A rider silhouetted against the lowering sky and gray winter landscape of stone and ice called to those in the caravan lumbering behind him. "Ho! Castle Loarre ahead!" After proudly saluting, he signed the Five Gods in suddenly recalled piety. Forehead for the Daughter of Spring, tongue for the Bastard, navel for the Mother of Summer, groin for the Father of Winter, and then spread his hand flat over his heart for the Brother of Autumn. He was seeing the end of his journey in Chalion.
Outriders, carriages, and wagons straggled towards the top of the rise. The size of the party suggested a lordly retinue, yet no one in the menagerie of costumes wore the tabard of a noble house. The four leading riders were accoutered in the blue and white of the Daughter of Summer, evidently Chalionese members of Her Order performing the task of accompanying travelers within the country. The other men on horseback could only be called mercenaries, and impoverished mercenaries at that. Rust had formed in the dents in their armor and they slouched on their mounts as if endurance were all that mattered these days. The only soldier to sit straight wore what was left of his hair in rows of tight braids, Roknari fashion. Considering that they were so deep into Chalion that the mountain range ahead bordered Darthaca, the Roknari soldier was risking his life to ride openly. His braids not only advertised his nationality—perpetually at each others' throats, the Roknari had only recently been decisively driven to the far coast by the Chalionese—but his Roknari braids also indicated Quadrene religious beliefs which were heretical to the Quintarian Chalionese. The old, stick-thin Roknari soldier kept protectively close to the passenger carriage. Evidently, these travelers were Quadrenes who were being led through Chalion by Quintarians. While not exactly moving targets, they traversed enemy territory.
An outrider of the Daughter Order's turned away from the view of Castle Loarre and mumbled to one of his squad, "I can't wait to hand over these passengers to the lord of the castle and get out of here."
His comrade nodded. "I felt prickles down the back of my neck even before the, hem, problems." He nodded towards the mercenaries, "Don't like escorting those types."
The other Daughter's man grunted. "Bravos can take care of themselves. I figure we've been acting solely for the lady."
They both glanced at the passenger carriage that had stopped on the rise.
"The High Lady, yes," acknowledged his companion. "Gracious young lady, hem. I hope the castillar makes her a good husband." He paused. "I'd say the other one—the, hem, sooty one—"
"—Doesn't need our assistance," his friend finished. "I'd never met one of them before. Didn't expect her to take charge at the inns and all. Didn't expect the innkeepers' wives to follow her orders."
"A kahina," the other said, as if testing the word in his mouth. "Thought they were made up in stories to scare little kids."
The first snorted. "She doesn't have to know witchcraft. Never thought I'd say something good about a Quadrene or anyone whose skin was as dark and shiny as the ink on the Roya's charters—"
"She's taller than any woman in Chalion. Good looking if her skin was lighter. I wonder if her tits are—"
"But she ran this trip like a commander. No help from that Ser dy Zaya." He glowered at the rider who had sighted the castle and was now conferring with the occupants of the carriage.
"I hope the castillar is nice to the, hem, pretty one."
"Who knows what the nobles are like up here? This frontier is wild. They fight each other all the time for the same border castles. I want to get back to Cardegoss. I'm for the civilized life, myself."
The castle ahead appeared impenetrable to attack. Along two sides huge granite monoliths poked up like giants' teeth from a sheer escarpment. Above that rock jaw a crown of curtain walls encircled the keep and its massive tower. Backed by mists in the leaden sky, the formidable edifice taunted would-be besiegers.
The mists dissipated into ghostly skirts, allowing a fleeting glimpse of what was beyond.
Towering majestically in the background were the snow-capped, rugged peaks of the mountain range which separated Chalion from Darthaca. Castle Loarre shrank to an isolated barracks, sited in treacherous terrain, which was equally useless to defend or attack. The mists swirled across the peaks again, leaving the viewer an eerie reminder of the nonmaterial infinity of the Gods existing a hairsbreadth away from reality.
Inside the carriage Lady Desuma Tata Béchoud, the dark-skinned woman of whom the soldiers had spoken, felt a sudden ache in her heart that made her catch her breath and stare at the two peaks rising directly behind Castle Loarre. A line of light led her gaze—as if delineating a trail that crossed the mountain range at a pass between the two peaks. Her core seemed to rise toward the light and she sighed for the Father of Winter. But just as quickly as the moment had opened before her, a shroud of mist passed in front of the peaks and the vision was broken. She swallowed to keep herself from moaning at the loss of the ethereal.
The rider she'd watched in silhouette poked his head through the window of the carriage.
"Only a few hours more and I will deliver you safely, my High Lady," Ser dy Zaya assured the small blonde girl beside Desuma.
"Ser dy Zaya," Desuma asked in Chalionese, "what is the name of the mountain range?"
"The Father's Crystals, my lady. Even in the hottest summer, one blinks at the light off the peaks." He nodded to them, turned his horse's head to the trail, and signaled the caravan to resume its trek.
Desuma blinked her eyes, trying to recapture the sense of the God. Giving up, she caught sight of their longtime Roknari guard through the window on the other side of the carriage. Speaking in Roknari, she asked, "Do you remember the Father's Crystals, Grone? From when you were here years ago?"
Grone stared ahead. "All too well, my lady. Shards break off them with edges as sharp as Vitry steel. Too bright to see until it's too late."
The blonde girl was looking at the windowless walls of the castle.
"I'm going to live there? I'll be lonely," the High Lady Liliua said in a small voice. She shivered.
Desuma, who for a decade had been Liliua's lady-in-waiting, chaperone, governess, and substitute mother, hugged the fifteen-year-old to her side. Instead of reminding her to practice the language of her new home, Desuma simply responded in Chalionese.
"With the castle you get the castillar. He has two brothers who probably have wives and children. And the seneschal, ladies in waiting, pages, and lots of other people. So there will always be a crowd around to admire your beautiful hair."
Liliua frowned. "Stop talking to me like that. You think it's funny but it isn't. I'm the one who is getting married."
Caught up by a girl who had changed during this journey from biddable to exacting, Desuma apologized quickly. "I meant that although the castle looks forbidding from here, it's full of life."
"It isn't forbidding," Liliua said. "And I can be lonely with lots of people around."
Desuma looked out the window again. The castle looked grim to her, like an island floating alone in a cold, relentlessly grey sea. It signaled that Liliua and Desuma had been cast out again, as they had been ten years earlier when Liliua's father had sent them from Jarn to a bright island far away in the Roknari Archipelago. Back then Lord dy Altura had packed off his five-year-old daughter along with Desuma, an eighteen-year-old acolyte of the Father of Winter. Yet now Lord dy Altura had wrenched them away so he could marry off his teenager to a Quintarian castillar in an isolated border holding in Chalion. "Make haste," his missives urged. Little wonder Liliua had become obstinate. At least that was better that than despondent, or weepy like the two young Roknari maids who accompanied them.
The incompetence of Ser dy Zaya had provided Desuma with the opportunity to take charge of the journey beyond Jarn. And even her intervention at inns and her negotiations with their Daughter's Order escort had not saved the lives of two of the mercenaries dy Zaya had enlisted. Dy Zaya whined that Liliua was supposed to have been accompanied by a nobleman accustomed to doing business across borders. Not having had even a secretary to accompany them, Desuma ignored him, so dy Zaya spent his time chatting up the mercenaries about their past experiences in Chalion.
Liliua shivered and Desuma made a pretense of being chilled herself so she could wrap Liliua more tightly. In the decade spent in the tropics, she had forgotten how winter ate into a person's bones. And this was worse than the frigid winters during her youth in Jarn. Her feet ached day and night, from freezing then from thawing.
Desuma wriggled her toes then forced her mind to exercise as well. Lord dy Altura had written that the castillar—Liliua's intended groom—Guis dy Genvil—was the oldest of three brothers. He had inherited the castle only recently after his father's death. Lord dy Altura had added, ". . . second oldest—Évronne—the one I've had dealings with. . . shrewd. . . Hints at big plans." When Desuma and Liliua had arrived in Jarn, she sought out some old acquaintances of her father's, but the name dy Genvil didn't strike a bell with anyone. An ancient divine from the Temple of the Father of Winter sighed, "The fighting lords win and lose castles and don't know how to keep a peaceful border. The only commodity they comprehend is blood." He added, "I would not have married my daughter into such a family." Desuma suspected that Lord dy Altura measured Liliua's value by his own profits from her. He had plenty of children from a string of wives. Perhaps the sole commodity he understood was wealth.
"We have our plans," she said in Roknari to her fellow occupants of the coach. Learned Muriel, a divine of the Mother of Summer who provided the medical and religious services, smiled and nodded. The two maids, tall Yann and short Benum, clutched each other in cold and terror. Yann mumbled, "Yes, my lady."
"There may be quite a few people," Desuma pondered. "Certainly an honor guard and perhaps musicians. I wish Ser dy Zaya had more presence, as we will have to rely on him to provide introductions."
"I am going to speak to the castillar about Ser dy Zaya's poor services to us," Liliua told the divine and the maids. "I've practiced my speech with Desuma. I will say it before I agree to the marriage."
The maids' mouths opened wide in wonder at their lady's bravery.
"It will be nice to trundle off to our own room," Learned Muriel remarked. "My old bones want to be settled down in one place."
At last the road turned so they were approaching the castle. Paving stones replaced dirt as they bounced up the long, steep slope towards the ramparts.
"Grone, where is the entrance?" Liliua asked out the window, staring ahead at the facade pierced only with arrowloops.
Her captain nodded towards the eastern face. "My High Lady, you will not see it until you are there." He had pulled out the pole with the banner of the Lord dy Altura and slid the end into his stirrup. He unfurled the flag.
They edged to the right, and the outriders pulled up, the men of the Daughter's Order displaying their ensign. They entered an unadorned gateway defended by a portcullis which they drove under, then passed through an outer ward of horse stalls. Ostlers stared at them and pages went running. The entourage proceeded into a large inner ward, used as a courtyard. On the right was the ancient keep at the base of the high tower. Ahead was a three-story palace, no larger than the keep but handsomely constructed of regular courses of cream colored stone.
No one was present in the courtyard except for a guard with whom Ser dy Zaya was conferring. A page appeared and the guard sent the boy up the stairs into the large double doors of the palace.
"Ser dy Zaya never sent someone ahead to announce our arrival," Desuma breathed, appalled.
Liliua lifted her chin. "We will wait until we are greeted suitably."
The doors of the building swung open and guards poured down the steps, two unfurling flags as they quickly positioned themselves at the base of the stairs. Desuma recognized the arms of Chalion with the leopard rampant against a castle, and she wondered if the other, on which a sword angled across a castle, represented the dy Genvils.
Two men arrived and the others stepped aside in deference. The first ran down the steps, a swarthy, high-cheekboned man in black leather and silver chains with black, helmet-cropped hair and piercing dark eyes. He stopped at the bottom, staring intently at the carriage.
The second man descended in measured steps, glancing towards the carriage. His features were perfectly symmetrical with strong cheekbones and deepset eyes. His face was framed with long, golden brown hair, his beard and moustache a shade darker. Tall, his height was accentuated by a full length, gray-green, fur-lined cloak. He paused above the other man and shifted uncertainly before stopping, his right foot on the step above his left. Desuma judged him the best looking man she had ever laid eyes on.
Ser dy Zaya rushed to the dark-haired man, his waving arms indicating perhaps that he wished to avoid blame for the mishaps on the trip. Desuma hoped the dy Genvils—this commanding man must be the castillar and the handsome one his brother—would not listen. Whatever dy Zaya did say displeased his listener, who barked back and gestured impatiently towards the carriage. Their voices grew louder.
"You need to understand," dy Zaya said. "No one else was with them. I asked everyone, including Lord dy Altura. He laughed at me, said I couldn't see what was right in front of my face. So I tried my best to find mercenaries who'd served here—"
"We expected you weeks ago. It barely matters now."
"I pushed them as fast as I could. There were, were—deaths along the way."
"What?" The swarthy man exclaimed.
"One Roknari hireling was poisoned. The other—there must have been a brawl."
"You put Lord dy Altura's daughter through that?" the man roared. "And you didn't even send a messenger so we could prepare for her arrival? What sort of fool are you? Where is the clever counselor Lord dy Altera promised me?"
Desuma judged that this man was publicly haranguing dy Zaya to make a show of his own power.
A tall, slender woman in a carmine robe moved from the doorway and walked down several steps above the handsome man. She was lovely, her white skin and red lips providing an alluring contrast to her black hair and slender nose. She surveyed the scene with a thin smile. A courtier wearing a chain of office and a divine in the Son of Autumn's robes stood at the doorway and several pages slid out along the top step. Servants' heads appeared at windows and soldiers watched from different aspects of the castle.
Liliua tapped the floor impatiently, demanding, "How much longer do we put up with this?"
"We can't wait for these men to wrangle about everything," said Learned Muriel. She undid the carriage door and smiled at Liliua as she drew her robe about herself, patting into place the dark-green, straw-yellow, and metallic gold braid of a physician-divine. "The Mother of Summer goes first." Outside, attention switched from the arguing men to the coach, and a castle guard jumped to aid the elderly divine. She allowed him to help her down the steps. Dy Zaya's arms flapped to his sides, and the man with high cheekbones straightened. All Castle Loarre watched.
Cursing de Zaya, for he should have made these introductions run smoothly, Desuma descended second, knowing that her size and coloring would be unknown in these parts. Lifting her head, she stood eye to eye with the high cheekboned man, whose jaw dropped in astonishment.
"Bastard's demons!" He exclaimed, signing the Five Gods. "What is this! A kahina!"
Desuma would not allow him to leave an indelibly stained impression on Liliua's arrival. "Greetings, most gracious Castillar dy Genvil," she announced in Chalionese. "I, Lady Desuma Tata Béchoud, speak as the representative of the March dy Altura, your dear friend in the princedom of Jarn. The March dy Altura regrets that he could not personally accompany his beloved daughter to your impressive palace and extensive fertile valleys. Instead, I come to Castle Loarre as chaperone for his precious daughter, the High Lady Liliua Irenne dy Altura. I wish now to present you to your future wife."
The gasps and murmurs that Desuma had heard when she first exited the carriage had quieted into complete silence. She briefly entertained the horrible notion that that they had arrived at the wrong castle. But not even Ser dy Zaya could make that great a mistake.
The commanding man, taken aback, pulled in his breath. "My lady, I deeply apologize for my uncouth greeting and beg you to forgive my appalling rudeness. Furthermore, I am deeply chagrined to receive you in such circumstances that the proper introductions have not been made. I," he gestured to his chest, "am Évronne dy Genvil." He twisted slightly, swinging his arm up towards the brown-haired man. "It is my honor to present my brother Guis, soon to be sworn in as Castillar dy Genvil. Guis?"
Guis stared at Desuma in horror, then reluctantly descended two steps and stopped self-consciously.
She smiled, bowed her head politely, and raised her arm toward the carriage. On cue, Liliua stepped out. The entrance had been carefully rehearsed, and Desuma applauded the fifteen-year-old's grace and gravity. Liliua was magnificent.
The onlookers gawked and grinned at Liliua's beauty, which was a paleness unusual in Chalion and almost unknown in Roknari lands. Her golden yellow hair glistened in tight Roknari-style braids. Her un-Roknari large, blue eyes and fair skin could not have been equaled by an artist even if a portrait had been commissioned. Her pale pink silk robe with gold geometric designs was not warm enough for this climate, but it was comely for a child bride. Desuma glanced at Guis and saw by his slightly open mouth that he was awed by the sight of his betrothed.
Évronne watched his brother's reaction as well, and waggled his index fingers in an unconscious sign of satisfaction. He stepped forward to take Liliua's hand formally, leading her to Guis. Guis dy Genvil advanced and bent to kneel before Liliua. He took her hand.
"Lady, if you will have me, I am yours," he said quietly.
Liliua said, even as her lip trembled. "Likewise, my lord, I am yours."
Someone started clapping and the onlookers pitched in enthusiastically.
"Now, my lady," Évronne approached the couple, cupping his hand with their clasped ones. "The oath has been made. Who carries the documents so we can complete this alliance?"
Desuma said. "I am in possession of a letter stating that I speak in Lord dy Altura's voice. I will represent him at the writing of the marriage document, my lord."
Évronne dy Genvil's brows snapped together, but he nodded in acquiescence. "So be it."