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Tdor watched with open admiration as Inda tied off his thread into a knot. Gnarled and scarred as his hands were, he still sewed far more neatly than she did. He flexed his hand and broke the thread before she could offer a knife. “There. I’d always meant to reinforce that cuff. Now it’s done.”

Then he smoothed his hands tenderly over the wedding shirt that Tdor had made and embroidered, stitch by painful stitch, that terrible year. He held it up, smiling at Tdor, his brown eyes as warm and innocent of guile as they’d been when he was ten years old.  “Are you certain our daughter really wants my shirt instead of getting someone there to make one for Fox’s boy?”

“That’s what she said. Or,” Tdor amended conscientiously. “Shendan said she said. Hadand didn’t dare write directly and ask. Well, she couldn’t, with that broken arm. But I gather she was afraid we'd see it as an imposition.”

“I'm surprised one of the Darchelde girls didn't offer to make one in her stead. I know they all get along well,” Inda said.

Tdor turned up her hand. “Do you really want to hear the gossip about it? There’s more than you might think.”

“About wedding shirts?” Inda said incredulously. Then rolled his eyes at his own stupidity. “Right, people can make a fuss over anything. What’s this about?”

“Here goes, and you can stop me at any time. So, last autumn Fabern Ola-Vayir said it was a servant’s job to make wedding shirts, and she is a future gunvaer. Liet the peacemaker offered instead. Hastred made the mistake of thanking her when Fabern could hear, so Fabern threw a fit, and Hadand said that Hastred would get a new House tunic as next king, and no one would see his shirt under it.  That was supposed to end the matter. But of course it didn’t. It caused a furor among the girls, who pretty much all loathe Fabern, save the inevitable few bootlickers.”

Tdor scribbled in the air, indicating the letters constantly crossing the kingdom. “In the course of righteous indignation the girls somehow dragged in Mudface Tya-Vayir, who—you probably don’t even know this—hadn’t made Hawkeye’s wedding shirt, or her current husband’s, what’s-his-name Ola-Vayir.”

“They still talk about Dannor?” Inda grimaced. “A day is a good one when I don’t have to think about her. I really wish you’d burn that tapestry.”

“I will give you anything else you ask for, my dear, but your mother loves that tapestry. So does everyone else in the castle. Don’t look at it.”

“Ugh,” Inda grumped.

“So, to wind this up, there’s a fervor for being traditional right now, and I guess Shendan suggested that there were few things more traditional than using your father’s wedding shirt, if it was still around. Of course she knows yours is, because I’ve told her in letters that you always wear it on our anniversary, and our Hadand talks about her happy memories growing up and seeing you wearing it when we celebrate our wedding day.”

Tdor kissed Inda again, then added, “Finally, Shendan made a very good point in saying that if carried it to them then took it away, instead of sending it by a runner, everybody would be happy—and I’d get to see a daughter married. Which few of us do. I doubt very much that Evred would object to my crossing the border into Darchelde.”

That settled it for Inda. “Promise you’ll bring it back? You know I can’t wear anything else that day.”

Tdor laughed. “Inda, I did a dreadful job on this shirt. I wouldn’t even take it to Darchelde if it wasn’t our daughter who asked for it.”

He just smiled at her, and she gazed back helplessly. Useless to explain to him that though she’d used the very best linen, she knew her embroidery was terrible, even worse than her seam sewing. That wedding shirt had only meant to be worn the once. She had begged him for years to let her order a new one, most often in recent years when he romped with the children and tore one of the seams she had sewn so badly. She always felt terrible, especially when he ran upstairs to mend it. He certainly ought not to have to repair his own wedding shirt!

“I love it because you made it,” he said, rising to kiss her. “But it has to come back. It has to be this one, the one I wore on the first of the happiest days of my life.”

“At least let me fix the boats,” she pleaded—she had planned to try improving the shirt on the journey to Darchelde, just to uphold the honor of Choreid Elgaer.

Inda’s gaze brightened, then glistened. She held her breath, but the tears didn’t fall.

He laughed inside, that laughter so close to tears that it hollowed him to the heart, at the notion that his beloved Tdor would ‘improve’ the embroidery of the boats when she still had never seen a ship and would not know one from an actual boat. Her generosity made him love her more, a love so deep and so powerful it sometimes hurt, though he could never figure out why.

His smile widened, and she said, “You’re laughing at me.”

“Never.”

“Well I’m laughing at my every crooked stitch,” she said, sighing. At least, she thought wistfully, the repairs he’d made in his neat sailor stitching made the sorry thing slightly less disreputable-looking.

The way he ran his rough thumb over the knots in her embroidery before he handed it to her made it clear that he cherished the errors, though for the life of her she could not comprehend why. But she knew she would never completely understand him. She loved him the fiercer for it, she reflected as she took the shirt, folded it up, and slid it into the bag that would rest in her saddle gear during the trip to Darchelde.

First they had to say their goodbyes. Their eldest son Jarend, of course, was gone with Whipstick and the riders on their border round, and Kenda was in the royal city, finishing his year as a horsetail. To keep from straining the rules too much, they had agreed that Inda would skirt Darchelde’s border and ride directly to the royal city, so that Tdor could go into the treaty-forbidden Montredavan-An jarlate with the wedding shirt their daughter had requested.

She and Inda went first to the Iofre’s tower to bid her farewell, then walked hand and hand through the castle, Tdor with the precious bag tucked under her free arm. Rialden Marlo-Vayir’s voice rose from the stable court as she drilled the castle girls under Noren’s watchful eye.

The strict lines broke up when Inda and Tdor appeared, carrying their travel bags. The girls shrilled their farewells and pelted Tdor with verbal messages to pass to Hadand, which only ended when a runner appeared to say that the honor guard was ready with saddled horses.

All those on liberty, or who could find an excuse to be near the front gates, promptly gathered to cheer them as they rode out.

Tdor’s heart brimmed with sweet and poignant memory: the last time she and Inda had taken a long ride together was soon after their wedding. She had felt so old then, but now, looking back, it seemed they were so very young.

Of course there was no Signi this time, long departed to the north. Yet she was present in mind, for Tdor rode to keep a promise, though Inda was not going to find out about it.

She and the riders matched pace with Inda, effortless and unspoken so that it seemed a natural gait; Tdor had come to understand that the best thing she could do for Inda was to avoid presenting him with two equally balanced choices, in which the one not chosen might cause him as much regret as the chosen one would content him.  She knew that though he was intensely, gratefully happy on the surface, he was also aware of that happiness. It seemed he would never again be capable of the sublime obliviousness with which everyone else took happiness for granted.

Even the weather seemed to cooperate, except for one fast-moving storm that resulted in them huddling together within a single bedroll, and laughing as if they were boy and girl again as they tried to fit the angles and curves of bodies within the narrow confines of fabric constructed to contain one.

The next morning they emerged into a cooler world from which summer’s dust had been washed. They rode on under a pure sky, occasionally singing ballads, she with her scarcely adequate soprano, and Inda harmonizing with an unexpectedly fine, deep baritone.

A week later they reached Darchelde under a sky streaked with high clouds. Aware of a riding of pair of Montrei-Vayir scouts who had withdrawn to a circumspect distance once they spotted the green-and-silver owl banner, she and Inda paused to say their farewells.

Tdor leaned over to kiss him, careful to keep her smile bright. She knew that any sign of tears would hurt him. “I look forward to seeing you and Kenda again,” she said.

“You too,” Inda muttered into her neck.

A quick, hard squeeze that left her breathless, and Inda and his honor guard trotted up the north turnoff, banners fluttering in the summer breeze. The king’s Guard fell in behind at a respectful distance.

Tdor signaled with a raised fist to her riding of women and turned east into the wooded hills.

They were spotted by a roving patrol before nightfall. The Montredavan-An riders led them to a good inn, where they spent the night, setting out at sunup the next day in order to reach Darchelde castle before sunset.

Halfway there they were met by a group at the gallop. Tdor’s heart lurched when she recognize in the lead rider her daughter’s flyaway hair.

“Ma!” Hadand—known to the Montredavan-An family as Arrow—shouted as soon as she could be heard, Inda’s grin brightening her round face.

Tdor ran her gaze hungrily over her lanky daughter, noting that though of course the broken arm that had occasioned her bringing Inda’s wedding shirt had healed enough to enable her to leave off the sling, Hadand was still favoring her right hand. Though she never admitted it out loud, Arrow was always Hadand to her mother, who had honored Hadand-Gunvaer with the name. ‘Arrow’ was a name for her daughter’s Montredavan-An life, all quite appropriate, but Tdor secretly cherished what she could of her daughter’s Algara-Vayir life.

As the parties closed, Hadand was already uttering a stream  of questions that Tdor could not answer fast enough—and she must wait to ask her own, knowing that that time would come.

It did, as they crested a hill and approached the castle. There they paused, Hadand grinning with pride as her mother gazed and gazed, clearly impressed. Tdor privately thought Darchelde handsomer than Evred’s castle in the royal city, an opinion she kept to herself.

She had no occasion to change that opinion as they arrived under the eyes of alert female sentries, black and gold banners flying over their heads. Marend and Shendan were both there at the great doors to greet her, dark hair and light side by side.

Marend spoke words of welcome with smiling grace, and Shendan shot out an insouciant stream of jokes as Tdor was introduced to Young Shen, Fox and Marend’s daughter, the redhead who’d ridden to greet her with Hadand—and to whom Tdor had paid scarce attention, as all her mind was on her daughter. Then Shendan pulled forward a quiet, shy woman wearing a scribe’s robe. Her otherwise undistinguished features were dominated by a pointed chin that made Tdor wonder if she were related to the Cassads.

“This is Tesar,” Shen said with a proprietary air, then slid her arm around Tesar’s waist as the latter blushed.

Tdor thought with pleasure, Shendan’s got someone! She hoped for Shen’s sake that Tesar was a keeper, unlike Shen’s here-today-gone-tomorrow relationships when they were all young.

Tdor conscientiously paid off all arrears of attention now as the complication of Marend’s children by her mate and their respective cousins and first runners all were presented to her notice. She fell into the well-remembered pattern of being an appreciative audience, inwardly wondering if she was ever to see the mysterious Fox, when a tall, lean, black-clad man sauntered down a broad carved stairway.

Tdor stared, at first disbelieving that Evred Montrei-Vayir, King of Iasca Leror, could possibly have entered the citadel of his family’s ancient enemy. But then she saw that this man was more slender, his hair a brighter red, his bony face like and yet unlike Evred’s; most convincing was the difference in their manner, for Evred had never lounged with that careless grace, rather like a large and very intimidating hunting cat.  

Fox said, “Tdor? Welcome. I take it Inda chose to spare our watchdogs. Too bad! But he always had a soft heart.”

Not sure how to respond to that, Tdor said truthfully, “He asked me to pass along his greetings, and he’ll stop on his way back.”

“His last visit, no doubt?” Fox retorted.

“Next year will be Kenda’s last as a horsetail,” Tdor said, not certain how much else she ought to say.

But Fox’s slanted green gaze contained no question or surprise, and she suspected he knew very well that Inda was little likely to leave Choreid Elgaer again once his younger son came home for the last time. Despite the king’s repeated invitations—cordial to the point of fervency, but never quite to the level of orders—to attend Convocation, to visit the royal city.  Tdor knew why the king wrote the way he did, and was thankful that Inda had never figured it out.

She realized time had passed as she considered these things, the pause having turned into a silence. She looked up, embarrassed, but Fox’s expression hadn’t changed.

Tdor found the idea of his awareness curiously unsettling. Something she needed to reflect on, she decided as Shendan waved an impatient hand and said, “Let’s not stand around all day, shall we?”

And Tdor was swept along to a dining hall, where fresh biscuits, excellent cheese, and newly picked grapes awaited them.

Fox didn’t stay to eat. Marend did, as a good host, but she remained largely silent as Hadand and Shendan competed with the evident ease of long habit, alternately talking and demanding news of everyone.

Tdor remembered to pass along the greetings from the castle girls. Hadand listened with a milder echo of Inda’s intensity, and Tdor was glad she’d remembered them all.

At the end, Hadand leaned forward. “Did you remember to bring it?”

In answer, Tdor picked up the bag that she’d set down beside her mat, and slid out Inda’s shirt. Marend stared down in diplomatic silence as Hadand spread it over the table, running her hands over the sadly lopsided ships and suns and running horses that were as fat as sheep and crook-legged as nothing that had ever lived. Tdor could see Marend's diplomatic stone face, but Shendan’s expression was more difficult to parse. Tdor had prepared herself for risibility, teasing, friendly scorn—she deserved it all—but her insides still cramped in anticipation.

Shendan’s expression was . . . odd

“I am not very good at embroidery,” Tdor felt obliged to say to those intent gazes, her face heating.

“You made it that year,” Marend murmured, stretching out a hand, but not quite touching it.

Shendan looked up, her eyes unexpectedly glistening. With tears? Impossible. Not Shendan. It had to be suppressed laughter. And indeed, she drawled, “I would have been even drunker.”

“Shen!” Marend hissed, scandalized.

Shendan spread her hands, nonchalant as she had been as a teen. “It looks here like Tdor had had a few stiff ones before taking up her needle. And who would blame her? It was a terrible year.”

Hadand gathered up the shirt and pressed it close. “My da has worn it every year on their wedding anniversary. Indevan said, if it makes me happy to see it and think of my parents’ happiness, then he’s happy to wear it.”

Shendan rolled her eyes. “Indevan learned that mush-mouthed palaver in the royal city. But he has plenty of time to grow out of it.”

Marend flicked an uncertain glance Tdor’s way, but Tdor of course had known Shendan of old, and that comment shifted the topic from the badly made shirt. Relieved, she said, “Arrow, go give that shirt to Indevan’s runner, will you? Shen, I insist you show me your magic spells. I want to be impressed!”

“And so you shall be! Though I’m a mere beginner. But! I can cast any type of illusion. And let me tell you my plans for the future . . .”

Shendan and Tesar led the way up the winding stairs, walking hand in hand. Tdor didn’t know what to expect to be revealed about magic as they led the way to the tower that Shendan had made her own for her studies. Of course Tdor had watched when Signi restored the cleaning spells over the baths and water barrels, but she’d still expected something more . . . grandiose.

Tesar then vanished behind a stack of books she seemed to be copying as Shendan put her hands on her hips and said, “Well! Where shall we begin teaching you about magic?”

Shendan explained that learning the basics of magic was very much like learning to read and write. It took time to master letters before any words could be read, and what she had been doing was the equivalent of learning letters and how to group them into the simplest words.

Then she entertained Tdor with making small illusions, which were tricks of light that appeared to be shapes and even people. Then Shendan squinted at Tdor, muttered, did something quick with her fingers, and Tdor suddenly faced herself. A ghostly self, as she could see the honey-colored stone wall through this Tdor.

But for a few moment she looked into her own face, a worn face that called Tdor’s mother very much to mind. Long body, hands with large knuckles. When did they get that large? As for the rest—it was not a memorable face or form, brown and plain. But it showed her years of experience. Good years. Tdor liked those happiness lines at the corners of her eyes, and at either side of her plain mouth.

Then it dissolved into flickers of light. Illusions, after all, were merely tricks.

“So magic can’t make things?” she asked.

“Oh, you can, but it takes as much work as doing it with your hands. More, actually, for beginners. Magic is mostly for preserving things, like structures—roofs, walls, bridges. And purifying water. Except when, I gather, you get to the advanced magic, with which you can do things like travel from, say, here to the royal city in a heartbeat.”

“Really?” Tdor exclaimed. “That’s impossible.”

Shendan regarded Tdor fondly. Dear, practical Tdor, who never believed anything she couldn’t see. “Tdor, surely you’ve heard Inda’s stories. He was transferred like that, twice, on Ghost Island.”

Tdor glanced away. “Inda talks so little about those things that if I ever knew that, I’ve forgotten it.” What she couldn’t forget was Inda’s insistence on having seen actual ghosts on that island. To Tdor that episode had been evidence of how much his rough life had nearly driven him to madness, until Signi’s strange tale about seeing actual ghosts at the end of that mutual slaughter in the Andahi Pass. Neither Inda nor Tdor liked remembering that time.

“Well, it can. But I won’t get to learn it. I doubt Young Shen will, either. Did I mention I’m teaching her? But her daughter might. Did you know she and Biscuit Noth look like they’ll make a match?”

“Biscuit Noth—oh yes, Flatfoot’s son. How did they meet?”

“He did his year of patrolling the border,” Shendan said. “I don’t know exactly how they met—how do youngsters ever meet? But she volunteered to ride the inside border, and when he got liberty he was able to slip in, and  . . .” She spread her hands. “They’ll make it work, somehow, if Evred Montrei-Vayir doesn’t decide to put them both up against a wall for treason.”

“Shendan,” Tesar murmured in mild reproach, then ducked down again behind her citadel of books.

“His ancestor assassinated my ancestor, and not all that long ago,” Shendan retorted in a less heated voice. “But that ride is long over, I know, I know. To return to my point, I intend to establish a magic learning center right here in Darchelde. All it will take it getting one of us to Sartor to learn, and bring back what she learns. You know it’ll have to be a she. I doubt the Sartorans would trust one of our ravening barbarian males.”

“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Tdor said, from old habit cutting off Shendan’s flights into sarcastic hyperbole.

Her sincerity stopped Shendan, who regarded her, lips parted. The sarcasm in her expression vanished. Shendan uttered a laugh. “Of course I can’t goad you into a completely unfair and yet strangely satisfying tirade against the Sartorans orEvred Montrei-Vayir. Let’s do something constructive instead. You listened to me maunder about learning magic for two years. How would you like some lessons in the basics of magic?”

Tdor said, “Yes!”

Shendan promptly launched into a stream of talk, interspersed with what sounded like nonsense language. She did her very best to cram several years into a single lesson, with the inevitable result: Tdor was soon hopelessly confused.

She strove to focus until Shendan stopped abruptly. “You’re bored.”

“I’m not,” Tdor protested.

“You look bored.”

“I’m . . . lost,” Tdor admitted.

“Why didn’t you stop me half a watch ago?”

“Because you are clearly enjoying telling me. I guess I’m enjoying your enthusiasm more than I’m actually learning,” Tdor said.

Shendan cast a deep, hissing sigh, and rolled her eyes so hard that Tdor felt them clank against her own skull. No, that was incipient headache.

“There you go again,” Shendan said, a tremor of laughter in her voice. She didn’t explain where Tdor was going, but swept toward the door. “Look at the light.” She waved at the window. “The watch bell is about to ring. Let’s go on down. I’m ready for supper. Aren’t you?”