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Chapter the First
In Which Two Young People, Unlike the Reader, Are Blissfully Unaware of the Doom Hanging Over Them
On the fourth day of autumn in the two hundred and forty-first year of the reign of Cherova the Third, the Gods—if one believes, as many do, that the Gods are responsible for the weather—had granted an exceptionally fine day along that portion of the western coast, forming a part of the region known as Zerika’s Point, that is called, for reasons of which we must confess our ignorance, the Sinking Hills.
The breeze from the Ocean-sea was mild and smelled clean, and even now, as dusk loomed, the air was warm and pleasant. The question of whether such a mild and delightful day is a fitting and appropriate way to begin a history in which the reader will bear witness to no small amount of violence, treachery, deceit, and sorrow (as well, to be sure, as proper proportions of laughter, honor, candor, and joy), is one we must answer in the affirmative, and for two reasons: One reason, the simplest, is that this is, in fact, the way the history began, and while mere statements of fact do not exhaust the study of history, even those desert-born mystics who are subject to the wildest flights of imagination agree that facts are where the study of history must take its departure. The other reason, however, is more complex, and we hope the reader will be patient while we explain our thinking in this matter.
It has been observed more than once that history, however broad or narrow its subject matter, and however sympathetic or detached the historian, and however momentous or trivial the final result, must inevitably contain elements of tragedy as well as comedy, for the simple reason that this is how all episodes, when thoroughly comprehended, eventually reduce themselves in the human heart. The author of these lines makes no claim of originality, but merely wishes to open this history by reminding the reader of this obvious truth.
This reminder, we believe, is especially necessary as we begin to set before the reader the history our duty has required us to relate, because of the sharp contrast between the events as they begin to unfold, and the expectation of the knowledgeable reader as to the direction in which they must inevitably move. That is to say, while our metaphorical curtain opens, perchance, on a setting that can only be described as happy, or even idyllic, we do not for a moment expect the reader to be lulled by this into thinking the events as they progress will continue in this fashion. Indeed, we flatter ourselves that the sophistication of our reader is such that a book which promised nothing more than soporific pleasantries would never have arrived in his hands to begin with.
Of course, the reader might justly ask why, then, we begin here instead of elsewhere? Above, we had the honor to assert in simple terms, here is where our history begins. Yet, wonders the student, could not this history begin fifteen years earlier, when a geologist named Veck found deposits of sealstone off the coast of Wetrock? Or five thousand years before that, when a sorcerer name Undira learned that sealstone often contains deposits of iron, lodestone, manganese, and occasionally even trellenstone, all protected by its marvelous properties from the ravages of the sea? Or yet before that, back to the First Cycle of the Empire, now all but lost in the mists of time, when bands of Orca came by sea, and Iorich by land, to tame the local savages and set up their dominions on this part of the coast?
Any of these might be reasonable choices, as each of these events plays an important role in the chain of causality that we have elected to set before the reader. But the exposition of history is more than science, it is also art—that is to say, in order to be successful, it must not only edify the intellective academic, but also stimulate the sensitive student, thus providing that unity of mind and spirit that is essential to true percipience. And it is here that we find the apparently arbitrary selection of the first element in our causal chain becomes determined by necessity: In a word, we are required to begin our history at that point which will not only provide the reader with an understanding of events in their unfolding, but will also excite all of the finer emotions—pity, catharsis, passion, elation—that are so necessary to the citizens of an enlightened society.
With this firmly in mind, then, as our reader finds his allotted seat (if we may be permitted to return to the theatrical metaphor upon which we found ourselves embarking), and as the last notes of the figurative overture fade in his ears, and his pulse, we permit ourselves to hope, slightly quickens in anticipation of the experience through which it is our humble duty to guide him, let the curtain rise on a particularly fine evening in the Seventeenth Athyra reign, in a place on the western edge of our Empire, some five hundred miles northwest of Zerika’s Point, on the outskirts of a hamlet called Wetrock, where a pair of young people are engaged in an activity that, if tolerably rare in the Empire, is at least not uncommon in this small corner of it: to wit, they are watching the Furnace, briefly visible as it sinks below the Enclouding, turn from a bright, painful yellow to a soft, gentle red as it appears to fall into the Ocean-sea far away. The colors produced by this display, reds and purples and pinks, are of such a spectacular exuberance that the historian must pause in his narrative—unwilling as he is to interrupt the relation of events that are the heart of any chronicle, historical or otherwise—to advise the reader to make a pilgrimage to this region just to see it.
As the reader will no doubt have already deduced that the two young persons to which we have just had the honor to allude will become important as our history proceeds, we should waste no time in providing a cursory sketch of each of them.
The young man, for so we will call him (they were of an age whereby we might, with equal justice, call them a boy and a girl, or a man and a woman), was of between ninety and one hundred years of age. He was neither exceptionally tall nor unusually short, though more athletic in appearance than one would expect of an Iorich. His eyes were brown, mild, and deep set beneath a strong forehead that spoke of determination, and his lips, which were full and pouting, though much given to smiling, as was proved by the lines around them, nevertheless tended slightly down when at rest. His cheekbones were high, his nose straight with perhaps a hint of point, and his chin had that sort of dimple that is called a cleft among the nobility. In general, his features displayed an open and trusting expression, one more suited to sudden laughter than to anger. His hair was of a darker brown than his eyes, nearly black, and fell straight, if slightly disheveled, to his shoulders, revealing a noble’s point that could only be said to exist by courtesy—should he ever wish to pass for a Teckla, he could do so without altering his hair. His chest was broad and strong, his fingers long and elegant. He wore a pure white shirt in the style of the time, which insisted that as much fabric as possible be present, and that it be bunched, gathered, and, if the reader will permit, corralled by means of cords and ribbons. Over this he wore a simple, thin, tan cloak which was, at present, thrown back over his shoulder, the better to enjoy the day. His leggings were the same tan as his cloak, and his boots were black and simple, if extraordinarily well made. He carried a sword and a dagger, though a close inspection would show that they appeared more decorative than practical.
The young woman next to him, her hand upon his arm in a gesture displaying mostly affection, though not devoid of an agreeable hint of possessiveness, was also easily seen to be an Iorich. Her eyes were bright with wit and intelligence, her gentle forehead spoke of kindness, and her chin displayed a firmness of character. Her hair, notwithstanding its pronounced curl, was of much the same length and shape as his, that being the style among Iorich at the time, though its color was a shade or two lighter, and her noble’s point was far more pronounced. Her nose was small but well-proportioned, her cheekbones as high as his and even more strongly pronounced, providing her a face in which strength of character would seem to have the advantage over cheerful disposition, yet her lips tended naturally upward, and it could not be doubted that she was accustomed to smiling. If he appeared rather more athletic than is usual among Iorich, she seemed doubly so, with stout legs and wide, strong shoulders supporting a graceful neck. Her breasts were full and high, even under the loose tan doublet she wore over a simple white shirt, her hips strong without appearing large, and the carriage of her back, perhaps her most distinctive feature, was powerful yet relaxed, reminiscent of the Northern white wolf, with its confidence in its own power. She, too, wore sword and dagger, yet hers were simpler, more businesslike, and gave every appearance of having been used on more than one occasion, though whether in practice or in more serious conversation could not be determined.
These are two, then, with whom we have chosen to concern ourselves, and, now that the necessary introductory stage—of which we hope the reader will forgive the brevity—is past, it is time to discover something of the words being exchanged as they watched the glowing ball meet the horizon.
After a certain period of silence, during which, the reader may be sure, they took no small degree of pleasure in each other’s company, the young man, whose name was Eremit, pronounced the single word, “Children.”
“Well,” said the young woman, who was known as Livosha, “what of them?”
“Do we wish them?”
“Ah, you say ‘we.’”
“Well, and if I do?”
“You perceive, my friend, that I am unable to answer this question regarding we, for the simple reason that there are two of us, and I am only able to know the mind of one, that being myself.”
“I confess your point is well taken, but then—”
“Should you tell me your own opinion on this matter, and if I were to then tell you mine, it would be strange indeed if we were not able, by working together, to determine the answer to the question as it applies to both of us.”
“I do not dispute you.”
“Well, I will tell you.”
“Good, for you perceive I am eager to hear.”
“This is it, then.”
“I am most eager to have children with you.”
“And is this the answer you had hoped for?”
“To the very word!”
“Well, that is good then,” said Livosha decisively. “The decision is made.”
“And that decision is?”
“We shall have children. Perhaps several.”
“I am the happiest of men,” declared Eremit. “Although it should be added that my esteemed mother, she whose lands we are now occupying, and her husband, my father will, without doubt, be filled with joy as well.”
“You think so?”
“Nearly. Am I not the last of my line? You must understand, my dear Livosha, that to such aristocrats as my mother and father, well, there is little that matters more than seeing their line continue.”
“How, and does this not matter to you?”
“Oh, I am not indifferent,” he said, reflecting. “And yet, that is not what concerns me most regarding the question of children.”
“Ah, what does?”
“You wish me to tell you?”
“I do, and the proof is, I asked.”
“That is true,” said Eremit, struck by the extreme justice of this observation.
“Well, but it seems to me that any child who comes from your loin and from my seed must be someone with whom I should delight in spending time. Does it not seem so to you?”
“My dear Eremit—”
“Well now it is you who have expressed the very words I most wished to hear.”
“Ah! In that case—”
“Yes, in that case?”
“It would seem to me that I ought to kiss you.”
“Oh, I agree with this plan!”
“Then I shall carry it into action.”
“And this very instant, I hope!”
“You see, I do not delay.”
And with these words, he took her in his arms and kissed her soundly, she returning the caress with an enthusiasm that could not be mistaken, after which they both turned and continued watching the Furnace and the waves that crashed upon the rocks before them.
After some few minutes he sighed.
“You have sighed,” she said, proving that she was not unaware of even the subtlest expressions of the man with whom she stood.
“That is true,” he said. “I do sigh.”
“But, what are you thinking that causes you to sigh in this way?”
“I am thinking of the three years that must elapse between now and when we are to be married.”
“Ah, three years, well.”
“It is a long time.”
“It seems like forever,” he said.
“Still, we shall at any rate be busy during this time, which will help.”
“Busy? Ah, you mean the preparations for the wedding.”
“Well, that, yes. And other things.”
He frowned. “Other things, my Levoshirasha?”
“Ah, ah! I love when you call me that!”
“Well, that is why I do.”
“And you are right to.”
“But, what other things, my beloved?”
“Why surely you recall that our families will be engaged in negotiation, both with each other, and with the local Orca, for mining rights, processing rights, and transportation of the newly discovered minerals?”
“Ah, yes! It is true, your presence is so overwhelming to my senses that, for the moment, I had quite forgotten.”
“Well, we must not forget, my adored one,” she said. “For it is this very discovery that will provide all of us with something of a fortune, and thus make life easier both for ourselves and our children, for we want them to have the best of everything, do we not?”
“Oh, I would never disagree with that. Indeed, I find that while money has never before had any hold on my attention, now that I contemplate a family, well, I should not mind in the least if there were sufficient to provide for our children. It is wonderful how such a thing can change one’s attitudes, is it not?”
“Oh, I have noticed the same thing.”
“Had these discoveries not been made, I think I should not miss them. But now, seeing the opportunity to make use of them, while at the same time helping our neighbors, I see nothing wrong with it.”
“Those are my exact thoughts. Indeed, if this goes well, we could perhaps even improve the roads and the irrigation ditches, and so advance even the lives of the Teckla. Why should we not?”
Eremit nodded at this and said, “I am so far from disagreeing with this plan that I can think of no way to better it.”
“Yes, my sweet Levosha, you are right. That will take up some considerable amount of time.”
“Yes, we must find experts in extraction and learn how to extract from the sealstone the iron it contains and, more important, the lodestone and the echtia, and perhaps even trellenstone.”
“That word you used, I do not know it.”
“That is the one.”
“It is the Serioli word for the metal that is sometimes called swordstone, or manganese. It can be combined with iron to create steel that is light, strong, and not stained or weakened by water.”
“Ah! Yes, I have heard of swordstone. It is valuable indeed.”
“It is, and thus our future rests upon it, and upon making arrangements to mine it, refine it, and transport it to Candletown, and thence along the Grand Canal to Dragaera City. Indeed, my mother has spoken of the possibility of extending the canal all the way to Threewillows.”
“I must inform myself of these things.”
“That is true,” she said. “But I will help you, and thus the time will go faster. For while it is your family that owns the land—that is to say, the water—where the sealstone has been discovered, it is the Orca who are able to procure it, and it is my family that can refine it. Thus we will cooperate to the advantage of us all. And it may be that someday the Imperial armies, as far from here as one may be within the confines of our great Empire, will march east, and we will know that in their hands are weapons that have been made with material we have supplied.”
“I cannot deny that I would feel pride in such an event.”
“Who would not?”
“Then it is settled,” he said.
“Then come, beloved. It is nearly time to dine, and you must remember that you have agreed to accompany me to my home to eat with my family, as we have so often done to our mutual pleasure.”
“I have not forgotten, my dear Livosha, for not only is there the matter of your company, in which I take such delight, and that of your family, whose warmth and companionship never fails to please me, but there is also the question of your cook, Veska, who makes the most amazing fish soup, which soup, you recall, was promised me when you extended your kind invitation, and I warn you, I hold a word given as a pledge made, as any Iorich would.”
“Oh, you need fear nothing on that score, good Eremit! I have said there would be fish soup, and fish soup there will be!”
“Then lead on, you see how eagerly I follow you.”
They made their way through the small village of Wetrock, accepting the bows of those they passed with good-natured amenity, and so, after an easy and pleasant hour, passed up to Tebek Road, which led to the estate of the Baroness Tebek (in fact, this was the title held by Cerwin, Livosha’s mother, but as it was never used, she being known simply as Cerwin, it will never come up again, and we include it here merely for the sake of completeness. That there are some supposed scholars who are willing to leave their students with incomplete information does not justify committing such a crime against knowledge ourselves). Upon entering, they were greeted first by Coru, the Teckla servant whom they had both known all of their lives. He took their cloaks and their weapon belts and remarked, “It is near dinner time. If my lady would care to change, we shall have to hurry.”
“Now Coru,” she said. “Do you not perceive I am with my friend Eremit? He cannot change for dinner, therefore I shall not.”
“Of course, my lady. Your pardon. These old eyes are so used to seeing the young gentleman, that I nearly think of him as part of the family, and so did not consider him as a guest.”
“So much the better,” said Eremit, warmly pressing the old man’s hand.
He followed Livosha into the dining room, where they were seated, and the promised fish soup—which, to be sure, was more of a stew, involving several kinds of seafood in a spicy-sweet cream broth—was delivered as promised. The soup was followed by a side of mutton, and then a baked pastry filled with the sweet local apple, just now coming into season. Eremit enjoyed the dinner, thanks in no small part to the gentle pressure of Livosha’s leg against his, but also to the unending banter among Livosha, her younger brother, Kefaan, and her older sister, Nira. Her mother, Cerwin, the baroness, and her father, Tiscara, spoke little on these occasions, appearing to enjoy the company of their children, but they nevertheless made it plain, as they had on numerous previous occasions, that Eremit was welcome.
Eventually, Kefaan began teasing Livosha about her upcoming wedding night. Eremit noticed with some amusement the look that passed between the two sisters as the young man—he was, after all not more than sixty—assumed that neither Livosha nor Eremit had experience with the physical expressions of tenderness. This, however, was too ribald for Tiscara, who smoothly shifted the conversation to wedding plans and how long it would take to make the arrangements for the service, for the grand fête, the procession, and, of course, the two feasts. “At least,” remarked Cerwin, “we shall not have to pay for an advocate to draw up the contract, nor worry about finding agreeable terms,” which produced a general chuckle around the table because it was well known that everyone there except Kefaan and Livosha were, if not practicing advocates, at least licensed to be, as most Iorich were then, just as is still true at the time the historian has the honor of writing.
At length the repast had finished, and after bidding farewell to the family, Eremit bid a last, private farewell to Livosha.
“Will I see you to-morrow?” he asked.
“I can think of nothing that would give me greater pleasure,” she said.
“Then I bid you good night, after one more of those kisses I treasure above all else. Ah, perhaps another after. And another.”
“Ah, my friend,” cried Livosha. “The two best parts of the day are when I first see you, and when we last bid each other good night. Come, have another kiss, and yet another.”
“And now I must leave.”
“We cannot delay, the driver awaits.”
“Until to-morrow, my adored one.”
“Until to-morrow, my beloved.”
And with that, he tore himself from her as if it required a physical effort, and at last made his way outside. As inevitably happened, he had denied needing a carriage, saying the walk was a mere ten miles, and, as inevitably happened, Cerwin had quietly decided and arranged for the carriage anyway.
It was a peaceful ride back; the driver, one Horatha, was not inclined to talk, and Eremit himself felt too at peace with the world to wish to disturb this feeling with unwarranted conversation: as is well known, it is those with the least to say who use the most words, which is why, as the reader has no doubt observed, this historian endeavors, without exception, to limit his use of words to the absolute minimum required to successfully convey the desired thought.
Upon arriving at his home—an impressive dwelling called Cryden House (or Quordon House as it appears in older histories, and was still sometimes called by the more elderly among the local Teckla), perched on an artificial hill facing Redsky Harbor—he bid farewell to Horatha and, it being by now past evening and into the night, entered his home by the side door. He carefully stepped over the prone figure of Waymin, his father’s lackey, and went down the hall toward the stairs. He had not, however, gone more than a dozen paces before he was interrupted by Waymin, who coughed and said, “Your pardon, young sir.”
Eremit turned around to see that Waymin was now standing. He nodded to the retainer and said, “Goodman Waymin, what would you?”
“Young sir, his lordship requests the honor of your company upon your return, and charged me to deliver the message, which I have now done.”
“And it was well done, too,” agreed Eremit. “Only—”
“Yes, young sir?”
“Where is my father?”
“Ah, yes. It would be useful for you to know that.”
“Then I will tell you: he awaits you in the study.”
“Then I shall go to him directly.”
“And you will do right to do so, young sir. And I, well, I will go directly to sleep.”
This decision on the part of the lackey was no sooner announced than acted upon; indeed, Waymin’s snores accompanied Eremit for some distance as he made his way to his father’s study, located on the ground floor on the west side of the house, directly below his bedchamber and connected to it by a spiral staircase of iron that led up to a hole in the study’s ceiling. This excellent arrangement, which permitted Lord Nessit, that is to say, Eremit’s father, to easily visit his study whenever his sleep was disturbed, had the one disadvantage that, as Nessit shared a bedchamber with his wife, as was the custom of the lower nobility in those days, any conversation in this room that occurred after Sudora, the baroness, had retired must necessarily be carried out in whispers to avoid waking her, a grave discourtesy, and one of the few matters that had been known to upset the usual domestic harmony of Cryden House.
On this occasion, however, to his surprise, they were both in the study, awaiting him. His father had open before him several books of statutes and case law that Eremit recognized as pertaining to land disputes between Houses, at the top of which was Plofer’s Case Studies in Entitlement Conflicts Among the Great Houses Volume I. His mother, at a small table, had before her the ledgers pertaining to the fishing boats and harvests.
As Eremit entered, his father looked up. “Ah,” he said. “My dear son. I perceive you have arrived. And my soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Livosha, I trust she is well? And her family?”
“All very well, my lord papa,” said Eremit.
“And the dinner,” put in his mother. “It was pleasant?”
“It was delightful, my dear lady mama,” said the young man. “But come, I perceive there is something of importance here.”
“And you are not wrong in this,” said Nessit. “Indeed, there is a matter about which, I give you my word, there is no question of joking.”
“But come, my son,” said Sudora. “Sit down in this chair, which we have caused to be brought in, and drink this glass of wine. And then—”
“Yes?” he said, a certain worry creeping over him. “And then?”
“Why, and then we will speak.”
“Very well, my lady mama, I will of course do as you say, but I beg you to explain quickly, for I am eager to learn the reason for this unusual meeting.”
Eremit sat down and, a glass of wine in his hand, leaned forward so as to be certain not to miss a single word of what was to be said.
His father turned around and looked at his mother, and then they both turned to him. “This is it, then,” said the baron. “We have received word that there may be forces at work conspiring against us.”
“How, conspiring?” said Eremit. “My lord, that is a strong word!”
“It is,” agreed his mother. “And yet, if what we are told is true, well, it is the only word that applies. And you know that, as advocates, we are trained to use the precise word that best fits the meaning we intend to convey.”
“Oh, with that, I am well acquainted. My own reading of the law has, if nothing else, convinced me of the absolute necessity for precision in language.”
“So much the better,” said the baron.
“But, who has formed this conspiracy, and in order to do what?”
“Ah, you wish to know that?” said his mother, with a glance at his father.
“I nearly think I do!”
“Then here it is,” said the baron. “You know who Berwick is?”
“Why, that is the name of the owner of the fishing fleet.”
“You are exactly right. He brings in the fish, we buy the fish, process them, and pass them off to Baroness Cerwin to transport and distribute them.”
His mother coughed gently “It is Berwick who, we are told, is conspiring to take possession of our land, our interests, and even our home.”
“But … are we certain?”
“Certain, my son?” said the baron. “No. It is possible we are deceived. Yet—”
“We have friends,” said the baroness. “That is to say, some of Berwick’s vassals are friends with some of ours, and his vassals, it seems, have little love for him, and so it was reported to us.”
“It may be wrong,” said Eremit, who was unwilling to believe in such treachery.
“It may,” said his father. “And yet, what if it is not?”
“But, what can we do?”
“Ah, as to that…” said his mother, with a worried look at her husband.
“Yes, as to that?”
The baron cleared his throat. “My son, we must send you on a mission.”
Copyright © 2020 by Steven Brust