Chapter 1: danced in flecked with diamonds
Connor's fingers moved deftly across her back, loosening her corset lacings, opening the clasps of her jewels. "Careful not to snag my hair," Tess said, and Connor laughed.
"Why didn't you ask one of your ladies to do this, if you're so worried?"
"Because I hate banquets, and the last thing I need directly before one is to be fussed over and bothered by some chambermaid who fails to understand that I'm still getting used to court manners and fancy dress. Usually I'd ask Wren, but as she's not here you'll have to do. And don't pretend you've never helped a woman dress - I know several of your sisters very well, after all."
She turned to look at him. He was already elegant in his midnight blue court attire, dark red hair tied back in a neat band at his neck, and she cringed inwardly at the contrast: she'd spent the afternoon riding out with Garian to review the Guard, and her hem and hair were both encrusted with mud. She was sure that she looked less that beautiful, and she felt her face warming with a blush. Connor had more than demonstrated his feelings for her, but some part of her still feared the scathing force of his judgment.
"You needn't worry, you know," he said gently, breath ghosting across her neck as he gathered her hair up and away from the tangling chains. "I left all that up in the mountains."
She didn't bother to ask how he knew - since he'd come back, he knew her innermost thoughts more often than not. It wasn't the same awareness born of long companionship that Wren shared with her, the deep familiarity that allowed her to guess her friend's thoughts with uncanny accuracy. It wasn't even like Wren's scrying gift. Connor just knew, as if she'd spoken aloud the things that she always kept privately bound up inside her own head. It could, at times, be irritating - but usually she found it comforting. "You never told me why," she said to him, "and so I sometimes find it difficult to be entirely sure of you. That is," she corrected herself, "you told us all about the Iyon Daiyin message, and it's been clear enough how you feel about me, but you've never told me what it was made you change your mind on that subject. I remember a time when I was not so attractive to you."
Now he was blushing too, which was rare - Prince Connor Shaltar rarely lost his composure, at least when clothed. When he was not, things were very different. He sighed. "I was wrong, during the war. Wrong about a fair number of things, as my quest so aptly demonstrated to me, but I was mainly wrong in that I expected you to be a Queen, and failed to understand that you also had to be a King. Seeing you here, now, I think I understand a bit better. My sister Astren was a king's wife - and her place in the world was very different from your position. I don't expect that you'll ever marry, for one thing."
"Not unless Wren can be my husband," Tess said wryly, suppressing the inevitable twinge of longing for her too-soon-lost mother. "Though I suppose we'll have to think about it sooner or later. I don't suppose I can bear an heir to my cousin and my magician and Wren, all at once together."
"Don't worry about that. Go wash, and then we shall have to face the rude horde."
"Rude is right. Garian invited Mirlee to stay with him this sixmonth, and I shall have to listen diplomatically to all her wingeing," Teressa lamented. "I do wish that Wren were here. It's scarcely a fair trade. I lose her sense and good humor and overall saneness, and in return I have to play the gracious hostess to Hawk's people, who inevitably quarrel with everybody over anything."
"I know you'd rather have Wren, or Tyron, for that matter. But Idres will see that no trouble comes to them, and frankly I expect they're having a deal more fun than we shall. Neither of them are any good at parties or court manners, which is why they're the perfect emissaries for us to send to Fortress Rhiscarlan. I believe that was your brilliant idea, Your Majesty. You can scarcely complain that they've obeyed you."
Tess giggled. "While you were still - before you came back, I mean, I made Tyron stand up at my side at all the official functions." At Connor's disbelieving look, she said, "Well, I needed someone, and you'd run out on me. Wren couldn't very well do it. At least Tyron possesses a title, though it's not a noble one. But Queen's Magician sounds a lot more impressive than Magic Prentice and Former Ruiner of Pottery."
Connor snorted inelegantly. "She'd like that. But Tyron?"
"Oh, just that I've never in my life seen a more miserable face. You know how when he's uncomfortable his face goes all to triangles? It was doing that. Finally I dismissed the poor dear, and he took off immediately for the corner where he'd hidden his books."
"I'd still rather have them here as not, no matter how much they're enjoying their adventures," Connor said, "but we'll manage well enough. Now go and take your bath, and then I'll help you dress." He kissed her bared neck, and then gave her a little shove toward the porcelain tub.
As Teressa sank back into the lavender-perfumed water, she marveled again at just how wonderful a hot bath could feel. She'd spent her whole young life doing without, and now she found herself occasionally amazed at the sheer comfort of life as a Queen. Of course, plenty of other parts of her new life were less wonderful; the politics and the terrible decisions and the need to speak politely to people she disliked or even hated more than made up for the material benefits of her new station.
Don't fool yourself, Wren said into her mind. You always did like having your hair clean more than was sensible.
Hello, Wren, Tess thought at her lazily, knowing that Wren would understand without the application of any effort on her part. There's nothing odd about liking to be clean, you know.
There is when you like it this much, Wren thought at her amusedly. Heavens, Tess, it makes you happier than kissing!
That's not true, Tess retorted. Not than your kissing, anyway.
She offered Wren an image of herself, painting it in warm pinks and golds, smiling at the thought of her friend's kisses. She couldn't send to Wren herself - she had no gift at all for that kind of mental magic - but she'd learned how to romance her friend in a funny backwards sort of way.
Tess, Wren sent to her, the name expressed in a sort of happy sigh. I miss you. I wish I could be there with you. Wren sent her an unexpectedly plain imagining of the two of them together in a warm bath, both unclad, Wren's round, sturdy body wrapped around Tess's willowy one, and Tess felt heat flood her. I love helping you dress, and undress.
Oh, Wren, don't, Tess begged. I have to be presentable for a formal court supper in not nearly enough time, and if you get me all worked up I shall be terribly distracted, and I'm not nearly good enough yet at this to conceal those kind of feelings. I shall be flushed and flustered any everyone will suspect, and then there will be gossip, and you'll have utterly spoilt me!
Have Connor take care of you, Wren said with a leer. You know he'd love to.
Yes, Tess agreed, but I think we'll wait for after supper for that sort of thing. I want to have enough energy for dancing, after all.
Now I'm all downcast that I shan't get to watch you dancing. You do it so very well, it's like your feet sprout wings or some equally impossible feat of spellwork. I'll be particularly put out if you do the brannel with anyone but me - it's my very favorite. Tyron's off nattering about enchantments with Idres at the moment, so I'm either breaking bread in the common room or eating alone with Hawk! I think I'll have to decline his invitation - any ideas for a suitably grand way of letting him down gracefully?
Do yo really think Hawk would appreciate the grace? Tess asked her. Sometimes I think you get on best with him precisely because you don't have fine court manners. He seems more inclined to trust you - which is as it ought to be, for I trust you more than anyone myself.
Connor's voice, calling from the antechamber, pulled Teressa momentarily away from the magical contact. "Tess, are you nearly finished? We're going to be more than fashionably late if you don't hurry."
"Scrying with Wren," she called back, hearing lazy satiation in her own voice.
"Tell her to make sure Tyron takes the time to have something to eat tonight," Connor said. "He'll get focused on something and end up even bonier."
Go on, Wren, Tess sent mentally. You probably ought to dig Tyron up. He gets too abstracted with none of us nearby, and I don't think I want Idres helping with that particular problem.
Wren didn't answer her in words, but sent her another image, which Tess could tell through the scry she intended as a prediction, of Tyron's tired face smiling in the flickering light of a candle, his mouth red and full with having been well-kissed. Good luck, Tess, and sweet dreams! Wren caroled, and then was gone.
"Here," Connor said, coming into the warm, steam-filled room. "You finish washing, and I'll get started on your hair. You'll have to wear a circlet tonight, because I'll be damned if I'm going to take the time to braid any little tiny finicky ornaments into it. I can put it up well enough, but anything more than that is outside the realm of both my skill and my patience."
Later, at the banquet, Teressa was happy to have the authority contained in that small crown. Nyl Covelan, Garian's toady of old, had taken upon himself the authority he thought Garian had vacated, and spent most of his time harassing whatever personage he might force to obey his whims. Aunt Carlas had been hinting broadly of a betrothal between this eminently eligible young man and her own darling, lemon-faced Mirlee. Tess had privately wished them joy of it, until Tyron had mentioned the possibility of offspring, which was one of the more horrible thoughts he'd ever shared with her.
Her table was not as large as it might have been, but it still managed to contain nearly thirty nobles, each with servants circling them. Each of the factions had its representatives: the supercilious members of the court who remembered her parents' rule more fondly than her own, the young ambitious social climbers, the well-dressed young women of lesser families hunting noble husbands, a pair of visiting dignitaries from Hawk's rebuilt fortress, Aunt Leila as the Siradi advisor to the court, the other masters and high-level prentices from the magic school.
Tess had been doing all right at juggling them, trying to keep Hawk's man from utterly scandalizing the Lady Corenna's aging sensibilities and refereeing several impromptu bullying sessions among the young ladies - a darkly beautiful Lamreci girl with exapnses of flawless milk-chocolate skin on display, who was come but recently to Cantirmoor, was vying with Mirlee for social supremacy. In the process, she was provoking Mirlee herself to new heights of rudeness, as well as causing a fair amount of upset with her own more circumspect manipulations. However, Tess might have made it through the meal unscathed by social failure, had Nyl's voice not risen unfortunately loudly into an ill-timed moment of silence: "...really quite scandalous," he was saying. "Everyone knows that Iyon Daiyin magic is perverse - why else keep it so secret? It's an absolute disgrace, that sort of bad blood in a royal family."
Out of the corner of her eye, Tess saw Connor stiffen, face pale to the lips with what might have been shame, or even anger. She didn't turn to look at him. It was bad enough that everyone knew where Nyl's stiletto had been aimed. She was groping for a response, any response, when the other Rhiscarlan emissary, a tall, broad-framed woman who wore her dark hair in a coronet of infinitely tiny braids, spoke in a voice that crackled like summer lightning: "Be not so swift to dismiss the enchantments that saved your hide but a few scant years ago. Or are you even so young that you cannot recall your own defense and liberation?"
"I'm sure he didn't mean -" Garian prevaricated nervously, shooting his former compatriot a quelling glare.
"He meant exactly what he said," the woman - her name was Yaranis, Tess remembered, and her arched brows were drawn together in anger, her red-brown face flushing darker along her strong cheekbones - said scornfully.
Tess gathered herself. "But he did not speak with the authority of his queen, nor of her kingdom," she declared, drawing hauteur down around herself like a cloak. "Meldrith had publicly proclaimed its dedication to the study and recovery of Iyon Daiyin traits, which position we hold to be vital. We hold clearly the memory of the role played by those same traits in our victory against the false sorcerer Andreus."
Yaranis inclined her head, the spark fading from her black eyes as she accepted the gesture of political support. "You are gracious, Your Majesty. Some of your people are less so."
"May my court and the Rhiscarlan Lands continue, then, to learn from one another." Tess let herself glance over at Connor, and found to her relief that he looked much recovered, and even somewhat pleased by her very public rebuke of Nyl, who slumped, red-faced and chastened, in his well-padded chair. Too many of her nobles, Tess reflected, had escaped the war by retreating back to their own strongholds, living out the time of trouble in protected luxury.
Mistress Leila, eyes dancing, added her coals of fire to the growing heap on Nyl's idiotic head. "Do you know, Teressa, your victory has started quite the fashion in Siradayel. You would not believe the number of people, common and noble, I've heard boasting in the last year about their 'Iyon Daiyin heritage.'" Tess saw her throw a sideways smile at her brother, who pulled a face at her in return.
"It's ridiculous," he said quietly. The soft tone of Connor's voice was not enough to stop the entire table from craning as one to look at him.
"Entirely so," Tess agreed, "but scarcely surprising, for all that. Wren tells me that the girls in the orphanage where my parents concealed me for so many years play make-believe games as themselves now, because being an orphan is just as romantic as being a noble." She could see some of the court women looking at her askance, but she didn't care. She'd decided not to try and hide her humble upbringing; it was a doomed task anyway. Too many people knew that the Rhisadel queen had been raised plainly in a mountain orphanage for her to cover it up with any success. The only path, she'd decided, was to take strength from her past, to treat it as a gift rather than as a secret - and if the ladies of her court did not approve, that was their matter.
After their disapproval, Connor's gaze when she met it was a sudden reprieve, an unexpected shelter. He was looking at her in a way that made her feel, just for a moment, as if they were the only two people in the world, quite erasing the crowded dining hall. "If it's romance they're after, it seems to me that orphan and princess and Iyon Daiyin get are all equally likely to find it," he said.
Her reply was meant to answer his intimacy, but she also pitched her voice to be heard, looking at the sullen courtier, the commanding emissary, the scandalized dowager. "If I can create in the course of my rule a kingdom that offers a chance for better things at every member of my people, I will count myself a good Queen."
With a falsely bright smile, Mirlee Rhismordith led the call for a toast. Some things, Tess reflected as chatter rose around her again, were constant – her cousin would always bend over backwards in pursuit of advancement, for all that she was doomed to failure. But Connor was smiling, and the Rhiscarlan emissaries were both chatting animatedly with Mistress Leila. Everything that mattered was, for the moment, as it ought to be. She took a long drink of the cup of hot chocolate that served to end the main meal, tasting the deep complex sweetness of it.
Chapter 2: and the words moving darkly
Merciless edges of - stone? glass? blunted metal? - pressed against his back, pushing the wings of his shoulderblades outward. He felt, rather than heard, himself attempt to speak, vibrations rising in his throat. The enclosing stones took the sound, swallowed it down, and spat it out again, rendered inhuman and unintelligible.
Groggily, Tyron forced his eyes open. He was alone in the glowing darkness. A cave. He was in a cave lined with crystals sharp as daggers, eerily luminous in the lightless enclosure. His wrists were tied high against the jutting stones. He was bound and buried in a crystal cave, and his throat ached with thirst, and he could feel thick blood sluggishly seeping from a throbbing cut above his left temple.
He'd been - he couldn't remember where he'd been, or with whom, or what he'd been doing. More troublingly, he had absolutely no recollection of being hurt or captured, and yet here he was: bleeding, trussed up in the dark. He struggled to martial his tangled thoughts, to think strategically. Halfrid had been trying to teach him strategy, ever since Tyron had so unexpectedly had to take up his position as Queen's Magician. He wasn't ready for it, not like Tess was. He still had so much to learn. Connor regularly beat him into the ground at chess.
He was glad that Connor'd come home. Those months without him, trying to be strong, to be sure, for Wren and Tess.
Images passed swiftly across his mind's eye, flickering brightly, moving, changing. He closed his eyes tightly, dazzled and vertiginous, to no avail. His eyes were closed; he saw everything. Teressa's lovely face was tense, troubled. Her voice was shriller than its usual warm timbre. "I don't care about the rutting agreement, Garian, I want to know where in Rhis's name my magician is!" She was very nearly shouting. In reply, Garian said something indistinct, but Tyron clearly recognized the patronizing tone. Tess flushed, temper clearly rising.
Halfrid's cool voice cut through the gathering quarrel. Tyron nearly sighed aloud at the sound of his teacher's familiar deliberate inflection, thrown for a moment into a terribly vivid sense-memory of a scarred wooden desk, the rich smell of vellum, graceless childhood letters forming laboriously under the nib of his pen as Halfrid lectured: A calm and clear mind hears what must be heard…
The remembered words overlapped, and it took Tyron a moment to sort out past from present. "...doing everything we can to find him," Halfrid was saying. "Temper will not render anyone's thoughts more clear."
"Your Majesty," Garian said, "I do have things to attend to this afternoon, and I can't seem to be of any more use here. You will summon me once you have need?" Tess nodded, and Garian took his leave with surprising politeness. He was growing into an almost decent person, Tyron thought. Who could have imagined such a pass, in the days when Garian had snapped and snarled and thrown his weight around self-importantly?
From the edge of the scene Tyron heard a heavy sigh, and then Connor was standing and crossing to the meeting-table around which the others were gathered. His tall frame looked spare and weary, his broad shoulders stooped. Connor raised a hand to pinch the skin at the corner of his eyes, and Tyron saw the summons ring on his finger flashing wildly. "Let's review what we know," he said. "Tyron's been - gone - for at least two days. We all assumed that someone else had seen him; no one has."
Teressa took up the narration when Connor's voice trailed off into silence. "Yesterday," she said, "Orin sent you that note. I don't remember exactly what it said."
"It said 'In men, as in a rough-grown grove, remain cave-keeping evils that obscurely sleep. Through crystal walls each little mote will peep.' Nothing more. Is infuriating obliqueness also an Iyon Daiyin trait? Because if it is, I sincerely apologize to everyone I've ever interacted with!"
Tess put a gentle hand on Connor's arm, caressing and supporting. "Connor, please," she said. "Please, Halfrid's right. We need to stay calm." In a lower voice she added, "I need you to stay calm."
"I know," Connor said to her. "I just - I'm worried about him. He doesn't have a lot for defenses, besides his magic, and it's easy enough to disable that."
"No more easy than it would be to disable your sword arm," Halfrid protested. "Don't underestimate Tyron's strength."
Connor growled, "Then don't underestimate his peril, Magician Emeritus."
"I certainly don't," Halfrid said. "Remember, kindly, that I have known the lad longer than both of you." He paused for a moment, and then asked, "Your Majesty, I believe you've received correspondence from Hawk Rhiscarlan of late?"
"Yes, I did - why? I sincerely doubt that Hawk would dare to lay a finger on Tyron, not with what happened last time he tried it."
"Would you read us the latest letter?"
Teressa went to her writing desk and, after some rummaging, picked up a folded parchment. She read it out: 'Queen Teressa, just thought I might let you know, considering your history with our dear Andreus, that some persons as yet unknown just tried to undo our repairs on Rhiscarlan Fortress. Needless to say, Cousin Idres' various magical traps and tricks prevented them from doing any damage - thank your friend Wren for us, by the way. She's got a wicked imagination.'"
Halfrid sighed. "As I suspected, then."
Tyron's dreaming gaze swung around to each of them in turn. He saw that Tess's hair was braided back, messy and tangled as if she'd not redone the braid for a long time. Connor was wearing his sword sheathed at his hip. His clothes were plain, and his face was grim. Halfrid's face was turned away from the young Queen and her cousin, looking out the window over the cold bare land. Tyron was shocked by how old his teacher suddenly looked - bent under the weight of years as he had never before been. For the first time, he was not simply panicked but genuinely afraid.
"I fear," the Magician Emeritus said, "that someone is once again targeting the family Rhiscarlan - the same somebody, it is likely, that nearly destroyed them before."
Tess's face paled. "Andreus?"
"I think not," Halfrid answered her. "We have too many active traces on him for him to complete any working without our knowledge. He may very possibly be involved; if I remember properly, he has shown interest in our Queen's Magician before."
Tyron peered at Halfrid's grey eyes, trying to read his teacher's expression. Before, Andreus wanted me because of my part in rescuing Tess, he thought. Why does Halfrid keep bringing up my - the Rhiscarlans?
"Your Majesty," Halfrid said at last, solemn and courtly, "I only break this confidence in fear of greatest peril. Tyron's mother was one of the few to escape the sack of Fortress Rhiscarlan, by the aid of Idres, or so I've been told. If that family is again besieged, it is entirely possible that his heritage has been discovered."
Connor whistled. "It makes sense," he said. "I didn't know, but when we were boys, Tyron told me enough that I knew he had more than the usual magic prentices' reason for hiding his family away. A Rhiscarlan?"
"Connor," Teressa said, "we have to find him. We have to find him soon."
The room around her began to fill with tendrils of grey, and soon Tyron could see no more. His vision went dark, and for an unmeasurable time he lingered, feeling again the harsh stone at his back, the biting ties around his wrists, the heavy heat of his thirsty tongue. His mind wandered back to old memories: Connor, at school, helping him collect scattered books in the halls, hauling him out of the library for supper, holding off his enemies with the threat of his practiced, graceful violence.
Recollection flowed seamlessly into vision; for a long moment, Tyron did not know where he was in time. Connor - older than the boy he'd been in Tyron's memory, tall and strong, grown to manhood - the Connor of the present - stood still as a caged falcon in his tower room. Tyron saw disarray all around him, papers strewn over the bedspread, Connor's naked sword glinting beside them.
Connor was looking out the window, head tilted back, throat long against the light. "I have no choice," he was saying in an undertone. "It's my fault in the first place - always been my job to look out for him, and I didn't even notice for days - it doesn't matter how much I don't want to use it, I have no choice."
He bent down and picked up an inkstained bit of paper. Smoothing it in his hands, he set it on the table, and then took up the pack and cloak that were heaped in a jumble on the chair.
Tyron felt the air swirl and eddy around Connor as he swept out of the room, sword in hand. The black, thickly written words glared at him from the white surface of the parchment left behind on the desk: Teressa, I've gone to the mountains to find him. He'd signed it with a swooping flourish, his name bereft of titles.
In the senseless blackness, the first cold drop of water struck him with shocking force. Another followed, and another. Teressa was crying, he thought dazedly. She was crying, unbraiding her hair. Letters on her desk: from Connor, to Wren. But he was alone, and the water on his face did not taste salt. The sharp pure pleasure of it stole his thoughts completely, and he turned toward the falling water, trying to catch as much as possible, trying to ease his body's terrible thirst. He drank; not enough, but some. It must be raining, he realized, and the water was sinking down past him through the earth.
Head clearer for the drink, he wondered why he couldn't make contact with Wren. After all, she was the best among them at scrying, but he'd neither seen nor heard her. He wracked his mind to remember - had she gone somewhere? Was she not there? She'd saved him before when all hope had been lost. It bothered him that he hadn't seen her. He felt cold, now, his skin clammy and damp.
His mind reached out to Wren, the gesture quickly splintering against the faceted crystals, refracting in multitude directions. Tess, face tear-tracked, getting ready for bed; the dancing flame of a candle; a brief warm flash of his mother's beloved, narrow face, smiling as she broke her bread; a pair of dark, penetrating eyes; the dark formless silhouette of Connor, walking out into the night.
The images came so fast after that, flooding into his mind, that he could no longer differentiate between them, and he felt himself pinned down under their current, dragged into semiconscious whirlpools of shape and color and sometimes sound. Time passed - he didn't know how much.
In the midst of timelessness he held onto a flash of Connor, standing on a mountaintop, face lashed by rain. But then it was gone. He could feel the wound on his brow begin to bleed again; his arms and shoulders ached terribly. He felt himself falling back into the dark, and he let himself go.
And then light came pouring into his prison, thick and slow as tree sap, sparkling as the crystals trapped and released it. His vision went double, nauseating and vertiginous: he saw at once Connor stepping into the cave, holding aloft a torch, dripping wet and grim-faced but bright-eyed with recognition, and an image of himself, long body stretched out vulnerably against the pointed stones, fox-face smeared with dirt and blood and deathly pale beneath the grime, clothes hanging down in tatters around his bones.
Tyron cried out and shut his eyes, which left only Connor's view of him burning into his mind's eye; Connor's sorrow and pity and rage rose thickly in Tyron's throat, and he cried out again, muffled by the undertow of foreign feeling.
He kept his eyes closed as Connor reached up, gentle as if he were a newborn colt, and untied the binding cords, catching Tyron in his arms as the magician fell free. Connor's hands were solid, real, and Tyron clung to him as his friend rose, draped him over his shoulder, and guided him out into the pale quiet early morning.
"Tyron, we're out. Can you open your eyes? Do you know who I am?"
Connor sat, taking Tyron down with him to the - Tyron could feel it against his feet - wet, soft earth. It was cold, but the sudden release from pain had left him too relieved to care. Connor was strong against him, smelling of wild air and pine trees, and Tyron gave himself a moment to just hold on, to savor the feeling of being found, of being safe. "Connor," he said, and his friend sighed, and Tyron could feel his body relaxing against his own.
Tyron let his eyes crack open, and saw nothing but Connor's face and the dawn and the morning star. It had passed; his mind was his own again. "I'm all right," he said, a little surprised by how hoarse and weak his own voice sounded. "There was something about that cave - but I'm all right now."
A waterskin was held to his lips, and he gratefully sipped at the stale water, taking care to not take too much too fast. He would've given anything for food, but he could tell by looking at Connor that the Prince had ridden out in haste, likely neglecting proper provisions.
Connor was holding him close, so tightly that Tyron felt his bones creaking in his friend's embrace. "I'm all right," he said again, still having trouble finding words - but apparently it was enough for Connor, who smiled tightly and then kissed him with a fierce and driving intensity.
When they broke apart for breath, Connor said, "Thank the stars you're alive. I had feared-"
Connor ran a finger over the summons ring on his hand, and spoke the incantation for Teressa. It leapt to life, flaring up like a lit flame, and an instant later Tyron's did the same. "She knows something's happened, but - I don't want to worry her." He looked Tyron up and down. "Do you have enough strength to help me scry her? I'm no good at it by myself, though we're high enough in the mountains that I've still got a fair amount of power. I would just need you to direct it. Can you?"
"She doesn't know where we are?" Connor shook his head, and Tyron pulled himself upright, coughing as the cold air hit his lungs. It wasn't as easy for him as it was for Wren to contact the Queen - Wren had done it so many times that the connection practically just came into being - but he managed to establish a scry to the palace. It was Halfrid; Tyron only managed to hold the scry open for an instant, but he saw his teacher's eyes widen, and he knew that Halfrid would be able to tell Tess exactly where they were, now that he knew to look for the traces of Tyron's work.
As the scry broke, Tyron fell back against Connor, against the cool damp earth, worn out. "Connor," he asked at last, "where are we? And however did you manage to find me? I was sure that I was going to die in that cave, and then you were there, and I don't quite see how."
"As for where we are: not nearly so far as I'd feared. Only about a day's ride from Cantirmoor. You remember those hidden caves we found, by Arakee Lake? We're in the same mountain chain now, though that cave you were in goes well beyond hidden." Connor's voice grew distant then, trailing off into thoughtful abstraction, and Tyron relaxed back into the comfortable familiarity of his friend's thought.
"I climbed into the mountains," Connor said. "These were the closest to the palace - I didn't know what else to do - I was trying to find some way to use my powers to find you, and I needed to be closer to the sky. I stood on the mountaintop - in the rain, mind you - and I let my mind fall down through the earth. I could hear every living thing existing, feel their roots clinging to the stones. And I could hear you, buried under the roots of the mountain, as if you were reaching up to me. You were caught in the stones, somehow - not rooted, but bound."
Tyron wrinkled his nose in answer to Connor's searching gaze. "You're all wet," he said critically, "and you don't seem to have a horse."
Connor laughed, and then pointed toward the western horizon, where tiny gleams of light bobbed up and down in the darkness. "Trust Tess to manage better than that," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if she'd had her guard and her magicians tracing me as soon as I left, and certainly she'll have dispatched help after that scry contact."
"They'll be here soon," Tyron observed quietly, completely enervated.
"You've got enough time for a rest," Connor told him, bundling him closer and covering him with the edges of his cloak. It was damp enough that it made little difference, but Tyron appreciated the gesture anyway.
He drifted at the edge of sleep, and when he saw Queen Teressa of Meldrith come riding up out of the gloaming, her red cape dark against the flank of her white palfrey, he wasn't at all sure he wasn't dreaming. She was surrounded by guardsmen and lamps and other bright colors, and her braid was pinned up, both practical and regal. She was so beautiful that he had trouble drawing breath.
Connor was standing, helping her down, and then she was kneeling beside him, her dress sopping up mud, her face glowing in the warm light. "Oh, Tyron!" she said, and drew him into her arms.
His vision doubled again for an instant, overlaying her lovely face with his own dark eyes, looking larger than usual in his drawn, pointed face, the gash at his temple contrasting harshly with the pallor of his skin. She looked at his hands, took them in her own, pitied how cold and stiff and bruised they were, and he felt her feeling. And then it was past, and he saw only through his own eyes, saw only his Queen.
"Tess," he said, breathing in her rich, safe scent, feeling the silkiness of her skin against his dirty cheek. Around them, all was business and bustle; Tess's entourage were setting up camp, erecting richly-dyed tents of heavy fabric, lighting fires on the stony ground, bringing out casks and parcels and blankets.
"I don't want you to have to travel at all tonight," she said, pressing a kiss into his hair. "You've been through enough. But I do want to get you clean, and have a look at some of those cuts and bruises. And you're too cold." She waved a brace of men over to them, who carefully lifted him, carrying him as easily as if he were a child to the Queen's great crimson tent. Connor was there already, waiting. They lowered Tyron down onto a pile of warm blankets, and then exited with a bow.
"Let's get you clean first," Connor said, and produced a basin, a steaming kettle, and a flannel. Together, Teressa and Connor peeled off his sodden, filthy clothes, gently washing blood and dirt off of his limbs, his face, his back. He was so tired, and the clean warmth felt so good, that he felt his eyes drifting closed. Connor bandaged the worst of his cuts and scrapes, and Tess rubbed kerryflower salve into his strained wrists, the aromatic herbal smell twining with her lavender-and-chocolate scent.
When he was cleaned and clothed and tucked into the soft, low camp bed, Tess brought him a cup of broth, holding it to his lips and encouraging him to drink. "I'm sorry," he said to her. "Sorry for worrying you."
She looked down at him, and a strand of her auburn hair slipped from her braid to brush her cheek. "Do you know why?" she asked him.
"I have no idea," he said, laughing dryly. "I don't remember much. My mind was so confused."
"Wren - she just scryed me, she's on her way here - told me that she received a surprise visit from Idres Rhiscarlan this morning. From what she said, it sounds like Idres was more excitement than the Poth inn has seen for quite some time. Can you imagine? Anyway, Idres told her that you were in trouble, and she contacted us right away. We'd been trying to get through to her, but we never could; I wrote to her yesterday, but Idres can transport faster than the post. Idres said that forces were moving once more against House Rhiscarlan, and that she didn't yet know their full extent, but that she was not going to permit history to repeat itself."
Tyron struggled to sit up, suddenly bitten by worry. He remembered now. "Against House Rhiscarlan? That's why they took me? What about my -"
"Halfrid told us," Tess said gently. "And Idres told Wren to tell you that your mother is fine, and under Idres's protection. It was you she was worried about. She quite likes you."
"She likes my mother," Tyron corrected. "I'm glad she's being looked after. It's been so hard to go home these past few years."
"I'd like to meet her," Tess said. "After all, you are my cousins. Should I welcome you into the family?"
"He's always been part of it," said Connor, ducking in through the tent flap. "Rhis's Name, but I'm tired."
"Come to bed, then," Tess said, reaching up to unbind her hair. Slipping off her kirtle and gown, she slipped into the bed beside Tyron clad only in her white shift. Her feet were cold, but Tyron was glad of her closeness. Connor blew out the light, so that Tyron felt rather than saw him lay down on his other side. One of Connor's hands came up out of the dark to pet through his hair, and Tess pressed up close against him, her body warm and softly curving.
"Did you say that Wren was coming?" he asked sleepily, Connor's arm draped heavy over his hip.
"We'll probably meet her along the way," Tess told him. "And then we'll all be together again, for a while."
Chapter 3: the petals are harlequins
Wren looked up into the dazzling lights that separated her from her audience, hiding them from her view and illuminating her to theirs. Only it wasn't stage lights she was looking at, but the rising sun, dawning over the Aevar Mountains. She was Etain Starsteerer, not yet a celebrated hero or navigator of the seas at the edge of the world, just a girl on her first adventure, trying to rescue her brother.
Connor had written the part especially for her, but Wren reflected wryly that, made for her or not, she cut an odd figure as the storied heroine. The players had garbed her in a very loose, very full set of indigo trousers that billowed about her legs like skirts. Her feet were encased in a pair of sturdy, supple leather boots that rose to her mid-calf, and she wore a long blue tunic stitched with decorative streams of tiny glass beads that glittered as they caught the light. Her braid hung heavy down her back, the hair around her face blown back by the magicked wind.
But certainly Etain hadn't been nearly so short, nor had her doubtlessly slender figure filled out her clothes so fully. Thankfully, the tunic was stitched so as to nip in at Wren's waist, giving her figure some definition, but she'd still felt shy and odd when, during rehearsals, she'd stepped onto the stage in full costume for the first time. Like she was too heavy for the delicate, springy boards to support.
Tyron'd thought that she was being plain silly. "There's absolutely no reason to assume," he'd said, clearly working to hold back his impatience with her foolishness, "that Etain Starsteerer was particularly beautiful. It's not as if everyone who lived before a certain time was stunningly gorgeous and terribly heroic and mind-bendingly powerful. Most people in history were no different at the bottom than people today; they just dressed differently."
"It's very well for you to say it like that," she'd retorted tartly, "but it's clear enough that things were different, once upon a time. There were more heroes, for one thing."
Tyron had fixed her with a perceptive gaze, his brown eyes warm and thoughtful. "I think we've got plenty of heroes of our own. Etain didn't do so much more than you've done over the past few years, and you're only getting started."
"I'm not a hero," she'd said, feeling her own lower lip jut out mulishly. "My hair is too stripy. And I only did those things because there was no one else to do them."
"Wren, what on earth do you think a hero is? We all just do what has to be done; so did they."
Kial had called for him then, drawing him away upstage into a discussion of fire spells that eventually culminated in Jesran getting his eyebrows singed.
(Later that day, when Wren was curled up comfortably in bed, snuggled against Connor's bare chest, he'd rumbled at her, "Tyron said you were worried about playing Etain. Some nonsense about your being too - what's your phrase? Short and rounded?" She'd nodded sleepily, and he'd pulled her closer, hands resting on her hips. "Little goose," he'd murmured into her loosened, wild hair, "don't you realize yet just how beautiful you are?"
She'd looked down the length of her naked body and raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I wasn't born blind, if that's what you're asking."
He'd kissed her mouth. "And you think we were? Tyron and Teressa and I? Or do we only take you for pity? You, Wren Nissal Poth, are lovely, and one day I'll manage to convince you of it."
She'd blushed hotly, shy of his compliments but unable to resist needling him: "Do you mean to do any of that convincing at the moment?" He'd kissed her again, and she'd stopped thinking about heroic beauties.)
Now, in the moment of performance, she had little attention to spare for her worries and insecurities. She knew that if she didn't believe in herself, her audience certainly would not, and so she consciously drew herself up into the heroine's presence. She drew the knife that hung at her side, red paint flaking off of it in imitation of drying blood.
"By this knife's blood-coveréd edge I know/ my brother, dearer than my heart has come/ to grievous harm," she said, voice loud, strong, but tinged with worry - after all, Etain was only a girl. "He sought the fabled tree,/ whose blossom'd scent most perfect beauty is,/and gave to me his knife, to keep in his/ remembrance, saying: 'Sister, if the knife/ remain unstained, know that I shall be safe./ But if it do grow red with blood thou'lt know/ I am defeated, and ever lost to thee.'/ Three days ago the knife began to bleed,/ and so I follow my brother's footsteps,/ to save or avenge him, as I may."
Wren sheathed the knife, taking care not to miss the scabbard as she had so often done while practicing - it turned out that getting a knife into a sheath was a deal more difficult than she had expected. Tyron's illusions shifted around her, the sun rising higher, and Kial's voice, transformed so dramatically that he almost didn't sound human, came floating down from the wings. She looked up and saw his white teeth gleaming against his dark skin as he smiled. He did that a lot; Kial was the merriest magician she'd ever met.
"O wand'rer in this foreign land, defeat/ the tasks appointed by our company,/ who are the spirits of this fair place, and/ from your well-lov'd brother, who failed in them/ will fall our stony, insensate shackles." His voice sounded ephemeral and strange, almost inhuman, and made a strange contrast to his beaming face. But the effect was brilliant.
She'd had a terrible time talking Tyron into the play at all. "Playacting, Wren? As Connor informs me at least once a week, I've got no imagination to speak of - you've certainly never disagreed with him on that point." But then she'd coaxed him into a long talk about the aesthetics of the old legend, knowing that the best way to manage him was to appeal to his academic instincts. Tyron was odd that way: tell him a beautiful story and he'd enjoy it well enough, but ask him about the significance of that story and he could go for hours, long fingers restlessly punctuating the air as he theorized and extrapolated.
Once he'd had time to come up with a few pet readings, it wasn't much work to convince him that designing the play would be a fantastic way of expressing them, and so he was limed. He'd planned nearly all the spells for the entire production, only bringing Kial and Lissa and Jesran in to help him keep them all going at once - though he probably could have done it all single-handedly. But he still tended to be self-effacing, and Wren had figured it wasn't worth pushing him that far out of his comfort.
Tyron had been the one who thought of the play as a gift for Tess; Wren and Connor were so taken with the joy of playacting that they were blind to nearly everything else, but Tyron had insisted that, if the three of them were to make it together, Teressa had to be included somehow. As she gazed out into her hidden audience, Wren's heart grinned at the surprise they had in store for the Queen. She was sure that Tess would love it.
But now Tyron's work really took center stage, as they wordlessly performed the three transformations of Etain. First a translucent blue veil, shot through with gracefully-moving eddies, rose slowly from the front of the proscenium, eventually covering Wren entirely to signify her transformation into water. A whispered spell from Tyron set her braid to waving weightlessly, impelled by unseen currents, and the light filtered through the veil turned her skin a delicate blue. Iridescent scales crept down her throat and up her wrists - Connor had written up the stage directions to mimic the Iyon Daiyin shape-change he'd created for her once, and Wren tried to use that memory in her performance, striving to show herself as having become the water itself, as becoming inhuman and strange.
Then the veil receded, the magics gently unravelling to leave her standing alone at center stage. For the second transformation, thin filaments of delicate pale magic wound their way from all sides of the stage to where Wren stood, climbing her like vines. They spun around her, creating a pale cocoon around her body. This was the part of the play that she was most glad of magic for; if she'd had to put up with real cords wrapping round her like that, she would have gone off in screaming horrors, but Tyron's conjuring was weightless and, to her eyes, transparent, leaving her encased only in an illusion of binding, but essentially free and unbound.
The third transformation was the most complicated one, because Tyron had to not only weave illusions around her but also to perform illusions on her, and that was much more difficult to do without the construct being apparent. For her third transformation, Etain emerged from her silken prison with great purple wings, the same wings that eventually would allow her to escape from her shipwreck in the Soryn Sea. They'd decided to only leave the wings visible to the audience for a moment, but even that was difficult enough to do convincingly.
Slowly, the strands of the cocoon dissolved, exposing her to the bright stage lights. Wren could feel the wings reaching up from her shoulderblades, could see the colorful edges of them out of the corner of her eyes, and she threw Tyron a triumphant look where he stood concealed backstage. The wings fluttered once, twice, and then faded back into invisibility. The audience's silence was palpable; Wren knew that they had them exactly where they wanted them. She felt amazingly happy.
"You have passed the test," Kial whispered down in his magically-distorted voice, "and may claim your kin."
The curtain that had hung over the hindmost corner of the stage pulled away, revealing Connor, still and stony in his role as Etain's brother Tir Baiard. She shuddered, and it was very little feigned - this had not been a fun effect to create. Tyron's memories of Andreus's stone spell were a little too vivid, and she'd had no desire to recall her own either. He had looked so horribly dead, and he'd been so cold. Connor's face was grey, and his clothes were still and dark, giving him the appearance of a man carved from rock. His eyes were closed, and he did not move.
She walked to him, feeling the stage lights following her as she moved. He remained motionless, but very slowly Tyron pulled back the illusion of greyness from over him, allowing color to creep back up his throat, down his wrists. As Wren reached him, he drew in an exaggerated breath, and as she lovingly touched his face, he opened his eyes, restored to life. "Brother," she said, quiet and yet audible from the back rows of the theater, "will you not wake, and turn to me?"
He smiled dazzlingly, and even though it was just acting she felt herself melting under the force of his joyful charm. "For you," he said, voice strong and resonant, "I would return from Death itself." He lifted her in his arms, spinning her exuberantly, and then held her close. She tried to not go all breathless, which was difficult given the way he was looking at her, not to mention the feeling of his body pressed against hers, but she needed her breath to properly project her lines - and at any rate, the stage was scarcely the place for that kind of carrying on. Now, backstage afterwards? A completely different matter.
"Into this enchanted place, Etain, you/ have come great-hearted and in triumph. Your brother is won from his cell of stone,/ and the aim of your high quest near at hand./" The voice speaking was partially Kial, as it had been all along, but Tyron had carefully crafted another illusory voice to wrap around it - a woman's warm, alto voice, elegant and filled with the promise of power.
A silver-barked tree grew up from the boards at front center stage, sprouting up in a matter of seconds into a handsome sapling. "From this, the tree of beauty, I will take/ in guerdon of my travails and woes/ a single blossoming branch, and bear back/ with me its odor of greatest beauty." And so saying, Wren crossed to the tree, and knelt beside it to gently cut away with the now-spotless knife a bare branch.
But before she could do so, the tree burst into bloom, and the greatest surprise of their little production was revealed. Wren had debated at great length with Connor over how best to represent "greatest beauty," with Wren favoring a simple magical perfume, and Connor insisting that it had to be more flashy than that if the audience were to properly take the idea. Tyron had at last proposed the solution of embodying beauty, creating a visual allegory out of multiple sensory spells, and when he'd laid out the details of his idea they'd all agreed.
As the blossoms opened, a shimmering image appeared in the scented air around them. It was a woman's face, framed with tendrils of dark red hair that fluttered around the tree's branches like so many ribbons. Her face was high-browed and heart-shaped, and her eyes were a dark, piercing blue. Gleams as if of jewels framed her, sometimes seeming to wind through her hair, sometimes to spangle her damask cheeks, sometimes to cluster on her brow in an coronet.
Wren heard a gasp arise from the audience, and she couldn't help outright beaming. From the front rows, she heard an excited whisper: "It looks like Queen Teressa!"
Tess's conjured face, their personification of greatest beauty, smiled down at them serenely. "Cut loose your branch, Etain, and bear it on,/ that you may have Beauty's strength beside you/ as you take the great journeys of your fate," intoned the eldritch voice, and then the entire illusion faded and was gone, leaving only Wren, Connor, and the flowering branch in her hand.
The applause was tumultuous, and when the lights went down Wren could see Tess's beaming face clear as anything, eyes glittering and cheeks flushed with pleasure. She'd understood their compliment. Tyron, Lissa, Jesran, and Kial joined them onstage, the group of them taking their bows together. It was, Wren thought as the curtain closed in front of them,, not a bad go for her stage debut. Though she didn't see how she was going to go back to ordinary life after something so absolutely thrilling as the theater.
Tess caught them backstage, catching the three of them into a simultaneous embrace. "Thank you," she said. Connor's eyes crinkled happily, Tyron blushed, and Wren just hugged her friend back. Separating just enough to satisfy decorum, the four friends stepped out into the court.