MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
In the deep gray before dawn on Mardi morning, Alastar stood at the bedchamber window. Beyond the glass, water poured out of the sky in a rush that suggested a waterfall more than mere rain. So heavy was the downpour that Alastar could barely make out the stone-paved walkway that led from the covered porch below the window south toward the center of the Collegium, but he didn’t have to see in order to know that the twin lanes flanking the green that led past the cottages of the master imagers were at least boot-deep in rushing water being channeled to the River Aluse, a river that, after the continual rains of the past week, was less than two yards from the top of the high granite riverwalls that surrounded Imagisle. So much rain in late Agostos was bound to destroy much of the grain harvest in the areas around L’Excelsis—and everywhere the near-continual downpour had struck.
As if matters weren’t unsettled enough.
He turned from the window to find that Alyna was sitting on the side of the bed looking at him.
“You’re not going running in that, I hope?”
Alastar shook his head. “Running in drizzle or light rain is one thing. Running through a torrent is another.”
“Sometimes…” Alyna paused. “You’re worried … again.”
He nodded. “The rains … and Chief Factor Hulet … and High Holder Cransyr. I’m afraid matters are going to get worse.”
“You’ll figure a way through it.” Her words were warm.
Alastar just looked at her for a long moment, a slender, almost petite woman, with short brown hair and black eyes … and with physical strength, determination, and imaging ability so at odds with her appearance, as many had discovered, at times fatally. He chuckled. “No … we’ll find a way through it.”
Less than a glass later, after a hot breakfast, Alastar and Alyna stood in the front foyer as their daughter, Lystara, hurried down the stairs toward the front door.
“Don’t forget to wear your waterproof,” said Alyna evenly. “And don’t make that face again. I know the oilskin coat smells of fish oil. That’s what keeps the rain from soaking through.”
“And don’t forget your oiled boots, either,” added Alastar, “the way you did so conveniently yesterday.”
“You don’t—” Lystara broke off her words abruptly, her black eyes going from her father to her mother and back again.
“Don’t understand?” Alastar’s voice was dry. He wasn’t about to mention that he and Alyna already wore the less than stylish and rather odoriferous oiled boots
“The other seconds…” Lystara began, then stopped.
“The other seconds don’t have to walk half a mille in ankle-deep water. They might get damp running from the dining hall to the administration building. You’ll be soaked all the way through, and if you keep imaging the water out of your grays the way you did yesterday, you’ll destroy the cloth, and all your coppers won’t be enough to pay for new grays.” Alastar managed to keep his voice level, a far harder chore with his own daughter than with the imagers over whom he served as the Collegium Maitre.
“Getting soaked and chilled won’t help your health or your studies,” added Alyna.
Lystara tried not to frown. “It’s just water.”
“As your father has pointed out more than once, Lystara dear, there is water in everything. You’re not skilled enough as an imager to take out just enough water.”
“Mother…” Lystara’s voice turned pleading. “Everyone will think I’m a baby. I’m already the youngest by two years anyway.”
“You didn’t want to be held back with the primes,” Alyna pointed out.
“I’m as good an imager as some of the thirds.” At the look on Alastar’s face, Lystara quickly added, “I know I shouldn’t be a third yet, but I just couldn’t stay with the primes. I wasn’t learning anything … or not much. It was too painful.”
Alastar understood all too well what she meant. “We gave you the choice of whether you wanted to stay a prime.” The fact that their daughter was barely ten had concerned both Alyna and him, although she was already as tall as many of the seconds, and taller than a few, but Lystara had pushed.
“If you can’t do what’s right and what’s right for your health now when it’s just a matter of what you wear…” began Alastar.
“Lystara dear, would you like your father to walk you to the administration building?”
The dark-haired ten-year-old stiffened. “No, thank you. I can stand up for myself.” She turned and walked to the front foyer, seated herself on the bench, and pulled on the oiled calf-high boots. Then she stood and took the hooded oilskin cloak off the peg and slipped it on. Finally, she turned to her parents. “There are two other oilskin cloaks in the back closet.” She grinned, then turned and hurried out the front door.
“Shall we go?” asked Alastar, turning to Alyna.
“Of course. After you fetch the oilskins.”
They both laughed.
In moments, Alastar returned with the oilskins, fishy as they smelled, and the two stepped out onto the covered porch. Although Alastar and Alyna had to be at the administration building at seventh glass, as did Lystara, for the past year their daughter had insisted on walking alone. In turn, Alastar had insisted that, if Lystara wished to go by herself, she needed to leave before her parents.
As Alastar stepped out into the sheeting rain, he said, “She takes after both of us.” Before Alyna could reply, he went on, “Your looks and quick wit, my stubbornness, and both of our imaging abilities.”
“She does have a certain firmness of will, but her similarity to me, dearest, is limited largely to her hair and eyes.”
“She has your mouth and lips, too.”
“And your chin and bones. She’s already tall, even taller than some of the other seconds. That makes fitting in harder for her.”
“Besides being our daughter,” Alastar added, “and knowing too much too soon and being too much in a hurry to grow up.”
“We’ve pushed her a bit.”
“As I recall, my dearest, we agreed on that.”
Alyna did not quite sigh. “I don’t think we had that much choice.”
Left unspoken were the other problems Lystara would face.
“What are you going to bring up at the senior imagers’ meeting?” asked Alyna after several moments.
“Lorien will likely request that we repair some of the damage caused by the rains, especially in L’Excelsis.”
“He’ll ask for us to repair all of it, and you’ll have to decline doing everything, if only on principle.”
Alastar inclined his head. “Thank you for spelling out my position.” He smiled broadly before reaching out and taking her hand for a moment.
“Who else would dare?” She returned his smile with one of her own that held a hint of impish mischief.
“Arion would, if politely. Tiranya or Shaelyt might.”
“Might is a very accurate way of putting it.”
Alastar laughed. So did Alyna.
When the two reached the administration building, Alastar watched for a moment as Alyna headed toward the stairs to the upper level and her study. He still never tired of watching her. Then he made his way from the entry hall down the corridor and into the antechamber to the Maitre’s study.
Dareyn, the white-haired secondus who had served as Alastar’s only clerk and assistant from the time he had become Maitre, smiled warmly. “I’m glad to see you wore oilskins, sir. It’s like walking through a cataract out there.”
“My daughter and my wife didn’t leave me much choice with the oilskins.”
“Neither did Elmya,” replied Dareyn.
“Any messages from anyone?”
“Nothing so far, sir.”
“The rain may have slowed them.”
“I can’t imagine any good coming from a week of solid heavy rain, but I could be mistaken.” Alastar took off the oilskin cloak and walked to the heavy wooden rack at one side of the anteroom where he hung it next to Dareyn’s. “I’m sorry for the smell.”
“Two’s no worse than one.”
Alastar smiled at his assistant’s words. “I’m going to check one thing in the study. Then I’ll be in the conference room. Just have the seniors come in as they arrive.”
Alastar stepped into the study, gloomy because of the weather and the fact that none of the lamps was lit. He didn’t bother imaging one into light. That would just have wasted lamp oil. He opened the second desk drawer and slipped out the folder with his notes for the meeting, then walked to the side door of the study that led into the conference room, opened it, and then closed it behind him. He walked to the head of the long table. Rather than sit, he stood beside his chair, thinking.
Less than a fraction of a quint later, the door from the hall opened, and the first of the senior imagers entered—the ancient Obsolym, white-haired, his face gaunt, but with watery blue eyes that missed nothing. “Good morning, Maitre.”
“Good morning, you ancient troublemaker.”
“The same to you, most venerable font of destruction.”
Alastar couldn’t help grinning at Obsolym’s gruff words, although both of them knew that neither would have exchanged quite the same set of pleasantries had anyone else been present.
“I’ll be seeing your daughter at eighth glass.”
“Don’t let her argue or charm you out of learning her history.”
“So far that hasn’t been a problem. She seems to want to know more about everything.”
Alastar frowned. “She’s not being a know-it-all, is she?”
Obsolym shook his head. “She’s quiet, but not too quiet. She’s been reading history on the side … or one of you has been tutoring her.”
“No. Whenever she asks a question, I tell her where she might look to find the answer.” Alastar would have said more, but Cyran, the senior imager of the Collegium, stepped into the conference room, followed by Akoryt and Alyna. In moments, the other senior imagers, those ranked as Maitre D’Structure or higher, had entered and seated themselves at the long table, with Cyran on Alastar’s right and Alyna on his left, not because she was his wife, but because she and Cyran were the only Maitres D’Esprit at the Collegium—and that was more than had been at the Collegium in more than a generation … or perhaps since the time of the first Maitre.
Alastar looked down the table, taking in the ten other imagers. Even thirteen years after he’d taken over as Maitre, there were too few senior imagers. But there are many new junior maitres and a goodly number of solid thirds. Those thoughts reminded him of just how hard—and time-consuming—it was to rebuild something. And how quickly things can deteriorate under poor leadership and adverse conditions. He cleared his throat. “The good news is that no new difficulties have been brought to the attention of the Collegium. The bad news is that there will be.” He offered a wry smile. “The rains have brought the River Aluse to the highest flood stage in hundreds of years. Recent dispatches from the west indicate that both the Phraan River and the River Laar are flooding as well. For the most part, the land on both sides of the Laar south from Laaryn is flat. Much of it is fertile bottomland, but when the river rises…”
“The bottomland floods,” finished Obsolym. “Happens every ten years or so. Just long enough that no one remembers how bad it was.”
“This time looks worse than ever,” added Alastar. “What’s more of a problem is that last year was so dry there isn’t much grain laid up.”
“They had a bumper crop in Piedryn last year, and the harvest there is good this year,” said Shaelyt.
“That’s part of the problem,” replied Alastar. “Some of the large grain factors here in L’Excelsis and in Ferravyl bought everything they could last year and have again this year, even taking contracts on grain that hasn’t been harvested. And that was before the rains came, when it looked like the price would stay low.”
“Sir…” began Khaelis, one of the more junior Maitres D’Structure. “I can see that this will make life very hard on the poor, and on some members of the Guilds…”
“You’re wondering what it has to do with the Collegium, I take it?”
Alastar would have been happy to explain at length, but a shorter answer was better for the moment. “The droughts of the past few years have left little grain here in the west of Solidar. The High Holders here in old Bovaria sold most of their surplus stocks earlier this year, and made a handsome profit on that grain. The larger grain factors held their stocks, Chief Factor Hulet, especially. They wagered on another bad harvest, and they bought up much of the harvest from Piedryn and the lands around Ferravyl. Now, a number of those High Holders will have to buy grain, and possibly other produce, on the terms set by the factors. Some will have difficulty in raising the golds. They may have to borrow.…” Alastar nodded to Alyna for her to continue.
“Many of the High Holders have remained landowners and little more. The High Council decided almost ten years ago not to allow factors to become High Holders unless they also held significant lands. Many factors decided against becoming landholders and put their golds into trade and manufacturing enterprises. Trade, especially the spice trade with various countries in Otelyrn, has allowed several factors to become wealthier than the majority of High Holders, and many to have more golds for immediate use than many High Holders. Those golds have been used at times to the distinct disadvantage of the High Holders.”
This time, Alastar observed, more than a few present seemed puzzled, although Arion, the most recent imager to become a Maitre D’Structure, nodded knowingly, not surprising given that he, like Alyna, had come from a High Holder’s family.
Before Alastar could say anything, Alyna went on. “Trade and commerce require both banques and exchanges. The banques and exchanges are controlled largely by factors. Traders can spread and lessen their risk on a given voyage, say to Otelyrn, by selling shares of the entire cargo. They can also speculate, by agreeing to sell or buy goods at predetermined prices at a given future date.”
“But can’t High Holders do the same?” asked Taryn.
“Some do,” agreed Alyna cheerfully, “but using the exchanges means buying a seat on the exchange or buying or selling through someone who does have a seat. In both cases, that requires golds, knowledge, or trust in someone who does have knowledge. It also requires a presence in L’Excelsis, Solis, Nacliano, Liantiago, Eshtora, or Tilbora. That is where the larger exchanges in Solidar are located.”
One of those who did trade through the exchanges, most successfully, Alastar knew, was his wife’s brother.
“You’re implying that most High Holders are at a disadvantage because their lands are distant from those cities,” suggested Shaelyt.
“Prices on the exchanges can shift quickly,” Alastar said. “Most High Holders have handled their lands as if they were barely part of Solidar. The original Codex established by the first Rex Regis let them retain the right of low justice. The terms of remaining a High Holder effectively require a certain amount of land, and the High Council has refused to lower that. Very few High Holders trust others with their resources. If a High Holder comes to L’Excelsis to deal in trade and the exchanges, he loses touch with his heritage and he must trust others to manage the lands. If he stays on his lands, then he must trust his agent in L’Excelsis or elsewhere … and any trade or exchange business that would be significant in improving his assets would be large enough to cost him dearly.”
“So the High Holders are trapped, in a way, by their very holdings?” asked Tiranya, the only other woman who was a senior maitre.
“That’s a very good way of putting it,” agreed Alyna.
“And by the long-standing tradition that the High Holder is the only decider of anything of worth on the holding,” added Alastar dryly.
“What do you think will happen?” asked Cyran.
Alastar had several ideas about what could happen, but because any or none might come to pass, he wasn’t about to speculate, except in private and to Alyna. “All that is certain is that a great number of High Holders are likely to be in very difficult financial positions before long, owing large sums to banques and factors, without any way to repay what they owe.” Except by selling large parcels of land at very low prices or surrendering them outright to clear the debts.
“Some may survive by starving their tenants.” Those words came from Khaelis, broad-shouldered and burly. “They have before.”
Alastar had the feeling Khaelis spoke from experience as a child, although Khaelis had consistently avoided speaking of his childhood, and the Collegium records only indicated that he came from a small town near Ruile. “Some may try that again. In any event, I wanted you all to be aware that it could be a difficult autumn and winter, and the Collegium as well will likely have to cut back on what we spend.”
“Even stipends?” asked Gaellen.
“I hope not, but it is possible.” Alastar paused. “Is there anything any of you feel the rest of us should know?”
Tiranya glanced at Alyna for just an instant, then said, “I have some concerns about Maitre Bettaur.”
“What concerns, exactly?” asked Alastar.
“He teaches the primes grammar and writing. He’s very good at it. They all enjoy the work, but…” Tiranya shook her head. “I can’t explain it.”
Alastar understood exactly why she couldn’t, because he’d asked her, years ago, not to reveal her past experiences and misgivings about Bettaur to anyone, and only to consider acts or words after Bettaur had become a Maitre D’Aspect. “You feel that you’re missing something? Or that he’s hiding something?”
“It could just be me. That’s why … I don’t want to be unfair, but I don’t want anything to happen, the way it did with Desyrk.”
Alastar nodded. “I don’t want gossip about Bettaur. He works hard. At the same time, it would be better—much better—if we didn’t have another incident like the one Desyrk caused. If anyone sees anything that seems strange, I’d appreciate it—very much—if you did not talk about it, but let me, Maitre Cyran, or Maitre Alyna know.” He paused. “Is there anything else?”
“It’s not about imaging, Maitre,” began Gaellen, “but there has been an infestation of lice, and even some fleas, among the primes, especially among those who have not been as … well, they haven’t been as scrupulous in cleaning themselves as they should be. I’m thinking that the only way to stop this might be to cut their hair very short. I’d prefer to announce that any I have to treat a second time will be required to have their hair cut to a digit in length.”
“That might be a good idea for all student imagers,” said Tiranya. “Some of them try to avoid bathing or showering.”
“Does anyone have a concern about what Gaellen proposes?” asked Alastar.
“Cold showers never hurt anyone,” said Obsolym. “Some of the ones from factoring families seem to want hot baths … even before they can image warm water.”
Alastar managed not to smile at Obsolym’s curmudgeonly tone as he looked to Gaellen. “Go ahead. But that has to include the young women as well.” After a moment of silence, he asked once more, “Is there anything else?”
When no one spoke up, Alastar cleared his throat. “Thank you all.” With that, he stood, glad that the weekly meeting was over, a day earlier than usual.
Alyna followed him into his study after all the others had left the conference room.
“Was my reply to Tiranya acceptable?”
“You didn’t have much of an alternative, dear Maitre. It won’t stop the gossip, but it will likely mute it.”
“Which is what you had in mind when you arranged for Tiranya to ask that question.”
“You don’t think Bettaur’s really changed at all, do you?”
She smiled sadly. “Do you? Did his father ever change?”
“No, but I could hope.” After a moment, he said, “How are the thirds coming on their advanced mathematics?”
“All are doing well at the calculations, but quite a few are having trouble with the geometric idea of having to prove something they already know.”
Alastar nodded. “That’s true in other fields as well. They need to learn that you don’t really understand something until you can prove it—or explain it clearly—to others.”
As soon as Alyna had left the study, Dareyn knocked on the frame of the half-open door and, holding an envelope, said, almost apologetically, “Maitre, during the meeting, a chateau guard brought this message from the rex.”
“How long ago?”
“Less than a quint.”
“Anything this early from Lorien is a problem of some sort.” The rex was anything but a dawn-riser, unlike his ill-fated sire, and a message from him arriving before midmorning was definitely unusual, and most likely a harbinger of trouble. Alastar walked from where he stood beside the desk to the doorway and took the envelope, looked at the seal, then broke it and extracted the single sheet. His lips twisted slightly. “Rex Lorien would appreciate my presence at my earliest convenience. If you’d arrange for two escorts and my mount.”
“Yes, sir.” Dareyn did not move, a quizzical expression on his face.
“He didn’t say why, Dareyn.” And he doesn’t regard rain as an inconvenience to others, all too like his father in that regard.
“Let me know when the escorts are ready for me.” Alastar wasn’t exactly thrilled about a ride to the Chateau D’Rex in the rain that continued to rush down.
By the time the two imager thirds arrived outside the main entrance to the administration building with Alastar’s mount, the rain had subsided slightly—from sheets of water to a mere steady downpour. Alastar donned his hooded oilskin and hurried toward the gray gelding—the second one he’d had since becoming Maitre, and another symbol of sorts.
“Good morning, Maitre!” called out Konan, the slightly younger of the two thirds, his voice strong but respectful. The other escort, who nodded politely but did not speak, was Beltran, sober, dedicated, and actually a year or so older than Konan.
“Good morning to you both,” returned Alastar, who had always appreciated Konan’s quiet solidity. He mounted quickly, and the three rode directly to the Bridge of Desires.
As they crossed the River Aluse, Alastar not only checked to make sure that he was carrying full imaging shields, but also looked down at the water level, slightly higher than the day before, but still almost two yards below the top of the stone riverwall, a yard above the highest level recorded since the founding of the Collegium. The height of the riverwall and its solid structure were just additional reminders of the power and foresight of the first Maitre, whose name and exploits were already forgotten outside of Imagisle and remembered only hazily even by too many imagers.
Once across the river, the three rode along the Boulevard D’Rex Ryen, although Alastar was more than happy that most people—with the strong exception of Rex Lorien—just called it the Boulevard D’Rex. The boulevard ended at the ring road that encircled the Chateau D’Rex, and less than half a quint later, Alastar reined up at the foot of the long white stone steps leading up to the main entrance of the chateau.
“Wait in the chateau stables,” Alastar said as he dismounted. “I’ll meet you there.”
“Yes, sir.” Konan actually grinned.
Alastar made his way up the steps swiftly but carefully, mindful that he was no longer quite so young as he thought he was, a fact about which Alyna gently, but frequently, reminded him. While the hooded oilskin had kept his upper body and clothes largely dry, his trousers below the knees were soaked. He didn’t image them totally clear of water when he stepped into the entry hall of the chateau, but left them slightly damp.
The two chateau guards looked surprised at his oilskin clad–figure, then nodded as they recognized Alastar.
“Rex Lorien is in his study, Maitre. Ah … we could take your oilskin.…” offered the shorter guard.
“Thank you. I would appreciate that.”
Moments later, Alastar was climbing the grand staircase and then making his way eastward along the north corridor toward the rex’s private study, outside of which was stationed another guard.
At Alastar’s appearance, the guard immediately rapped on the door. “The Maitre is here, sire.” Then he opened the door for Alastar, who entered the study.
Lorien sat behind the modest goldenwood table desk, the same desk he had used almost every day since he had become rex. Set near the west end of the chamber was a circular conference table with four chairs, all also of goldenwood. The study was gloomy, illuminated by only a single brass lamp set in a wall sconce to the left of the rex. The matching lamp to the right was unlit. The rex motioned for Alastar to join him.
As Alastar seated himself across from Lorien in one of the two straight-backed goldenwood chairs before the table desk, he noted, for the first time, scattered silver-gray hairs interspersed with the lank black hair that the rex had always had, at least for the thirteen years that Alastar had known him. “You requested my presence.”
“You’re always most deferential and punctual, Maitre. I suppose it’s better that way, for both of us.”
“I’ve always felt that the Collegium should remain as much in the background as possible,” replied Alastar, with words similar to those used on more than a few occasions over the past thirteen years. “How are Charyn, Bhayrn, and Aloryana?”
“Charyn reminds me of an old man, and he’s barely sixteen. Bhayrn’s Bhayrn, always looking for something to put together or take apart.” Lorien smiled. “You know how I feel about Aloryana, young as she is.”
That youth might just be why you feel that way. But Alastar had to admit that the six-year-old was both mannered and charming, or had been on the very few occasions he had seen her … and Lorien’s reactions. “She lights up every chamber she enters.” Apparently just the way her grandfather did.
“I can often use a little light, especially with all the trials that come with being rex.” Lorien coughed several times, then cleared his throat before continuing. “Marshal Wilkorn is making noises about it being time for him to receive his stipend … if not more.”
“He’s served you loyally and well, at times when neither was easy.”
“That’s true enough. It’s not that.…”
“You don’t have a spare chateau or the like?”
“More than enough chateaux. Not enough lands to support them, and what’s the point of giving him something that will beggar him?”
“There is that. But he wouldn’t expect the kind of revenues most High Holders get. You might give him a holding that would support itself and a bit more.”
“I’ll think about it. I worry about Vice Marshal Vaelln. He’s from a factoring background.…”
“You’d worry just as much about Commander Marryt. Isn’t he the second son of a High Holder?”
“Caervyn. Lots of lands southeast of Montagne.” Lorien shook his head. “Besides that worry, and more pressing, I’ve received petitions from more than a score of High Holders, asking for a temporary reduction in their annual tariffs. You’d think I was bleeding them dry, when it’s more the other way around.”
“Do they give a reason?”
“The High Council sent a missive requesting that I not grant individual relief, but suggesting strongly that, if any relief from tariffs is merited, it must be applied to all High Holders.”
“The High Council didn’t mention factors, I take it?”
“Ha! Cransyr’s behind this.” Lorien grimaced, then massaged his forehead with his left hand. “He’d use any excuse to get me to reduce tariffs … and then…” He shook his head.
Alastar knew exactly what Lorien meant and dared not say—the same situation that had led to the death of Lorien’s father. “No matter what they say, those who have managed their lands and their golds well can afford to pay their tariffs. Reducing tariffs for all to help those who managed poorly will hurt Solidar and only postpone the results of poor management.”
“What about the factors?” asked Lorien.
“The same is true of them.”
The rex looked slightly surprised.
“Many of the High Holders made substantial profits when they sold their surplus earlier this year. Now, facing a poor or ruined harvest, they want you to make up their losses,” offered Alastar. “Some factors likely face the same difficulty.”
“That’s not the problem. The problem is that the more wealthy factors have bought up all the grain they can. The poor will go hungry. Even guilders may suffer.”
“You didn’t sell your stocks, did you?”
“You advised me not to. I didn’t.”
“Then, you can sell some of it to the guilds. At a profit, but not enough that they can’t afford it. If matters get dangerous by midwinter, have the regial kitchens bake a lot of bread and distribute it to the poor a few times.”
“What good will that do?”
“It will buy you goodwill. You can also then suggest that the wealthier factors might follow your lead. Most High Holders can’t or won’t do so.”
“I still don’t see…” Lorien shook his head.
“The factors are growing stronger. They’re not strong enough, and you don’t want to use the army to stop the High Holders from uniting against the factors.” Especially since it’s not large enough to deal with all the High Holders at once … and not with senior officers who are the sons of High Holders scattered through the army, possibly even as regimental commanders.
“You’re the one who insisted the army was too large.”
“I did. So did a number of others. As a result, you have a surplus of golds, far more than you’re letting on. Using some of them is far cheaper than using the army.…” Alastar went on to explain.
Even so, he felt exhausted when he left the study more than a glass later and headed down the grand staircase and then to the center north door that opened into the rear courtyard. The good thing was that the rain had diminished to more of a drizzle.
Copyright © 2016 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.