all the world. Only when that is secure can you care for private loves and comforts and power. The King's House is all the world."

If she was the sort of woman who would plunge Korfu and Tassali into a bloody religious war, she was too selfish and mad for power to serve as Heptarch. As many as a million could die. Perhaps more. How could anything ever surface from such an ocean of blood?

No wonder Father never told her. It was a terrible temptation, one she could never have faced when she was younger.

I am still young, she thought. And King Oruc is putting me alone in a room with Prekeptor and Lyra. We could talk in Tassalik and never be understood. We could plot. I could commit treason.

He is testing me. He is deciding whether or not I will be loyal to him. No doubt he even arranged for Letheko to be available, so I could learn from her what he no doubt knew she would tell me. My life, and possibly Father's life, is in my own hands right now.

But Father would say, What is your life? What is my life? We keep ourselves alive only so we can serve the King's House. And he would not say, but I would remember, The King's House is all the world.

Patience tried to figure out whether the world most needed her alive or not. But she knew that this was not a decision she was capable of making, not yet, not now. She would try to stay alive because it was unthinkable to do anything else. And to stay alive required perfect, absolute loyalty to King Oruc. She could not even appear to consider a plot to take the throne.

One thing was certain. After this was over, if she pulled it off, Father's and Angel's simple little tests would never frighten her again.

WYRMS Copyright © 1987 by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead. Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead both won Hugo and Nebula Awards, making Card the only author to win these two top prizes in consecutive years. There are seven other novels to date in The Ender Universe series. Card has also written fantasy: The Tales of Alvin Maker is a series of fantasy novels set in frontier America; his most recent novel, The Lost Gate, is a contemporary magical fantasy. Card has written many other stand-alone sf and fantasy novels, as well as movie tie-ins and games, and publishes an internet-based science fiction and fantasy magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.  Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, Card directs plays and teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and youngest daughter, Zina Margaret.