Chapter Thirty-Two — Orison
17 May – August
For a wedding attended by thousands, including the royal family and a bevy of great nobles, Kel's went smoothly. The Scanrans had gone, marching north over Drachifethe, shelters dismantled and fields returned to proper purpose; so too had army 'escort' companies (though commanders remained) and Dukes Gareth and Turomot, with various Councillors, leaving a small retinue and the Own under Ettinor and Raoul to attend Jonathan and Thayet. The sense of ease as crowding dropped had everyone relaxing, and the return of some kind of ordinary life, however the royals might still be there, was a palpable pleasure.
The aftermath of whatever had happened was also a kind of peacefulness, if only because everyone's capacities for wonder were exhausted. Dom aside, only to Daine and Numair had Kel offered any more explanation than she'd given the King, describing her conversations with Diamondflame and encounters with Gainel and Mithros; they knew enough to understand, and her plea about Weiryn concerned them more than anyone. Daine had asked if it were a scheme to keep them at New Hope, but her eyes had been bright and her embrace hard. To everyone else, even kin, Kel said only that they'd seen what happened and it wasn't mortal business anyway.
Drachifethe spoke for her. Everyone who'd seen it built had walked across it and the toll she'd imposed needed no enforcing; the stone dragons glowed night and day, and none could pass them unaware or fail of respect. Word spread like wildfire and people for miles around—Scanrans, Tortallans, even some speedy Gallans—made pilgrimage to experience the marvel; barely complete, the Smugglers' Rest was doing a roaring trade, and the settlement around the bridge had already become a community at the heart of New Hope. Nor had King or Council defaulted: the Great North and Smiskir Roads were in ever better shape, prosperity already beginning to flow along them and spread into the lands around.
The Yamani delegation arrived later than intended, blown far off course by what Takemahou-sensei darkly called mage-meddled winds in the Emerald Ocean. Kel accepted Prince Eitaro's apologies on her own and the King's behalves so graciously he couldn't possibly repeat them, gravely informed him and Lord Kiyomori of Lord Sakuyo's double manifestation and pointed out the tiny flowers studding the green, sending the kaunushi as white as the painted women, before saying that she'd arranged for His Imperial Highness to visit the site of the second manifestation, where other gods had also appeared. With that for them to chew on she could liberate Patricine, Toshuro, and their children for her parents to carry off, draw Takemahou-sensei aside to offer thanks for his mageblasts before hooking him up with Numair for a mage's account of how it all worked out, and leave the King and Queen to hold the fort with Roald and Shinko while she and Dom slid away to join her family. She saw the Yamanis off next morning with her parents and Ettenor leading the Own's First as a escort, and when they returned three days later all were extremely respectful; if it extended her pilgrimage routes to Yaman that was next year's problem, and welcome anyway.
Amid the peculiar pleasure of getting to know Patricine and Toshuro again, as an adult with a different perspective than the girl who'd bidden them farewell to seek page training, Kel found herself wondering hard about those mage-meddled winds, and took Ebony to a meeting with Daine and Numair.
"There's two things, and I don't know how you're going to feel about either of them."
Daine smiled. "Fair warning, but we're all so far in your debt Kel I expect we can live with it."
"Oh forget debts, Daine. It's nothing to do with that, just what's right, and needed. The first thing is that Ebony asked me if darkings can become Guild apprentices and journeymen." Daine's eyebrows shot up and Kel held up a hand. "I said I couldn't see why not but needed to ask you."
"Why do you want that, Ebony? Do the others too?"
"What sort of fun?"
"Go with merchants. Go on ships. Show letters between places. Work with mortals. Not spy. Communicate. Guild give status. Rights. Guild protect darkings. Darkings have fun."
Daine sat back, looking thoughtful. "That's the longest speech I've ever heard from a darking. Guild journeymen, eh? Journeydarkings, anyway. I'm not their guardian, Kel, but it sounds fine to me."
"You're their conscience, Daine. Which brings me to those winds the Yamanis met. Why would mages mess with weather out there?"
Numair frowned. "Good question. I think mages must have been messing somewhere else and the effects got out of control."
"Mmm, but where? Daine, have you heard from Aly?"
"No—we can't have that. All else aside, Alanna would be wanting to be maternal all the time."
Kel grinned. "I don't disagree—it's why I wanted something ordinary for darkings to do, and ship-to-shore communication would be a boon for any trade fleet. But if there's been a magical storm in the Copper Isles I want Ebony to tell us, if he knows. The timeway likes its storms."
"That's a thought." Numair was still frowning.
"Not mind. Mortals worry. Darkings know all darkings know."
"Which is the problem, but I don't think I mind this time. Numair?"
"Nor me, Magelet. Magical storms are assassination weapons. Go ahead, Ebony."
"Storm sink boat, kill Dunevon, others. Aly sad. Think storm magical. Think Imajane. Crooked God meddle. All Rittevon mages killed after."
Numair blinked and Kel swallowed. "Dunevon was just a boy. Numair, can you scry that storm?"
He nodded grimly. "If magic killed a king there'll be traces."
"Do it, please. Then we need to see the King."
The storm had been magical, and the Copper Isles clearly the centre of disturbance. Jonathan didn't like it, nor any remaining Councillors, though Kel was careful to say she believed there to be divine interest on both sides there, and Lord Sakuyo to be allied with Kyprioth against the Rittevons. The King nodded.
"I wouldn't be for the Rittevons for love nor money. Under them the Isles have been trouble for everyone. Josiane was cracked, and if Imajane murdered her nephew she's no better. What's our response?"
The result, after firespell communication with Emperor Kaddar and His Imperial Majesty, a strain even for Numair at those distances, was a Tortallan and Carthaki ban on trade with the Isles until King Dunevon's murderers were caught and duly punished. With longstanding tensions over fishing grounds there wasn't very much Yamani trade with the Isles but that too would cease. It was all Kel could do, but she thought there was a smile on Lord Sakuyo's face in his shrine the next morning.
Kel's Seabeth-and-Seajen grandmother was almost as well-behaved as the Yamanis, though it took intervention. The old lady had arrived with a sizeable retinue the same day as Prince Eitaro and just in time to see Kel taking leave of Quenuresh, who stayed to be introduced. Merian of Seabeth-and-Seajen had the spine Ilane and Kel had inherited and stayed on her feet, but Quenuresh's promise to see Kel at her wedding, and a cheery salute to Barzha and Hebakh, watching from a gable, had her staring. Later in the evening, after many presentations, Kel overheard a piercing whisper to her Mama about the dubiety, not to say disgrace, of hasty marriage to an incomplete younger son and such woeful lack of control over an underage child who could surely do better. She was reflectively feeding Bonedancer samples of Yuki's pickles, of which it seemed to approve, and hearing the pain in her Mama's soft reply walked over to the old woman with a gaze that brought silence and a slow flush.
"Grandma, I've faced the Graveyard Hag and her hyena, so you really don't scare me anymore, and underage or not I now rank you. So do Papa and Anders, of course, and your daughter, not that anyone could tell. I don't care a hoot what you think of me or Dom, but I care very much that you always hurt Mama and I won't stand for it. She and Papa are going with Prince Eitaro tomorrow to the Drachifethe and you can go too, to speak to the statues as one old dragon to another and learn some kindness as well as better manners. Or I'll have stormwings carry you back to Seabeth in a spidren net and you can be vicious to people there."
Bonedancer leaned forward as if to tweak the old woman's nose before clattering its beak, and though her Mama had hands over her mouth Kel didn't bother to conceal a smile.
"Succinctly put, Bonedancer. And even you must acknowledge it to be your senior, Grandma, as all the immortals are. Even Amiir'aan's more than twice your age, whatever you've decided it is today, so if you've any argument it needs to involve more than supposed seniority. Meantime, I need Mama for something so we'll say goodnight."
She wasn't going to leave her mother to cope with the one person in the world she couldn't deal with and took her arm. The night was wonderfully warm, the terrace crowded with Yamanis; Bonedancer flapped over to investigate and they headed for Lalasa's rooms where Kel's wedding dress was almost finished. Ilane was silent until they were in the tunnel; when she did speak her voice wasn't steady though whether with laughter or tears was hard to tell.
"Sweeting, that was splendid but I don't think it'll help. I'm sorry you heard her moaning but I can cope with it."
"You shouldn't have to, Mama, and you won't if you get her on the Drachifethe. Ask the statues for Lord Sakuyo's blessing on her."
They found Lalasa talking to Patricine, Adie, and Orie, and besides female conversation a fitting was clearly called for. Kel didn't mind as it made her Mama happy, and her sisters' exclamations at her scars were a small price. More importantly, her Grandma did, stiff-necked, visit Drachifethe, and came back very subdued and distinctly more inclined to laugh, often to her own surprise. For as long as Kel could remember she had inhibited and worried others with withering disapproval; Mindelan delight in her overthrow became a catalyst for pervasive good humour, and collective enjoyment of new guests.
Tired as it was of visitors New Hope approved these, for they were Lady Kel's and Captain Dom's personal guests and a good impression was needed. For Kel the nerve-racking bit was Dom's family, but his parents and brother couldn't have been nicer and were far too goggle-eyed to voice any doubts. Duchess Wilina arrived with them, and her warmth to Kel helped, but once the Masbolles sensed the atmosphere and saw Kel was friendly as well as a dragon-riding, king-slaying legend, they relaxed into the cheerful bunch one would expect of people related to Dom and Neal. Most of Kel's friends were at New Hope already but Ferghal returned and a Corus contingent came with her Maids, Gower and Salma, Stefan Groomsman, Master Orman and his family, Master Randall with his, and not entirely to her surprise Jerrold Tinker, passing as boss of the accompanying wagon train, laden with who knew what. Coram and Rispah were in the party, as were George and Tkaa, escorting Holloran. With the royal family and half the Council present, and the Yamani delegation occupying an entire, reconfigured and redecorated barrack, there was precious little space within the walls but rooms in the cliffs for all. Alanna collected her husband with Coram and Rispah, and Kel took the Rogue to one of the small rooms in the corral headquarters she'd kept back against emergencies.
"Keeping me under your eye, Kel?"
"Not in the least, Jer. Go where you will. You should say hello to Thayet, Roald, and Shinko. Add Jonathan and make up the set." He grinned. "I thought we might be glad of a place to talk privately."
"That we might. I'm here in vulgar curiosity and to wish you and your man well, not that you're short of good wishes. But I hear you've opened an establishment to rival the Dancing Dove."
"No, to complement it. The Smugglers' Rest is run by ex-smugglers, Jer—did you hear that too? The bridge put them out of business—no help for it—so I found them alternative occupation. I can find that for others too, at need—but permanent occupations, yes? New Hope's not a hinterland farm run by someone's brother."
He laughed. "I hear you. And if what I hear about big dogs in your woods is true I'd be a fool not to. I like that offer—retirement can be a problem in my people's line of work."
"Fine. Just don't send anyone those dogs will chase. They are the Wild Hunt, Jer. I'm not joking—the road will be safe and that's their charge, but while they'll not touch the innocent anyone with a bad enough stain on their conscience will attract them and judgement will be out of my hands."
"And what's bad enough?"
"Collect stories of the Hunt and work it out. If Wuodan turns up while you're here—he's the lead hound, as Lord Weiryn's the Huntsman—I'll introduce you. Or ask the Crooked God to check, if you trust him and he's not too busy in the Copper Isles. I met him, by the way, and I wouldn't trust him with a handkerchief, never mind anyone's life. But you know, really—the Hunt doesn't chase pickpockets or even thieves. It's the violent, and I don't mean rushers—those who kill for gain or hate, or because they like it. I know one story where a man who killed a faithful ass is Hunted, and I believe it. Another about kidnappers, with the child returned alive, and one about rape, so it's not just killing. It's things that make you sick to think of." She held up a hand as his mouth opened. "Heartsick, soulsick, not just gutsick after the deed. There can be need to kill, gods know. Since we last met, Jer, I've killed more men than I can count, and Wuodan lets me pass. Look at a list of my page year and Roald's too, sometime. And you could say I did it for gain—it's brought me enough. But not my own gain, and the gods know I've never gloated in it—enough of them have had a good rummage to check, believe me. Wuodan's more interested in the heart than reasons, I think, but it comes to the same thing."
"No-one a dog would instinctively growl at. That's clear, Kel. I've no-one seeking retirement just now, but you've all the men with cancelled mage-marks becoming New Hopers and wanting families to move north, so there'll be folk along by the by."
"And welcome. There's lifetimes of work to be done. Any honest pair of hands is, if they're not forsworn in coming or abandoning anyone they shouldn't. Do me one favour, though?"
"Glad to. Probably."
She grinned. "We'll see. Make sure you meet as many immortals as you can, especially Quenuresh and Queen Barzha. Anyone coming here has to be able to cope. If you think someone won't—dissuade them? I'll expel if I have to but I'd rather not have that kind of trouble in the first place."
"Fair enough, though I think you'd be surprised at how attitudes to immortals are changing. There's three paintings everyone who can use a brush is copying as fast as they can. One's of you firing a great bow at a siege machine of some kind that's burning, from that rock above us, with a griffin beside you and a strange bird above, another's you and that spidren-mage watching a dragon, with basilisks and ogres beside you and Scanrans falling down underneath, and the third's got you with a glaive at Maggur's throat. They're selling to everyone, rich and poor."
Kel was horrified. "You're joking? Where did they come from?"
"I don't know, Kel, but they're very good. One of your Maids has the originals—says she was given them by an old man in Mutt Piddle Lane, who said they were a gift for you she should show to everyone, then went off laughing. No-one else saw him but she got them somewhere, and she's paying all the fees for copying them to Lalasa, charging the rich much more, so I've not interfered."
"An old man, laughing in Mutt Piddle Lane. I just bet he was."
"You know him then?"
"Oh, I think so. Have you got these monstrosities?"
"No, but you're getting them as a wedding present." Kel gnashed her teeth and he grinned. "Tough. Comes with your territory. Which reminds me, what do you want for a wedding present? It's a terrible problem."
"What is it with monarchs that you can't think up wedding presents for yourselves?" She shook her head. "I'd say surprise me but that wouldn't be wise in your case. There's not much I still need, Jer, save children of my own, and that's taken care of. Do something good you wouldn't do otherwise, and mark the anniversary each year the same way."
"A Protector's Day gift from the Rogue. I like the sound of that."
She left him laughing and went to find her Maids and see the worst, only to be politely refused as it was bad luck to see presents before a wedding. Still worse, the sums of money involved promised to become immense, and with the territory she now had she'd need it, whatever the embarrassment. And as if Sakuyo's jokes weren't bad enough, an idle king had been chasing carvers, and a final Drachifethe panel for the steps was underway while the score already completed were being petrified in radiant colours. Kawit had known how to fix the beauty Kitten could bring to stone and the results were spectacular. Icelight duplicates were being created; the originals were going up along the wall of the steps, meaning even Kel's retreat to the Eyrie now confronted her repeatedly with herself being ludicrously heroic.
Then again, she didn't need to retreat to the Eyrie because she and Dom had a house—a strange, wonderful mansion, unlike anything anywhere. Much of the available ashlar having gone into the Drachifethe or been appropriated by dragons the builders made up the shortfall with beautifully faced scree and finstone rubble, as well as custom-cut blocks, and the result was extremely elegant. A triangular compound was marked by a low wall within which the surface had been turfed; the house was a wide U with one limb bent in, surrounding a deeper level, also turfed and studded with the tiny white flowers which had spread overnight once one had been transplanted from the green.
The shorter, bent limb faced terrace and shrines at an angle, with a formal entrance, broad steps patterned in finstone and limestone curving left and right to meet at one of Geraint's perrons and deliver people through a portico to a suite of nobly proportioned reception rooms with wide balconies for summer use. Even Kel had to agree there would be balls, and immortals needed space; besides, the rooms were beautiful and had glass windows—about which she could have kicked herself because she'd seen glass blown and knew what it was made of, just as she'd known basilisks could liquefy as well as petrify. Glassmaking hadn't occurred to anyone until Amiir'aan asked an innocent question, but would be another Guild craft and the panes facing the shrines and central greensward, doubled within wooden frames for winter insulation, were a striking sample. Above one end of the reception rooms were offices, and above the other a room for exercise and training when it was wet—large enough to pattern dance and conduct a class.
The base, parallel to the fin, was a private apartment. Taller-than-mortal visitors were accommodated but the rooms were family spaces. Kel had spoken to Irnai, offering adoption, but the girl declined, saying she remembered her parents and would stay theirs, but she did like the idea of living in the house, and had fallen in love with a curved bedroom from which the shrines could just be seen. With Kitten's help she was trying out colour schemes, and if Kel and Dom both wished they could do more it was a boon to see her happy and looking only her true age, most of the time.
The longer limb, parallel to the last barrack, consisted of guest rooms for mortals and immortals. Had anyone asked Kel if forty would suffice she'd have thought they'd lost their minds, but having installed her kin there weren't many spare. Demadria and Gavin had come with Ferghal, Avinor in tow, so besides parents and Grandma there were seven siblings with six spouses and fifteen children; as well as Dom's parents and brother, and, given how crowded Neal and Yuki were in their quarters, Baird and Wilina. Other guests she left where they were, save Raoul and Buri, and Lalasa and Tomas, protesting but glad of a larger space for the wedding-dress and final fussings about it.
The whole stupendous thing had gone from a building-site Kel was studiously ignoring to finished-enough-to-present while she'd been at Drachifethe for a few days early in June signing a treaty with the spidrens laired by the Smiskir. She hadn't had time to ride up to their valley but Barzha had flown over it, Scarlet relaying the view so she and the spidren could agree boundaries. The immortals had been holed up, hunting game and avoiding the war, not eating Clan Swithtrem or its livestock, but Kel sent that clanchief as well as Hamrkeng copies of the treaty with a bland note about prevention and cure. As she left boatmen were pleasingly practicing shooting the bridge and she spent the ride talking diplomacy with her Papa, who'd come to observe, so the delegation waiting gleefully to present the wonder-house took her by surprise and left her very emotional. Her people enjoyed it no end, and they were all wonders too, so it didn't take long for delight to join overwhelmedness; nor, as the main bedroom already boasted an enormous bed, to begin a process Dom called blessing the rooms that promised to be very enjoyable.
All in all, therefore, things were going smoothly, and the only hitches were unexpected guests. Three days before Midsummer Buri went into labour and was delivered of a boy; Baird was astonished at the ease of it in a woman of her age bearing a first child but Neal simply pointed to the Goddess's spiral, Buri wasn't complaining, and Raoul was adorably entranced by his son; the only problem was that the dress Buri had intended to wear to the wedding was suddenly too large and not designed for nursing. Lalasa rose to the emergency, and Alan as Raoul's squire had the job of making sure his knight master remembered to eat, sleep, and turn up when and where he should, so that new arrival was readily accommodated. His parents had long since decided a boy would be Alan Raoul Jonathan, and with godsparents to hand—Jonathan, Thayet, and George—they thought an immediate nameday called for and it happened in a whirl on Midsummer Eve, Holloran presiding. Later that day a less expected arrival was Ragnar Ragnarsson and some clanchiefs from the delegation, who felt a clanchief shouldn't wed without others to do them honour. Kel thought about tearing her hair and made a note to get a spellmirror for the bridge guards, but she liked Ragnar and still had a few guest rooms, so Scanrans bemused by a remarkable building very little of which had been there when they'd left six weeks before joined the mix. Her sisters and Duchess Wilina were taken aback and what her grandma thought remained mercifully unknown, but her nieces and nephews were delighted, Ragnar and his fellows were all—interestingly—men who dealt well with excited and curious children, and she had other things to do on her last unwedded evening.
Fanche and Lalasa were hosting a female dinner for her, with guests from Thayet and Cricket, her Mama and sisters, Yuki with Ryokel, and Daine with Sarralyn, to Reben Carpenter's wife, resident less than a month. What Dom and men in general were doing Kel had no idea but Neal and Owen had been seen conspiring with Wolset so she considered herself well out of whatever it was, mischievously invited the Scanrans to tag along with Baird if they wanted, and let herself be escorted to the messhall by Yuki and Shinko. The food was exceptional, company sentimental, conversation frequently lewd, and laughter loud; only the speeches were less than welcome in their remorseless exaggerations by people who knew far too much about her life anyway, but she was getting used to that and kept her obligatory reply to heartfelt observations— first, that she'd found the hard way that being a living lover was vastly better than being a dead virgin, and second, that climbing into bed with Dom had been just about the only thing she'd been able to do entirely by herself in the whole saga of New Hope, so the toast was to them all. The talk ran late and stayed lewd but with her Mama's help she slipped away in reasonable time for a solid night's sleep, and dreamed of a future studded with tiny white flowers that smelled of blossom.
Not even her wedding could keep Kel from dawn glaive practice. Pattern dancing brought inner calm and she lost herself in precise movement and pure balance of body and weapon. Reaching the end she became aware of a grey-haired Yamani woman watching, glaive in hand, who bowed, offering a sparring match. Kel bowed back and took guard. At the first touch she knew this was a master and that she was being tested—but she was in good form, her deflections feather-light. No opportunity for riposte was offered, and as speed increased they crossed a boundary Yamanis spoke of—actual blade contact ceased, incipient counters leading to the abandonment of attack before it developed, movement diminishing though concentration never wavered until they were almost still save for gestural movements of their glaives. Kel had never reached that state before, though she'd seen it as a child in Imperial displays, and had no idea how it ended until her opponent repeated a move in eyeblink succession, and disengaged, stepping back to breathe deeply. Applause broke out from watching Yamanis, including Yuki and Shinko, standing with Prince Eitaro, and Kel hastily bowed as properly as she could with glaive in hand. To her immense surprise he bowed back, imperial-to-noble, and came forward, formal mode softened by pleasure.
"That was very fine, Lady Keladry. I have never before seen any but a Yamani achieve the perfect state."
"Your Imperial Highness is too gracious. This one has never before achieved anything like it."
The grey-haired woman smiled. "Only for lack of an able opponent."
Eitaro nodded. "There must be two sensei. But I am rude—Lady Keladry, allow me to make known to you Hayato-sensei."
Kel offered a deep bow, student-to-master, for she knew that name and if she'd had any idea the sensei was among His Imperial Highness's retinue would have sought her out. Hayato returned a bow of equals.
"Wrong mode, my Lady, for you demonstrate mastery, as Her Royal and Imperial Highness believed you would, given opportunity. And without formal instruction since you were ten, I believe. Commendable."
Flattered, Kel knew her limits. "You are too generous, Hayato-sensei. My skill is far short of yours."
"Not so far, my Lady, and not generous at all. As His Imperial Highness says, only sensei reach that state. I shall report it to the Temple of Weapons as I am required to do."
Kel couldn't argue with that, bowed again properly, and was applauded again, lowering her eyes and wishing she had her shukusen. She regretted she couldn't bring herself to wear it regularly, but Runnerspring's hand intruded too much. Shinko was smiling and Kel's brain caught up—the test had been a wedding present of a very Yamani kind: had she not achieved the required state the honour of sparring with Hayato-sensei would have pleased her, and as she had she began her wedding day with a new status that would have interesting consequences when she and Dom visited the Islands. Meantime there were congratulations to accept, which was fine because as what had happened sank in she was feeling far too pleased with herself and the world to mind.
After thanking Hayato, Shinko, and the Prince Kel made excuses and went to change. In the usual course of a wedding day she'd spend the whole morning being dressed and made-up, but need allowed her to avoid such foolishness. There was no difficulty giving everybody a view of the ceremony, but even her new reception rooms wouldn't hold everyone present, nor the messhall. Kin and personal guests had to have priority, but there were many New Hopers who wanted to give a token or personal felicitations on the day, and after discussions with Master Oakbridge she'd invented protocol to suit, to his scandalised relief. She dressed in her kimonos, with Heliana's help, thought hard before squaring shoulders and adding the shukusen, and after breakfast went back to the terrace before the shrines to sit with Dom, available to whoever wanted.
It took all morning but her people appreciated what she was doing and kept things brisk—fortunately, as most of New Hope's population, civilian and military, seemed to be among them as well as friends with their own gifts. The presents were mostly hand-made—woven, carved, crafted, or drawn; if somewhat motley, given from the heart and very welcome with the rooms she had to furnish. Heliana kept a list, and Tobe, Loesia, Gydo, and an earnest Meech ferried items to a display in one of the house's reception rooms while keeping Kel and Dom supplied with tea; her siblings, parents, and in-laws-to-be were present in a loose crowd—meeting liegers of their kin, Kel realised with a shock Dom shared when she murmured the thought.
In one way it was easy for her to understand what he thought of becoming a count because her status as a countess still seemed largely unreal; but it had been hard for her to grasp the idea of status coming from her, and she'd worried the Countess-and-Protector would stand in his light when Dom and Kel should be side-by-side this day. He didn't seem to mind, content to be equal in private but woman and husband in public; she didn't think it right but had taken her Mama's advice.
"You're not going to like this, sweeting, but you're his support as he's yours, and you've to let him grow, not try to stretch and wrap him round. I know it's new to you too, but you've been a commander more than two years, and he a captain less than one. Remember how hard you found thinking past your modesty, and give him the same credit." Ilane smiled wickedly. "I doubt his pride'll be bruised, but if someone does manage it you can make amends later by being very accommodating."
She thought it sound advice, though, and fun besides. The dynamics of—she didn't want to say dominance because it was mutual, but initiating things in their relationship—was complicated, woven around her awakened needs, physical strength, and long conviction of undesirability, and his wound, that he still believed more ugly than honourable, with the deep sense of unworthiness he'd acquired with it. Latterly, combat strain and her self-loathing after the siege had been in play as well, but the gifts of Lords Mithros and Sakuyo promised improvements. She'd told him of her pregnancy, making him very happy, and took advantage of the present conversation to mention Beltane tradition and tell her Mama, who squeaked and hugged her, crackling excitement.
The presence of veterans and men he commanded among their well-wishing liegers was helping Dom, she thought—military command and mutual respect offering a base for the greater step. It was she who'd taken liege-oaths but he and the child they'd made were implicit in them, and that made him feel in receipt of unearned command as well as unearned gifts; but there were lovingly made and grateful presents specifically for him as well. On the morning after Beltane she'd made it clear calling her 'My Lady Countess' was a bad idea and he would remain 'Cap'n Dom', as he was now, not become 'My Lord Count'—though she intended to try it on him at least once when he was in no position to object.
There were inevitably some troublesome presents. Neal had written several bad haiku he insisted on reading in a worse accent and Yamani fans were in use for a while; less forgivably, he started an artistic interlude because Ragnar insisted on declaiming a passage from a saga-in-progress about Kel, narrating the destruction of the trebuchet. Most New Hopers could follow and Kel would have buried her head in her hands if Yuki and Keiichi hadn't between them been providing Prince Eitaro and other Yamanis with a running translation that even without alliteration sounded so peculiar she had a hard time not laughing. Instead she had to look impressed, thank a grinning Ragnar, and repeat her haiku about the Emperor's glaives and Lord Sakuyo's grace when Prince Eitaro asked, though how he knew about the latter was a mystery Yuki would answer for.
The Scanran saga cued the paintings from the Maid who was giving them on behalf of all, and Kel had no choice but to allow them to be displayed—at which point a long silence fell broken only by shuffling feet as people rotated in to see. Kel just stared, and while every bit as horrified as she'd anticipated had to concede Jer had been right—they were very good, and she had no doubt of a divine hand in their making. They heroised her ridiculously, but besides vivid colour and arresting composition there were things everywhere that made them much more than hagiography. The first overemphasised the great warrior but also immortals who stood alongside, recognisably Quenuresh, Var'istaan, and Kuriaju, who all came to look; Junior could be made out high above the illusory dragon, the colour of Firebreath, whose swirling form with the floating runes connected the observing group to fearful Scanrans, shown looking up with expressions of pious awe while others, including Maggur and a recognisable Genlith quailed.
The second painting was just as bad in making her look beautiful and stern as well as strong and noble, but again did more. Ebony and Junior no longer anchored her feet, accurately bloody as footprints showed, but respectively occupied one shoulder, echoing the bow's curve, and stood in streamlined elegance at her side like a flame-coloured bird dog eager to fetch the trebuchet. The incandescent engine was a blaze of white it almost hurt to look at, but if you did details emerged from the dazzle—frame, treadmill, and counterweight box, though mercifully the giants who'd died within were lost in the conflagration. Above, the thunderhead towered with dire menace, and against a jag of lighting glowing in one lobe of the storm a sunbird hovered, drably accurate.
The third painting continued the themes, a sunlit Kel spearheading the Tortallan charge to place her gleaming glaive at Maggur's shadowed throat, but stormwings were already there, a glittering phalanx in the sunlight, and Barzha was coming in behind Maggur, bright and terrible in the darkness that enfolded him. Junior was again present, a splash of colour against black clouds, and the centaurs, creating the tunnel of arrows she'd ridden through. Other Tortallans were identifiable—Alanna, Raoul, Wyldon, Brodhelm, Voelden, Seaver, and, heartstoppingly, Merric with Rogal at his side; beyond them faces blurred in a swirling grey Kel was convinced was meant to be ghosts, and in which she found herself thinking she could see this or that dead face, Einur, Fulcher and Gil Lofts, other Tortallans who lived on in her dreams, but civilians and Scanrans too, the dead of Rathhausak, even Freja Haraldsdottir.
The Yamanis were as transfixed as everyone and Kel thought it better to face the music, so having respectfully asked Prince Eitaro and Lord Kiyomori to attend she had the Maid relate her tale of the bright-eyed old man who'd come unseen to a crowded Corus slum and departed laughing. After Kel reminded them of the godbow and its quiver she asked Daine to explain what a sunbird was and confirm the second painting's accuracy in that respect, even though the birds never left the divine realms. Carefully neutral questioning elicited the fact that everyone saw ghosts in the grey—their own ghosts with reason to loathe Maggur, if they had them, and a strong impression of vengeful dead if they didn't. She turned to a white-faced Lord Kiyomori.
"They must have been painted by someone who was here, my Lord, an unknown painter of great skill and purpose working in secrecy, and they turn up in a mysterious old man's arms in a Corus slum, given to a Protector's Maid. It adds up, don't you think? Especially as beyond the jest of Quenuresh's illusion the paintings are a multiple joke—on me, because I find them embarrassing, but also on any prejudiced against immortal allies or female warriors, and in putting Junior—the griffin—in all of them. I can tell you what the three of them are called too, I think—Even thunder stills to hear Him ease His lungs. It certainly fits."
Kiyomori was having that po-faced priests' problem in collocating 'divine' and 'joke', which Kel thought a poor show for a celebrant of Lord Sakuyo, and seemed to think a Yamani god would never employ a gaijin style, but Keiichi, Takemahou-sensei and others were nodding sharply, as was Prince Eitaro, voice imperially sober.
"Lord Sakuyo has been known to honour his Blessed with art, and if the Blessed is Tortallan it makes sense for the art to be so, Kiyomori. And the divine is greater than Yaman—we claim Lord Sakuyo, not define him and it would be impious to try. Besides, this full gaikokujin style is better for battle scenes, I think—our Muromachi monochromes would do them scant justice and even the best Kamakura emaki would lack this colour and vividness. I am only sorry His Imperial Majesty cannot see them."
Kel didn't have quite that detached a view but nodded. "I am sorry for that too, Your Imperial Highness. I would have them copied for him, as I understand they have been in Corus, but I fear the results would not be the same."
There was discussion of a court artist who might be sent, into which Jonathan and Thayet were drawn, and eventually the paintings were taken to the house and over Kel's muttered protests hung in the main reception room. Then it was back to receive more presents. With great ceremony Prince Eitaro presented a gift on behalf of the emperor, paired swords for Kel, katana and ko-wazikashi, resembling the swords of duty and law her Mama had saved and implicitly recognising her as samurai, and a katana for Dom; Kel replied properly, privately giving thanks more to Cricket for coaching than the emperor for swords she'd probably never use except for display but would have to practice with all the same. Jonathan and Thayet made their announcements of works and scholarship, which brought a burst of applause, and had tokens for the day—a pair of gold signet rings with Kel's triple-bordered owl and crossed glaives. Keiichi had found a beautifully illustrated old copy of Hajikoru's Fourteen Moonlight Dances with the Naginata and others also chose books; an edition of the Hamrkengsaga from Harailt, a hysterically inaccurate treatise on dragons from Numair with splendid pictures showing improbable beasts, and a more accurately illustrated edition of Orchan from Wyldon and his family—who had to Kel's delight come from Cavall. The new scar across his face had healed well, and there was an odd look in his eyes as he watched Owen with Margarry on his arm present Kel with a silver hairbrush and, grey eyes level, Dom with a very fine cane.
"I had the notion you might want to grow your hair, Kel. Dreamed it and it seemed right. Short hair needs brushing too, so it was safe. And I know you don't like using a cane, Dom, but I hoped you wouldn't mind a nice one and it is practical. I'm no good with books or things like that so I thought I'd chance it and my Lord agreed. I hope you don't mind."
Kel was holding her breath but it was hard to be offended with Owen, and she and Dom had spoken about his reluctance to display the consequence of his injury; for a sergeant he was right that needing a cane undermined authority, but for a more senior commander that wasn't true, and for a noble it had little effect if there was respect. She could see the emotional argument chasing within him for a second until he smiled and embraced Owen and she breathed again.
Jewellery was also popular, with a beautiful copper-and-emerald necklace from Alanna and George, who murmured that things overseas seemed to be coming along nicely, a diamond one from Baird and Wilina, and enough earrings to oblige Kel to have her ears pierced—which Yuki and Salma, among the guilty donors, knew full well she'd always been reluctant to do because she didn't see the point of adorning her plainness and it involved a hot needle. There were less usual items—gleaming beaten-copper armbands from Ragnar and the clanchiefs, matching silver bracelets and anklets from her sisters with pointed suggestions that she didn't always have to wear breeches or floor-length skirts, brooches, jewelled pins, even a tiara, which she'd have thought very presumptuous if it hadn't been from Shinko in the red gold found in Yaman, which caught the auburn in her hair and from others' exclamations she had to assume looked good.
Kel had had a long conversation with her parents, dissuading them from extravagance on her behalf when Mindelan's treasury was under strain, and another with Dom's family, not carrying such a burden but comfortable rather than wealthy, and willing to limit their gifts to ownership of Butter, hitherto a loan, and a fine cloak. The worst of it was that the grinning horse was there, with Peachblossom, Alder, and Hoshi in support—animal behaviour Tortallans used to Daine had come to expect but that induced excitement among Yamanis and Scanrans. But she and Dom had still faced the conundrum of the bride's and groom's reciprocal gifts, which didn't matter especially to either of them but did to others. They'd scratched heads and got nowhere; with Lalasa's arrival they'd commissioned for one another sets of really comfortable working clothes, warm and durable with enough pockets in what each thought the right places and sizes, but sufficiently formal to satisfy the sumptuary needs of office, with New Hope's arms on the breast. Others could think what they liked, and they exchanged boxes happily; Kel was telling Kitten about the contents of hers when the dragonet's snout snapped skyward and she sighed, looking at Dom.
"Here we go, love. How many are coming, Kit?"
Grandsire is alone.
"Right." She went to the terrace and hoisted her voice into command mode. "People! Incoming dragon—Lord Diamondflame. You know he can make himself space but seeing my flagpole hop sideways gives me a turn so can you clear the west side of the green, please?"
They didn't need telling twice and Kel was able to cross to Prince Eitaro and his retinue, and explain. Diamondflame's silhouette was rapidly enlarging and they were inclined to listen when she respectfully made suggestions.
"Lord Diamondflame is a friend as well as most noble, Your Imperial Highness, and by no means without humour, but remember he is as much older than we as he is larger, and as greater in mind as in body."
Yamanis didn't have the vast Scanran pool of sagas about dragons but it wasn't for nothing the Imperial sigil was a dragon though none had been seen in the Islands for centuries, and as Diamondflame slid gracefully onto the green Prince Eitaro's eyes were as wide as his shoulders were straight. Diamondflame settled into his crouch.
She saw Yamanis go taut as that mindvoice rolled into their heads.
"And to you, my Lord. You are most welcome on this wedding day. I believe you know most of my guests, but not all. May I make them known to you?"
He did seem to be here only as a guest though Kel doubted she'd get away without a serious conversation and wasn't sure how she felt about that. She led the Prince, Lord Kayomori, Takemahou- and Hayata-sensei, and Keichii down to be presented and gravely greeted, before looking at a quivering Kitten, nobly controlling herself, and grinning permission. Seeing anything bouncing into one of Diamondflame's paws with a trill of delight and hearing that mindvoice filled with affection might trouble anyone's sensibilities and Kel was interested to see even Kayomori was reassured, and Eitaro as charmed as Keiichi and both sensei. They had also seen New Hopers, Scanrans, and other guests, while profoundly respectful, at ease, and unperturbed horses, dogs, sparrows, and marmalade cat. In any case, one necessity dealt with she turned to the next—the couples she'd handfasted who were sharing her wedding day.
The orphaned Goatstrack man and Anak's Eyrie girl had decided to live in Anak's Eyrie when they could, and Kel gave them a landgrant including the girl's dead family's one field and several more, as well as a useful purse, her first. The older Tirrsmont and Rathhausak pair wanted to stay in New Hope and received rights to a cliff dwelling, with a purse. Fanche and Saefas also wanted to stay at New Hope; Kel had every intention they should, as stewards of the township, and appointing them so gave them an estate at the northern end of the valley, far enough to allow retreat, near enough for convenience, and if Samiaju was right including in lands spreading over the western saddle coal deposits that would give them a source of income beyond the handsome purse she added. There would need to be more such grants in future, but this sound start while stupefying Fanche and Saefas was immensely well received.
She and Dom took all three couples to join the very high table for lunch, and she could have blessed Jonathan and Thayet, who worked hard to put all at ease. Fanche and Saefas had grown used to high company but for the others, however familiar a sight King and Queen had become, and however rarefied the atmosphere that had surrounded them, to dine so as centres of attention was the event of a lifetime, and they rose to it. The honours done them continued as soon as brides and grooms had a chance to change. Faced with collective insistence Kel had reluctantly agreed to officiate but roped in Holloran so there was at least one competent divine involved; in the nature of orphans and widows the brides lacked anyone to give them away so Kel had deputed Roald for the younger woman, Jonathan for the Tirrsmont widow, who went very pink to find herself on the King's arm, and Duke Baird, of whom she approved, for Fanche. The ceremonies were to be in unbroken sequence, and they were ready to begin when Lord Weiryn's and the Green Lady's shrine began to glow—not the usual dazzle but nevertheless, and Kel paused, glancing at Daine in mute question.
"No idea, Kel. Da might be toning down the drama but I've never seen him manifest with that little silver."
"Perhaps it is just a blessing." Holloran sounded hopeful and Kel grinned. "Did Lord Weiryn say he would be, um, attending?"
"We didn't speak last time I saw him, Your Reverence, but he knows he's always welcome to drop in."
There are gods walking up the roadway, Protector.
Diamondflame sounded surprised and Kel had time to shrug before her head swung towards a distant, frantic shout from one of the skeleton duty guard, followed by the sound of amused gods declaring themselves under the Honesty Gate. They swept into view and her breath caught. She'd never seen Lord Weiryn in finery before, and from a sidelong glance at Daine suspected it might be a first, but he did look splendid in a long robe that danced with greens of the forest. Animal shapes chased through it, matching the flickering embroideries of the Green Lady, and his antlers gleamed silver among their usual velvet brown nap. Wuodan and a hound only a little smaller Kel was sure was his mate loped beside them, and her mind went into overdrive.
"Couples, there'll be a short delay. Your Reverence, you've met them already, so excuse me a moment, please." Her voice drew attention even with that competition. "Your Majesties, Your Imperial Highness, would you of Your graces join me?" She repeated herself in her highest formal Yamani. "And you, Lord Kiyomori, of your grace as kamunushi."
Majesties and Highnesses weren't supposed to be ordered about, however disguised as supplications, but Jonathan wasn't objecting, nor Eitaro, and Kiyomori was collected, goggling, by the Prince's strong hand. As they reached her he spoke swiftly in the mode of imperial-to-friend.
"Keladry-sensei, how should I address them if called to do so?"
Kel fought a brief battle to a draw. "I asked the same thing about dragons before I met Lord Diamondflame's senior, my Prince, and was told politely. I believe the advice holds good, and sincerity and good cheer matter more than piety. As a god pointed out to me while hauling me up from making obeisance, you miss a great deal grovelling."
Eitaro looked startled but gave an appreciative nod, squaring his shoulders; there was no time for more. Gods and hounds passed Diamondflame, gravely nodding and being nodded at, and neared the steps. Kel curtseyed, drawing a breath that turned out to be unneeded.
"Protector." Weiryn's voice was even more gorgeous and she realised he was happy, though another note glided within his words. "No formal greetings, please, at such a fortunate meeting." They came up the steps and his hand reached to caress her cheek in benison, warmth flaring through her. "We visited Drachifethe, as my brother Mithros tells me we may, and have been walking your woods to meditate on the experience. Wuodan's and Frige's good noses told us of a feast, reminding us of a wedding day deserving many blessings."
Kel knew barracks' lawyering when she heard it but as she'd been the one to recommend it to Lord Mithros she could hardly complain—and only Daine, Numair, and from the look in his eyes Diamondflame knew enough to understand what was being said. Daine was valiantly swallowing joyful laughter, and circumspection was clearly called for not to annoy a senior officer willing to turn a blind eye only so far. The Green Lady leant to kiss Kel—a friendly greeting rather than the forehead-kiss of blessing, but sending a jolt straight to her womb.
"It is our good fortune to meet you so, Protector. Drachifethe makes us think of family and love. We shall visit it often, I believe."
Kel found her voice. "And you will always be welcome to seek refreshment at your shrine after embracing its lesson." She saw laughter in their eyes, which didn't seem so deep and starry today. "But I forget my manners—King Jonathan and Queen Thayet you know, but may I make known to you His Imperial Highness Prince Eitaro noh Nakuji? And second kamunushi of your brother Sakuyo, Lord Kiyomori noh Teika."
The Yamanis bowed, mortal to divine, but like Kel found indrawn breaths unneeded as Weiryn spoke, at once commanding and soothing in a Yamani mode Kel supposed must be divine-to-mortal, acknowledging respect, promising to convey it to Sakuyo, offering his own respects and requesting they be conveyed to His Imperial Majesty, and insisting beyond possibility of being gainsaid that he and his wife were by happy chance fellow guests at welcome weddings and formalities not needed. His speech was exquisitely aesthetic and Kel found herself certain Lord Sakuyo had been eating at the Green Lady's table in the last week or so. Needing to stay in Yamani she used the mode of friend-to-imperial, in which Yuki had coached her in case it was offered.
"Our weddings are Mithran, of course—you remember Archpriest Holloran—but naturally take place before your shrine to honour your marriage. It seems rude to ask you to work as chance-come guests, but odd for you to stand in the congregation while your statues are called to witness. Might you stand for yourselves?"
Eitaro was moving back to his place before Kel could say anything, Kiyomori propelled alongside him, and she ushered the gods to their shrine—Wuodan and Frige loping alongside to speak private greetings—before going to stand by Holloran, resting a comforting hand on his shoulder and beaming at the waiting couples.
"And on we go."
Having real gods instead of wooden ones didn't make much difference to the ceremony but lent a charge to proceedings beyond even Diamondflame's power. At the point where the gods' blessings were asked on each couple they were promptly given, directly and on behalf of 'our brother and sister', necessitating an additional round of thanks. The fires leaped alight at first spark, the marigold necklaces seemed to bloom as if they still grew, and kisses were exchanged under linked divine hands from which silver drops fell while everyone felt a swirl of shared and declared passion. The cheering was exuberant, with a certain urgency, and for the last kiss, between Fanche and Saefas, was joined by a crooning from Wuodan and Frige that Kel could feel in her bones. Then at last it was done, Weiryn and the Green Lady could embrace their daughter with a joy that sparkled everywhere, and all six dazed newlyweds could process through the beaming crowd to their own parties, and disappear to change into sensible clothes again while Kel and Dom retired to do the opposite.
As Lalasa had a fair idea what Kel would tolerate she hadn't had to endure foolish arguments about the kind of wedding dress that would have made her look like a large, frilly icebear, but even at their first meeting Lalasa had eyed her and produced a measuring string. Kel had been aware of change from the tightness of her tunics but was surprised to discover how much larger her breasts had become and didn't think pregnancy was supposed to have such effects so quickly; Lalasa seemed convinced without asking about pregnancy that Dom was responsible and said she'd wondered if that would happen, leaving Kel to ask in puzzlement and be left thoughtfully surprised by the laughing answer. It was an enjoyable phenomenon, whatever the cause, and from Lalasa's point-of-view made less modest styles possible despite the need to conceal Kel's scarred shoulder; the result was a dress of exquisite simplicity and cunning cut that exposed upper shoulders and framed her strong neck, and if cleavage was still not possible there was a definite bust that made her feel more grown up than almost anything else.
On Yuki's wedding dress the embroidery of arms had been white-on-white, but Lalasa had insisted on doing silver and gold borders in appropriate threads, then decided the rest should be coloured too. The material didn't want such weight of needlework so the design had been simplified into outlines; Kel had had doubts but the result was as fine as anything Lalasa had ever done, and the colours matched suspiciously well with her new signet ring, a blue-green beryl necklace her mother had insisted on giving her, and the tiara. When Lalasa insisted she try them all she expected to feel overdressed but they seemed right together, and the faces of her Mama and enormous bridal party, whom she hadn't even bothered to try and keep out, testified that they were.
Weeks back Kel had found Thayet, half-amused, half-distressed, refereeing a dispute between Yuki and Shinko with each insisting on surrendering to the other the position of matron of honour. Resisting the urge to bang Yamani heads together she'd declared New Hope's known-to-be-peculiar customs allowed as many matrons of honour as the bride liked, so they could both have the job. It was Thayet's fault it had gone further, as she'd promptly opted to join in, at which point Kel added Lalasa, and it had turned out one couldn't then reasonably restrict bridesmaids either, apparently. The whole thing had caused hair-tearing on Lalasa's part but it turned out Thayet and Shinko had matching white dresses and there was enough material left for her to squeeze out one for herself, under pleased protest. The principal bridesmaids were those Kel had always intended—Irnai, Loesia, and Gydo—and they had proper dresses Lalasa had planned, but there had, fortunately, been enough other Maids who sewed and a creamy cloth intended for Kel's trousseau to make matching dresses for her seven—count them and wonder—nieces old enough to walk, whose arguments for inclusion everyone except Kel thought unimpeachable. The only good thing in the absurdity, besides making her nieces very happy and vastly relieving their mothers, was that it freed Dom to have Tobe as well as his brother as supporters, though he did declare Neal as Best Man to be unique.
She knew she'd long treasure the look on her father's face when she emerged at the head of the phalanx to join him. If she was going to make up protocol she might as well do it thoroughly, so she was on her mother's arm and his look was as much for his wife, but made her heart trip. She gave him her other arm and they walked together through the portico wide enough for all abreast, and went slowly down the steps. Indrawn breaths when the crowd saw her marked a silence that rippled across the level, stretching to encompass dragons and gods until she was beginning to pass through her people, who erupted into cheering and deafening applause, with shouts of Lady Kel, Protector, and rising through them New Hope, New Hope, New Hope. It wasn't the done thing but with royalty joining in what could she do?
For the most part Kel kept her eyes on Dom's, glowing back at her with everything in them—wondering knowledge, pride and humility, loving respect and admiring lust—but glances showed her sisters pleasingly stunned. Her Maids were grinning, and even good friends looking as surprised as admiring—Alanna, Raoul, Vanget, Ferghal, and Wyldon, with an expression unnervingly like her father's. It was a final assurance that she really was looking as good as she felt, and in her innermost self something uncurled, dissolving away as happiness became complete. It had taken Conal's death for her to forgive him the fear of heights that had so scarred her; it took only this living moment to forgive her female kin overheard remarks and direct insults that had damaged her as badly, divorcing understandings of womanhood and knighthood. Warrior, commander, lover, bride—she could be all. The price of knighthood did not include losing oneself and one's naked, mortal worth, any more than marriage or beauty granted skill at arms to defend mate and children. She could know what it was to command and triumph on the field of battle and to tremble and surrender in Dom's arms, to slaughter, love, and nurse, and forgave the Hag the cruelty that had shown her the falseness of her self-image. That was a thought to pursue but had brought her with her parents to the steps; noise still thundered about them. She had to speak into her parents' ears in turn to be sure they could hear, and when they paused, loosing her arms, went up the steps alone, congratulating herself on refusing the train Lalasa had tried to persuade her was a good idea. Turning and winking at Dom she drew breath, summoning a battlefield voice.
"Oy!" Chanting cut off with satisfactory abruptness. "It's sweet of you all but I can't hear myself getting married, so hush now, please."
She heard Diamondflame's laugh directed to her alone and beamed down at her grinning parents, Thayet swallowing laughter behind them while Lalasa looked relieved not be deafened any more, and beckoned them all to join her. Holloran was looking similarly relieved, gods and hounds approving, and Dom was there in his beautiful matching tunic, and Tobe and Neal in their best, beaming back at her, so it was time to get on with it. Having divine eyes on one's vows did add a certain something, and the chimes sounded extremely musical, but she was so intent on Dom and the emotion pouring from her with her voice that it wasn't until the fire blazed with silver among all the colours of the sunbirds' display that she realised the something was going to make itself obvious. As she and Dom lifted the marigold necklaces white flowers bloomed among orange, and when they kissed it wasn't drops of silver that fell from the hands of Weiryn and the Green Lady but a stream that coursed in their blood like the Hunt and the power of spring. Nor was there the same cheer from the crowd because Shakith's hawk-scream rang across the valley, far closer than usual yet flowing past her so the blazing sensation of her lips on Dom's was undisturbed, and they could end it of their own accords and embrace, each head on the others' shoulder, breathing in unison in the perfect silence that came as echoes died. Hands entwined, and she'd swear hearts beating in unison, they turned to Weiryn and she cocked an eyebrow in query. He laughed, speaking to all.
"My sister marks a moment from which prophecies will spring." He smiled. "You might call it the timeway's acknowledgement of service."
Kel blinked consternation but thinking about that wasn't going to help, it was Drachifethe business, not hers, the ceremony was over, and only two thoughts were helpful. The first was to distract Lord Mithros and the other gods sure to be eavesdropping as rapidly as possible.
"Thank you, my Lord. I believe that explanation terrifies almost as much as it confuses, but please convey my respectful thanks to the timeway and your sister all the same. Will you grace us as our first guests as husband and wife?"
His eyes sparked. "We will, with joy."
She turned. "Lord Diamondflame, given your command of space, will you honour us with your company inside?"
With joy also, Protector.
Embracing Dom again, lips by his ear, she could deal with the second thought—Remember to limp, he's got to be watching—and continue the first by asking her matrons and bridesmaids to usher guests after them with all due ceremony. Then she could take Dom's arm, on the side that would need support if he were genuinely limping, and extend her own for Weiryn, smiling, Green Lady and hounds beyond him. Dom's weight rested on her arm convincingly enough she thought he might truly have found his leg painful once she made him think about it, and a stately pace allowed Diamondflame to fall in beside the Green Lady, though how he could walk at mortal speed given his paces was another dragon mystery. However he was doing it, dragon and goddess making conversation as people got out of their way had to be a more interesting spectacle than two mortals receiving mundane congratulations. As they reached the steps and Diamondflame dropped back to let the Green Lady climb Weiryn turned to Kel, voice a murmur; the hounds cocked their heads.
"You need not fear. My brother knew we would come."
"Good, but it's not that. Trickster business."
"Ah. That's another story. He still can't find his shield and the Isles will tip any day now. But I don't believe Domitan's leg will concern him even if he notices, and my brother Sakuyo is a great deal closer."
He sounded cheerful and Kel felt relief that Weiryn knew about it all. She wasn't so sure about Sakuyo being a great deal of anything, especially closer, but they'd reached the doorway; stepping forward with Dom and turning to invite the gods in she was confronted by the sight of Diamondflame's head rising above the top step while his body flowed sinuously around the entire curve, his tail yet to reach the bottom one, and amusement washed worries away. The gods would notice what they noticed and do what they did; bridges could be crossed when one came to them, even by gods and dragons, and she was Domitan of Masbolle's—of New Hope's—wife, as he was her husband, and it was wonderful.
Her equanimity lasted only until she followed Weiryn and the Green Lady into the main reception room and saw the paintings had grown, expanding from handy portable size to as big as the wall to which they somehow remained attached could compass. Colours and intensity had not diminished, and she knew she wasn't the only one to hear Sakuyo laughing. Diamondflame had rippled in, taking up a considerable space even so, and was gazing at the vast images with interest, as were Wuodan and Frige. Royalty was making its way round Diamondflame's tail with Tobe, staring.
"I told you." Weiryn's voice rang with amusement. "There's a package and a note for you as well."
There were—an oblong package on which casually beautiful Yamani calligraphy said For my son that she knew must contain portable copies in which nothing would have been lost, and an unbound scroll resting on it addressed To my favourite daughter. Cross as she was she handled it reverently but the message, in the same gorgeous brushstrokes, was in parent-to-child and another teasing lesson.
Don't be so cross with me—you may look at what you did and laugh at yourself while others admire you. You'll be the better for it.
You are entirely correct that I noticed the little girl whose mother saved the swords, and upon the need to let you grow wholly as yourself, without even a feather-touch of our aid until you became a knight, I have built my finest jest in an eon. I adore you for it but all you endured has sadly stunted your sense of humour. Console yourself—my lesson is kinder than my sister's, and I promise the learning will bring as sensational a reward.
I've business elsewhere but I'll be back. Look forward to it, and give your husband's leg my regards. Your estimable parents too.
Delightful architecture, by the way—those basilisks and ogres do good work. Tell Geraint-sensei I look forward to a long chat; there's a temple to me planned in Edo and he has interesting ideas. Oh, and tell Sarra she should have a look at your kitchens—she'll like what he's done there.
Wordlessly Kel let the scroll close and looked at the silent people who had gathered, then the Green Lady. She waited until she was sure her voice would carry the right complex of tones, with the laughter she knew wasn't entirely hers almost inaudible beneath them. Almost.
"He says I have a stunted sense of humour and you should have a look at my kitchens. I'm going to sit down now, if I can find anywhere I don't have to look at myself being so very heroic. Would somebody please tell Prince Eitaro he's acquired some extra luggage?"
Then she made the mistake of catching Dom's eye and they were both lost. It was, she thought not very coherently, a tribute to Lalasa's skill that she could whoop laughter in her wedding dress, and interesting to watch Kiyomuri's face through her tears as Sakuyo's laugh joined her own and Dom's in a caress they both felt and all heard, while across the room Prince Eitaro went to his knees with as joyous a face as she'd ever seen on a Yamani in public. Even when she'd recovered some dignity a bubbling good humour welled in her breast, reconfirmation that her efforts before the elemental had chosen her had been truly her own mingling with the truth of Sakuyo's lesson in the way she could see the intrinsic exaggeration of the paintings magnified. On the walls she really was a ten-foot fantasy visiting fire on the deserving, a trickster as unreal as the illusory dragon; and here she was on the floor, life-size and beginning to think food a fine idea except she'd had another and went with Dom across to Prince Eitaro to offer him a hand he took with a surprised look, and haul him to his feet.
"Most honourable but not necessary today, my Prince. Petals in water rejoice with the thunderstorm : another fine mess."
His face lit. "Truth, Keladry-sensei. Your laugh too was wonderful."
She looked down at herself and up at the first painting. "Only consider the difference—that yawning gap is where Lord Sakuyo's ironies found their last touch, and patronage of a Tortallan ensures he too is caught by his jest. And then, I was alive to laugh, and very much in love, so I did."
"Many truths and wisdom too, sensei. I shall tell His Imperial Majesty." He glanced past her. "But others await you in your triumph."
She smiled and bowed, friend-to-imperial, Dom following her in—she blessed him—an uncertain but higher mode and they were both included in Eitaro's reciprocal imperial-to-friend. Those waiting were Jonathan, Thayet, and a whole constellation, and they all wanted to read the letter but Kel blithely ignored hints, offered exactly the explanation she'd given Eitaro, and went with Dom to welcome those still entering.
Thereafter the evening-with-gods fragmented again, though laughter ran through it on a great tide of hope and gratitude. The presence of everyone's dead in the final painting was a comfort, the unbelievability of all three a distancing from reality remembered. Sakuyo's great irony made a place for more ordinary desires than divine justice and deliverance from war—desires she and Dom and the other newlywed couples who spanned the generations embodied for all who celebrated with them; a future in which children could grow up and adults old peacefully. The problems of Tortall were diminished, and unless one of the eastern border nations became suicidal warfare wasn't going to be among them for a while. Roald the Peacemaker hadn't made much peace—just ignored contradictions—but his son had ended conflict with Carthak, Yaman, and now Scanra, with the Copper Isles to follow.
There were, though, a few things she always remembered clearly—the food, proclaiming that the Green Lady had done more than visit the kitchens; dancing with Weiryn while Dom partnered the Green Lady and Daine's numinous grin; Junior discovering himself in all three paintings and becoming entranced; Kitten lighting every stone of the balcony in great washes of colour; and the conversation with Diamondflame that came afterwards as he lay along the terrace and she and Dom rested on his forepaws. He had sounded apologetic.
I must beg some days of your time. I could say the Dragonmeet wants to thank you and it would be true, but it is truer that parents of the dragons who wish to become Guild apprentices desire to meet and measure you for themselves.
"Oh glory. Well that's only right. When do they want to come."
They don't. They would like to see you in the Dragonlands. She and Dom both blinked, looking at one another with wild surmise. I had wondered if you intended to travel for a honeymoon.
"Um, once everyone's gone we mean to ride the fief together."
And how long before your guests depart?
"Not long for most—a day or two—but longer for the Yamanis and our close kin and friends. Who knows when we'll be together again?"
"There's your birthday, Kel, in two days. Tobe has plans."
A birthday? You come of age?
"I do, yes."
Well, that must be respected. But it would be better not to keep those dragons waiting. How about the day after, for three days? Adult dragons didn't wheedle but you could have fooled Kel. Skysong could come.
It obviously mattered, Kitten was bouncing, and Kel met Dom's look with a hopeless shrug. "Of course."
Excellent. I shall see you then. He rose. Farewell, Protector. A most enjoyable mating ceremony. Farewell.
The last word was generally audible and people on the terrace turned to wave as he flowed across the level. Others came out to see him slide over the palisades and as he spiralled up he could be seen as a great cross silhouetted against the summer stars. Tobe wove his way over, concealing disappointment.
"He's gone, then?"
Dom met her gaze and she felt his amusement spark her own, as richly as before. Grandma had disapproved of their not taking a proper honeymoon at once, contending there was good reason for newlyweds to take themselves out of everyone's hair; she could hardly argue with three days in the Dragonlands, nor boast of it to her acquaintance without endorsing all. Kel reached to ruffle Tobe's hair.
"Don't fret, sweeting. You'll see dragons again sooner than you think."
On the ides of August a contemplative Kel found herself sitting on her balcony in late morning. Her pregnancy, showing a little, made a wonderful excuse for idleness, a department in which Dom insisted she'd been slacking, not having stopped in years; there was something wrong with that logic but she did seem to have come to rest, and inactivity was oddly welcome. She couldn't plead morning sickness, which had not been fun but had been brief, and she was amused with her indignation at not only being grateful for one of Neal's teas but actually rather liking the stuff. But then she didn't actually need an excuse.
She wasn't yet officially on leave from her new post as army district commander, releasing Wyldon to return gratefully to Cavall, but only routine was happening and her deputy at Mastiff was dealing with it. Uinse's New Hope First were on duty, Dom's Second had the corral, Brodhelm's Third were patrolling her far-flung fief, and Mikal's Fourth were now stationed at the bridge, where the settlement had become known as Dragonstown. There was wagon traffic trundling down valley needing to be checked, but Uinse's duties as captain of the citadel interlocked with Fanche's and Saefas's as town stewards, and Lasner's as comptroller, and all that was under control. And there were pilgrims, adding Lord Sakuyo's paintings to their Drachifethe visit: there was no charge for seeing them, but the Pilgrims' Progress, established south of the corral, was doing as brisk a business as the Smugglers' Rest and was, on Dom's cunning insistence, owned by Kel and rented to the veterans who ran it with profits split fifty-fifty. It did mean people traipsing in and out not so far from her, but screens in the Yamani style protected her privacy and a guard made sure people didn't wander where they shouldn't—so there wasn't much for Kel to do except write a commentary on Orchan and eat for three.
Her chair was comfortable, the writing table perfect, and the light excellent—which it shouldn't have been, as the shadow of the fin covered the balcony even at Midsummer, but that was dragons for you. On the rockface enormous curved icelights spelled out Ctheorth and Yr, the Fire-bow, and the dragons had incorporated feathers requested from their sunbird cousins so the great sign blazed with sunshine by day, warm as well as light, and faded to a glow at night. Officially it designated the dragon embassy; in truth it was Diamondflame's thanks for stumbling her way to a prophesied bridge and taking young dragons under her wing; either way she was as grateful as the grass and plants flourishing around the house.
The Dragonlands had been more fun for Kitten than for Kel or Dom, though Dom enjoyed flying and Kel liked it better with his arms around her. The defeated Separatist dragons Daine had warned them about hadn't been in evidence, only perturbed curiosity, and Kel had had to tell her tale one more time with as much reference as possible to her faint understanding of the timeway and contacts with Kitten, Kawit, and Diamondflame. The experience of addressing the Dragonmeet was one to wonder at, but concerned parents and eager offspring had been familiar. Diamondflame hadn't been joking that there were dragons with a century for each of Kitten's years who had mastered less magic, for the simple reason that they'd never needed to. The darkings were right—the Dragonlands were dull, and while there had been a ban on visits to the mortal realm, and sufficient hostility from gods to put the Divine Realms out of bounds to the underage, only Kitten among younger dragons had been anywhere else. Food seemed plentiful, adults self-absorbed and fractious, and kits expected to learn by themselves.
The root of Rainbow's caution was the fact that the half-dozen younglings who'd fledged, and were thus eligible to become apprentices, were by definition in their teen centuries, between fifteen and twenty-five feet long, which did make for problems administering discipline. Most had been excited, with parents nervous of placing offspring in mortal care; a few were arrogant about the notion of learning from mortals, with parents who seemed delighted at the prospect of being rid of them. After a few hours patiently answering questions Kel had realised she was in the same position as Diamondflame had been in the mortal realms—an oddly potent visitor—and in half-amused exasperation became quite brisk. The restriction to fledged dragons was absurd—Skysong did well, that was the point, so all that was needed was an adult to transport them, and the presence of younger kits would have a restraining influence on teens. At that point a small white dragon called Icefall—or Scamp, apparently—became Kel's new best friend, having been less than resigned to waiting eight centuries or so to become an apprentice, but it was Kitten who won the point by scolding the adults in good round terms for being silly. Ten centuries of idle ignorance was no basis for adult life, she'd survived two mortal wars, and they thought New Hope in peacetime too dangerous for kits that couldn't fly away? Excuse her, but what exactly was their reasoning, and what did they suppose the many beings did who couldn't fly whatever their age? The effect was as if an infant had risen from the crib to dispute philosophy in a bass voice, and the argument was settled when one of the more arrogant teens declared it had nothing to learn from a baby, however talkative. Kel requested from a silently observing Diamondflame a complex stone structure of some kind, and when a bizarre branching form he called a coral appeared she asked the teen to light it up. The result was a muddy green glow that covered only half the branches, after which Kitten played brisk rainbow arpeggios over the whole thing, making it blaze so brightly the teen stepped back in alarm.
"So, you can't do light properly, quantity or quality. Fire?"
Some thin wisps spiralled from the teen, nearly scorching one of its parents. Kit pulled them in before they did any damage, gave a scornful chirp, and dropped a neat circle of proper dragonfire over the teen, which winked out before it damaged the grass.
"And you can't do fire either. Is there any point asking if you could work out how to merge a light spell and a basilisk's rock-spell so you could make a permanent light? Of course not—have you even met a basilisk? Ogre? Spidren? Stormwing? Centaur? Anything except your reflection in a pond? You've a lot to learn, however many centuries you have, and not just from Skysong. With fire control that poor you can't defend yourself or anyone else, you're a menace to all around you, and of no discernible use whatever. So as Dom and I, and Kawit Pearlscale, have just as much a veto on any candidate as Diamondflame and Rainbow, and Skysong has already earned Journeydragon status, I'd suggest you try being polite and asking nicely rather than making silly boasts someone a hundredth of your age can explode quicker than you can make them."
It seemed no-one had spoken plainly to young dragons in a while, certainly not mortals or babies; the net result was sixteen dragon apprentices in residence, including Icefall. Morning classes in immortal and mortal knowledge, necessarily held on the green as the teens had yet to master spatial magic, still had a somewhat random flavour as anyone with a particular skill or experience might find themselves giving a lesson, but there was a systematic element from teachers Kel had recruited from the City of the Gods—a historian, a linguist, and a man who studied trade and finance, to begin with. There were also a couple of mages Numair had selected sorting out neglected basic theory and skills, finding out what dragons could do others couldn't, and studying illusion and cloaking spells with Quenuresh and Kawit, who looked after firespell practice with help from Kitten. Afternoons were project based, which presently meant shaping to their own satisfactions the clifftop by the abatis as a dragon dormitory and creating a home for the Guild College, excavated in the fin. Basilisks and ogres had to do most of the work but dragons could observe, think about design and what was needed, and receive excellent physical and magical exercise removing stone. Other projects were running—a house for Fanche and Saefas, to a design Geraint had completed before receiving an urgent plea from priests in Edo; extension of the piped water supply to include hot as well as cold; and a proper, large-scale map of the whole fief Kel urgently wanted that provided fledged dragons with the necessity for controlled, slow flight and precise observations of distance. More were being planned around things the Guild already made and how they could be improved, or might make and how that could be possible, and those exercises had already borne strange fruit. Icefall was a scamp, but a delightful one, and had in sheer, exuberant determination learned the hovering spell even though he couldn't fly: he couldn't get very high, nor for long, but he'd impressed Kitten, who was practicing hard, and Quenuresh, seeing the spell worked, thought it ought to be possible to store it in an object that would lift whatever it was attached to—and that would be very saleable indeed, so experiments were proceeding. It raised the interesting question of what dragons would wish to do with money or Guild credit, which Kel had relayed by darking to Diamondflame and by letter to Jonathan, pointing out it was a new market Tortall was in a privileged position to exploit. She was looking forward to replies and already had ideas—not difficult as all young dragons thought hot southern spices a most excellent addition to food, and it needed a lot of spice to flavour a dragon-sized portion—but just now it was good to sit still and let ideas look after themselves.
Some of her indolence could be traced to a pair of kittens asleep on her lap in a heap of paws and tails. Bringing them home from the Dragonlands Diamondflame had detoured half-way across the Divine Realms, to show them the mind-melting beauty of a sunbird display and because the Green Lady had invited them to dinner. That had been an experience Kel and Dom treasured, though neither thought they'd care to repeat it too often, the food being so extraordinary in mouth and stomach they'd felt full for a week, and the company too unnerving. Lord Gainel had been there, though he'd had to speak via one of the others, and a variety of animal gods, including the Badger, Bear—every bit as large as the pelt Gareth had—and Broadfoot the Duckmole, who was very odd indeed, if nice with it. And there had also been Queenclaw, whom Kel had thoughtfully stroked into much purring before mentioning the marmalade queen who'd been so valiant at Rathhausak—very deserving and waging a lonely battle against mice beginning to be found in the caves where food was stored. In the week after their return a remarkable variety of cats had shown up, including several pregnant queens, and the mouse problem was retreating fast while almost anything anyone wanted to use now probably had a cat sleeping on it—which was less annoying and certainly less consequential than mouse-soiled food, and had the side-benefit of kittens to sit on one's lap.
Kel's ease in pregnancy was also attributable to the Green Lady, who even more than Weiryn was grateful for the chance to see Daine more often and had expressed it with her proper power. Besides informing Kel that she carried fraternal twins, male and female, there had been an infusion of divine magic; what it did for the twins besides ensuring they grew healthily was moot, but it eased Kel's back, stomach, and bladder. The Great Goddess's repairs had left her in excellent internal shape but would not have spared her the usual inconveniences, and Yuki had been teasing her with a certain indignation, which bothered Kel not at all. The later stages of Daine's pregnancy had also been eased by her mother, and she'd borne a son—Rikash—early in July. She and Numair had gone to Corus, but with Kitten as a Journeydragon and the lure of parental access they'd be at New Hope often. Numair said he'd have been there anyway because the work the Guild was beginning to do made it as interesting a place magically as there was, and his proposed seminar in interspecies spell-blending was producing applications from mages far afield. All immortals in the mortal realms were fiercely and practically interested, and many representatives would be coming, including a kudarung; there was also to be a scholarly section of experimental results in the quarterly Journal of the Craftsbeings' Guild of New Hope.
Immortals also featured in Kel's commentary on Orchan. She'd never deviated from his principles but had extended them in a score of ways, from Quenuresh's concealment spells on rocknets to obsidian spiking in killing fields and paper-thin petrified screens to conceal mageblast bombs. Wyldon insisted she write about the spiritual warfare she'd used to split Maggur's forces, and that was going into a second section, to follow the commentary: one wanted the best possible fixed defences, but there were ways of using them effectively that depended on appreciating one's enemy. Kel found the idea of herself as a military historian as inflated as being a countess, but as Wyldon pointed out and Dom agreed it would be another source of income, and the fief—especially the Scanran half—was going to eat all she could generate for years, so she was persevering and after some cogitation added two sentences opposite the paragraph about the siege of Rostholm.
Carefully timed, the release of rocknets will also discourage giants, and where there is a glacis of sufficient height and angle may sweep them off their feet into injurious or fatal falls. Rocknets should be concealed by magery, but metal-cored rope (with correspondingly powerful mageblasts) is recommended to prevent premature release by slashing in advance of an attempted escalade.
That would do, and she read on until she came to the end of the chapter and sat back, stroking a waking kitten. Soft voices gave warning and Dom came out with Forist.
"Don't get up, love—just a report." He saw the kittens and chuckled. "So that's where those two got to. The cooks were down several sausages this morning and muttering darkly about cat pie."
She grinned. "I had to pay for some sausages Jump had stolen the first time I met him. Perhaps we'd better have a sausage fund."
"Perhaps we had. Meantime Forist's had Alanna pop up in the fire."
"Tell her, Forist."
He consulted a paper. "She sent greetings, Lady Kel, and said the Rittevons had fallen. The Prince and Princess Regent are dead and the new ruler is Queen, ah, Dovasary Haiming Temaida Balitang. There are pockets of resistance but the new order holds Rajmuat, and His Majesty has recognised Queen Dovasary, as have both Imperial Majesties. She and Baron George are sorry they'll miss you at Midwinter but they're going with the official delegation to the new Queen's coronation to see a friend."
"Ah, good. Thank you, Forist. Except for that last bit could you make sure Queen Barzha and Cloestra are informed? They probably know but we should be sure."
"Of course, Lady Kel. I'll do that at once—Cloestra was on the gatehouse roof a while back."
He left and Dom went to get a chair from the reception room, setting his stick against its arm and stretching out his leg.
"No, just stiff. Too much riding. I'll have to take it easy too."
"I'll do the riding." They grinned at one another, pregnancy having stimulated Kel's appetites in more ways than one.
"I take it that last bit from Alanna meant young Aly is safe."
"I'd think so. And with a raka queen consolidating her position and repairing damage done by the Rittevons …"
"Yes. Refugees turned raiders though, maybe."
"Probably. Even so."
"I wasn't complaining, but we should let Anders know."
"True. Plans for this afternoon?"
"Company paperwork. It can wait if you've a more interesting idea."
"More a hunch it might be time to go to Haven." She'd told him about her invitation to the Hag and nodded at his questioning look. "I may be inventing things to make myself move but …"
"Your hunches are worth heeding. We'll go after lunch. Meantime, one of our pilgrims today is an artist who wants to do a portrait. He has a letter from Master Orman, who says he's good."
Kel made a face. "If I never see another portrait of me it'll be soon enough but I wouldn't mind one of you." Dom made a face in turn and she grinned. "And I'd definitely like ones of Neal and Yuki. And"—her eyes gleamed—"Kitten, with her Journeydragon medallion."
"Now there's a notion."
The surprised artist was game, Kitten went pink, and after they'd eaten they rode gently across the valley, leaving preliminary sketches in progress. They had an escort, more for form than need, and once Jacut had checked Haven was deserted Kel asked them to wait at the foot of the roadway. The knoll with its memories of horror and present peacefulness was a place of pilgrimage too, and offerings had been left on graves; Merric's had some, and Seaver's more, for most were on those of men who'd died in the siege, from relatives who came to see where they rested. Kel did have a feeling something might happen today but wanted time at the mass grave anyway, where a wide, obsidian headstone she'd dedicated a month before bore the names of all buried there, and though it might be foolish she and Dom spent a while telling any dead who might hear how New Hope was progressing.
Beyond the grave were two new shrines, one to the animals who had fought and died for Haven and New Hope, with a dog, cat, sparrow, horse, and mule, as well as wild birds, and one to the Hag as goddess of graveyards. Tobe had helped one of the panel-makers carve the goddess with eyepatch, cane, dice, hyenas, and rats, following a Carthaki model Numair explained, and after praying for the animals Kel and Dom knelt to tend it. She'd transplanted some of Sakuyo's little flowers and they were thriving. When they were done they sat back and Kel lit a cone of incense, taking Dom's hand and watching smoke spiral into the sky. Silver flared behind them and the Hag grinned as they twisted to bow awkwardly, her hyena's tongue lolling in the afternoon warmth.
"Greetings, Protector, and to your mate." She looked critically at the shrine, sniffing. "Not bad, dearie. Nice incense. Nice rats too. My most northern shrine, by a long way, so it's a good bribe. And saying you had an offer for Dabeyoun was a nice touch—he's been pestering me to find out what it is."
"Dabeyoun?" Kel nodded to the hyena, who grinned back. "Not Slaughter then?"
The Hag cackled. "No, dearie. But they were littermates. Now tell."
Kel sat straighter, clasping Dom's hand and addressing Dabeyoun as much as the Hag. "Well, I've two problems. One is that as you can see pilgrims who visit Haven leave offerings, including coin. We're collecting the coin for something worthy, but knowing there's likely to be silver here is a temptation people could do without. The other is that Wuodan told me the Hunt won't pursue anyone up here because your Da's hand lies on it so Haven's potentially a refuge for people who don't deserve one. As you've a shrine here and Dabeyoun features so handsomely on it I wondered if he and his kin might guard Haven."
"Huh. They might. What's in it for them, dearie? Or for me?"
"The Hunt takes a fair bit of game. My woods should be rewarding—or the Godborn says the dogs say her Ma's blessing on our kitchens extends to bones. We could put some aside." She thought Dabeyoun looked interested. "And for you, High One, well, besides that dance of the dead, which should have pleased you, and your shrine and enough offerings to give it some potency, because I am grateful, despite everything, Kyprioth seemed to think he owed me a reward I'd be happy to trade. I imagine he's in a generous mood with news from Rajmuat."
"He's insufferable already, and His Spearness in a mighty sulk." She didn't seem displeased. "Your credit's good and it's a pretty graveyard. The dance was nice too, though it was practical, which ruins the fun. I'll think about it, dearie, and Dabeyoun can talk to his kin."
"Thank you. I was thinking it all began with necromancy—for me, anyway—and a graveyard that really is a haven seems right to end it."
"There's that. I'd like to see the necromancer who'd try it here, mind. And so would Dabeyoun, he tells me, so that's a point in your favour. I'll let you know." Silver gathered and faded. "Oh, he says he'd like to take a look around. He can find his own way back when he's done." Silver flared again, leaving the hyena looking at them with an inquisitive expression. Kel drew breath.
"Greetings, Dabeyoun. What would you like to see?"
You, mostly. Wuodan and Frige say you are polite.
"Why would I be rude when I'm asking for help?"
I have no idea but many mortals are.
"More fool them." Kel considered the handsome, peculiar animal. "Forgive me, but Numair said you were a guide for the dead. Is that right?"
Among other things. The rats and I also represent death beyond even Lady One-Eye's resurrecting.
Understanding clicked in Kel's mind. "You must be a trickster in your own right. And you laugh at the chance and justice of it all."
Oh yes. That necromancer you killed has heard me, and his Scanran friends. Dabeyoun sounded satisfied and Kel shivered a little; truly, Blayce, Stenmun Kinslayer, and Maggur had paid as much as anyone could, and the world was better for it. If I accept your proposal, no dead will walk here save with my let, and fugitives from the Hunt who enter will not leave again. His tongue lolled.
"Will you let the kind dead watch here, when they wish?"
I expect so. It has already been permitted. He yawned, teeth gleaming.Those bones sounded tasty.
Kel knew when not to push her luck. "There are some waiting for you."
They rose, Dom stretching his leg and looking at her with quizzical love. "A hunch, eh?"
"And a dream. A good one, as it turns out."
She linked her arm through his and they went, Dabeyoun trotting beside them and looking about with interest. Jacut and his men blinked to see a hyena with Lady Kel but took being introduced and sniffed in their stride and asked no questions. Some at New Hope might be more surprised, but they'd learn. She had.