Actions

Work Header

Unseason

Work Text:

I

"I mislike this weather," said Illvin, urging his grey stallion up beside Ista's mount Demon. "It's unseasonal, this far north."

"Even in Valenda it was a rare thing to have snow on the Daughter's day," Ista said, "and we're much further north here. There should be blossom on the trees by now!"

"You could make it so," said Illvin slyly. "I remember apricots out of season, in Porifors." His smile invited her to recall the other events of that evening, when they'd first come to one another's arms.

"I could, but I shan't," said Ista. Illvin's smile warmed her, but her face was still raw from the sleet-laden wind, her muscles still ached from shivering, and she longed to be out of the saddle and luxuriating in a hot bath. Though from the look of it, the latter'd be a long time coming.

Goram had left the main party and ridden on to seek shelter: it was with a sinking heart that Ista saw his stolid figure awaiting them at the roadside.

"We can't make the pass, Royina," he said as they came level with him. "I met with a farmer a ways along the road, and he says that a troop of the Daughter's soldiers came back down yesterday, because the drifts were too high. And there's been snow on the hills, since."

Ista wanted to curse the weather. She'd be wasting her breath, though: she was wearily sure that its Instigator, the God of the Unseason, had shaped it so for some mendacious reason of His own. Arguing with the gods -- well, the Bastard -- was seldom rewarding.

"Is there an inn where we could stay the night?" she enquired.

"Or a farmhouse," said dy Cabon wheezily from behind her. He coughed again, and Ista frowned. Though the divine had adapted marvellously well to the rigours of her progress, he was unaccustomed to such bitingly frigid weather. The cold he'd contracted in Rauma had gone to his chest, and the rasp of his voice disturbed Ista.

"Be it a palace or a pigsty," she said encouragingly, "we'll find shelter soon. I --"

Ahead came the muffled sound of hooves, and Illvin's hand went to the sword at his side: but Ista could hear laughter.

"Hold," she said, grinning. "It's Foix and Liss."

Liss and Foix, as it turned out: Liss's glossy gelding was the first to materialise from the greenish gloom, and Foix was well behind her.

"My lady!" cried Liss. "There's a town, just down the valley: might we be better to turn aside, rather than press on in this blizzard?"

"It was on the map," said Foix, flourishing a folded packet. "Carascola, as near as I can make out: it's not extensive, but we might seek lodging there."

"Very well," said Ista, already fancying herself in that bath. Scented with lavender, it'd be, and Liss waiting with mulled wine and warm dry clothes when she'd soaked the cold out of her bones. "How much further?"

"A few miles only, my lady," said Liss, beaming. Cold weather suited her, it seemed: her cheeks were rosy and her smile bright. Ista envied her youth.

That few miles' ride took the rest of the daylight, and it was full dark when they rode into Carascola; an aching winter dark that did not fall, but condensed around them from the snow, and the gloom, and the cold. Ista's hands were frozen on the reins, and she wished heartily that Illvin and Foix would find an inn where they could rest. Here was the town square; here a small, unassuming temple, the Bastard's tower rising only a story above the roofs of the houses; here, o blessing, a painted inn-sign fringed with icicles ...

... and from across the square, the flicker of torches, and the clash of metal on metal.

Illvin swore under his breath. He was out of the saddle, sword in hand, before the fog of Ista's gasp had melted into the night.

"Hold!" cried Illvin, striding forward. Ista could see him only as a tall shape against the firelit curtain of snow. "I am Illvin dy Arbanos, the Seneschal of the Dowager Royina Ista, and we seek lodging."

"My lord, you are most welcome!" cried a woman's voice. "I have prayed for some intervention to prevent this, this farce, and you have answered my prayers!"

Do not thank Illvin, thought Ista wryly, but He who turned Illvin's steps -- and all of ours -- aside from our intended road.

She nudged her weary mount forward, straightened her spine, and tried to look more like the Dowager Royina of all Chalion-Ibra -- Saint Ista, the paladin of souls -- and less like some raddled vagabond. In the torchlight, she could see three figures: two men, both tall and strong, with swords in their hands, and a shorter figure thickly muffled in wool and furs. Further back, a gaggle of other folk -- servants? spectators? -- huddled together, a couple of them holding torches that spluttered in the icy wind.

"Lady, I pray you ride on," said one of the men, turning to face Ista. His sword was lowered -- and he would not dare, Ista reassured herself -- but though his stance was courteous his expression was uncompromising. "Do not trouble yourself with our affairs. By morning --"

Illvin had seized one of the torches, and now he lifted it high to illuminate the speaker. Ista's words dried in her throat. The man who stood before her, resolute but despairing, was Ias. Not Ias as he'd been when she first met him, a dignified man of fifty-three, but Ias younger than Ista was now. His hair was reddish-gold, curling with the moisture in the air; his eyes, she was sure, were --

Not Ias's, for Ias was dead these twenty years. Not a ghost.

"I am the Dowager Royina Ista," she said ringingly, "and I and my party seek lodging this night. Will you deny us?"

"No, Royina, we will not," said the woman firmly, stepping forward and laying her hand on the man's sword-arm. "Pray excuse my husband: he is ... not himself. Oh! I -- I beg your pardon, my lady. I am Rienore dy Corval, and this is my lord Arias dy Corval, the March of Carascola. I beg you will accept the hospitality of our house tonight."

"Most gladly," said Illvin. He turned to the other man, who stood with his face in shadow, leaning on his sword, watching. "And you, sir?"

"And I," said the other man, raising his head, "am Gulien dy Alcazar, lady: at your service."

It is dark, Ista told herself, and I am tired; and this man is not Arvol dy Lutez, for all his handsome vigour and his strong bones. These men are not my ghosts. My ghosts are long gone.

II

The castle at Carascola was small, and had seen more prosperous days: a single guard at the gate, the stables more than half-empty, tallow candles rather than lamps to light Ista and Illvin's way to the chamber that had been hastily prepared for them. But the Lady Rienore's welcome was warm, and the fire in the hearth burnt brightly, and water was being heated for a bath.

Rienore seemed nervous, and there were dark shadows under her eyes as though she had not slept well for many nights. Ista did not press her for the tale behind the interrupted duel in the square. Excessive curiosity in a guest was unseemly, and the truth was more likely to come to Ista by less direct routes: Liss's chatter with the maids, Foix's easy camaraderie with the guards and armsmen, Goram's keen ears in the stables.

"I don't like it," said Illvin as soon as the door had closed behind the last of the castle servants.

Ista eased off her right boot with a sigh of relief. "What don't you like, love?"

"Did you see the way dy Alcazar looked at the Lady Rienore?" said Illvin, kneeling to help Ista with her other boot.

Ista hadn't noticed any particular expression on the man's face: only his uncanny resemblance to Arvol dy Lutez. "No," she said. "How?"

Illvin's broad hand came to rest, like a silent endearment, on her knee. "As though it was Rienore, not her husband, who held the sword: as though she'd dealt him a killing blow."

"Hmm," said Ista, firmly pushing away memories of dy Lutez's face, that last night beneath the Zangre. "But he's hardly the first man to be unlucky in love. What do you think their tale is?"

"The same old story," said Illvin with some bitterness. "They both loved her; perhaps she loved them both; but now she's wed, and dy Alcazar is spurned, and rather than admit honourable defeat he's challenged her husband to that senseless duel."

"Hardly the weather for it," said Ista, letting her petticoats fall to the floor and standing a moment, despite the chill that the fire hadn't yet banished, for Illvin to look at her. She was, she knew, no beauty any more: but Illvin made her beautiful, and the flush of arousal that his gaze engendered was warmer and more vivid than anything she'd ever felt for Ias.

The bathwater would cool quickly, though, and Ista was eager to wash away the sweat of the road and ease her aches. She drew back slowly from their kiss, murmuring, "Later."

"I shall anticipate it keenly," returned Illvin.

"I don't doubt it," said Ista, with a appraising downward glance. "You can have the bathwater, when I'm done."

*

Ista's aches soothed and her flesh warmed, she bade Liss braid her hair and listened while the girl told her what she'd learnt.

"They say the Lady Rienore has been blessed by the Mother already, though it's less than three months since she was married to dy Corval," reported Liss, deftly untangling the snarls from Ista's hair. "From the way they said it, I think maybe she was pregnant before they married."

"It happens," said Ista calmly, reflecting that Rienore had at least been spared the burden of blame that descended upon any woman -- and especially a high-born woman -- who did not produce an heir in her first year of marriage. "Tell me true, Liss: are there any of the uglier whispers that might pursue a woman who has more than one suitor?"

"What?" said Liss.

"She means, is the baby her husband's?" said Illvin from his bath beyond the carved wooden screen.

Ista could see Liss's face, reflected in the mirror, flush. "I am sure that the Lady Rienore adores her husband," she soothed. "But such rumours may do great harm."

"Oh, dy Alcazar did not love the Lady Rienore," said Liss, with a curious catch in her voice. "It was ... it was ..."

It seemed as though Ista had known it forever. Or perhaps for twenty years. "It's dy Corval he loved," she said wearily. "Loves." Thank you, my lord Bastard. Thank you most kindly, for bringing me here to mend the hearts of two of your own.

"Then why did dy Corval wed the lady?" said Illvin, appearing around the screen. He was dressed well: not his finest, but clean and courtly in dark grey, accented with cream. He looked nothing like Ias or dy Lutez or anyone but himself.

"Nobody knows," said Liss, tying off a ribbon. "It was always the two of them, since they were boys. Closer than brothers."

"I wonder --" Ista began: but then came a knocking on the door. "My Lady's compliments," said the maid, when Liss opened the door, "and she bids me tell you that dinner awaits your pleasure."

*

Ista did not know how many of those who sat to table were privy to the state of affairs between dy Corval and his bride -- or how many of them knew of the curtailed duel in the square hours earlier. Dy Alcazar did not dine with them, and she did not think it politic to mention the man's name. But much could be learnt from the other two points of the triangle: so Ista watched, and learnt that Rienore dy Corval adored her husband, and that an ardent look from him could still make her blush. Though the ardent gazes were few and far between, considering that they were so lately wed.

Dy Corval was a handsome man, very much in the same mould as Ias: perhaps, generations since, they shared an ancestor. Time and again Ista found herself looking askance at the curve of his smile, the line of his jaw. Rienore was swift to notice this, and for a while her manner cooled. But Ista did not wish to provoke the woman's jealousy, and she was careful to reserve the majority of her own warmth for Illvin, who sat at her side and entertained the table with a sanitised account of their travels since last summer.

Dy Corval hardly spoke, but applied himself to his platter -- if he customarily ate like that, it was a wonder he wasn't twice the size of dy Cabon! -- and his glass. Rienore had to ask him twice to pass her the mutton. "It is I who am eating for two, my lord!" she said merrily; but dy Corval did not smile in response.

"And -- forgive me for my forwardness -- what is the purpose of your .. your pilgrimage, Royina?" enquired Rienore rather desperately, turning to Ista.

Ista glanced at Illvin, drawing strength from his quiet concurrence. "It is given to me by the gods," she said, taking a steadying sip of good wine, "to hunt demons, and return them to the Bastard's Hell where they belong."

Rienore signed herself with the Five, her eyes fixed on Ista's: and the stem of Arias dy Corval's wineglass snapped in his hand.

III

"Foix, did you see any sign that dy Corval was ... not only dy Corval? Did your bear react, at all?"

Foix shook his head. "I saw nothing," he said. "But there's something odd about him, that's for sure: something that sets my teeth on edge."

Ista was not in the mood for rumour or revelation. She would have preferred to go straight to her bed with Illvin to keep her warm, instead of lingering with him and Foix in this draughty hallway. But something had leapt, panicked, in dy Corval's breast when she'd announced her God-given mission: and Ista was bleakly aware that she would not find peaceful sleep with the puzzle still twisting in her mind.

"You know he and dy Alcazar were --" said Foix, gesturing obscurely and not quite meeting her eye.

Ista forbore to mention her own experience of such matters. That was ancient history, now. "Closer than brothers," she confirmed.

"Well, they were both men who drew maidens' eyes," said Foix, with a wry smile. "'Tis ever thus: those who don't want are gifted in abundance. But neither man seemed at all interested in the fairer sex, until quite recently."

"What happened?" said Illvin.

"There was a duel, just before the Father's Day, over some trivial matter," said Foix. "They do seem to go in for them, in Ibra. Dy Paguer fought dy Valls: nothing exceptional save that dy Corval (with dy Alcazar at his back) tried to break up the fight. The pommel of dy Valls' sword caught him just here, on the temple, and knocked him cold for the rest of the day: and when he came round, to hear it told, he was a changed man."

"Where is dy Valls now?"

"Fled," said Foix, "and his opponent dead, for all that anyone could do. But they do say, Royina," and he fixed Ista with a solemn look, "that dy Paguer -- the man who died -- had been a most pious man, but had lately turned his face from the gods."

"The gods do not necessarily curse those who turn from them," said Ista. "Was his soul taken up, at his funeral?"

"I ... Nobody spoke of the funeral, Lady."

"Perhaps their divine ..."

"Tomorrow," said Illvin firmly. "There is nothing more we can do tonight. Come, my lady: let me see you to your bed."

Ista had expected to lie wakeful for hours, turning over the stories in her head, but sleep came almost as soon as she'd climbed between the scented white sheets.

For a while she dreamt fitfully, of snow out of season and flowers frozen in the bud, of seeking and not finding, of Ias and dy Lutez and all that had happened twenty years ago. Of the curse that had lain heavy on Chalion, and the death it had brought her son Teidez. Even dreaming, Ista was exasperated. This was ancient history. No good could come of revisiting the past.

Then the dreams focussed and intensified. It seemed she lay in another bed, and smelt not lavender but the musky scent of lust. And she did not lie in this bed alone, but with Ias on her right and dy Lutez on her left. This was most certainly not history.

Or perhaps it was not Ias but dy Corval whose hand smoothed over her belly, not dy Lutez but dy Alcazar who left a line of burning kisses across her shoulder. Perhaps she was not Ista, but Rienore.

You are who you are, my Ista,, came a voice: and there at the foot of the bed, grinning lasciviously at her, was dy Cabon; dy Cabon fatter and jollier and perfectly visible in whatever dark bedchamber was setting for this dream.

Dy Cabon's voice had lost its hoarseness, but even without that alteration Ista would have known that it was the Bastard, and not His divine, who stood there leering at her as the two men touched her, touched one another, moved together and left her coldly excluded.

I never wanted this! she raged silently. You can't make me want what I never wanted!

I cannot make you do aught, my Ista, said the god. I cannot lift a leaf without your hand and your will.

So instead you send me to mend these broken hearts?

Instead I send you to look after what is Mine, said the Bastard.

Dy Corval and dy Alcazar were most intimately entwined now, and Ista could not help her fascination. Dy Corval, it seemed, took the woman's part tonight, and he stiffened and cried out as dy Alcazar thrust deep and brought him to his climax.

And as his seed gushed from him something leapt, sharp and sweet, in Ista's womb.

IV

Ista woke feeling itchy with arousal. Damn You, she thought. Because it would be only too easy to seek comfort (amongst other things) in Illvin's arms: even now he was stirring, snuggling closer to her, his strong arms wrapping more tightly around her. Ista was damned if she'd succumb so easily to the Bastard's temptations. Or provide such lewd entertainment for any divine voyeur.

Swiftly, before Illvin woke enough to persuade her to linger awhile, Ista pushed back the blankets and got out of bed, gasping as her bare feet met the flagstones. Outside the sunlight dazzled on fresh snow: there were ferns of frost on the inside of the thick glass, and a rime of ice on the water in the pitcher. She washed herself briskly and ruthlessly, trying to wash away that damned dream. Curse You, she muttered, for making me want what I don't want.

A distant laughter echoed in her mind. Ista scowled and scrubbed harder.

Dried and dressed, she left the sanctuary of the bed-chamber. It was early yet, but Liss was coming up the stairs.

"Royina! I thought you'd ... I mean ..."

Ista forbore to mention dreams, or demons, or duels. "I was hoping to find some breakfast," she said lightly. "But perhaps I am too early."

"Oh no, Royina," said Liss cheerfully. There was snow on her boots. "The table is laid. Foix and I ate, before we went to see to the horses."

"All's well, I take it?"

"Yes, Royina. My lord dy Corval has some fine mounts! Though one of the grooms told me that his favourite horse was ridden to death just last month, by a man who'd been dy Corval's friend."

"Surely not dy Alcazar?"

"No," said Liss. "No, it was something like dy ... dy Pagel? Dy Pagre?"

"Dy Paguer?" said Ista, halting. Then, as Liss nodded, "Come, attend on me a moment here." She turned to the window, as though admiring the view of bare winter trees and the sharp contrast of snow on black branches. "Are you sure it was dy Paguer?"

"Fairly sure, Royina," said Liss cautiously. "The groom said he died, duelling." Her expression spoke her opinion on such matters more plainly than words. "But he had been ... strange for some time: reckless and wild, and ... well, the groom did not tell me very much, but what he hinted was bad enough."

"And he killed dy Corval's steed?"

"They rode out a-hunting on a frosty morning, and dy Paguer galloped Peard -- that was the horse, Royina -- down the hill towards the river: Peard stumbled on a tree-root, and broke a leg."

"And what did dy Corval do?" asked Ista, wondering just how strange dy Paguer had been in the weeks before his death.

"He cut Peard's throat, of course, to spare his agonies," said Liss.

Ista bit back a tart response. "Did he punish dy Paguer at all?"

"No, Lady. But from that day they did not speak. Until --"

Footsteps sounded in the hall below, and Rienore's voice floated up: "Royina, won't you join us to break your fast? There is fresh bread and honey, and some cold meats from yestereve."

"Marvellous!" cried Ista, remembering that she was hungry. And hoping that dy Corval -- with or without the demon that might ride him -- would join them for the meal.

*

Ista was disappointed in that last hope. Only Rienore, with dy Cabon and Foix and the castle warder, sat at breakfast, though the servants were clearing plates and cups from a place at the head of the table.

Dy Cabon was thanking Rienore effusively for the efforts of her physician, who'd dosed him with some simple that had given him a restful night's sleep. Fortunate man, thought Ista. The divine applied himself to the repast with something approaching his usual vigour: Foix had engaged the warder, a greying man with a lazy eye, in a discussion of Jokonan raiders, and the lessening of their incursions.

Whatever troubles assailed Rienore, the girl had a hearty appetite: she devoured all that was set before her, with a dogged determination that precluded conversation. She was still eating when Foix and dy Cabon begged Ista's leave to withdraw.

"I was thus," confided Ista once she and Rienore were alone, gesturing at a plate cleaned of all but crumbs, "when I was carrying my son."

Rienore blushed. "The midwife says it is too early to be sure," she said. "But I know. Did you not know, Royina, when you had quickened?"

Ista recalled the deep blissful pang at the climax of that damned dream. "I had hoped for too long," she temporised. "When it came ..."

"In that I have been fortunate," said the marchess.

"How long had you known my lord dy Corval, before you wed?" enquired Ista, helping herself to more bread and honey.

"For several years," said Rienore. "Though he had never ..." She fell silent for a moment, flicking a nervous glance at Ista. "I had always thought him one ... one of the Bastard's own. You know, Royina."

My ancient history is not so very ancient, reflected Ista, and all of Chalion has heard the stories. Aloud, she said only, "I know."

"His ... his friend does not like me," Rienore said, low and vehement. "He wishes we had never wed. Sometimes ..."

"Sometimes?" nudged Ista.

"You saw them last night, Royina," said Rienore miserably. "I think dy Alcazar would rather see my lord dead than married with a child on the way."

"That is not love," said Ista.

"He was not always thus. I remember them before: they were the best of friends, and none could come between them. But then last autumn my lord began to court me, and ..."

Rienore wiped away a tear, but she seemed more angry than distressed.

"I fear he has run mad," she said thinly.

"Your husband?"

"No! Dy Alcazar. He is ... changed."

For a moment Ista doubted what she had seen. But no: it was dy Corval, not dy Alcazar, in whom that curious violet glow had coiled. And it was dy Corval, Ista was sure, who had courted and wed Rienore in such a flurry.

"I believe," she said gently, laying her hand over Rienore's on the embroidered cloth, "that it is your husband who is changed: and not for the better."

V

Illvin had broken his fast on no more than tea and a handful of dried fruit. "I'll seek out dy Corval," he'd told Ista, "and speak to him man to man. Perhaps he will tell me what he would not tell you, love."

"And I'll pay a visit on dy Alcazar," said Ista. "It's stopped snowing, has it not?" The man's absence from the castle was unsurprising, considering his grievance with its lord, but Ista had to find out what he knew. What he had seen.

She'd despatched Foix to enquire the way to the man's house, and was winding a second scarf about her neck when dy Cabon emerged from the hall.

"May I walk with you, Royina?"

Dy Cabon was so bundled against the cold that Ista wondered he could walk anywhere at all: but she smiled and assented. Foix returned with directions; Liss found her other glove; and the four of them emerged into the bright cold morning.

"I have spoken with the Temple divine," murmured dy Cabon.

Ista took a deep breath of frosty air. She hadn't realised until now how oppressive an atmosphere had pervaded the castle. "Had the divine anything of import to tell you?"

"Only that dy Corval had been strangely ... unmoved, at the funeral of a former friend just before the Father's Day."

"Was that dy Paguer's funeral?" enquired Foix.

"That may have been the name, yes," said dy Cabon. "His soul was taken up by the Bastard, which surprised everyone; he'd been married, though no children had blessed the union. Still, the Bastard looks after His own."

Ista scowled. To the extent of sending me to resolve their amatory differences. "And dy Corval?"

"He disconcerted the Bastard's acolyte, Jemiro, by staring at him throughout the ceremony," reported dy Cabon. "He -- dy Corval -- had come to the Temple in the company of the Lady Rienore, and Jemiro was surprised to see him so attentive -- in such a place -- to a ... well, a lady."

"As though he were trying to prove something?" said Ista.

"Royina, the house is further on," said Foix.

Ista found herself turning aside from the main street of Carascola, along a narrower way. She had been quite sure that this was the way she should go. Quite sure that she needed to go this way.

"Indulge me, Foix," she said crisply. "It's a fine morning and there is no appointed time for our visit."

The road proved to lead to a walled garden, with a frozen fountain at its centre and bare-branched apple trees ringing the ice-white lawn. Ista stood still, wondering what hand had guided her hither, and to what purpose.

Can you not see them? came a Voice, clear enough that surely the others -- especially dy Cabon, stamping his feet against the cold, ever eager for the voice of his God -- would hear it too. But the words were for Ista alone.

Can you not see them?

And she could. There was more snow on the ground, when she looked with her mind's eye: the sunny garden was cast into shade by a lowering sun, and the sky was pinkish with the last of the light. A few withered leaves lingered on branches that were now bare. Two men (dy Paguer, dy Valls?) fighting, breathing hard. Dy Corval striding towards them.

Ista was sure that if she could have turned her head, she would have seen dy Alcazar a few paces behind. But her vision focussed on the fighting men.

"Hold!" cried dy Corval. "You fool, Pag! For all your faults, I'd not see you dead!" But the older man glared at dy Corval as at an importunate stranger; lunged forward, and the other fell back, his sword-arm coming up; and dy Corval cried out and --

"Royina?" said Liss anxiously, and the touch of her gloved hand on Ista's arm jolted Ista from that winter's afternoon back into the sunlight of icy early spring. "Royina, are you well? Come, let us rest --"

"I must speak with dy Alcazar," said Ista raggedly. "I must tell him what I have seen."

*

Gulien dy Alcazar's house was a fine building of grey stone. Ista and her small entourage were greeted by the housekeeper and ushered into a small sunny room where a fire blazed. Tapestries of hunting scenes hung on every wall: above the fireplace were two swords, crossed, their ornamented hilts showing signs of wear.

Dy Alcazar kept them waiting for so long that Foix began to mutter of disrespect. When he finally came into the room the chill of winter hung around him.

"My most profound apologies, Royina: I had not expected your presence, and was about to ride out to Pelaya. My sister has been taken ill with some malaise, and desires my company; she wrote to me this morning."

"I am sorry to hear it," said Ista. "I shall not delay you long." She bade dy Cabon stay, but signalled Foix and Liss to withdraw; waited until they had settled themselves by the window before she asked, "Have you noticed any change in your friend dy Corval?"

"He is more than a friend," said dy Alcazar. "He is -- he was my lover."

Ista was not in a mood to be baited. "So I am told," she said coolly. "And yet you were ready to duel him. To first blood, my lord? Or to the death?"

Dy Alcazar flushed. Ista had to force herself to notice the little ways in which he was not like Arvol dy Lutez: the shape of his eyes, the way that he would not meet her gaze, the stillness of him.

"He had given me insult," said dy Alcazar. "He had called me ... he had insulted me before our friends; before his wife." There was a sour twist to his mouth.

"And this was enough to counter all the years before?"

"Marriage has altered him," said dy Alcazar bitterly.

"Was it truly marriage that did so?" said Ista. "Would the man you loved have wed in such haste?"

Dy Alcazar grinned. "The man I loved would not have wed at all," he said. "He and I ... We were sufficient unto one another." The brief flash of good humour drained from his face.

"I can tell you when he changed," said Ista, surprising herself a little. But she could tell it: could see it all, like someone else's memory in her mind. The Bastard's gift, of course. The Bastard's blessing, given to her to pass to this His own. "It was a winter's afternoon, was it not? Just before the Father's Day ..."

Dy Alcazar's lips moved soundlessly, but he did not speak aloud.

Ista went on, staring at the tapestry behind dy Alcazar as though she were simply describing the scene depicted there. The Bastard's vision was still ringingly clear in her mind. She doubted she'd recall this room in any such detail an hour from now.

"How do you know this, Lady?"

"It is given to me," said Ista thinly, "to run errands for my Lord Bastard."

"And because we were lovers, and the Bastard takes care of His own --"

"And because dy Corval now bears within him the Bastard's demon," Ista snapped, "it is my task to rid him of it."

"Demon?" exclaimed dy Alcazar. "Arias is demon-ridden?"

"I believe so," said Ista.

"That would ... that would explain a great deal," said dy Alcazar, shaking his head. "But ... why should a demon wish to take a wife?"

Ista recalled, with a shudder, some of the tales she'd heard from the possessed: of how their demons had driven them to excesses of pain and pleasure, to foul indulgences and dangerous excesses. But dy Corval had only turned from one lover to wed another, and Rienore did not seem unhappy. If this was a demon, it was a creature of moderate habits.

"I do not know," she said. "Demons love chaos, and marriage is a kind of order."

"And what of the ... the child?" said dy Alcazar, with distaste. "Will it be ... will it be human, with a demon for its sire?"

"Though dy Corval's soul is twined with the demon," said dy Cabon diffidently, "it is his body that has engendered the child. And a child is the highest form of order: perhaps --"

"What is it, Learned?" said Ista, alarmed by dy Cabon's sudden nervousness.

"I may be wrong --"

"Speak!" said dy Alcazar: then bowed his head and muttered apology for his abruptness.

"I wonder," said dy Cabon, swallowing hard, "if the demon might seek another mount. A fresh mount."

VI

Illvin met them at the castle gate. "Dy Corval is a connoisseur of horseflesh," he said, "and quite enamoured of your Demon. I believe he means to ask you if you'd consider parting with him."

Ista raised her eyebrows. "Is that the sum of your masculine discussions?"

"Not at all," said Illvin, taking her hand and warming it between his own. "Come, Royina, let me help you out of your swaddlings."

Liss and Foix, at Illvin's look, took themselves off -- perhaps to the stables to guard Demon against dy Corval's blandishments -- and dy Cabon headed towards the kitchens, leaving Ista and Illvin alone.

"Dy Corval knows that something within him has changed," said Illvin as they climbed the stairs. "But he ascribes it to the blow he sustained from dy Valls' sword, when he tried to break up that duel. He is a soldier: he knows that head wounds can change a man."

"I never heard of a wound that'd turn a man's heart from one sex to the other," said Ista.

"Indeed. I did not speak of his demon, if such it be: but I told him of the, the holy task you had been given, to seek out the afflicted and loose their demons' hold on them, so that they may be rid of what rides them and live free again. He seemed ..." Illvin paused at the door of their chamber, considering. "Uneasy," he decided.

Ista snorted. "He and Demon are well-matched," she said. "And Demon -- well, he knows demons, of old."

"Purging dy Corval of his rider may prove more difficult than removing a demon from a horse," said Illvin.

"It must be done," said Ista, "and swiftly." Pulling off her heavy coat and discarding scarves and gloves, she apprised Illvin of the meat of her conversation with dy Alcazar, and the horrific conclusion reached by dy Cabon.

"The sooner the better, then," concurred Illvin. "Tonight?"

"Today," said Ista. "Why wait?"

"Do you not wish to speak to the Lady Rienore?"

"Rienore is strong," said Ista. She did not add, and has a simpler choice to make than was ever mine. "She knows of my suspicions concerning her husband. And there's the baby to think of. She will endure."

*

Ista sent a servant with a letter for dy Alcazar, requiring his presence urgently at the castle. That left dy Corval, and Ista knew where to find him: donning her coat again, she headed for the stables.

As she'd suspected, Dy Corval was still there, making much of Demon: the fickle beast was slobbering against his shoulder, a favour he seldom bestowed on any save Ista, but the March did not seem to mind.

"Royina!" he greeted her. "My apologies for my absence: your horse is very fine. I had a mount who was almost his equal: but he is dead."

"I'm sorry for it," said Ista. Now that she was surer of what to look for, she could see the demon curled like a kitten within dy Corval. Screaming horror it might be, awoken, but for now it was quiet and subdued, perhaps calmed by the peace that dy Corval had evidently found here in the gloomy, chilly stable.

"I do not know if Lord Illvin told you the tale of this horse," said Ista. "Once, he was too wild for any but the most skilled horseman."

"And you ... tamed him, Royina?" said dy Corval doubtfully, with a look that assessed Ista's build and strength and found her wanting.

"In a sense, my lord," said Ista. "I rid him of the demon that had possessed him."

There was a surge of violet light within dy Corval's torso: he shot Ista a wary look.

"A demon?" he said. "I had heard there were more abroad, of late."

"The Empress of Jokona loosed a great many into the world," said Ista. "Though I do not know, Lord dy Corval, whence yours came."

"My ...?" said dy Corval, with hollow surprise. "I have no demon!"

"You do, my lord," said Ista firmly. "It has ridden you since dy Paguer's death; it has moved you to turn from Gulien dy Alcazar and wed the Lady Rienore; it has made you something other than what you were."

"They said you were mad," spat dy Corval, turning abruptly from Demon to glare at Ista. The violet light roiled within him. "Do you think I --"

"Royina!" came Foix's voice from the stable door. "Is all well?"

Ista breathed again. She had hoped to spare dy Corval a public reckoning, but his demon was riding high, and that was no longer a sensible option. Brave Foix, waiting in silence for so long.

She straightened her back and gathered her dignity. "Come into the castle with me," she bade dy Corval, "and we will discuss this further, in the company of those whom it touches most nearly."

*

Dy Corval checked when he saw dy Alcazar standing by the window of the small room that Rienore had chosen for this meeting: but he walked forward, and nodded stiffly to his former lover, and bent to kiss Rienore's cheek.

Ista's party outnumbered their hosts'. Dy Cabon, wheezing slightly, sat poring over a well-thumbed book - Ordol's Five-fold Pathway, Ista saw, though she'd have thought he had it by heart. Foix stood by the door, guarding against unwanted ingress. Or egress. Illvin was leaning against the mantelpiece, chatting to dy Alcazar about the weather. Ista had sent away the maid: Liss was pouring glasses of spiced wine. Rienore, in her padded chair at the fireside, seemed calm enough, but she glanced again and again at dy Alcazar, who did not meet her gaze, and at dy Corval, who -- though as outwardly composed as his wife -- contained a tumultuous storm of emotion.

The chair opposite Rienore was invitingly empty, but Ista chose to stand. She cleared her throat and waited until she had their attention.

"This can't go on," she said without preamble. "My lord dy Corval is demon-ridden, and I mean to send that demon back to the Bastard's Hell from whence it came."

"Is there no other way?" said dy Corval. He was not, Ista noted, denying the demon's existence now. Perhaps he was more master of it than she'd thought: perhaps it was under his control for the moment. Perhaps.

"If you wait until the babe is born," said Ista, with a smile of pity of Rienore who must bear that child, "I fear the demon will leap to a new mount."

Dy Alcazar frowned in puzzlement, but Rienore took Ista's meaning instantly. "My baby!" she cried, leaping to her feet and very nearly upsetting her wine. Liss reached out quickly and steadied the glass. "It shan't have my baby!"

"But he would be free of it?" enquired dy Alcazar, gesturing at dy Corval.

Rienore shot him a look of such venom that he stepped back a pace.

"He is my husband, and this," she spread her hand over her flat belly, "our child. Ours! None of yours!"

"Peace!" snapped Ista before dy Alcazar could retaliate. "I will undertake to rid you of the demon, Lord dy Corval, as is my God-given task. I cannot undo what the demon has wrought upon the three of you."

Dy Cabon cleared his throat. "Demons engender chaos," he offered. "I fear that much chaos has been ... brought to you all."

"And how may I be rid of it?" said dy Corval scornfully. "Prayer? Deprivation? Good works?"

"Come here," said Ista, "and I will send the demon home."

Dy Corval glanced at Illvin, as though for permission.

"I suggest that you obey the Royina," said Illvin softly, and Ista saw that both dy Corval and dy Alcazar tensed against the implacability of his tone.

Dy Corval came forward reluctantly, looking down his nose at Ista. Close to her, his resemblance to Ias -- a younger, more joyful Ias, unbowed by the curse -- was even more pronounced. And though the violet spark of the demon fluttered and panicked within him, dy Corval met Ista's gaze without flinching.

Ista stood on tiptoe, steadied herself with one hand on dy Corval's shoulder, and kissed him on the mouth. His lips were firm and cool, and his mouth tasted of hot metal. Rienore made a wordless sound of distress; dy Alcazar sighed exasperation. Ista was tempted to deepen the kiss, but she had work to do here. She opened her mouth wider, and gulped, not with her body but with her ... mind? Soul? Heart?

And the demon streamed, slid, gushed into her like ...

Ista blushed at the image that sprang to mind -- surely one of the Bastard's tasteless gifts! -- and drew back from the kiss, raising her free hand to her lips to suppress an unladylike belch.

Dy Corval swayed on his feet, staring at her. Dy Alcazar strode forward just in time to catch him as he fell.

Illvin was at Ista's side, ready to help her to the chair by the fire; but she stood straight and smiled at him, willing him to see that she was not diminished by her deed.

Rienore had hastened to dy Corval's other side, and hovered over him in what Ista took for anxiety. Dy Corval groaned, and sat up slowly like a man roused from sleep: and Rienore slapped him hard.

"You ... you ...!"

"Lady," growled dy Alcazar.

"It was a lie all along, wasn't it, Arias?" Ista could hear the tears, and the rage, in Rienore's voice: but though her eyes blazed and glittered, she did not weep. "You lied to me! You lied!"

Dy Corval's face was white where she'd struck him, and red everywhere else. He said slowly, "I did not mean you harm, Rienore. I ... I have loved --"

"That wasn't you," said Rienore flatly. Gathering her skirts about her, she rose to her feet and stood for a moment looking down at her husband. Then she turned that cold burning gaze on dy Alcazar. "He's yours now, my lord."

Her child will have no father, if she leaves him, came a Voice in Ista's ear.

I don't understand thought Ista fiercely. But she knew she lied. It was not, or not only, dy Corval and dy Alcazar who belonged to the Bastard, here. It was not dy Corval and dy Alcazar that she had been brought to save.

"Lady Rienore," said Ista, stepping forward. She did not like to embrace this angry, agonised creature, but she put her hand on the other woman's shoulder, promising comfort if it were sought. "I most earnestly beseech you to prayer: for if you go to the gods with an open heart and an empty will, you will find yourself ... filled."

VII

The morning dawned bright and clearer, and all around the courtyard icicles dripped onto the flagstones. Somewhere, there was birdsong. Looking up at the eggshell-blue sky, Ista gave thanks wherever it might be due for the coming of spring.

"I pray you will care for Demon, my lord," Foix was saying earnestly to dy Corval. "He is wilful, sometimes, but if you ..."

"Fine thing, to swap a wife for a horse," muttered Goram. Ista tried not to giggle as she shushed him.

If Rienore was sad to be leaving the castle, she hid it well. Her belongings were packed onto a single mule: another mule bore her maid. She edged her bay mare closer to Ista's new mount, a fine dapple-grey gelding. It had been a gift from dy Alcazar, but Ista would not hold that against the beast.

"The weather is more seasonable already, Royina," said Rienore. "Is it true, that snow never falls in Visping?"

"Not a single flake while I was there this winter," said Ista. "The benefits of a maritime climate, my son-in-law tells me. And I feel that the salt air will help good dy Cabon's cough more effectively than any poultice or potion that he's tried of late."

Rienore looked back at the castle door, where Liss and Foix had appeared, laden with baggage and red-faced in the heavy wool coats that had been such necessary protection a few days before. Dy Cabon came behind them, talking earnestly to Illvin and dy Alcazar.

"Do you think I've made the right choice, Royina?" murmured Rienore.

"If you stayed," Ista replied, equally softly, "what would you have done? Grown bitter and cold while your husband gave all his warmth, his whole heart, to another?" She smiled at Rienore. "Sometimes it's better to walk away." And you are free to do so, as I was not. And they are free to love. To live.

"My child ..." said Rienore, hand resting beneath her heart. "My child will be fatherless."

"The Bastard looks after His own," said Ista. Goram was marshalling the party; everyone was mounted and ready to ride; dy Corval and dy Alcazar stood together at the gate, dy Alcazar laughing and dodging aside as meltwater dripped onto his bare head. "You and the babe will fare well in Visping, Lady Rienore; and I am sure that Lord dy Corval will be glad to see his child, if you wish it."

"And it's a beautiful spring day, Lady Rienore," said Liss. Half-standing in her stirrups, she pulled down a branch to show the pink buds that festooned it. "Thank the gods the weather's changed!"

I know which God to thank, thought Ista: but she only smiled, and nudged her mount round to follow Illvin as he rode past.

A fanfare of birdsong was their farewell from Carascola: and at the roadside, primroses were starting to flower in their season.

-end-