It was a week after the Brother’s Day, and the skies above Cardegoss were a startling blue. The gods had offered them weather of surpassing loveliness, and the Royina Iselle meant to take advantage of it.
In Valenda, it had never been so simple as saying, “I wish to go riding today,” and doing so. There had been Betriz to collect (though she was always willing); there had been permission to seek, from the warder if they were lucky and from her grandmother the Provincara if they were not; there had been the proper clothes to wear and the proper companions to bring, first one of that long string of governesses and then her odd, hesitant secretary. And even then every decent gallop had to be begged or borrowed or stolen.
One would think, she often thought, it would be a simpler matter now that she was Royina of all Chalion, no longer under the thumb of any man (or woman). Ostensibly. Instead it was worse, if anything; she declared, “I wish to go riding today,” and instantly she was made to deal with a flurry of grooms and guards and attendants. Her horse must be made ready, a process that could take hours due to the head grooms’ notions of what tack and beribbonment best befit a royina’s mount. The guards must be informed of all her intended movements so they could go out and sweep the streets and forest paths for hypothetical dangers, which she was given to understand might range from rodent’s nests hidden in the grass to political assassins plotting an ambush. And then it seemed a suitable chaperone for a royesse well down the line of succession was not at all sufficient for a royina, so there were attendants to be dressed and mounted, and so by the time she’d been gently lifted into her gaudy saddle and handed a bridle so heavy with ornament it was a struggle to feel the horse’s mouth at all, she was so thoroughly hemmed-in by subjects ready to protect her life, limb, and virtue that she could scarcely see the road ahead of her. Galloping was entirely out of the question.
She had noticed that Bergon never seemed to have this problem. He could say, without any real command in his tone, “It’s a fine day for riding,” and before he could so much as draw another breath there was a groom at his elbow to inform him his mount was waiting at the gate. His tack gleamed with the soft glow of well-nourished leather, but beyond that it was strictly utilitarian. His rides might take him wherever he chose in the whim of a moment, and never a complaint from the few guards and Brother’s men who were his only attendants, laughing and cheerful when he wanted their company and fading into the background when he did not. And his gallops were as frequent as he liked.
Iselle was working on this. It was a project of frustrating slowness, for short of dismissing every groom and guard and attendant from her service her only option was to retrain them in their idea of what a royina ought to be. In other words, it was like any other challenge she’d faced thus far in her reign, if on a much smaller scale.
Iselle was working on many things.
With this in mind, she breakfasted early, then wound through the main block of the Zangre to her Chancellor’s study. She found him at his desk, blinking over some correspondence in Darthacan, breadcrumbs clinging to his collar. The slight reddening of the skin beside his lips told her that Betriz had already come and gone.
He rose as she entered, but Iselle lifted her chin to forestall his Good mornings. “Come ride with me, Cazaril.”
He blinked, and then the corners of his mouth were drawn back in a wry smile. “As you will, Royina.”
That settled, she decided to try a tactic she’d not yet employed; she found her husband and dropped a word in his ear. He mentioned to the Brother’s man at his elbow that he’d a mind to take some air, and almost instantly a groom appeared to inform him a horse awaited the Roya’s pleasure.
Iselle and Bergon exchanged what Betriz daily informed her was an equally idiotic pair of besotted smiles, and then Iselle herself went down to the gate, trailing a fluttering crowd of bemused attendants.
He was a fine horse, she thought, and much finer in the sort of tack one expected to see on an energetic young stallion. She’d dressed already in her split riding skirts, and ignoring the shocked murmurs she leapt unassisted into the saddle just in time to see Cazaril leading his own mount toward her.
“Where to, Royina?” he asked.
She drew herself upright, gathering her reins and relishing the eager tug of a fresh mouth against the bit. “Out past the town,” she said, letting her voice carry to the men standing uncertainly around them. “I’ll be given my head today, Chancellor.”
There was that same wry smile. “So I see.”
She saw with approval that Cazaril mounted easily and without assistance, noted with pleasure that he was easy in the saddle as they trotted down the winding path from the Zangre, and by the time they reached the clear road into the forest she was so far assured of his recovery to urge her horse into a long, rocking canter. Urge was perhaps the wrong word; he leapt forward under her hand at the slightest touch of her heel against his flank, and she had to keep a taut bridle to keep his high, arched neck from stretching into a gallop. The Brothers’ men rode ahead and behind, but discreetly and without checking their pace; and only Cazaril rode beside her.
“Is this all?” he called, just a touch breathless. “Give you your head, and you turn into a proper young gentlewoman?”
She smiled into the wind and let a little rein slip through her fingers, let her hands move forward to give the horse all the freedom he liked. And, oh, he did like. She could lose herself in this, the crisp autumn air and the power of the muscles rolling beneath her, the curves of the forest path eaten beneath pounding hooves.
At length she drew rein, and only then did she become aware that she had left the others entirely behind. Her horse slowed with reluctance into an easy canter, then a long and sloping trot, and it was not until she had come back to a gentle walk that they caught her up. The stone-faced outriders hurried back into formation, looking somewhat embarrassed. Cazaril came puffing up beside her. He, at least, did not seem to mind.
“Five gods, Royina!” he wheezed, breathless now from laughter as much as from exertion. “I’d forgotten what it’s like to ride after you.”
That made her think again of Valenda, where he had been so careful. She could barely recognise him now for the rider she’d seen then, straight and comfortable in the saddle with golden light playing across his smiling, shaven face. “I don’t suppose you’re about to tell me I’ll be thrown and break my neck, Chancellor.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” he said, grinning more widely. She decided she liked to see him grin. “And I may not have the god-sight any longer, but I hardly need it to tell the gods have something other in mind for you than a reign cut short by a careless accident.”
The smile faded from her lips, and she cocked her head at him in curiosity. “Do you miss it, Caz?”
His face settled into a frown, and this at least was perfectly familiar from those early days, even without the beard crinkling around his mouth. “It’s a relief to be rid of it.”
“That is not an answer,” she said.
“And who taught you semantics?” he asked, a little tartly. It had been some time since he’d used that tone on her. She’d have to train him back into it, she saw, and added that to her mental list of domestic reforms. He tilted his head a little. “I don’t miss the weight of it,” he said at last. “There are times I feel I could float away, and I don’t know whether I want to be anchored down or not. But there are other anchors than sainthood, I find.” That, with a sideways look at her. “And that was like lead lining the bones, Royina. You could be crushed under it. No, I don’t miss that.”
“And the Daughter?” she asked, greatly daring. “She touched you, Caz. Reached right through you.” Iselle thought of her own brief encounter with that grace, of the sudden release of terror in the night before her almost-wedding, and wondered how close that had come to his experience. Not at all, to judge by what had lingered about him in the days after.
A ghost of that otherworldliness flickered in his eyes, then faded. He shook his head. “And I’ll hardly forget it. She’s left a mark, a—a longing, you could say, but not an urgent one. She’ll wait, now, to gather me in. The gods are infinitely patient. When they choose to be,” he added, and she considered the evidence of their impatience, of the scars she’d seen across his back and the lines she’d seen traced across his face in that time between Dondo’s death and dy Jironal’s.
His thoughts must have tended in the same direction, because his face had darkened. He caught her watching him and shook himself out of it. “Royina, did you bring me here to discuss theology?”
“Wait a moment, you’ll see.” They were approaching a bend in the road, and after another moment they came to the part of the wood where Cardegoss’s smaller stream joined the river. She drew rein once again, this time coming fully to a stop. Cazaril followed suit. They both craned their necks to take in the Zangre up on its perch, looking in this early autumn light much as it had a year before. She had been so eager, then, and Cazaril so wary, though in her excitement she had scarcely noticed his reactions or given credence to his fears. Much as, later, she had been so wrapped in larger concerns that it had taken the March dy Palliar to bring his illness to her attention. Her grandmother had always taught her that a lady was responsible for her own household, but Iselle had not always borne this in mind; another lesson for her reign, writ small.
She frowned up at the fortress, choosing her words with care. “While you were gone, I began to contemplate Motherhood.”
His gaze fell sharply back to earth, first startled, then hopeful. “Royina, are you—”
She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean.” Though, perhaps, not before too long—but that was a conversation for another time. “I’ve been thinking of the Mother’s gifts. Healing, you see, and the creation of new things. And—” Her lips curved involuntarily. “And housekeeping.”
He was watching her with care. “I see, Royina.”
“Do you?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I will take our borders back from the Roknari, Cazaril, and I will see Chalion-Ibra brought to a peaceful union in my reign. I intend to cast my nets both wide and deep.” She was learning the language of the sea from her Ibran husband, and she found it suited her sense of scope. “But I will not look outward at the expense of what I already have, and I will not neglect my closer duties. I learned that, if nothing else, from my brother’s failures. There’s work to be done in Chalion, too, and I will start with that nearest to home.”
She flung out one hand to take in the whole of Cardegoss, then raised it to point one firm finger at the Zangre, remote and forbidding.
“I want you to rebuild it for me, Cazaril,” she said. “I want to remake it, brick by brick.”
He looked at her, startled, and then his face relaxed. His eyes did not. “You don’t mean that literally.”
She laughed. “There are limits to my ambition, Caz.”
“I’ve yet to find them.”
Absurdly pleased, she held back another smile. “I mean it, though. Dy Jironal was not the only ill plaguing Chalion. You know that as well as anyone, I think.”
He was nodding slowly. “Yes, there is a good deal of work to be done.”
“And I know just the man to do it.” He pursed his lips, but, again, she did not wait for his reply. “Where shall we start?”
Cazaril’s horse shifted under him, and he put one calming hand to its neck, frowning all the while. At last he met her eyes again. “The courts are a shambles, Royina. There are good men here and there, but injustice is too much at home in Cardegoss. And elsewhere.” Again, she wondered if his thoughts were following hers, this time to the corrupt judge in Valenda. Had that, too, only been a little more than a year before? Gods, but she had had a great deal to learn.
“Judicial reform is no small task,” she said. With relish. He winced.
“That is a life’s work in and of itself, Royina.”
“And you should know,” she said easily, “as you’re on your fourth of those already, Cazaril. Very well, we’ll start with the courts. What else?”
“What else? Royina—!”
“Wide and deep, Chancellor,” she reminded him.
He sighed fond exasperation. “What else, indeed. A country to remake….” He trailed off, and she could not tell if he was dubious or merely overwhelmed.
She would prod, then. Gently. “I do mean it, you know. Whatever we decide, we can make it so. I have all Chalion at my back and you out in front. What is it that we need, Cazaril? Surely you want something.”
He looked amused, then thoughtful, and his hand went to his belly in what he probably didn’t realise had become a habitual motion. His mouth quirked. “Since you mention it….”
“I’ve had occasion to do a fair amount of riding in your service.”
That, she thought, was an understatement. “And what did you learn in all this riding?”
He spoke with the fervency of true experience. “That your roads, Royina, are unspeakably vile.”
Oh, that was very good. “How practical of you,” she said happily. “Judicial reform and better roads. Very well; we begin tomorrow.”
He was smiling at her again. “Just like that?”
“Well, not just,” she allowed. “I imagine it will take some time.”
“As much time as the impossible union of Chalion and Ibra?”
Gods spare her from another desperate, headlong rush. “Perhaps even a little longer, Chancellor, and with a little less risk. Or so I dearly hope. But may I count on you in this as well?”
He bowed over the pommel of his saddle. As he straightened, she realised she had been waiting for the wince, the catch of his breath as the pain took him; but no, that was over. He was well, her Chancellor, despite hard use and neglect, and so too would her country be.
“Excellent,” she said, meeting his eyes squarely. “I’m glad of that, Cazaril.” Iselle took the reins back up. “And now, the court will be waiting for us.”
“Eagerly, I’m sure,” he said, sounding less than eager himself. “But perhaps we shouldn’t hurry back.”
She turned her horse back toward the town. “Perhaps not. I think we’ve had enough galloping for one day.” Iselle took up a steady, deliberate pace, and as always he fell in beside her.