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The Wallmaker's Carol

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Belisaere, Lirael thought--and not for the first time--was large. Really, she had no especial standard of comparison--the largest group of people she'd ever been amongst before the previous summer was the Fifteen Sixty-Eight of the Clayr, when she'd been sent out from the Glacier. To find her destiny, and her place, she understood now, though at the time it had felt like banishment.

"All right?" Nick asked at her elbow, and Lirael swallowed. The crowds of the Frost Fair swirled around her, snow crunching on the frozen surface of Lake Loesaere beneath her boots, and she'd been fighting, all afternoon, a small but distinct clamor of panic down inside her. She wasn't good with crowds; she wasn't good with people, but she was the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, and at the Midwinter Festival, in a time of peace, her duty to her family and to the Kingdom meant that she had to deal with both.

"Yes, thank you," she answered. "Belisaere's just so--"

"Small, I know," Nick answered, and Lirael didn't contradict him, though she'd been about to say the exact opposite. She and Nick had ridden more or less directly from the Perimeter after his handwritten passport and entrance visa had been sorted out with express haste; after only an overnight at the Abhorsen's House they had set out for Belisaere and ridden dawn to dusk for a fortnight to reach the capital in time for the height of the Festival.

There hadn't been much time, or rather much spare energy, for conversation on the road, and at any rate Lirael still felt painfully awkward around Nick; the behaviour of the Border Guards at the Perimeter had made clear that Nick and his family were rather important, in Ancelstierre. Sam had confirmed her suspicion that Nick was something like a Prince, "except not really," he'd added, "because in Ancelstierre they murdered their last King and Queen centuries ago."

But Nick had left all of that behind, to come to the Old Kingdom, and he'd seemed glad enough about it, that first night at the House. "I--I don't expect I'll ever go back," he'd said over dinner, the Charter lights gleaming in his fair hair. "it's not home anymore, not really."

"I think I know what you mean," Lirael had said quietly, barely looking up at him over her wine glass, but enough to see him glance at her, with sudden keen interest.

"You do?" Nick had asked, hesitantly. "But--you're the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, you're like a Minister of state, except you inherit the position, right? How could you--?"

"I wasn't born to it," Lirael answered. "Or--well, of course I was born to it, it goes by blood, but I didn't know that I was born to it. I grew up in the Clayr's Glacier, far to the north. My mother was a Clayr."

"The Clayr?" Nick had asked, curiosity descending over his face, and Lirael had been obliged to recite the Charter rhyme, that every child of five in the Kingdom knew, and then to explain about who the Clayr were and what they did. Most of the time they'd had to talk on their journey to the capital, she'd spent trying to explain about the Old Kingdom, and had found to her embarrassment that she didn't know as much as the Abhorsen-in-Waiting undoubtedly should have.

"Nick! Aunt Lirael!" someone called now, and both of them turned; their friend Prince Sameth, Sameth the Wallmaker as people were already starting to call him, was waving at them from a stall selling meat pies a few yards away. Like Lirael, who wore one of her formal violet surcoats of Clayr's stars crossed with Abhorsen's keys, Sam was wearing his own ruby surcoat of royal towers quartered with Wallmaker's trowels. Neither of them were wearing armor, but both had their swords at their hips, and Lirael's torso was crossed with the bandolier of bells of her office. Peace was well and good, as King Touchstone had reminded Lirael, but there was no point in taking foolish chances. Lirael and Sam's own personal bodyguards were trailing them through the crowds, out of sight but not out of range. She'd been assured that the use of the bodyguard would only be for the duration of her stays in Belisaere.

"Sam!" Nick and Lirael cried, and made their way through the people between them, slowly. Lirael had noticed, but didn't know how to comment on, the fact that people tended to take one look at her surcoat and bells and fall back a few feet, almost unconsciously. She knew, rationally, that they were afraid of Death, and of what came out of it, but she couldn't help but feel that they were afraid of her. It didn't help that most people didn't even bother to look at her face.

"Here, have a meat pie," Sam said when they reached him, putting a steaming pastry into each of their hands. Lirael felt the heat of the pie through her leather gloves, emblazoned like everything else she owned with the star and the key. Her golden hand didn't get cold, or at any rate, it could feel the cold but wasn't impeded by it, but she wore matched gloves anyway. It hadn't stopped the murmurs of Lirael Goldenhand springing up behind her wherever she went. "The Winter Spirits' dance is about to start soon, we should head back up to the Palace after we see the Bird of Dawning."

Nick's face brightened. He really was inexhaustibly curious, which Lirael, when they weren't in danger of their lives, rather liked about him. "And this Bird of Dawning is supposed to represent--"

"The coming of Spring," Sam explained patiently. "Traditionally, whoever dances the Bird at Midwinter is supposed to dance the part at Midsummer too, when Spring departs, but--"

"There was no Midsummer Festival this year, was there?" Lirael asked, and Sam shook his head.

"No," he said quietly, and then, with rather forced cheer, continued, "Which is good, really, because I don't know that my shins would have survived the bruising."

"Your shins?" Nick frowned. "Are you saying that you danced the Bird last year, Sam? I've seen you in Etiquette class, old man, you've got two left feet at the best of times."

"Yes, I danced the Bird, badly," Sam replied, grimacing. "It's traditional for spare royalty to take the part, if they're available." He cut his eyes to Lirael. "You're part of the royal family, but since you're the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, and that takes precedence, you'll probably get out of it."

"I don't have any royal blood, anyway," Lirael said, self-conscious and conscious of Nick's eyes on her. "It's only your parents' courtesy--"

"Lirael," Sam said, touching her hand. "You are family, royal blood or not."

 

It was traditional for the Six Spirits and the Bird to dine with the royal family after the Winter Dance, and so Sam, Lirael, and Nick, after the sun had set, found themselves in one of the Palace's more informal dining rooms, dressed in formal clothes. Nick had brought almost nothing with him from Ancelstierre, partly because he hadn't planned to make the journey and partly because most machine-made objects fell apart north of the Wall, so he was dressed in clothing that Lirael's sendings at the House and then Sam's parents had provided for him. Dressing for dinner was something entirely different in the Old Kingdom, and Nick couldn't help but tug at his tunic nervously, even though everything fit him beautifully.

Really, it wasn't the clothing that made him feel self-conscious, but the fact that he was so painfully out of place, even as he knew that he was, now, much more where he belonged than at any point since last summer, when the Dog had sent him back into Life. He didn't have a place; there was no plan for him, not like there had been a plan for Lirael and Sam, the way they had been needed to save the world. He would have to make it himself, and though Nick was, on the whole, confident that in the end he could do so, just at the moment--perpetually a little colder than he liked, conscious of his Corvere accent and his Ancelstierran mannerisms and his privileged habits in ways he'd never known before--the thought of all that work was rather dispiriting.

It didn't help that every Charter mage he met kept shooting him sidelong glances, as though he were about to sprout fangs or something horrid at the drop of a hat, and that Lirael barely seemed to be willing to give him the time of day. Nick still had her letter from the late summer in his wallet, which had survived the crossing because it was handmade, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to take it out. He hadn't realized, south of the Wall, just how exalted her office was, and the rank that went along with it: people glanced at each other and got out of her way, through an unmistakable combination of deference and fear, whispers of Goldenhand and Abhorsen-in-Waiting and the Abhorsen's half-sister wafting along in her wake.

Nick was used to seeing deference in people around him, but directed at him; here, whatever respect he was getting seemed to be due to the company he kept, Lirael's and Sam's--for Sam was not just a Prince but a Wallmaker, which Nick knew now was far more important than just being a king's son, even in a Kingdom that had had no king for two hundred years. Something to do with Charter Stones, and Charter magic, and creating things; Lirael had explained it to him, but he hadn't understood terribly well. He'd have to swallow his pride and ask her again, if they ever had another free moment together.

At least the dinner was all right, although Sam's parents, King Touchstone and Queen Sabriel, the Abhorsen, and Sam's sister Ellimere did most of the talking with the dancers. Sam, somewhat to Nick's surprise, rose to the occasion marvelously, accepting the dancers' ribbing about his fumbling performance of the year before with good grace. Lirael and Nick, seated towards the foot of the table, near Queen Sabriel, didn't say as much, although Ellimere and Sabriel in particular made efforts to draw Lirael into conversation. Nick had been brought up to make a good showing of himself in society, but he had no idea what people talked about in the Old Kingdom, and even if he'd known what to discuss he'd have had no idea what to say. It was…humbling, and Sayres of Ambere Court were not accustomed to feeling humble.

At last, after the final course, King Touchstone stood to bid the dancers goodnight, and everyone in the room rose with him to take their leave. Nick was about to follow the dancers when he felt Queen Sabriel's hand on his forearm. She had a very powerful grip. "Stay, Nicholas Sayre," she told him firmly, looking into his eyes. Her voice was low for a woman, and her dark gaze seemed very grave indeed. She wore the features that on Lirael looked more gravely pretty with an air of sober competence. "We're not finished yet."

"Sorry," Nick said hastily, and resumed his seat along with everyone else. With the dancers gone, he was now the only non-royal person at the table, and he felt self-conscious all over again.

Self-conscious, as well as unsettled: it was impossible to deny how much more alive he felt, north of the Wall. The Free Magic in his blood--and there was a lot of it, Lirael had told him, while they'd waited at the Wall--was awake in a way it hadn't been in Ancelstierre. Already the lands to the south were coming to seem like a very pale recollection, or a washed-out dream: there was no magic there.

And to think, until he'd died and been brought back to Life, he'd refused to even consider the possibility of magic existing.

"Well," King Touchstone said, "we are together at last. Let me propose a toast." He waited while everyone obediently took up their glasses, which the servers had refilled. "To family, in thanks that we are able, at last, to be together again."

"To family," everyone murmured, Nick along with them, drinking deeply to hide the sudden ache in his heart, which he knew had to be scrawled across his face. He didn't, practically speaking, really have a family anymore, and at any rate he had never had a family like this--and he'd seen enough of Sam's odd, conscientious family, even over the past few days, to realize just how badly he wanted it.

"And welcome to you, Nicholas Sayre," Touchstone said, turning to look directly at Nick, who blushed. "Sam tells me that you are planning to make your stay in our realm permanent."

"Yes, sir," Nick answered, swallowing. "Er--if that's all right, I mean. It's just that, since last summer, and the Destroyer--I don't belong in Ancelstierre anymore." It didn't bother him, to admit it; it was only a statement of fact. Nick flattered himself that he was rather good at dealing with facts.

"I should think not," Sabriel said, her eyes lingering on his forehead, and the Charter mark that Nick sometimes felt was branded there. "You are a strange one, Nicholas. There is more Free Magic in you than three of the average necromancers, but you are bound by the Charter, and clearly not one of the Dead."

"He's like the bells," Lirael said quietly, glancing at Nick and then away again. "Free Magic, Charter-bound, in service to the Charter."

"Or like Mogget," Sam said, "self-willed, to some extent," and he and Lirael and the King and Queen all exchanged glances.

"Perhaps," Sabriel said lightly, after a moment. "In any event, Nicholas: be welcome in the Old Kingdom. I do not know what your place is, for I suspect you do not have one laid out for you in advance, but I wish you luck in finding it. And to aid you, we have a small welcome gift."

To Nick's surprise, Sam stood up, and produced a narrow, cloth-wrapped bundle from somewhere; had he used magic to conceal it? "This is for you, NIck;" he said, and came around the table and handed it to him. Nick stood up and took it with both hands, unwrapping the cloth carefully.

It proved to be a sword, approximately the length and weight of the ones Nick had seen Sam and Lirael wearing whenever they left the palace. Nick let the cloth fall to his chair and, awkwardly, took the handle of the sword in his right hand and drew out the blade from the scabbard. He had to shift his grip up the scabbard partway through, but the blade, when he drew it, gleamed dully with Charter marks under the lights.

"I can't read it," Nick muttered, embarrassed, for the marks were flickering, rearranging themselves into a message.

Lirael had stood too. "The Wallmaker made me, to test his skill; let me test the skill of my enemies," she read out quietly, and then looked over the blade to Sam, who looked distinctly nervous. "Sam, you made this?"

"I'm just getting the hang of swords," Sam muttered; "yes. Nick--it doesn't have a name. You'll have to make it up for yourself."

"I don't know how to use a sword," Nick said, too pleased and embarrassed to be tactful.

"Well, you'll have to learn," Ellimere said, smiling at him, and Nick, looking at her, was able to smile back. He'd found Ellimere hard to understand, when he'd first met her a few days ago; he wasn't used to women who held their authority so overtly, and Ellimere was only a year older than he, still a little graceless with hers, though by now he liked her well enough. She also played tennis, and Nick had already promised to play her a match when the weather grew warm again.

"The other gift is this," Sabriel said when Nick had set the sword on the table, and drew out a book covered in oilskin. Nick unwrapped the cover: the leather-bound book simply read Almanac, embossed in silver on dark blue. He opened to the title page, and saw that it was an almanac of Old Kingdom/Ancelstierran correspondences, printed in Belisaere.

"These are not precisely common," Sabriel explained, when Nick had looked up from the book. "In point of fact, you are the first person with whom we have entrusted one whose…credentials are less than impeccable. But I am convinced that you should have one, Nicholas. After all," she said, and looked at Touchstone, and her children, and her sister, a smile turning up the corners of her mouth and illuminating her eyes, "all of us play many parts."

 

The dinner lasted an hour or two longer, the royal family and their guest talking leisurely of nothing in particular, enjoying the rare opportunity to be in each other's company. At length, the King and Queen withdrew to their rooms and Ellimere went back to her suite and Sam, Lirael and Nick found themselves with a flagon of mulled wine trailing back to Sam's workshop, on the promise of more detailed explanations of Sam's Charter magics, which Nick admittedly barely understood. He was willing, however, to take Lirael's word on the subject of their absolute brilliance.

One of the guards they passed on the wall--Sam had insisted on taking a shortcut through the bitter cold, leaving them pink-cheeked and bright-eyed when they ducked back into the Palace corridor, a good look on Lirael in particular, Nick thought--was singing softly to himself, some tune that, to Nick, sounded familiar. To his surprise, Sam started humming it too.

I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Winter's day, on Winter's day
I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Winter's day in the morning

"What is that?" he asked, when Sam had ushered them into his workshop and shut the door behind them with a carelessly dispatched Charter mark. "That song? It sounds familiar."

"Oh, you mean the Wallmaker's Carol?" Sam asked, and promptly burst into song:

And what was in those ships oh three,
On Winter's day, on Winter's day?
Oh what was in the ships oh three,
On Winter's day in the morning?

The crown and stars and a silver key,
On Winter's day, on Winter's day,
The crown and stars and a silver key,
On Winter's day in the morning

Sam had been procuring cups from a cabinet; a Charter mark, uttered under his breath, sufficed to set the wine steaming gently when he poured it out and handed it to them; they toasted each other solemnly. "To the new year, and new lives," Sam said, smiling a little, and they drank carefully.

Nick had buckled his nameless sword around his waist before leaving the hall, and had to put down his wine to arrange the thing two-handed so that he could sit on one of the benches, looking around him in wonder. Sam's workshop was a forest of diagrams, notes on Charter marks, Charter marks, bits of what looked like clockwork and bobs of every conceivable odd and end, including a table that seemed to be given over to chunks of various kinds of building materials, covered in faintly gleaming Charter marks.

Lirael was wandering around with enough purpose in her steps that Nick knew she could intuit at least some of what the bric-a-brac was for; about all he could understand was the set of large-scale anatomical drawings tacked up on one wall, studies of hands covered with notes and marks. Her golden hand shone very faintly in the dimness, which steadily abated as Sam called up more Charter lights.

"We sing something very like it in Ancelstierre, at this time of year," Nick said quietly, and took another drink of his wine. "It's just--strange, that's all. They're like separate worlds, normally."

"The barriers are thinner, at this time of year," Sam murmured, looking into his cup. Nick knew he was thinking of Death, and of his fear of it. Sam always thought of his fear, and never of the courage it had taken for him to cross into Death, when it was not his office or his place, to save his friends.

And whither sailed those ships oh three,
On Winter's day, on Winter's day?
Pray whither sailed those ships oh three,
On Winter's day in the morning?

Oh they sailed in to Belisaere
On Winter's day, on Winter's day,
Oh they sailed in to Belisaere
On Winter's day in the morning

Lirael had a fine, clear voice, strong and well-turned; she blushed a little when Nick and Sam turned to stare at her, looking younger and even prettier than she usually did, in Nick's admittedly biased opinion. "We used to sing it, in the Hall of Youth, at Midwinter," she said, under their gaze. "Only Sightless Clayr admit to being that interested in the world beyond the Glacier, of course."

"That's not true," Sam protested. "You saw Sanar and Ryelle--they're Clayr, and they care about the Kingdom as much as Mother and Father do."

"Well, yes, but that's because they're leaders of the Watch, and the Watch's duty is to See," Lirael said, frowning, but she shook her head. "It doesn't matter anyway. I'm of the Clayr by birth, but I'm not one of them. And I am interested in the world beyond the Glacier." This last was said with almost a hint of defiance, but her eyes were fixed on the middle distance, probably seeing the past. Lirael, after all, was a Remembrancer as well as Abhorsen-in-Waiting.

"Belisaere…" Sam repeated thoughtfully, sipping at his wine. "Did you ever think, Nick, that it was odd that your family's surname sounds so much like the name of the capital?"

Nick shrugged. He hadn't given it much thought, because for the first seventeen years of his life he hadn't really believed in the Old Kingdom as an independent reality, and then he'd spent the rest of his time consumed with the idea of going back there, rather than contemplating its geography.

"It means fortress," Lirael said unexpectedly, "Saere-fortress. And Saere means…crown, I think, or king, or something like that." At Sam's raised eyebrow, she shrugged. "I spent a lot of time reading, when I was an Assistant Librarian."

"Our family histories only go back about four hundred years," Nick said thoughtfully. "No one else really seems to have the surname. Old Geoffrey Sayre got himself a Dukedom for winning some very important wars for the King and canoodling with the Queen, and we've been…influential ever since."

"Influential enough to kill your King and Queen, a century or so later," Sam said sardonically. "It's possible that Geoffrey could have been from the Old Kingdom, I suppose. There was a decent amount of commerce between them, before the breaking of the royal line, and the Regency." Before the modern Army, then, and before the Perimeter, though not before the Wall.

"Well," said Nick lightly, "in that case I'm not a total stranger here after all."

"You're not," Lirael said, low, with conviction. "You belong here, Nick. You just haven't figured out where yet."

"She's right," Sam said, over his shoulder, having moved to the table of building materials to poke at the Charter marks on the chunks of rock, grinning at him.

Nick looked at them--his best friend and Lirael, as happy as he'd seen them, unabashedly themselves and glad to have his company--and swallowed everything he wanted to say, about this being the only place he wanted, about how he'd never known how empty his heart was, until he'd realized it was so full. He couldn't live on Sam's parents' charity perpetually, and he couldn't tell Lirael words she wouldn't want to hear, words he'd barely been able to formulate for himself. But he could hope, and plan, and be happy that he had this, had them, that he had begun to find his way home at last.

 

Nick was more tired than he realized; another cup of mulled wine had him drooping, his head lolling on his arms, slumped over one of Sam's worktables. He had no memory of how he got back to his room when he awoke, but he could remember Sam and Lirael, singing in harmony while he dozed:

And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Winter's day, on Winter's day
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Winter's day in the morning

And all the souls in Life shall sing
On Winter's day, on Winter's day
And all the souls in Life shall sing
On Winter's day in the morning!