MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The sun beats down on the palace, and Lerial tries not to trudge as he makes his way out into the private south courtyard that has always served as the arms practice area for the family—since the palace was completed some ten years earlier. The north and south courtyards are the same size, half that of the main central courtyard, with its multiple fountains and its walled gardens. The north courtyard has two fountains, making it cooler than the south courtyard, with its small single fountain, its paved open area for weapons practice, while the central courtyard boasts four fountains, spaced so that their mist cools the entire open space.
The wooden wand Lerial carries feels heavier than the cupridium blade he will use once his father has decided he is accomplished enough to ride with the Lancers on patrol missions, against either Heldyan border forces or the nomadic raiders that occasionally make their way northward through the grasslands of Merowey.
Lerial knows the heavy feel of the wand comes from what awaits him in sparring with Lephi, who is only three years older, and not that much taller, but far more at ease with a weapon in his hand than is Lerial, whether the weapon is a sabre or a bow or lance, not that Lerial has had any practice with a lance, and little enough with a bow.
"Are you ready?" asks Lephi from the sunlit center of the courtyard, where he stands waiting, raising the heavy wooden wand that approximates a Lancer's sabre.
"I'm coming." Lerial walks from the shadows cast by the three upper levels of the palace and into the sunlight, a brightness whose intensity always seems to surprise him. He can feel the fine grit under the soles of his boots, grit that is everywhere no matter how often the rough courtyard tiles are swept.
Lephi, of course, stands with his back to the sun. Lerial takes a position with the brilliant white sun to his left and motions with his wand for Lephi to move to a point directly across the circle marked in red and black tiles.
"You can't do that in battle," observes Lephi.
"No … but I can choose to fight or not and take a position."
Lerial just waits for Lephi to move or attack.
After several moments, Lephi moves, taking a position directly across from his younger brother. Lerial sets his feet, lifts his blade, and concentrates on Lephi and his brother's wand.
Lephi half turns, starts to do what looks to be a thrust, but Lerial knows the movement is a feint, because his brother's feet do not move, nor does he shift his weight. Instead of trying to block a thrust that will not come, Lerial merely holds his guard. Then Lephi suddenly drops and brings his wand up, and Lerial barely can beat down the thrust and has to move to the side.
Wands move quickly, and then even more quickly. Lerial is already sweating heavily with the effort of countering Lephi's constant attacks, thrusts, and counterthrusts … and just trying to react.
Abruptly, Lephi turns a thrust into a twisting move that rips Lerial's wand out of his sweaty hand. The older youth grins. "You didn't see that one."
Lerial doesn't reply but moves to the side of the circle to recover his wand. When he picks it up, the grip of the hilt feels rougher in places where grit has clung to the dampness from his hand. Maybe that will help.
In the shadows, he can see Amaira, and her mother, his aunt Emerya, and Ryalah, all three sitting at a small table. Amaira and Ryalah are playing pegboard, but Emerya has been watching the sparring. Why? The other courtyards are cooler. He is still wondering when Lephi speaks.
"That was quick. Do you want to try again?" Lephi lifts his wand.
Lerial considers the invitation, ignoring Lephi's tone, a tone that implies that Lerial is smaller and weaker, and always will be. He smiles, painful as it is. "I won't get any better if I don't keep trying."
"That's the spirit."
Again, Lerial can sense the undertone by which Lephi suggests all the trying in the world won't help Lerial. He finds his teeth clenching. He takes a deep breath and tries to relax before he slowly walks back and takes a position on the edge of the circle.
Lerial and Lephi spar for almost a glass.
By the time they are both exhausted, Lerial's shirt is dripping wet, and he has bruises in too many places. Those bruises would be far worse if Lephi had not pulled his strikes, Lerial knows, and that leaves him feeling even more despondent when he leaves the circle.
Ryalah and Amaira have left, perhaps following Lephi, but Emerya remains at the table near the small fountain.
"You worked hard, Lerial," she says kindly.
"Hard, yes, but not good enough to hold my own." Lerial takes a deep breath. "There ought to be a way for me to do better against Lephi." He tries to keep his words from sounding despondent, even though that is how he feels. He glances at his aunt, whose once shimmering red hair is now mostly white, although he can sense that she still is a strong healer with a core of black order.
"There is … if you're willing to work at it," Emerya says quietly.
"There is? Really? Can you show me?"
"If you're willing to pay the price."
The utter seriousness of her tone and the feeling of truthfulness behind her words cools his enthusiasm almost as quickly as a bucket of winter water from the Swarth might have.
"Come see me after dinner. If anyone asks, tell them that I think it's time for you to learn something about battlefield healing."
"Won't that be lying? If it is, Mother will know." If she concentrates.
"I'm supposed to begin teaching you about some healing, and I will. That will help you with bladework."
Lerial can't help but frown.
"Trust me. It will. It will also be harder than practicing with Lephi … until you learn how." Emerya smiles. "That's true of every skill worth having, you'll discover."
"You sound like Grandmere."
"Where do you think I learned such matters?" For a moment, Emerya seems to be somewhere else. Abruptly, she smiles. "After dinner, then? My apartments?"
"Thank you. I'll be there." What other choice does he have? No matter how hard Lerial tries, no matter how much instruction he gets from his father, or from Undercaptain Woelyt, Lephi seems to be getting better faster than he is.
He takes his time walking back to his room up on the third level, where the breezes are stronger, but it is a good glass before he has cooled down enough to wash up and change into trousers and a plain pale green shirt for dinner. He walks to the window and stands there, letting the light spring breeze flow past him as he looks to the north, out over the small city that Cigoerne has become just in the years he can remember. Once there was the single pier where the Kerial had been moored until operating the fireship had become too dangerous, and Lerial's father had ordered it dismantled and the fittings and metal turned to other uses, with the limited amount of cupridium remaining being chaos-forged into Lancer sabres, lighter and stronger than the heavy iron blades of Afrit or Heldya. Now there are two shorter piers, used mostly for trading vessels … and the handful of craft used by the Lancers to patrol the river.
Finally, Lerial makes his way down to the small dining terrace off the main courtyard. There, every evening when the weather is good and when his father is in Cigoerne, the family shares refreshments before dining. At least, Lerial reflects, they have for as long as the palace has been complete, and that has been for not quite eleven years, not that he can remember those first years very clearly.
His mother is already there, sitting at the largest table and talking with his aunt. Unlike Emerya, Xeranya is blond, with shoulder-length curly hair, and freckles that Lerial has inherited across her nose and below her eyes, eyes that are a watery but penetrating green. She has a strong nose, like Lerial, and an equally strong chin, unlike Lerial, whose chin is more modest. She wears a green blouse and loose green pantaloons, what most healers wear, especially in public, where all women also wear loose silky scarves that cover their hair and lower face—or are supposed to do so.
Emerya, dressed in similar fashion, although the green of her garb is slightly darker, nods to Lerial and then looks back to Xeranya. Amaira and Ryalah are at another small table, moving the pegs on the circular board.
"I won!" declares Ryalah. "This time I won!"
"Good, dear," says Xeranya, in the calm voice that Lerial associates with healers, since both his mother and Emerya speak that way, and so did his grandmother, and all were healers. "But please don't shout it to the world. Boasting is very unbecoming."
The brown-eyed and dark-haired Amaira offers an amused smile, and Lerial understands that Ryalah's victory might not have been entirely due to her skill.
That's fine when you're six, but if Lephi tried that now, you'd be furious. As it is, Lerial bridles at his older brother's condescending attitude when they spar.
"Good evening, Mother, Aunt Emerya!" Lephi's cheerful voice comes from behind Lerial. He strides past Lerial toward the refreshment table. There he picks up a glass carafe—the crystal carafes are reserved for meals with officials from Swartheld or with important merchanters—and starts to fill a squarish tumbler with a pale red vintage.
"If you're going to drink wine, Lephi," Xeranya says, "water it."
"Yes, Mother." Lephi smiles.
Lerial can order-sense his brother's anger, and that means both his aunt, and possibly his mother, can as well, but no one says a word.
Lephi pours a small amount of water into the wine and swirls it, then walks over to the large round table that will seat eight, but is occupied only by the two women. He takes a seat on the far side of the table, facing the nearest fountain in the courtyard, a fountain with a set of nozzles that encircle a statue of Lerial and Lephi's grandsire, the Emperor Lephi, and spray a mist that both shrouds the statue and helps cool the courtyard. In turn, Lerial steps to the refreshment table and half fills a pewter mug with the light lager. He joins the others at the "adult" table, taking a place beside Emerya.
"It's been a cool spring, don't you think?" asks Xeranya, clearly changing the subject from whatever she and Emerya had been discussing.
"Cooler than last year, but warmer than two years ago," replies Emerya. "I still think we'll have a hot summer. The river's lower, too, a good yard."
"You think that will affect the maize?"
"Not here, but it will farther downstream, especially south of Luba." Emerya glances toward the archway that leads to the main corridor of the palace.
"Will that mean raiders from Afrit?" asks Lephi.
Lerial can sense the eagerness in his brother's voice. Because Father has said he can ride on some Lancer patrols?
"The arms-commander of Afrit has sent a dispatch to your father saying that, if there are raiders, he will be pleased to execute publicly any who are captured, either by our Lancers or his armsmen." Xeranya smiles. "I suspect that dispatch was posted in every Afritan town on our northern border."
"That might not stop them," Lephi declares.
"It will," says Emerya. "The Duke's arms-commander is a man of his word, for better or worse."
Lephi starts to say something—until Xeranya looks at him.
"We don't have problems with Afrit, and we don't need them," Xeranya says, as though Lephi had not even opened his mouth. "If there's a hot summer again this year, we'll have to deal with more marauders from Merowey … and who knows what the Duke of Heldya will do?"
At that moment, Xeranya glances in the direction of the archway, then smiles in pleasure as a tall and broad-shouldered figure steps onto the terrace. "Kiedron, dear, I was getting worried."
"There's nothing to worry about." The Duke of Cigoerne offers a smile in return as he nears the table. His dark brown hair still shows not a sign of silver, nor do his thick dark eyebrows, nor would any beard he grew, although he has never grown one, not that Lerial recalls. "The tariff inspectors found finished cloth inside cotton bales in a Meroweyan flatboat headed to Swartheld. The trader who owns the flatboat insisted that he'd taken the cargo on good faith…"
"I still don't like the idea of the Duke of Cigoerne acting as a tariff justicer for Afrit," declares Xeranya.
"We can use the golds, and they only call for me when it's a question of law."
"But Afrit gets half the golds," says Xeranya.
"We'd both suffer if they paid tariffs to us and then to Afrit," replies Kiedron. "We'd have to patrol the Swarth day and night. Whether they port here or in Swartheld or any of the Afrit river towns, we get a share of the tariffs."
"Not a huge share," rejoins Xeranya. "And we have to rely on the Duke's count."
That, Lerial knows, is always less than it should be, but it is another matter never mentioned except among family—and never by any children.
"It's better than fighting over it, don't you think? Besides, the arrangement means that more traders from the south stop here for provisions and other goods that they can sell downriver without paying tariffs. That's helped build Cigoerne. We can't afford to dream about what cannot yet be. We just need to build, brick by brick. Those tariffs are what funded the ministry building and what pay for not only the river port inspectors but also for some of the tariff collectors and others."
"What did you decide on the cloth smuggler?" asks Emerya smoothly before Xeranya can say more.
"We took a tenth part of the cloth and fined him two golds. He should consider himself fortunate."
Even Lerial knows that the cloth or the proceeds from its sale will not be reported to Duke Atroyan's inspectors. The golds will, because they are recorded on the passage documents.
"He should indeed," declares Xeranya.
"And for dinner?" asks Kiedron, before turning to the refreshment table and pouring a full tumbler of the deep red wine.
"Goat biastras," replies Xeranya. "Young goat."
Lerial wonders from where the cooks had obtained the marinated sweet peppers that surround the strips of braised goat before each tube is batter-dipped and fried. It seems early for peppers.
"The peppers came from the sheltered garden on the south side of the palace, Lerial," explains Emerya.
Her reply to his unspoken question reminds him, again, of how really good healers can sense how people feel even when they say nothing or their faces reveal little, although he suspects his expression might well have been less than impassive.
"Better biastras than burhka," says Kiedron with a smile.
"I think I'd actually prefer the burhka." Xeranya smiles. "We're having that for dinner tomorrow, but I'll tell the cooks to be sparing with the chilies."
Before long, everyone is seated at the long dining table, with Lerial's father at the head, and his mother to his right, and Lephi to his left. Emerya sits beside Lephi and Lerial beside his mother and across from his aunt. Amaira is seated on Lerial's other side, with Ryalah beside Emerya.
Because he serves Amaira before himself, Lerial is one of the last to try a biastra. He hopes that the "young" goat is less gamey than what he has tasted before. Not only is it barely gamey, but the white cream sauce he has drizzled over the biastra is excellent, with the piquancy of a good cheese and a hint of mint. He finishes the first and begins on the second, noting that Amaira has also finished her first. He serves her a second one.
"I see this version of biastra meets with your approval," murmurs his mother with a smile.
"It's excellent," he returns in an equally low voice.
"Have the river patrols seen any signs of raiders or Heldyan patrols?" Lephi asks Kiedron.
"Not so far, but it's not likely to be long. The planting season is over, and usually that's when the raids begin." Kiedron turns to Xeranya. "This is a great improvement, dear. If the cooks can do the same in the future, we should have biastras more often."
"I think that can be managed," replies Xeranya warmly.
"Excellent." Kiedron looks to Emerya. "Have you found any more healers for your school?"
"There are two village girls from Ensenla. They show great promise."
"Ensenla? That's in Afrit," declares Lephi.
"They slipped away because they would not be allowed as healers in Afrit," explains Emerya. "They are from a peasant background. I'm not about to turn away girls who could be good healers."
Kiedron nods. "See what you can do to suggest that while any of their family are welcome here, they would be wise not to return to Ensenla, even for a visit."
"Their return to Afrit is unlikely. One was beaten so badly for asking to be considered as a healer that some of her bruises have still not healed."
That is something Lerial does not understand. Even in Cyador, children from anywhere had been allowed to try to meet the standards of either the Magi'i or the Lancers. Most didn't make it, but many did, and his grandsire, the Emperor Lephi, had even allowed women to become ironmages.
After that, the conversation veers toward the weather, the river, and how well the family gardens and fields seem to be doing. There are no sweets following the main course. Sweets and desserts are reserved for special occasions … or for formal dinners with outsiders.
The first to leave the dining terrace after dinner are Emerya, Amaira, and Ryalah. Ryalah will be put to bed by her mother, not her nurse, because Emerya has refused to turn her daughter over to a nurse except during the day when she is at the Hall of Healing. That has been true from the time of Amaira's birth … another family matter that is never discussed. Lerial still recalls the tongue-lashing his mother delivered when he'd insisted on asking why a second time … and the fact that she'd said that if it ever came up again, his father would handle the matter.
At age eight, Lerial hadn't been willing to risk that. He still isn't. He just listens.
"… bows like the Rational Archers used…"
"… ironmages … even with cupridium … can't get the flexibility…"
"Local yew works better…"
"We're losing too much of what we had, ser," insists Lephi.
"Your grandmother," interjects Xeranya quietly, "said that trying to reclaim too much at once was foolish."
"… still seems wrong…"
After a time, Lerial looks to his sire.
"You want to leave, Lerial?"
"Where are you going?" asks Kiedron. "Sneaking off somewhere?"
"No, ser. Aunt Emerya said it was time to see if I could learn anything about wound healing … after a fight, I mean."
"Well … pay attention. That can't hurt. She's a good healer."
"Who needs to be a healer?" asks Lephi. "If you're good enough, you don't need healing."
"Your men might," replies Xeranya. "I've healed more of your father's Lancers than I can recall." Her voice is pleasant and even.
Lephi stiffens at the look she bestows on him and immediately responds. "I can see that. Some of them aren't as good as Father."
And neither are you. But Lerial does not speak those words. Instead, he leaves the dining terrace and makes his way toward the west end of the south corridor on the second level, one of the warmer quarters in the palace, not particularly comfortable in summer. The corridor guard nods politely as Lerial passes and walks to the last doorway on the left. He raps firmly, then eases the door ajar. "Aunt Emerya? I'm here."
"Just take a seat somewhere. I'm still putting Amaira to bed. I'll be there in a moment."
"Please don't hurry for me." Lerial steps into the chamber that serves as sitting room and study for his aunt and closes the door behind himself.
Lerial can hear the hint of a smile in her voice, even from the adjoining sleeping chamber she shares, by choice and not necessity, with her daughter. He takes the straight chair by the window looking out to the south. The inner shutters, closed during the day to keep out the heat that will get worse as spring turns to summer, are open, although with the evening breeze coming out of the north, the sitting room is still uncomfortably warm. To the south are the palace grounds, mostly gardens in tended raised beds with oranges, lemons, limes, and figs. There are no pearapples, for most of Hamor is too hot, except in the far south, in places like Sastok and Plyath, or so he has heard. Pearapples do not travel well, and he has only heard his father, mother, and aunt occasionally lament their absence. Beyond the walls that enclose the gardens and protect the family, not that they need much of that now, are the dwellings and shops that stretch to the south. To the east, of course, and down a gradual slope, is the river. Farther to the west are hills, and the springs that feed the aqueduct that serves the palace. Lerial continues to gaze out the window as he hears his aunt singing.
"There was a pretty little city on a sea of blue,
and a pretty little girl who looked a lot like you,
and the girl and her mother loved the green and white
that flooded from the great grand Palace of Light
when the sun had set and she saw the night
and the stars of glory shined out so bright…"
Hearing the song, Lerial couldn't help but think of Amaira. She is eight. She has dark brown curly hair and brown eyes, unlike anyone else in the family. She laughs a lot, also unlike most of the Magi'i and their children. She and Ryalah play together, almost as if they were sisters, rather than cousins. Lerial can't help but like Amaira, but no one has ever talked about her father … or who he might have been.
His aunt had never consorted. That he knows. He also knows that she has never been particularly interested in any of the younger Magi'i. Of course, no one pressed her, not when there are so few men among those her age because most of them had died when the Accursed Forest had destroyed the cities of Cyador … and Lerial's grandsire and most of the chaos-wielding Magi'i and all but the two companies of Mirror Lancers that his grandmother had used to take the Kerial and transport the survivors to Hamor … and Cigoerne.
As he half listens and waits, Lerial cannot help but wonder how his grandmere had managed it. The older he got, the more improbable it seemed. Yet it had happened. At the silence from the bedchamber and the sound of the door closing, Lerial stands and turns.
"Are you ready?" asks Emerya.
"I am." He almost says, "ser," but refrains because his aunt doesn't like that form of respect applied to women, even though Grandmother Mairena had insisted on it for herself. But then, there are few women, except healers, in positions of authority in Cigoerne, and none, so far as Lerial knows, in Afrit.
"By the way," asks his aunt, "do you recall from where the name Cigoerne comes?"
"An ancient bird from the Rational Stars," he replies, "like the one on the old, old box that you have."
"That box came from the worlds of the Rational Stars. Your grandmother Mairena said that such boxes were often given to healers, much in the way that healers were given the gold and malachite bracelets in Cyador. But there's an irony in that." Emerya smiles ruefully. "Do you know what it is?"
Lerial frowns. He's never heard about this.
"What skill must good healers have?"
"Control of order."
"What are the colors of order and chaos?"
"Chaos is white, usually mixed with red or orange."
"Gold, not orange."
"Order is black." For a moment, Lerial pauses, then says, involuntarily, "Oh … but if they were given white…"
"Exactly." Emerya shrugs. "But then, all the old books, the ones lost in Cyad, said that the way everything worked was somehow different in the worlds of the Rational Stars."
"How could that be? How could things be different?"
"They can be. Even here, things are often different from what people say or think. Healing is sometimes like that."
"Is that why it will help me in sparring against Lephi?"
"In time, Lerial. In time. What you need to learn will take time and effort, and you will have to practice what I show you, but only around me or when you are alone. Later, you'll be able to show your mother, but not now."
"What about Father?"
Emerya shakes her head. "Kiedron is like many of the Magi'i. He can sense and use chaos, but he is blind to order. Order-blindness is not infrequent among the Magi'i, but the great Emperors of the past, such as Alyiakal and Lorn, could sense and use both."
"We don't know about him. There were no records about him, either of his appearance or his magely talents … or if he had any." At Lerial's disbelieving look, she adds, "Either he destroyed such records or his nephew did. He had no children, remember?"
Lerial recalls that … but only after her reminder.
"Anyway … that's why you can't show your father … or Lephi. He takes after Kiedron in that respect."
That was something Lerial does not know, and already he has a glimmering of an idea as to why Emerya may be able to help him.
"I'm going to show you something, but you'll have to watch, with your thoughts, the way you do when you sense chaos. Look at the back of my hand."
Lerial does so. For a moment, he can see or sense nothing. Then … there is a black fuzziness.
"That's what gathering order looks like. Try to feel what I'm doing."
Sensing what Emerya is doing is far harder than merely observing the result of what she has done, and in moments Lerial can feel the sweat beading on his forehead. "You see why I said this would take time and work?"
"You can stop now." Emerya waits a moment, as if to allow Lerial to gather his thoughts and recover, then says, "A good healer only uses order when necessary. For small and shallow wounds that can be cleaned well and quickly, it's better to do that. Clear strong spirits are generally best, but garlic juice will also do, but that can be painful and may require holding the injured man when you apply either spirits or garlic. Then bind the wound and watch. If there is a dull red that strengthens you can apply free order … but there is great danger in that, because trying to draw too much free order will take it from you … and can kill you. That is why healers are trained slowly and carefully, so that they have experience in knowing how much order is needed and how much they can spare. You are not to attempt any healing except with me or another trained healer watching. Do you understand?"
"For the next eightday, I want you to watch people the way you just watched me. You're to sense what you can about the order and the chaos in them or around them. You're to do that without actually looking at them. Most times you won't sense more than a white fuzziness or a vague black fuzziness. If you sense more than that, don't say anything to them, but tell me each evening. You're to come and meet with me for a bit every night that you can for the next eightday. Is that clear?"
"Yes, ser." The honorific slips out before Lerial can catch it.
Emerya does not correct him, but only says, "That's all for tonight. Go and get some sleep. That will help all those bruises. Also, I wouldn't spar with Lephi tomorrow."
"I won't." Lerial pauses, then adds, "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Emerya smiles.
As Lerial leaves and walks back toward his own small sleeping chamber, he realizes that he had sensed—or had the feeling—that Emerya has more than one reason for not wanting him to spar with Lephi on threeday.
Copyright © 2014 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.