The worst part about being injured was everybody making a fuss.
Fialla lounged on the couch out in the sun, feeling curiously enervated. Everyone was being deliberately, excessively kind: the armsmen so obliviously there in the casual errands they kept finding near her, so that one was always in call; the Reader sardonically silent as she trimmed out the burnt curls in Fialla’s hair – she had raised one eyebrow when Fialla had insisted on a second mirror to check that her hair was even all the way around – but she had taken the extra time to make sure all was tidy, just the same. Even young Zormerian had managed the impossible and presented her with a handful of stale, fragile, and ever so precious tea leaves. And what a world of trouble that would have saved me, if he’d found them a day earlier, she thought wryly.
A shadow loomed against the westering sun. She squinted. Ah, young Baldyron back at last from whatever errand he’d been sent on. “Hast heard thou’rt wounded,” he said. He dropped to one knee, and took the hand that wasn’t tucked inside a sling in his fingers. “King Sedry’s death is no loss.”
“I’m fine, really,” Fialla replied. She wasn’t, not really; a fit of tears was hovering behind the fatigue, but she would, she thought, be fine in a little while. “I don’t need all this attention, you know. It’s such a paltry thing against the injuries you’ve all been taking this summer.”
“Didst not volunteer, don armour, take up arms,” Bal’s face darkened. He hesitated, his face softer. “There is one I would speak with.”
“About that,” Fialla said, “she’s already gone.”
He rose suddenly. “So that is the way of it. Couldst not wait a day for me. I see.”
Fialla reached to catch Baldyron’s arm before he could go, and bit back a cry as the coin sized burn on her arm jarred against the arm of the couch. “No, it isn’t like that! Gespry will explain it to you, and your father.”
He steadied her by her good arm. “Then I will speak to my father on the matter. And your Gespry. Farewell, good lady.” As he strode away in the late afternoon light, she wondered if she would ever see him again.
And then the packing was finished and it was time to go, and her Gespry brought her horse to her. “I wish you’d all stop worrying about me,” she whispered, “I’m not made of glass, you know.”
Gespry ducked his head, his face breaking into that sunrise smile he’d always reserved just for her – and how could anyone have believed Elfrid’s masquerade, that had known the true Gespry, she thought peevishly. “Dear Heart,” Gespry said, “you care for us all. Allow us to be afraid for you, just this once.” Fialla sighed, and wrapped her good arm around her lover, feeling his bony hips, the thick bandages that supported the twist in his spine even after all this time, the rigid scars along his ribs. The wind brought with it the chill of departing summer.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
The autumn roses were hanging heavy on their stalks. Soon, she would take a knife and trim them, excising the old dead blooms, tying up the tender stalks to guard them against winter winds. In spring, they would bloom again, and perhaps she would be there to see them, budding out of the new wood. Juseppa had always preferred spring, anyway.
She sat in the garden, enjoying one of the precious fine days of the season, her language tutor and a grammar with her to keep her occupied. One of her honour maidens approached her: “The King is here to speak with you, m’lady.” Juseppa stood and made her own courtesy, but the new King, Rolend, waved her to sit down with him.
“I bring a letter from your father,” he said. “I thought you would like to see it soonest.”
She smiled her thanks, briefly, on the cusp of impersonally but with a hint of warmth, as she’d been taught by her etiquette tutor, and reached out a graceful hand for the letter. She read it in demure silence, then: “I am to stay here and marry you.”
Rolend nodded. “So he said in his letter to me. But you will have thoughts and wishes, too, I think. And hopes?”
Juseppa peeped up at him through her eyelashes. He had a nice smile, she thought. It seemed less needy than her betrothed Sedry’s had been, less carefully monitoring the watcher’s reactions to him. And her honour maidens were not so nervous around him. She’d never quite been able to say why she had felt a wrongness, just that they had seemed to flutter and shy away when the King came to visit her; as they had not done with the other nobles of Arolet, as her mother’s ladies had not done with her father.
Still, there was no book, no conduct guide or etiquette that would lead her through this situation. Her tutors might explain to her the politics of the arrangement between King Rolend and her father, but she would be living it. She looked up: “I hope that I may do my duty to you, your Majesty.”
Rolend gently took her hands. “I hope that someday, my lady, you might feel more towards me than duty.”
It was bitterly cold in the convent. Through frosted glass, Sigurdy could see snow falling, a settled hush over the garden. The letters in her hands fell to the table, Morelis burbling about her family or some such, Merasma complaining about something her sister had said again, a short note from Rolend: doing his duty, she thought with a curled lip. Nothing from her boys Sedry and Hyrcan, nothing ever again.
Sedry had always been a disappointment to her – too greedy, too indolent, always with one eye to the main chance without the stamina to see his goals to their true end. Hyrcan had been her child, a knife held against the throat of the North, the exercise of true power in all its brutal forms. Know what you want and get it, she had always told him, even when he was young and his baby soft eyes glowed at the thought of a new toy. She might have played high, and paid the price of it, but no one would accuse her of half measures.
And now they both were dead, and what was left to her but the fluttering of nuns, and insipid mewling daughters, and one remaining son gone womanish and soft, even as his father had. What use was compassion in the harsh winter; what use compromise in the drought and the famine?
But Sigurdy rose stiffly and made her way to the Chapel at Elenes. She knelt, with old cold bones creaking in the damp, and she prayed to the Two, for the first time in her life truly, for the souls of her sons.
In the city of Anduges, in the great public gardens, the cherry blossoms were falling. Elfrid wandered beneath the trees, white petals drifting downwards, her face rapt. She held out her palms to feel the gentle patter on her hands and tried to suppress a laugh of joy. In Arolet, there was nothing like, neither cherry blossom trees, nor these big open spaces that the city maintained, for anyone at all to walk in. She would have to tell Rolend about it, she thought.
“A flower for the pretty lady?” One of the gardeners was holding out a twiglet of blossom, snapped off the tree. Elfrid accepted it gravely, and just as gravely tucked it in her hair. And just when was it, she wondered, that she had stopped minding the trappings of femininity, that it had stopped galling her to wear bright colours, or dance, or smile? Certainly, somewhere in the season she had lived in Gelborsedig her body had changed, relaxed – it’s recovery from injuries and nightshade poison had blossomed into gentle curves that, overlaying the hard muscle of a fighter in training, some might call womanly.
She strode around the artificial lake, taking in the cultivated beauty for one last time. And perhaps it was Gelborsedig itself, all these people who had no idea what to make of her. Here she was holding no mask of Bastard, or Armswoman, or Archbishop, and in despite of the local clothing she had adopted or the pidgin language she had learned, she was indisputably a stranger. Here she was simply Elfrid the Foreigner, and what was that to anyone in Anduges but what she decided it was going to be?
She loosened the heavy quilted jacket she wore. It was a necessary thing in these mountains, but the spring day would be warm and she would be riding for much of it. She quickened her pace as she neared the pack train waiting for her: Kestry, the merchant with an adventurous streak whom she’d gone into partnership with, his servants and guards, and, of course, her Bal. He was standing holding both their horses, his face solemn as he held conversation with the more lively Kestry, who gesticulated and pointed in the air to emphasise some comment. And what Baldyron was to her now, that was also hard to say. He wasn’t her husband, a shocking thing for a Darioner to confess. Nor could she truly call him her vassal, although he was that; nor her lover, and he was that also.
“Ah, Elfrid, explorer-lady, you return! With happy memories of beautiful city!” Kestry, bird-like, chivvied her to mount and be ready. “Now we go, I the clever merchant, you the brave explorer, and not forgetting your partner the doughty warrior, to make these staid Darion-folk sit up in their britches and admire our gloriousness, yes?” He grinned with good humour. “Onward to glory, good times, and the making of large sums of money!”
Elfrid swung easily into her saddle and caught Baldyron’s eyes. His face lightened into that secret smile he reserved for her – she felt her own eyes crinkle in response, a shy thing as a crocus flower.
Yes, partner was a good word for Bal.
It was dim in her cell of the Abbey at Rhames. Through the open window, the Reader could feel the crispness of the air, of summer just beginning to turn; and she heard the soft chanting of the monks, and the heavy rattle of the wooden swords that the armsmen used to train with. A year onwards, and the Darion affair was finally over, she thought, all wounds licked and life returned to normal. Already, her Archbishop was showing signs of restlessness and hunting for a new project to attend to.
Yes, it was the beginning of a new season, and perhaps a new pattern. She cut the cards, blind, then cut and recut them, an unspoken Question on her pale lips. The cards slid smoothly through her hands, and at last she turned over the Signifier.
The Princess of Flames lay before her, her naked sword gleaming, her face forthright with promise and intent. The Reader smiled and began to lay out cards around the Princess. A new Pattern had begun.