It started when Kourrem was a child. Not in the baby time she couldn’t remember, when she’d still had a mother and father, but after that, when she and Kara and Ishak lived hand-to-mouth, subsisting on fear-driven charity – we’ve fed you, now leave us alone; don’t curse our horses, our sons, our sword-hands: these are the words Kourrem remembers reading from men’s minds – and genuine flashes of kindness from Halef Seif.
Kourrem hated him a little for those flashes of kindness, wishing that he would fear and despise them like the rest of the Bloody Hawk so she could look down on him, too, but mostly he did not register in her early life, which consisted mostly of comforting Kara, trying to keep a leash on her roiling Gift, and ignoring hunger pangs. Oh, and talking to Ishak.
Ishak was strange, even for them. Strange and intense and ambitious, and as he grew getting more and more ideas about being the head of their rag-tag family and asserting his authority over Kara and Kourrem, like a normal man of the tribe. Foolishness, Kara murmured softly, mending his clothes. Idiocy, Kourrem said harshly, kicking his shins.
But later, when Ishak had stamped off with bruised legs and curse-words, Kourrem would have a change of heart and follow him. She would sit on the sand with him and talk, about all the places in the rest of Tortall where the Gifted were valued more. And Ishak would forget his pretended superiority, and his eyes would light up with dreaming of where they could go when they grew up, take Kara with them and find a niche somewhere – in Persopolis, or Port Legann, or even Corus. Even when Kara called Kourrem to help her cook, and when they joined the Voice and felt the battering wave of hostility and anxiety from the rest of the tribe, and when they curled up to sleep in the cold night under inadequate blankets, those dreams would stay with Kourrem and she was filled with a powerful impulse to just go, till every sinew strained to be rid of this patch of desert, this hateful chorus of frightened people.
Yes, that was how it started.
Kourrem was a child, not a fool. She knew exactly what Alanna and Prince Jonathan got up to that made the men raise their eyebrows and the women smirk behind their veils, muttering soft ribbons of commentary that made Kara blush. Perhaps Kourrem should have been embarrassed, as Kara was. Perhaps she should have lowered her eyes and ducked her head and crept out of sight when the prince appeared, if not out of embarrassment then out of respect for his rank.
Bah, Kourrem gave not a grain of sand for his rank – after all, she had been of a good family once, too; shamans since the desert sea swelled, long before the Contés crawled out of their trees and hills – and she cared nothing about what he did with Alanna, unless it woke her up. Alanna seemed to enjoy it, anyway, and there was clearly an agreement between the two of them, so Kourrem felt strongly that it was none of her business. Kourrem suspected that Alanna’s behaviour was just as improper for a good Tortallan lady as it was for a good Bazhir maiden, but found that she did not care very much; proprieties seemed largely irrelevant to a woman like Alanna. Kara’s attitude suggested that Kourrem ought to be appalled by this, but she was more intrigued than repelled.
So she cornered Prince Jonathan, and demanded that he tell her about Tortall, because Alanna had only travelled so far and tended to be preoccupied with saving people or vanquishing demons when she journeyed. Surprised, he tried to deflect her, but Kourrem had not been an outcast for years for nothing; her persistence could have broken a cavalry charge, let alone one callow, rather conceited prince. He liked her for her persistence, for her willingness to sit and listen to him ramble about his home and friends on the days when he was exhausted from his training and Alanna was busy. When he left, before the mess of fury and broken hearts that blew up with his – assumptions – and oh, how Kourrem wished that she’d warned Alanna, that she hadn’t taken it for granted that he’d spoken to her – he gave her a set of maps, and promised her a home in Corus and that he would sponsor her to a place as a mage’s student, if she wanted formal qualifications before she went travelling.
“Not that anyone will question your talent,” he added hastily as Kourrem’s dark eyes narrowed, her fingers tightening purposefully on the leather map case. “But – it might be useful. And someone like that could teach you more than I can, more than Alanna can. Alanna’s good, but she’s not a professional mage.”
“Huh,” Kourrem said, only slightly mollified and considering whether to be insulted by this slight to her teacher. She thanked him, and thought very hard about the opportunity he offered her. And every day, she took the maps out of their case, unrolled them and inspected them, planning routes, changing goals, mentally organising practicalities. Sometimes she talked to Alanna about it, and Alanna was as helpful as she could be considering that she was distracted and unhappy.
Kara watched Alanna with sad, knowing eyes, and Kourrem muttered curses on Prince Jonathan’s thick skull and typical Tortallan conceit, did her best to anticipate Alanna’s every whim, and carefully kept her maps out of Alanna’s sight.
Then Alanna was gone, and Kourrem was trapped, trapped, trapped among a people that still feared her. The men and women of the Bloody Hawk still preferred Kara as a shaman, and made it politely clear to Kourrem that her help wasn’t really wanted. Kara deferred to her, but it was so obvious that Kara knew exactly what to do and meant to do it no matter what Kourrem said that Kourrem never bothered going against her. The school was no use to her; all the teachers, even Umar Komm, let her know that her help wasn’t needed there, either, and ye gods, if Alanna was here she would have words to say about that – but Alanna wasn’t. Kourrem spent her time doing chores just to have something to do, and was never quite as good at them as Kara would have liked; it infuriated Kourrem, to see Kara quietly re-doing everything in the evenings when she was tired and should be resting, but she bit her tongue and said nothing.
She still studied her maps, tracing the careful ink outlines of roads and mountains – mountains; Alanna had described them, indulging her student’s obvious interest, but Kourrem still couldn’t begin to understand them – the blue washes of even more incomprehensible seas and lakes, and the curiously static Tortallan letters spelling out place-names. Kourrem murmured them under her breath like a spell as she went about her daily work, and smiled like the slice of a knife at those that gave her frightened, uncomprehending looks.
Once, Halef Seif asked to see her maps. She showed them to him, suspicious, ready to snatch them away from him if she had to. He smiled and complimented her on them, asking about her plans, and Kara smiled behind her veil to see someone be kind to her little Kourrem; if only she knew how much Kourrem resented this sweet courtesy of condescension.
Kourrem returned him brusque answers, painfully conscious that he had protected her and Kara and Ishak from the tribe’s fear and that she owed him some kind of politeness, and when he left to speak to Kara – the tribe’s shaman, the tribe’s only shaman; Kourrem knew that those who used to spit at her feet would never want her care, but unobtrusive, forgiving Kara was a different matter – Kourrem bit her lip till it bled and whispered the obscene curse-words Ishak had taught her.
Alanna came and went again. Ashamed of how she had wasted the chance Alanna had bought for her in Ibn Nazzir’s blood, Kourrem hid from her, and spent the entirety of the visit shredding her heart to pieces over the thought that she had let Alanna down.
She knew exactly which was the last cut, the cruellest cut of all, that severed her from the Bloody Hawk, and she knew she should have seen it coming. She was so clever, after all. Little Kourrem. So clever. So clever, and just stupid enough not to catch the murmured conversations, the consultations on the tribe’s business, the tender courtesies, the look in Kara’s eyes, the smile on his face...
It hit her like rain. The clouds had been gathering for months, and Kourrem had never spared a glance for the sky, but then it had poured down, hard and stinging as the stones the boys used to throw at her but also cold and drenching, soaking her to the skin in bitter betrayal.
“Oh,” she said without meaning to, a half-soundless cry of shock, breaking the soft peace inside the tent.
“Kourrem,” Kara gasped, her hands slipping from Halef Seif’s, and Kourrem stumbled backwards, away from the warm, muted light and the radiance in Kara’s face and her fingers laid trustingly in Halef Seif’s. Away from the glow in their eyes. Away from the tranquil companionship around them that made a mockery of Alanna and Prince Jonathan’s vibrancy.
Kourrem turned and ran out into the desert, stumbling on the sand and blinded by the salt in her eyes, and when she was so far from the tribe’s tents that they were merely dots in her sight, she ripped off her veil and opened her mouth and howled, and a wind rose up and howled with her.
The grains of sand stung her face and hands, but not as much as her tears did.
When Kourrem went back, she walked with a sandstorm on her heels. She barely remembered to kill the biting wind before it ripped up the tents, but at least she did it – and the fact that the sand died at her feet added a little to the image she knew she presented, to the bitter young woman with her head unveiled and her eyes full of acid. She let the stares follow her, kept her back straight and her chin up, all the way back to her tent, its front flap ostentatiously pinned up so she could see inside. Kara stepped out, her eyes reddened, and held out her hands.
“Kourrem,” she said softly, her voice in agony.
“Kara,” Kourrem said, as kindly as she could, and dodged her hands but kissed her cheek. She could afford to be nice to Kara, closer than a blood-sister: her escape route was already printed on her mind, a work of art like her prized maps, her trail marked out in delicate dotted ink. “What’s for supper?”
The connection with the Voice was the same as always. Tonight of all nights, Kourrem would have liked to skip it, but even the idea of doing so was beyond her understanding; the habit was too strong.
She breathed slowly, quietly, meditating the way Alanna had taught her to-
Her eyes snapped open, but she didn’t lose the connection.
Yes. It’s me.
Kourrem shook up her thoughts and laid them out, choosing the one that made the most sense and contained the fewest of Ishak’s appalling words, and projecting it to Prince Jonathan. I wasn’t aware the Voice communicated personally.
It’s rare. A pause. Sometimes I like to offer... a solution. Or advice. Or a bit of comfort. Anyone un-Gifted would take it for their own thoughts.
I hope you don’t connect with Alanna like this, was all she could think of, though she added a belated your highness.
I’m the Voice, Kourrem, not a prince. Not right now. She assumed that he was avoiding her earlier statement, until she heard a reluctant Alanna is out of my reach.
She said nothing to that, statue-still with her bright eyes open and staring into the heart of the fire, until she remembered something. Prince Jonathan waited, relentless as the sun, but also more patient than Kourrem had ever suspected him of being. You offered me a chance to come to Corus, once.
The offer stands, Prince Jonathan told her.
Kourrem struggled for words, and found some. Thank you.
“How can you go? You’re leaving everything behind, Kourrem. Your life, your loom, your tribe, me – and you are head shaman!”
“In name only.”
“It’s true. More than true.”
“You will be fine without me, and there’s an end to it.”
Prince Jonathan gave her Raoul of Goldenlake, also known as Raoul of the Sandrunners – but probably only if you were a Bazhir - and his recruiting party as an escort. Raoul was a foot taller than Kourrem, and had no idea what to do with her. For one thing, he persisted in referring to her as Mistress Kourrem. For another, he kept trying to help her into the saddle.
“It is just a horse,” Kourrem said early one morning, losing her temper more often as they left the desert behind. Lightning cracked ominously in the clouds overhead. “I am a Bazhir. I may be a woman, but I can still ride a horse, and no, I do not need stupid –“ she broke into her own language for a few stress-relieving moments, making the Bazhir recruits gasp and grin in equal measure, before returning to Common – “northern men trying to throw me at the saddle!”
Raoul stood still, looking pole-axed. Kourrem stopped for breath, and glared at him, despite the fact that it was giving her a crick in her neck. “You were friends with the Woman Who Rides Like A Man. Surely you understand this!”
Raoul opened and closed his mouth, as if thinking better of what he was about to say, and then shook his head and raised his hands, admitting defeat.
Kourrem sniffed, and leapt into the saddle.
Corus was large and noisy, and a man tried to pick-pocket Kourrem within minutes of their arrival. She stuck unconsciously close to Raoul’s side as he pointed out the major temples and city buildings, the Gift itching under her skin, and wished for Alanna to explain the city to her from an inhabitant’s point of view.
“... And here’s the Palace,” Raoul said, as they approached a very large set of wrought-iron gates and an equally titanic building in grey stone. “We shouldn’t really be going in this way, since it’s the main gate, but there was a small accident with a couple of carts and several pints of scrumpy at the other big gate and the others are too small to take a big party like this.”
Kourrem nodded, and resisted the temptation to wrap her scarf more tightly around her head, imitating the face-veils she had stopped wearing after seeing Kara and Halef together. The scarf attracted less unwanted attention than the face-veil had, but it still felt foreign to Kourrem. “What is scrumpy?”
“Well, you know cider?”
Kourrem nodded cautious assent. Raoul had had to explain that earlier.
“Scrumpy is cider, but stronger.”
He sent the group of recruits and the Own soldiers with them somewhere else, and Kourrem controlled the fierce burst of anxiety she felt at leaving the only other Bazhir she had seen for weeks behind. She glanced at Raoul, and he grinned back at her.
“Come on – this way.”
They dismounted, and handed off their horses to grooms waiting to take them; then Raoul led her along a path alongside the main bulk of the Palace buildings, and then through a small wrought-iron gate into a courtyard garden. It was filled with small trees Kourrem just about recognised as cherry and apple, set in islands of pale flowers and punctuating patches of lush green grass segmented by sandy paths; it was noticeably cooler than the heat of the city, perhaps because at that hour it didn’t catch the sun, and it smelled clean and fresh. A couple of simple stone benches stood in strategic places against the walls, framed by clematis.
Kourrem forgot herself so far as to gasp.
Raoul grinned. “Jon said you’d like it.” He pointed at the fountain, which just made Kourrem’s eyes go wider; she’d wondered what that magical sound of playing water was, but had never considered the possibility of a fountain, which she’d heard of but never seen and had privately dismissed as a stupid thing to do with scarce water. “The water’s drinkable, if you’re thirsty.”
Kourrem moved slowly forward, sat on the broad lip of the fountain, and dipped her hands in the water, stifling a gasp. It was cool and clean as crystal, and quickly she rinsed her hands and took several gulps of refreshing water. She shot a meaningful look at Raoul, who turned his back to her and tactfully pretended to be examining a tree, and then unpinned her scarf in order to wash her face without getting the fabric wet.
When she had replaced her scarf, she turned back to Raoul. “Whose is this?”
“Whose is what?” He looked back at her. “Oh- the garden. Well, when King Roald was Duke of Conté, when King Jasson was still alive, he had rooms around here. When he married Queen Lianne – Lady Lianne of Naxen – he had this garden made for her.”
Kourrem prevented her jaw from dropping with extreme difficulty. “I’m sitting in the Queen’s garden?”
“Yes, but...” Raoul hesitated. “She’s too ill to come down here any more. She’s very – delicate, and doesn’t go much beyond her own rooms. Mostly it’s Jon who comes here – he gave me a key to the gate – and the Naxens, sometimes.”
“Oh.” Kourrem folded her hands in her lap, still perched on the lip of the fountain.
“We’re just waiting for Jon,” Raoul added. “He said he would come down here and bring Duke Baird.”
Kourrem digested this in silence. A letter had met her at Persopolis, telling her about Duke Baird of Queenscove, the Chief Healer, who had agreed to take her on as a student. A family man, married with three sons; a mage of impeccable prestige, and most importantly, a long-term friend of Alanna’s, very willing to sponsor her former student. He had sounded nice, and Kourrem remembered hearing his name from Alanna, but she was not a very trusting young woman, and now that she was here, she was nervous.
Kourrem recognised Prince Jonathan’s commanding tones, and stood abruptly and bowed as formally as she knew how. Alanna had mentioned ‘curtseying’ once in dark tones, but Kourrem hadn’t the faintest idea what it was. He hastened across the grass towards her, and grasped her hands; a tall, rangy man with kind eyes followed him. “You look well,” he said approvingly. “Tired, but well. And I see you’ve left off your face-veil.”
“It seemed practical,” Kourrem said stiffly, managing a small smile.
“It really cut down on the number of people she turned mute for disrespecting the tribes,” Raoul added helpfully, strolling across for a manly round of back-slapping and other incomprehensible northern greetings.
Prince Jonathan grinned. “Tell me, Kourrem, how do you like Corus?”
“It is very noisy,” Kourrem answered, eye caught by a glitter of something vaguely green and slightly off in the background.
Both Prince Jonathan and Raoul laughed uproariously. The kind-eyed man smiled slightly.
“I think you’ll like it better when you are used to it,” he observed, and bowed courteously to Kourrem, who bowed in response. “It is an honour to meet you, Mistress Kourrem.”
“Likewise, your Grace.” Kourrem wondered if she should speak up about the flicker in the air, which was getting closer and closer, and then a small boy exploded out of the flicker and hit Duke Baird in the back of the knees.
“Got you, Da!”
Raoul burst out laughing again, and Prince Jonathan grinned.
“Oh, Neal,” Duke Baird sighed, recovering his balance, and prised his son off his calves. “I told you I was busy. Make your bow to Mistress Kourrem.”
The small boy, who had bright green eyes and messy hair the same colour as the Duke’s, flopped forward in an approximation of a bow and then stared unapologetically at Kourrem. “Whozit?”
“I am Kourrem bint Kemail of the tribe of the Bloody Hawk,” Kourrem said, bowing yet again and then staring back at the small boy. “It is very pleasant to meet you, Neal of Queenscove. May I say that I was most impressed by your invisibility spell?”
The small boy stared at her for another small moment, and then tugged imperatively on his father’s breeches. “I like her,” he announced. “She’s nice.”
“Kou-rrem,” Neal whined, bouncing on the balls of his feet, “I wanna play.”
“Go away and play with your sister. I’m busy.” Kourrem squinted at the dissected sheep’s heart before her, and continued her painstaking diagram.
“She’s too little.”
“Then go away and play with your brothers.” Kourrem prodded the heart with a scalpel, the better to expose a valve, and then added another stroke of ink to her diagram. It was almost like drawing a map, she reflected, except that no cartographer ever had Neal hanging off their knee, trying to persuade them to come out and play.
“No,” Kourrem said firmly, finishing her diagram, signing it and shaking drying sand over it before wrapping the heart carefully up for disposal.
“We are treating the Queen?” Having got accustomed to Duke Baird’s preferred speed of movement, which involved striding around the Palace with legs roughly twice as long as her own, Kourrem did not stop to be amazed but scuttled behind him, carrying a large basket of medicines and Duke Baird’s bag of instruments.
“Of course.” Duke Baird sounded amused by her astonishment. “I am Chief Healer.”
“But,” Kourrem said. “What about me?”
“You are my student,” the Duke said calmly. “I trust you. More importantly, her majesty trusts you.”
“Why?” Kourrem blurted. “Most Tortallans...” she freed a hand, and indicated her skin.
“The Queen doesn’t take that into account.” Duke Baird stopped. They were taking one of his favourite shortcuts, which was very quiet. “Think about it, Kourrem. You were Alanna’s student. Before Alanna became controversial, she was the prince’s squire and his right-hand man, and even before that she saved his life when he was dying of the Sweating Sickness. Alanna also killed the man who tried to murder her, no matter how difficult Queen Lianne finds coming to terms with what Duke Roger did. Alanna’s loyalty to Jonathan has never been in question, and as her student – and one who is also conspicuously loyal to Jonathan – that transfers to you.”
Kourrem was silent.
“Is that understood?”
Kourrem straightened her back and ignored the shouter, sweeping away from him with the Queenscove footman a respectful pace behind, carrying the supplies Duke Baird had sent her out for.
The sound of running footsteps made her instincts tense, and she was forced to halt as the shouter slid past Owen and confronted her. She glared at him, noting his familiar looks with some surprise: flaming red hair and violet eyes. There was a strong resemblance to Alanna, although this man was taller, thinner and dressed more ostentatiously.
“Don’t you stop when you’re called?” he demanded, out of breath.
“I was not addressed,” Kourrem said harshly, looking down her nose at him in a manner calculated to depress any pretensions he might possibly have. “Might I have the... pleasure of knowing who speaks?”
He frowned. “Don’t you recognise me? You were my sister’s student, weren’t you? Well, that’s what they’re saying, anyway.” He bowed so floridly that it was almost an insult. “Lord Thom of Trebond, at your service.”
“Kourrem bint Kemail,” Kourrem responded, with a tiny, glacial nod. “Under no circumstances do I answer to ‘girl’.”
She sidestepped him and moved on.
The Queen settled on the rich cushions and blankets that had been brought out to her, and looked around at the garden. “I had forgotten how beautiful this is.”
“It’s very lovely,” Kourrem agreed, kneeling beside her and taking her pulse.
“This was... a good idea.” The Queen smiled at her, and Kourrem couldn’t stop herself smiling back. Prince Jonathan got his looks from his father, but his smile was definitely his mother’s.
“I’m glad, your majesty,” Kourrem said quietly. She poured the day’s dose of medicine into a goblet and held it to Queen Lianne’s lips; the older woman took the goblet from her, made a small, lady-like face at it and tossed it neatly back.
Lady Cythera sat down beside them, tucking delicate primrose skirts under her, and offered a plate of raspberries to the Queen, who thanked her with a smile and took some. Kourrem halved a soft white roll studded with nuts, buttered it, and added a large slice of honey-cured ham and a generous dollop of mustard, which she held out to her patient.
Queen Lianne looked at it and smiled faintly. “Really, Kourrem?”
“Really, your majesty,” Kourrem said imperatively. “Your majesty knows how Duke Baird will scold me if I do not ensure that your majesty eats a proper lunch.” Lady Cythera pressed her lips together, hiding a smile.
Queen Lianne gave her a fishy look. Kourrem returned a blank one.
Queen Lianne accepted the sandwich and began to nibble daintily at it, and Lady Cythera turned away, concealing her laughter while also unearthing the bottle of peach juice that the servants had brought. She poured three glasses, and handed them around. “Kourrem, there are dates in the basket with the blue trimming.”
Kourrem smiled, knowing that Lady Cythera would have requested those for her. She rifled through the basket. “Thank you, Lady Cythera.”
There passed some relatively quiet eating and small talk, during which Lady Cythera coaxed and Kourrem bullied the Queen into eating a decent meal. Then, after an interlude in which Kourrem tried to recall and explain a dish Kara had made that she thought the Queen might happily eat and that would build her strength, the Queen sat back on her pillows and sighed.
“Tell me, Kourrem,” she said, as if just chatting. “A foreign court, a new teacher, hundreds if not thousands of new people, some hostile to you... It must be difficult.”
“I grow accustomed,” Kourrem said calmly, wiping her sticky fingers on a napkin. Lady Cythera watched them carefully, like duellers. “There is much to learn.”
“You are very observant,” the Queen complimented her.
“Thank you, your majesty.”
“Perhaps you would not be averse to sharing a few of them with me.” The Queen met her eyes, soft grey gaze guileless as a maiden. “On, for instance, Thom of Trebond.”
Kourrem folded her hands in her lap and eyed her patient.
“You are perfectly safe to speak here,” the Queen assured her. “To me, and to Cythera.”
Kourrem examined them both in silence, then licked her lips and spoke. “Thom of Trebond is like an untempered sword. Sharp – but brittle. He is also like the boy who forged that sword. Proud of his achievement – and unaware of its flaws.”
The Queen nodded gently. “Sir Alexander of Tirragen.”
“An unknown quantity to everyone at Court. With the possible exception of your brother, your majesty.”
The Queen made a soft acknowledging noise. “Lady Delia.”
“An unlucky woman making the best of what she has in a difficult world, and consequently amoral, manipulative, and charming.”
Kourrem hesitated. Josiane’s mother had been Queen Lianne’s friend, she knew.
“Speak the truth,” Queen Lianne said, eyes hard as flint. “Josiane’s mother died of a miscarriage brought on by a beating, and the Goddess’ Court could not convict the king.”
“The princess will be mad. Perhaps not tomorrow, or the next day, but the seeds are there, and... seeds grow, your majesty.”
“Evidently,” Queen Lianne said dryly, waving a hand at the garden around them. “Alanna of Trebond.”
Kourrem met the Queen’s eyes. “Courageous, loyal, god-touched, brave, and heartbroken. She would never have been the right wife for Prince Jonathan, but she found that out the hard way. His highness tried to choose her destiny for her; he forgot, or perhaps he never knew, that Alanna is the captain of her own soul. But he’ll need her loyalty, one day. And her sword arm. I know you are rooted in the traditions of Tortall, your majesty – but in my opinion, there is no finer knight living, and your son will never have a more loyal vassal.”
Queen Lianne was very still. “You seek to teach me, Kourrem.”
Kourrem felt a prickle at the base of her spine, and was reminded that Prince Jonathan got the Gift from both sides of his family. She stared into the Queen’s eyes – like mist now, intangible. “No, your majesty. I have told you nothing that you don’t already know.”
Queen Lianne lay back, looking meditatively up at the bright sky. “Can you read the truth from my mind, Kourrem?”
“No,” Kourrem said flatly, and nibbled a dried fig. “I’ve never tried.”
“Small mercies,” Queen Lianne said softly. “The world is full of small mercies.” She toyed with the tassel on one of the cushions. “Remember that, you two. When I am gone.”
Kourrem’s eyes shot to Cythera’s. Tears shone in the lady-in-waiting’s face.
“That will not be for many years now, your majesty,” Kourrem said calmly. “And to that end, I think I’ll have someone bring your tea out here – if it is to your majesty’s liking. The fresh air is good for you.”
“Kourrem,” Lady Cythera said, erupting into Kourrem’s rooms.
“Lady Cythera – an unexpected honour.” Kourrem sucked the blood from her finger where she had stabbed it with her scarf pin, and sent a glimmer of saffron Gift to mend it. “A very unexpected honour.”
Lady Cythera winced as she closed the door behind her. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t realised.”
“It’s all right.” Kourrem pinned her scarf to her hair, and then turned to face Lady Cythera. “How can I help?”
Lady Cythera was silent for a moment, her hands twisting in the rose pink material of her gown. “I don’t think you can.” She raised her face to meet Kourrem’s eyes. “Where can we go that we won’t be overheard?”
Kourrem blinked at her for a few seconds, and then led the way to Queen Lianne’s garden, which was deserted. She had no idea what Lady Cythera wanted, but she seemed to be sincere, so it was undoubtedly reasonably important; as an afterthought, she pulled a piece of string from her pocket and tied a few knots in it to raise some elementary wards that would prevent their being overheard. “What’s happened, my lady?”
“I wish you would call me Cythera,” Lady Cythera said faintly, and sat down on the edge of the fountain, trailing her fingers in its clear water. “You recall what the Queen said to us.”
“The world is full of small mercies. Remember that, you two, when I am dead and gone,” Kourrem recited, increasingly concerned. She hadn’t thought the queen prone to spontaneous premonitions, but perhaps Cythera knew better.
Cythera nodded. “That morning, when I went into her rooms to wake her, the air smelt of vervain.”
Kourrem stilled, and wondered at the queen’s courage – that she had lit a fire and burnt vervain on it so as to cast into the future, seeking the means or timing of her own demise, knowing it to be close enough that such a prediction would be accurate. “Vervain.”
Cythera nodded again, and stared at a cherry tree without seeing it. “I think she knows something that we don’t.”
Kourrem sat down by Cythera, feeling a sudden and unexpected comradeship with the other woman. “She will never tell us what it is,” she observed practically.
“No.” Cythera sighed, and tipped her head back, looking up at the sky. “We’ll just have to find out.”