the lady of han gilen

The Lady of Han-Gilen

Avaryan Rising: Volume II

Judith Tarr

www.bookviewcafe.com

Book View Café Edition
June 25, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-61138-268-6
Copyright © 1987 Judith Tarr

Dedication

To my agent, Jane Butler

For performance above and beyond the call of
duty

ONE

“Elian! Oh, Lady! Elian!”

The Hawkmaster paused in mending a hood and raised an
inquiring brow. Elian laid a finger on her lips.

The voice drew nearer, a high sweet voice like a bird’s.
“Lady? Lady, where
have
you got to? Your lady mother—”

Elian sighed deeply. It was always her lady mother. She
bound off her last stitch and smoothed the crest of feathers thus attached to
the hood: feathers the color of fire or of new copper, rising above soft
leather dyed a deep and luminous green. Flame and green for the ruling house of
Han-Gilen: green to match her much-patched coat, flame no brighter than her
hair.

She laid the hood in the box with the others she had made
and rose. The Hawkmaster watched her. Although he was not mute, he seldom spoke
save to address his falcons in their own wild tongue.

He did not speak now, nor did she. But his eyes held a smile
for her.

oOo

In the mews beyond the workroom, the hooded falcons rested
on their perches. The small russet hunters for the ladies and the servants; the
knights’ grey beauties, each with its heraldic hood; her brother’s red hawk
shifting restlessly in its bonds, for it was young and but newly proven; and in
solitary splendor, the white eagle that came to no hand but that of the prince
her father.

Her own falcon drowsed near her brother’s. Though smaller,
it was swifter, and rarer even than the eagle: a golden falcon from the north.

Her father’s gift for her birth-feast, a season past. It had
been new-caught then; soon it would be ready for proving, that first, free
hunt, when the bird must choose: to come back to its tamer’s hand or to escape
into freedom.

She paused to stroke the shimmering back with a feather. The
falcon roused slightly from its dream, a tightening of talons on the perch, an
infinitesimal turning of the blinded head.

“Lady!"

The mews erupted in a flurry of wings and fierce
hawk-screams. Only the eagle held still. The eagle, and Elian’s falcon, that
opened its beak in a contemptuous hiss and was silent.

The Hawkmaster emerged from his workroom, followed by his
two lads. Wordlessly they set about soothing their charges.

The cause of the uproar paid it no heed at all. She fit her
voice admirably well, plump and pretty, wrinkling her delicate nose at the
scents of the mews and holding her skirts well away from the floor. “Lady, look
at you! What her highness will say—”

Elian had already thrust past her, nearly oversetting her
into the mud of the yard.

oOo

The Princess of Han-Gilen sat among her ladies in a bower
of living green, her gown all green and gold, and a circlet of gold binding her
brows. A delicate embroidery lay half finished in her lap; one of her ladies
plucked a soft melody upon a lute.

She contemplated her daughter for a long while in silence.
Elian kept her back straight and her chin up, but she was all too painfully
aware of the figure she cut. Her coat had been her brother’s; it was ancient, threadbare,
and much too large. Her shirt and breeches and boots fit well enough, but they
stood in sore need of cleaning. She bore with her a faint but distinct odor of
the stables, overlaid with the pungency of the mews.

She was, in short, a disgrace.

The princess released Elian from her gaze to stitch a
perfect blossom. Once the most beautiful woman in her father’s princedom of
Sarios, she remained the fairest lady in Han-Gilen. Her smooth skin was the
color of honey; her eyes were long and dark and enchantingly tilted, with fine
arching brows; her hair beneath its drift of veil was deep bronze with golden
lights.

Her one flaw, the chin that was a shade too pronounced, a
shade too obstinate, only strengthened her beauty. Without it she would have
been lovely; with it, she was breathtaking.

At last she spoke. “We have been searching for you since the
morning.”

“I was riding.” In spite of all her efforts, Elian knew she
sounded sullen. “Then I had an hour with the Hawkmaster. Will you be keeping me
long, Mother? The embassy from Asanion will be arriving today, and Father has a
council just before. He bade me—”

“At your insistence.” The princess’ voice was soft but
unyielding. “He is the most indulgent of fathers. Yet even he would not be
pleased to see you as you are now.”

Elian battled an impulse to straighten her coat. “I would
not attend council in this state, my lady.”

“Let us hope that you would not,” said the princess. “I have
heard that you have done so in garb but little more proper. Breeched and booted,
and at your side a dagger.”

The princess continued her embroidery, each word she spoke
as careful and as minutely calculated as the movements of her needle. “When you
were still a child, I suffered it, since your father seemed inclined to
encourage it. There were some who even found it charming: Han-Gilen’s willful
Lady trailing after her brothers, insisting that she be taught as they were
taught. You learned fighting and hawking and wild riding; you can read, you can
write, you can speak half a dozen tongues. You have all the arts of a Gileni
prince.”

“And those of a princess as well!” Elian burst out. “I can
sew a fine stitch. I can dance a pretty dance. I can play the small harp and
the greater harp and the lute. I have a full repertoire of songs, all charming,
all suitable for a lady’s bower.”

“And some scarcely fit for a guardroom.” The princess set
down her work and folded her hands over it. “My daughter, you have been a woman
for three full years. When I was as old as you, I had been two years a wife and
nigh three seasons a mother.”

“And always,” muttered Elian, “a perfect lady.”

The princess smiled, startling her a little. “Nay, daughter,
I had been a famous hoyden. But I had not so doting a father, nor so lax a
mother. With the coming of my woman’s courses, I had perforce to put on a gown
and bind up my hair and accept the husband my family had found for me. I was
fortunate. He was scarce a decade older than I; he was comely; and he was kind
to me. The man chosen for my sister had been none of those things.”

Elian’s hands were fists. She kept her voice level with an
effort of will, so level that it was flat. “I have another suitor.”

“Indeed,” said the princess with unruffled patience. “One
whom you would do well to treat with something resembling courtesy.”

“Have I ever done any less?”

The princess drew a slow breath: her first sign of temper.
“You have been . . . polite. With utmost politeness you rode
with Lord Uzian the Hunter, and brought back two stags for his every one, and
slew the boar that would have destroyed him. You saved his life; he remembered
an earlier betrothal and departed. When the two barons Insh’ai would have
dueled for your hand, you offered most politely to engage each one and to
accept the one who bested you. You defeated them both, and thus they lost you
with the match. Then I call to mind your courtesy to the Prince Komorion. Lover
of scholarly debate that he was, you engaged him in dispute, demolishing him so
utterly that he retreated to a house of the Grey Monks and forsook all claim to
his princedom.”

“He was more than half a monk already,” Elian said sharply.
“I had no desire to wed a saint.”

“Apparently you have no desire to wed at all.” Elian opened
her mouth to speak, but the princess said, “You are the daughter of the Red
Prince, the Lady of Han-Gilen. Hitherto you have been permitted to run wild,
not only because your father loves you to the point of folly; I too can
understand how sweet is freedom. But you are no longer a child. It is time you
became a woman in more than body.”

“I will wed,” said Elian, speaking with great care, “when I
find a man who can stand beside me. Who will not stalk away in a temper when I
best him; who will be able, on occasion, to best me. An equal, Mother. A king.”

“Then it were best that you find him soon.” The velvet had
fallen aside at last, baring steel. “Today with the embassy of Asanion comes
the High Prince Ziad-Ilarios himself, heir to the throne of the Golden Empire.
He has sent word that he comes not only to propose a new and strong alliance
with Han-Gilen; it would be his great pleasure to seal that alliance by a union
with the Flower of the South.”

Elian had never felt less like a flower, unless it were the
flameflower, that consumed itself with its own fire. “And if it is not my pleasure?”

“I encourage you to consider it.” The princess raised a
slender hand. “Kieri. Escort my lady to her chamber. She will prepare herself
to meet with the high prince.”

oOo

Elian stood stiff and still in a flutter of ladies. They
had bathed her and scented her. Now they arrayed her in the elaborate gown of a
Gileni princess.

A tall mirror cast back her image, mocking her. She had not
been a pretty child: awkward, gangling, all arms and legs and eyes.

But suddenly, as she grew into a woman, she had changed. Her
awkwardness turned to a startling grace, her thinness to slenderness, her
angles to curves that caught many a man’s eye. And her face—her strong-jawed,
big-eyed face, with her mother’s honey skin and her father’s fire-bright
hair—had shaped itself into something much too unusual for prettiness. People
looked and called it interesting; looked again, much longer, and declared it
beautiful.

She glowered at it. Her gown dragged at her; a maid weighted
her with gold and jewels, while another arrayed her hair in the fashion of a
maiden, falling loose and fiery to her knees. Gently, with skillful hands, a
third lady began to paint her face. Rose-honey for her lips, honey-rose for her
cheeks, and a shimmer of gilt around her eyes.

A low whistle brought her about sharply, winning a hiss of
temper from the maid with the brushes.

Elian’s glare turned to laughter and back to a glare again
as her brother fell to his knees before her. “Ah, fairest of ladies!” he cried
extravagantly. “How my heart longs for you!”

She cuffed him; he swayed aside, laughing, and leaped to his
feet. He was tall and lithe, and as like to her in face and form as any man
could be. Unlike most men of the Hundred Realms, who reckoned their beards a
deformity and shaved or plucked them into smoothness, he had let his own grow
to frame his face. It made him look striking, rakish, and more outrageously
handsome than ever.

“And all too well you know it,” said Elian, tugging at it.


Ai,
woman! You
have a hard hand. And you so fair the god himself would sigh after you. Are you
setting yourself to melt the hearts of Father’s whole council?”

“If Mother has her way,” Elian said grimly, “I’ll win a
better prize than that. Prince Ziad-Ilarios is coming to have a look at the
merchandise.”

Halenan’s laughter retreated to his eyes. “So I’ve heard. Is
that why your anger is fierce enough to set me burning even in my lady’s
chamber?”

“Little help you need there,” she said.

He grinned. “I find marriage more than congenial. Even after
five years of it.”

“Don’t you?” She thought of his two sons, and of his lady in
her bower awaiting in milky calm the advent of their sister.

A love match, that had been, and it had startled most of
Han-Gilen; for his bride was neither a great lady nor a great beauty, but the
broad-hipped, sweet-faced, eminently sensible daughter of a very minor baron.
That good sense had taken her quite placidly from her father’s minute holding
to the palace of the Red Prince’s heir, and kept her there through all the
murmurings of the court, as the high ones waited in vain for her handsome
husband to tire of her.

With a sharp gesture Elian dismissed her ladies. As the last
silken skirt vanished behind the door, she faced her brother. “You know why I
can’t do as Mother is asking.”

“I know why you think you can’t.”

“I gave my word,” she said.

“The word of a child.”

“The word of the Lady of Han-Gilen.”

He raised his hands, not quite as if he wanted to shake her.
“Lia, you were eight years old.”

“And he was fifteen,” she finished for him, with very little
patience. “And he was my brother in all but blood, and people were plenty who
said he was that too, because no man could be the son of a god, least of all
the son of the Sun. And whether he was half a god or all a man, he was heir by
right to a barbarian kingdom, and when the time came, he went to claim his own.
He had to go. I had to stay. But I promised him: My time would come. I would go
to fight with him. Because his mother left him a kingdom, but his father begot
him to rule the world.”

Halenan opened his mouth, closed it. Once he would not have
been so kind. Once he would have said what he could not keep from thinking.

The thinking was cruel enough between them who were mageborn
and magebred. To Mirain their foster brother, son of a priestess and a god,
great mage and warrior even in his youth, Elian had been the merest infant: his
sister, his shadow, trailing after him like a worshipful hound. Wherever he
was, she was sure to be.

It was certain proof of his parentage, a wag had said once.
Who but a god’s son could endure such constant adoration?

And now he was a man grown, king in distant Ianon and
raising legends about his name. If he even remembered her, it would not be as a
woman who kept her word; it would be as a child who had wept to lose her brother,
and sworn a child’s heedless oath, more threat than promise.

“What will you do?” Halenan pricked at her. “Join his harem
in Han-Ianon?”

“He has slaves enough,” she snapped, the sharper for that
her cheeks had caught fire. “I will fight for him, and wield my magery for him,
and be free.”

“And if he has changed? What then, Lia? What if he has gone
barbarian? Or worse, gone all strange with the god’s power that is in him?”

“Then,” she said with steadiness she had fought for, “I will
make him remember what he was.”

Halenan set his hands on her shoulders. She came perilously
close to laughing. Even in the utmost of exasperation, he took care not to
rumple her gown. That much, husbandhood had done for him.

He glared at her, but half of it was mirth. “Little sister,
tell me the truth. You do all of this simply to drive the rest of us mad.”

“I do it because I can do nothing else.”

“Exactly.” He let her go and sighed. “Maybe after all you
should go to Mirain. He could make you see sense when no one else could.”

“I will go when it is time to go.”

“And meanwhile, you turn away suitor after suitor, and
refuse adamantly to tell even Father why you do it.”

“You don’t, either.”

“I keep my promises.” Their eyes met; his wavered the merest
fraction. He rallied with a flare of Gilen temper. “Maybe I should. Mother
would see the perfect resolution: a match between you and your oldest love.
With the Hundred Realms for a dowry, and Avaryan’s Throne for a marriage couch,
and—”

She struck him with a lash of power.

It stopped his mouth. It did not stop his mind. He was
laughing at her. He always laughed at her, even when she pricked him to a rage.

“It’s love,” he said, “and absurdity. And maybe
desperation.”

“You never were a match for me.”

He bowed to the stroke, utterly unoffended. “Come now, O my
conqueror. We’re late for council.”

TWO

The high prince Ziad-Ilarios bowed low before the Lady of
Han-Gilen. When he straightened, he stood still, his eyes steady upon her, a
long measuring look that warmed into approval.

She returned it with no expression at all. He was fair even
for a westerner, his hair like hot gold, his eyes as golden as a falcon’s, his
skin the color of fine ivory; though no taller than she, he was deep-chested
and strong, and very good to look on.

Her stare should have disconcerted him; it made him smile, a
remarkably sweet smile, like a child’s. But no child ever had a voice so rich
or so deep. “My lady, you are fairer even than I looked for, with but songs and
painted likenesses to guide me.”

She had a weakness for a fine voice. Grimly she suppressed
it. “Indeed, highness, you flatter me.”

He would not err so far as to bow again. Nor would he oblige
her by speaking as most men did to a lovely woman, as to an idiot child. “I
have an unfortunate flaw, my lady. I tend to speak my mind. You must forgive
me. Should I abase myself at your surpassingly lovely feet?”

Before she knew it, she was laughing. Some people said that
her merriment was like bells; others, that it was much too free for a maiden’s.

They stared now, discreetly enough, to be sure: all her
father’s court, even her father enthroned under his golden canopy with his
princess beside him. He smiled, a softening of his dark stern face.

She looked away, back to her companion. Oh yes, he was a
pleasing young man. She could do far worse than he.

He was smiling again and inviting her, not quite touching
her hand, walking slowly through the glittering throng.

She matched his pace. No one impeded them, though everyone
watched them. “Already they have us wedded,” she said.

He eluded the trap as neatly as if it had never been laid.
“That is the sport of lesser mortals: to make legends of their rulers. Your
legend is fascinating, my lady. In Asanion we cannot decide whether it is a
wonder or a scandal. A princess, yet you have mastered all the arts of
princehood; you challenge your suitors to defeat you in their own chosen
skills, and send them away when you find them wanting.”

“And what is your skill?” she demanded of him.

He shrugged, a minute gesture, barely visible within his
golden robes. “None. Except, perhaps, that of ruling. ‘Kinging it,’ the common
folk would say. I do it rather well.”

“You speak our tongue very well indeed.”

“That is part of it. So much of ruling is in the tongue. Too
much, some might add.”

“Especially here in the Hundred Realms.”

“In the Golden Empire, fully as much. You are eloquent, I am
told, and have the gift of tongues.”

“I like to talk.”

“Why, so do I. But wit is hard to come by, and one cannot
always converse with oneself.”

“I talked a philosopher into the ground once. He sought to
wed me; he wedded with solitude instead.”

“He made a poor choice.”

“Did he? I am thinking of taking a vow, my lord. To take
lovers by the dozen, but never a husband.”

“Surely you would grow weary of constant variety.”

“Do you think I would?” She halted in the midst of the court
and fixed her eyes upon him. “Have you?”

His laughter was as sweet as his smile. “Oh, long since!
Twice ninescore concubines: that is the number allotted to the heir of Asanion.
One for each day of the sun’s year. Alas, I am cursed with a constant nature;
where I take pleasure, there do I most prefer to love. So you see, if I follow
my nature, some few of my ladies are content; the rest either dissolve in tears
or succumb to murderous envy. But if I strive to please them all, I fail
utterly to content myself.”

“So you seek a wife.”

“So I seek a wife. A married man, you see, may free his
concubines.”

“Ah,” she said in something close to delight. “Your motives
are hardly pure at all. I had begun to fear that there would be no flaw in
you.”

“But surely perfection is most unutterably dull?”

“You are not tall. That is a flaw, but one I cannot in
conscience condemn; for you are also beautiful.”

“In Asanion I am reckoned a tall man.”

“And fair?”

“That is not a word we like to use in speaking of men. But
yes, they call me comely. We breed for it.”

“My mother has Asanian blood.” Elian changed tacks abruptly,
fixing him with her most disconcerting stare. “Some said that you would not
come to us; that your borders are beset, and that your father has need of you
there.”

Ilarios was not disconcerted at all. He shifted as rapidly
and as smoothly as she. “He has greater need of Han-Gilen and the Hundred
Realms.” His eyes leveled. They were all gold, like an animal’s, but the light
in them was godly bright. “You know what concerns us.”

“The barbarians in the north.”

“Even so. We have never exerted ourselves to conquer them,
reckoning them little better than savages, too deeply embroiled in their own
petty feuds to unite against us. So they should have remained. But they have
spawned a monster, it seems. A chieftain—he calls himself a king—who seized the
throne of one of the northern provinces—”

“Ianon,” she murmured.

“Ianon,” he agreed with a swift glance. “He usurped its
throne, gathered its clans, and proceeded to do the same to its neighbors. It
was easier than it might have been. He rode—rides still, for the matter of
that—under the banner of the Sun-god; his father, so he claims, is the god
himself, his mother—”

He broke off. For once, Elian could see, his ready tongue
had led him further than he liked to go.

She led him to the end of it. “His mother was a priestess, born
in Ianon but raised to the greatest eminence of her order: high priestess of
the Temple of Avaryan in Han-Gilen. In addition to which, she was prophet of
the realm, and bound in close friendship with its prince.” She smiled, closing
in for the kill. “Tell me more of her son.”

“But surely—” He stopped. His eyes knew what she did, and
dared to guess why. They flickered as a hawk’s will, veiling just perceptibly.
Calmly he said, “Her son appeared in Ianon some few summers past. He was little
more than a child then; he is, so they say, very young still. But he is a
skilled general, for a barbarian, and he has a knack of gathering men to
himself. Hindered not at all by the parentage he claims and the destiny he has
revealed to any who will listen. The world is his, he proclaims. He was born to
rule it.”

“Simply to rule it?” asked Elian.

“Ah,” said Ilarios, “he says that it is not simple at all.
He is the trueborn heir of Avaryan, the emperor foretold, the Sword of the Sun;
he will bring all the world under his sway, and cast down the darkness and bind
it in chains, and found an imperishable empire.”

“He says? Have you spoken with him?”

“Would the son of the Sun deign to speak with a mere high
prince of Asanion?”

She regarded him sidelong. “If he were anywhere within reach
of you, he might.”

“Soon he may be. However mad his ambitions may be, his
generalship is entirely sane. With an army no larger than the vanguard of our
own, he has set all the north under his heel. Since winter loosed its hold, he
has begun to threaten our northern satrapies. We suspect that, should he fail
there, he will move east and south into the Hundred Realms.”

“We in turn suspect that he will move first against us,
thinking to forge an alliance, and with our strength to advance on Asanion.”

“So he might,” Ilarios said. “And so I am here, rather than
in the north of the empire. We have much more to fear from a barbarian allied
with you than from a barbarian alone.”

“That would be a deadly joining, would it not? A hundred
realms, a hundred quarrels, we say here, but at need we can band together. Not
easily, not for long, but long enough to drive back any enemy. The Nine Cities,
the last time. I was very young, but I remember. Have you ever fought in a
war?”

He seemed no more disturbed by this latest barb than by
anything else she had said. “There has been no war since I was a child.”

“But if there had been?”

“I would have fought in it. The heir of the empire commands
its armies.”

“The Sunborn has been a warrior since his childhood. He
rides always in the van, with scarlet cloak and plume lest anyone fail to know
him. And under him a demon in the shape of a black charger, fully as terrible
in battle as its master.”

For the first time, Prince Ilarios frowned. “He is a demon
himself, they say, a mighty sorcerer, a shapeshifter who may choose to be seen
as a giant among his northern giants, or as a dwarf no taller than a nine days’
infant. But in his own flesh he is nothing to look at, little larger than a
child, with no beauty at all.”

“What, none?”

“So I have heard.”

Ehan looked at him, head tilted. “You would be delighted if
he were hideous, would you not?”

“Women sigh at the thought of him. Young, barbarian, and
half a god—how wonderful. How enchanting.”

“How utterly exasperating. You, after all, were born to be
emperor; if you become a great conqueror, you but do as your fathers have done
before you. Whereas this upstart has but to gather a handful of mountain tribes
and he becomes a mighty hero.”

“Who is blasphemous enough to name Avaryan his father. They
call him An-Sh’Endor: God-begotten, Son of the Morning.” Ilarios sighed and let
his ill temper fade. “He vaunts; but more to the point, he conquers. Much to
our distaste. We prefer our world as it is, and not as some young madman would
have it.”

“Oh, yes, he is mad. God-mad.” She smiled, but not at
Ilarios. “His birthname is Mirain. He was my foster brother. One morning before
dawn he left us. I saw him go. I like to think I helped him, though what could
a small girlchild do when her brother would leave and her father would have him
stay? except follow him and get in his way and try not to cry. The last thing
he did was cuff me and tell me to stop my sniffling, and promise to come back.”
And the last thing she had done was to swear her great oath. But that was no
matter for this stranger’s pondering.

This stranger had clearer eyes than any outlander should
have, and he no mage nor seer, only a mortal man. They rested level upon her,
and they granted no quarter. “Ah,” he said, soft and deep. “You were in love
with him.”

She met stroke with stroke. “Of course I was. He was all
that was wonderful, and I was eight summers old.”

“Yet now you are a woman. I can make you an empress.”

Her throat had dried. She defied it with mockery. “What,
prince! A barbarian queen over the Golden Empire? Could your people endure the
enormity of it?”

“They will endure whatever I bid them endure.” He was all
iron, saying it. Then he was all gold as he smiled at her. “Your high heart
would not be content with the place of a lesser wife, however honored, however
exalted. Nor would I set you so low.”

“Nor would Mirain,” she said, reckless. “I knew him once.
You, I do not know at all.”

“That can be remedied,” he said.

She looked at him. She was shaking. She stiffened, angrily,
and made herself toss her head. “Ah! Now I see. You are jealous of him.”

He smiled with all the sweetness in the world. It was
deadly, because there was no malice in it. “Perhaps. He is a dream and a
memory. I am here and real and quite royal, though no god sired me. And I know
that I could love you.”

“I think,” she said slowly, “that I could . . .
very easily . . .”

He waited, not daring to move. But hope shone in his eyes.
Splendid eyes, all gold. He was beautiful; he was all that a woman could wish
for, even a princess.

Except.
Except.
She curtsied, hardly knowing what she did, and fled blindly.

oOo

The nightlamp was lit in her chamber. Her ladies flocked
about her; she tore herself free and bolted her door against them all.

She flung off her robes and her ornaments and scoured the
paint from her face. It stared from her mirror, all eyes, with the wildness of
a trapped beast.

A trap, yes. This one was most exquisitely baited. So fair a
young man; he spoke to her as an equal, and looked at her with those splendid
eyes, and promised her a throne.

And why not? asked a small demon-voice, deep in her mind. Only
a fool or a child would refuse it.

“Then I am both.” She met her mirrored glare. Either she
would accept this prince and ride off with him to Asanion, splendid in the
robes of an empress-to-be. Or—

Or.

Mirain.

Her throat ached with the effort of keeping back a cry. It
had all been so simple, all her life mapped and ordained. A childhood of
training and strengthening; and when she became a woman, she would ride to take
her place at Mirain’s right hand. Her suitors had been a nuisance, but easy enough
to dispose of: not one was her equal. Not one could make her forget her oath.

Until this one. It was not only a fair face and a sweet
voice. It was the whole of him. He was perfection. He was made to be her lover.

“No,” she gritted to the air. “No. I must not. I have
sworn.”

You have sworn. Do you intend ever to fulfill it? Behold,
here you stand, a legend in your own right, acknowledged a master of the arts
of princes: why have you never gone as you vowed to go?

“It was not time.”

It was no vow. You will never go. It would be folly, and
well you know it. Better far to take this man who offers himself so freely, and
to submit as every woman must submit to the bonds of her body.

“No,” she said. It was a whisper, lest she scream it. Not
that Ilarios would bind her. That he could, so easily; and that her word had
bound her long ago.

If she lingered, she was forsworn, surely and irrevocably.
If she left, she lost Ilarios. And for what? A child’s dream. A man who by now
had become a stranger.

Her eyes darted about. At her familiar chamber; at her gown
flung on the floor; at her mirror. At her reflection in its shift of fine
linen, boy-slim but for the high small breasts.

Her hair was a wild tangle, bright as fire. She gathered it
in her hands, pulling it back from her face. Her features were fine but strong,
like Halenan’s when he was a boy.

Prettiness, never. But beauty all too certainly. And wit.
And royal pride. She cursed them all.

Prince Ilarios would remain for all of Brightmoon’s cycle. A
scant hour with him had all but overcome her. A month . . .

Her dagger lay on the table, strange among the bottles of
scent and paint, the little coffers of jewels, the brushes and combs and
ointments. A man’s dagger, deadly sharp, Hal’s gift for her birth-feast.
Freeing one hand from her hair, she drew the blade.

For the honor of her oath.

The bright bronze flashed toward her throat, and veered. One
deft stroke, two, three. Her hair pooled like flame about her feet. A stranger
stood in it, a boy with a wild bright mane hacked off above his shoulders.

A boy with a definite curve of breast.

She bound it tight and flat and hid it beneath her leather
riding tunic. Breeched and booted, with sword and dagger at her belt and a
hunter’s cap over her hair, she was the image of her brother in his youth, even
to the fierce white grin and the hint of a swagger.

She swallowed sudden, wild laughter. If her mother knew what
she did now, woman grown or no, she would win a royal whipping.

oOo

Han-Gilen’s palace was large, ancient, and labyrinthine.
When she was very young, she had managed with her brothers to find passages no
one else knew of.

One such opened behind an arras in her own chamber. She had
used it once before, for it led almost directly to the postern gate, and near
it a long-forgotten bolthole: when Mirain eluded the prince’s guardianship to
vanish into the north.

Now she followed him, lightless as he had been then, cold
and shaking as she had been when she crept in his wake. In places the way was
narrow, so that she had to crawl sidewise; elsewhere the ceiling dipped low,
driving her to hands and knees.

Dust choked her; small live things fled her advance. More
than once she paused. She could not do this. It was too early. It was too late.

She must. She said it aloud, startling the echoes into
flight. “I
must.

Her shorn hair brushed her cheek. She tossed it back, set
her jaw, and went on.

oOo

With Asanion’s prince in the city, even the postern gate
was guarded. Elian crouched in shadow, watching the lone armed man. From where
he stood with a cresset over his head, he commanded the gate and a goodly
portion of the approach to it, and the hidden entrance to the bolthole.

Despite the obscurity of his post, he was zealous. He kept
himself alert, pacing up and down in the circle of light, rattling his sword in
its scabbard.

Elian caught her lower lip between her teeth. What she had
to do was forbidden. More than forbidden. Banned.

So was all she did on this mad night.

She drew a cautious breath. The man did not hear. Carefully
she cleared her mind of all but the need to pass the gate. More carefully
still, she lowered her inner shields one by one. Not so much as to lie open to
any power that passed; but not so little as to bind her strength within,
enclosed and useless.

Thoughts murmured on the edge of consciousness, a babel of
minds, indistinguishable. But one was close, brighter than the rest.

Little by little she enfolded it. Rest, she willed it. Rest
and see. No one will pass. All is quiet; all remains so. All danger sleeps.

The man paused in his pacing, hand on hilt, immobile beneath
the torch. His eyes scanned the circle of its light.

They saw nothing. Not even the figure that left the shadows
and passed him, walking softly but without stealth. Shadow took it; his mind,
freed, held no memory of captivity.

oOo

At the end of darkness lay starlight and free air. But a
shape barred the way.

So near to escape, and yet so far. Elian’s teeth bared; she
snatched her dagger.

Long strong fingers closed around her wrist, forcing the
weapon back to its sheath. “Sister,” said Halenan, “there’s no need to murder
me.”

Fight him though she would, he was stronger; and he had had
the same teachers as she. At length she was still.

He let her go. She made no attempt to bolt. Her eyes caught
his, held.

He would weaken. He would let her pass. He would—

She cried out in pain.

His voice was soft in the gloom. “You forget, Lia.
Mind-tricks succeed only with the mind-blind. Which I am not.”

“I won’t go back,” she said, low and harsh.

He drew her out of the tunnel into the starlight. Brightmoon
had risen; though waning, it was bright enough for such eyes as theirs. He ran
a hand over her cropped hair. “So. This time you mean it. Did the Asanian repel
you as strongly as that?”

“No. He drew me.” Her teeth rattled; she clenched her jaw.
“I won’t go back, Hal. I can’t.”

He lifted a brow. She pressed on before he could begin anew
the old battle. “Mirain is riding southward. I’ll catch him before he enters
the Hundred Realms. If he means us ill, I’ll stop him. I won’t let him bring
war on our people.”

“What makes you think you can sway him?”

“What makes you think I can’t?”

He paused, drew a sharp breath, let it go. “Mother will be
more than displeased with you. Father will grieve. Prince Ilarios—”

“Prince Ilarios will press for the alliance, because he
stands in dire need of it. Let me go, Hal.”

“I’m not holding you.”

He stepped aside. Beyond him a shadow stirred, moving into
the moonlight. Warm breath caressed Elian’s cheek; her own red mare whickered
in her ear.

She was bridled, saddled. On the saddle Elian found a
familiar shape: bow and laden quiver.

Tears pricked. Fiercely she blinked them away. Halenan stood
waiting; she thought of battering him down.

For knowing, damn him. For helping her. She flung her arms around
him.

“Give Mirain my greetings,” he said, not as lightly as he
would perhaps have liked. “And tell him—” His voice roughened. “Tell the damned
fool that if he sets foot in my lands, it had better be as a friend; or god’s
son though he be, I’ll have his head on my spear.”

“I’ll tell him,” she said.

“Do that.” He laced his fingers; she set her foot in them
and vaulted lightly into the saddle. Even as she gathered the reins, her
brother was gone, lost in the shadows of the tunnel.

THREE

Once Elian had begun, she did not look back. With
Brightmoon on her right hand, she turned her face toward the north.

She kept to the road, riding swiftly, trusting to the dark
and to her mare’s sure feet. Lone riders were common enough in peaceful Han-Gilen:
travelers, messengers, post-riders of the prince. Nor yet did she look for
pursuit. Halenan would see to that.

The first light of dawn found her in the wooded hills,
looking down from afar upon her father’s city. The night flame burned low on
the topmost tower of the temple of the Sun. She fancied that she could hear the
dawn bells, and the high pure voices of the priestesses calling to the god.

She swallowed hard. Suddenly the world was very wide and the
road was very narrow, and there was only captivity at either end of it. East,
west, south—any of them would take her, set her free.

The mare fretted against a sudden tightening of the reins.
Abruptly Elian wheeled her about, startling her into a canter.

Northward, away from the Asanian. Northward to her oath’s
fulfilment.

oOo

By sunrise the mare had slowed to a walk. Hill and wood
lay between Elian’s eyes and the city; she drowsed in the saddle.

The mare stumbled. Elian jolted into wakefulness. For an
instant, memory failed her; she looked about wildly. The senel had halted in a glade,
and finding no resistance, begun to graze.

Elian slid to the ground. A high rock reared above her, with
a stream leaping down the face of it and a pool at its foot.

The mare stepped delicately into the water, ruffled it with
her breath, and drank. After a moment Elian followed her. First she took off
the mare’s bit and bridle, then the saddle; then she lay on her face by the
pool, drinking deep.

The mare nibbled her hair. She batted the dripping muzzle
aside, and laughed as water ran down her neck.

With sudden recklessness she plunged her head into the pool,
rising in an icy spray. All thought of sleep had fled; hunger filled its place.

Her saddle pouches were full, every one. She found wine,
cheese, new bread and journey-bread, fruit and meat and a packet of honey
sweets.

At the last she laughed, but with a catch at the end of it.
Who but Hal would have remembered that gluttonous passion of hers?

“He knows me better than I know myself.”

The mare, rolling in the ferns, took no notice of her. She
ate sparingly and drank a little of the wine. The sun was warm on her damp
head. She lay back in the sweet-scented grass and closed her eyes.

The dream at first was sunlit, harmless. A woman walked in a
garden under the sun. She wore the plain white robe of a priestess in the
temple of Han-Gilen, her hair braided down her back, a torque gleaming golden
at her throat. There was a flower in her hair, white upon raven.

She turned, bending with rare grace to pluck a second
blossom, and Elian saw her face. It was a striking, foreign face, eagle-keen
and very dark, the face of a woman from the north. On her breast lay the golden
disk of the High Priestess of Avaryan.

A child ran down the path, a boy in shirt and breeches that
sorely needed a washing, his hair a riot of unshorn curls. “Mother, come and
see! Fleetfoot had her colt, and he’s all white, and his eyes are blue, and
Herdmaster says he’s demon-gotten but Foster-father says nonsense. I say
nonsense too. There’s no dark in him, only colt-thoughts. Herdmaster wants to
give him to the temple. Come and see him!”