CHAPTER ONE

ISTA LEANED FORWARD BETWEEN THE CRENELLATIONS ATOP THE gate tower, the stone gritty beneath her pale hands, and watched in numb exhaustion as the final mourning party cleared the castle gate below. Their horses’ hooves scraped on the old cobblestones, and their good-byes echoed in the portal’s vaulting. Her earnest brother, the provincar of Baocia, and his family and retinue were last of the many to leave, two full weeks after the divines had completed the funeral rites and ceremonies of the interment.

Dy Baocia was still talking soberly to the castle warder, Ser dy Ferrej, who walked at his stirrup, grave face upturned, listening to the stream, no doubt, of final instructions. Faithful dy Ferrej, who had served the late Dowager Provincara for all the last two decades of her long residence here in Valenda. The keys of the castle and keep glinted from the belt at his stout waist. Her mother’s keys, which Ista had collected and held, then turned over to her older brother along with all the other papers and inventories and instructions that a great lady’s death entailed. And that he had handed back for permanent safekeeping not to his sister, but to good, old, honest dy Ferrej. Keys to lock out all danger… and, if necessary, Ista in.

It’s only habit, you know. I’m not mad anymore, really.

It wasn’t as though she wanted her mother’s keys, nor her mother’s life that went with them. She scarcely knew what she wanted. She knew what she feared—to be locked up in some dark, narrow place by people who loved her. An enemy might drop his guard, weary of his task, turn his back; love would never falter. Her fingers rubbed restlessly on the stone.

Dy Baocia’s cavalcade filed off down the hill through the town and was soon lost from her view among the crowded red-tiled roofs. Dy Ferrej, turning back, walked wearily in through the gate and out of sight.

The chill spring wind lifted a strand of Ista’s dun hair and blew it across her face, catching on her lip; she grimaced and tucked it back into the careful braiding wreathing her head. Its tightness pinched her scalp.

The weather had warmed these last two weeks, too late to ease an old woman bound to her bed by injury and illness. If her mother had not been so old, the broken bones would have healed more swiftly, and the inflammation of the lungs might not have anchored itself so deeply in her chest. If she had not been so fragile, perhaps the fall from the horse would not have broken her bones in the first place. If she had not been so fiercely willful, perhaps she would not have been on that horse at all at her age… Ista looked down to find her fingers bleeding, and hid them hastily in her skirt.

In the funeral ceremonies, the gods had signed that the old lady’s soul had been taken up by the Mother of Summer, as was expected and proper. Even the gods would not dare violate her views on protocol. Ista imagined the old Provincara ordering heaven, and smiled a little grimly.

And so I am alone at last.

Ista considered the empty spaces of that solitude, its fearful cost. Husband, father, son, and mother had all filed down to the grave ahead of her in their turn. Her daughter was claimed by the royacy of Chalion in as tight an embrace as any grave, and as little likely to return from her high place, five gods willing, as the others from their low ones.

Surely I am done. The duties that had defined her, all accomplished. Once, she had been her parents’ daughter. Then great, unlucky Ias’s wife. Her children’s mother. At the last, her mother’s keeper. Well, I am none of these things now.

Who am I, when I am not surrounded by the walls of my life? When they have all fallen into dust and rubble?

Well, she was still Lord dy Lutez’s murderer. The last of that little, secret company left alive, now. That she had made of herself, and that she remained.

She leaned between the crenellations again, the stone abrading the lavender sleeves of her court mourning dress, catching at its silk threads. Her eye followed the road in the morning light, starting from the stones below and flowing downhill, through the town, past the river… and where? All roads were one road, they said. A great net across the land, parting and rejoining. All roads ran two ways. They said. I want a road that does not come back.

A frightened gasp behind her jerked her head around. One of her lady attendants stood on the battlement with her hand to her lips, eyes wide, breathing heavily from her climb. She smiled with false cheer “My lady. I’ve been seeking you everywhere. Do … do come away from that edge, now …”

Ista’s lips curled in irony. “Content you. I do not yearn to meet the gods face-to-face this day.” Or on any other. Never again. “The gods and I are not on speaking terms.”

She suffered the woman to take her arm and stroll with her as if casually along the battlement toward the inner stairs, careful, Ista noted, to take the outside place, between Ista and the drop. Content you, woman. I do not desire the stones.

I desire the road.

The realization startled, almost shocked her. It was a new thought. A new thought, me? All her old thoughts seemed as thin and ragged as a piece of knitting made and ripped out and made and ripped out again until all the threads were frayed, growing ever more worn, but never larger. But how could she gain the road? Roads were made for young men, not middle-aged women. The poor orphan boy packed his sack and started off down the road to seek his heart’s hope … a thousand tales began that way. She was not poor, she was not a boy, and her heart was surely as stripped of all hope as life and death could render it. I am an orphan now, though. Is that not enough to qualify me?

They turned the corner of the battlement, making toward the round tower containing the narrow, winding staircase that gave onto the inner garden. Ista cast one last glance out across the scraggly shrubs and stunted trees that crept up to the curtain wall of the castle. Up the path from the shallow ravine, a servant towed a donkey loaded with firewood, heading for the postern gate.

In her late mother’s flower garden, Ista slowed, resisting her attendant’s urgent hand upon her arm, and mulishly took to a bench in the still-bare rose arbor. “I am weary,” she announced. “I would rest here for a time. You may fetch me tea.”

She could watch her lady attendant turning over the risks in her mind, regarding her high charge untrustingly. Ista frowned coldly. The woman dropped a curtsey. “Yes, my lady. I’ll tell one of the maids. And I’ll be right back.”

I expect you will. Ista waited only till the woman had rounded the corner of the keep before she sprang to her feet and ran for the postern gate.

The guard was just letting the servant and his donkey through. Ista, head high, sailed out past them without turning round. Pretending not to hear the guard’s uncertain, “My lady…?” she walked briskly down the steepening path. Her trailing skirts and billowing black velvet vestcloak snagged on weeds and brambles as she passed, like clutching hands trying to hold her back. Once out of sight among the first trees, her steps quickened to something close to a run. She had used to run down this path to the river, when she was a girl. Before she was anybody’s anything.

She was no girl now, she had to concede. She was winded and trembling by the time the river’s gleam shone through the vegetation. She turned and strode along the bank. The path still held its remembered course to the old footbridge, across the water, and up again to one of the main roads winding around the hill to—or from—the town of Valenda.

The road was muddy and pocked with hoof prints; perhaps her brother’s party had just passed on its way to his provincial seat of Taryoon. He had spent much of the past two weeks attempting to persuade her to accompany him there, promising her rooms and attendants in his palace, under his benign and protective eye, as though she had not rooms and attendants and prying eyes enough here. She turned in the opposite direction.

Court mourning and silk slippers were no garb for a country road. Her skirts swished around her legs as though she were trying to wade through high water. The mud sucked at her light shoes. The sun, climbing the sky, heated her velvet-clad back, and she broke into an unladylike sweat. She walked on, feeling increasingly uncomfortable and foolish. This was madness. This was just the sort of thing that got women locked up in towers with lack-witted attendants, and hadn’t she had enough of that for one lifetime? She hadn’t a change of clothes, a plan, any money, not so much as a copper vaida. She touched the jewels around her neck. There’s money. Yes, too much value—what country-town moneylender could match for them? They were not a resource; they were merely a target, bait for bandits.

The rumble of a cart drew her eyes upward from picking her way along the puddles. A farmer drove a stout cob, hauling a load of ripe manure for spreading on his fields. He turned his head to stare dumfounded at the apparition of her on his road. She returned him a regal nod—after all, what other kind could she offer? She nearly laughed out loud, but choked back the unseemly noise and walked on. Not looking back. Not daring to.

She walked for over an hour before her tiring legs, dragging the weight of her dress, stumbled at last to a halt. She was close to weeping from the frustration of it all. This isn’t working. I don’t know how to do this. I never had a chance to learn, and now I am too old.

Horses again, galloping, and a shout. It flashed across her mind that among the other things she had failed to provision herself with was a weapon, even so much as a belt knife, to defend herself from assault. She pictured herself matched against a swordsman, any swordsman, with any weapon she could possibly pick up and swing, and snorted. It made a short scene, hardly likely to be worth the bother.

She glanced back over her shoulder and sighed. Ser dy Ferrej and a groom pounded down the road in her wake, the mud splashing from their horses’ hooves. She was not, she thought, quite fool enough or mad enough to wish for bandits instead. Maybe that was the trouble; maybe she just wasn’t crazed enough. True derangement stopped at no boundaries. Mad enough to wish for what she was not mad enough to grasp—now there was a singularly useless lunacy.

Guilt twinged in her heart at the sight of dy Ferrej’s red, terrified, perspiring face as he drew up by her side. “Royina!” he cried. “My lady, what are you doing out here?” He almost tumbled from his saddle, to grasp her hands and stare into her face.

“I grew weary of the sorrows of the castle. I decided to take a walk in the spring sunshine to solace myself.”

“My lady, you have come over five miles! This road is quite unfit for you—”

Yes, and I am quite unfit for it.

“No attendants, no guards—five gods, consider your station and your safety! Consider my gray hairs! You have stood them on end with this start.”

“I do apologize to your gray hairs,” said Ista, with a little real contrition. “They do not deserve the toil of me, nor does the remainder of you either, good dy Ferrej. I just… wanted to take a walk.”

“Tell me next time, and I will arrange—”

“By myself.”

“You are the dowager royina of all Chalion,” stated dy Ferrej firmly. “You are Royina Iselle’s own mother, for the five gods’ sake. You cannot go skipping off down the road like a country wench.”

Ista sighed at the thought of being a skipping country wench, and not tragic Ista anymore. Though she did not doubt country wenches had their tragedies, too, and much less poetic sympathy for them than did royinas. But there was nothing to be gained by arguing with him in the middle of the road. He made the groom give up his horse, and she acquiesced to being loaded aboard it. The skirts of this dress were not split for riding, and they bunched uncomfortably around her legs as she felt for the stirrups. Ista frowned again as the groom took the reins from her and made to lead her mount.

Dy Ferrej leaned across his saddle bow to grasp her hand, in consolation for the tears standing in her eyes. “I know,” he murmured kindly. “Your lady mother’s death is a great loss for us all.”

I finished weeping for her weeks ago, dy Ferrej. She had sworn once to neither weep nor pray ever again, but she had forsworn herself on both oaths in those last dreadful days in the sickroom. After that, neither weeping nor praying had seemed to have any point. She decided not to trouble the castle warder’s mind with the explanation that she wept now for herself, and not in sorrow but in a sort of rage. Let him take her as a little unhinged by bereavement; bereavement passed.

Dy Ferrej, quite as tired out as she by the past weeks of grief and guests, did not trouble her with further conversation, and the groom did not dare. She sat her plodding horse and let the road roll up again beneath her like a carpet being put away, denied its use. What was her use now? She chewed her lip and stared between her horse’s bobbing ears.

After a time, its ears flickered. She followed its snorting glance to see another cavalcade approaching down a connecting road, some dozen or two riders on horses and mules. Dy Ferrej rose in his stirrups and squinted, but then eased back in his saddle at the sight of the four outriders clad in the blue tunics and gray cloaks of soldier-brothers of the Daughter’s Order, whose mandate encompassed the safe conveyance of pilgrims on the road. As the party rode closer, it could be seen that its members included both men and women, all decked out in the colors of their chosen gods, or as close as their wardrobes could manage, and that they wore colored ribbons on their sleeves in token of their holy destinations.

The two parties reached the joining of the roads simultaneously, and dy Ferrej exchanged reassuring nods with the soldier-brothers, stolid conscientious fellows like himself. The pilgrims stared in speculation at Ista in her fine somber clothes. A stout, redfaced older woman—she’s not any older than I am, surely—offered Ista a cheery smile. After an uncertain moment, Ista’s lips curved up in response, and she returned her nod. Dy Ferrej had placed his horse between the pilgrims and Ista, but his shielding purpose was defeated when the stout woman reined her horse back and kneed it into a trot to come up around him.

“The gods give you a good day, lady,” the woman puffed. Her fat piebald horse was overburdened with stuffed saddlebags and yet more bags tied to them with twine and bouncing as precariously as its rider. It dropped back to a walk, and she caught her breath and straightened her straw hat. She wore Mother’s greens in somewhat mismatched dark hues proper to a widow, but the braided ribbons circling her sleeve marched down in a full rank of five: blue wound with white, green with yellow, red with orange, black with gray, and white twined with cream.

After a moment’s hesitation, Ista nodded again. “And you.”

“We are pilgrims from around Baocia,” the woman announced invitingly. “Traveling to the shrine of the miraculous death of Chancellor dy Jironal, in Taryoon. Well, except for the good Ser dy Brauda over there.” She nodded toward an older man in subdued browns wearing a red-and-orange favor marking allegiance to the Son of Autumn. A more brightly togged young man rode by his side, who leaned forward to frown quellingly around him at the green-clad woman. “He’s taking his boy, over there—isn’t he a pretty lad, now, eh?”

The boy recoiled and stared straight ahead, growing flushed as if to harmonize with the ribbons on his sleeve; his father was not successful in suppressing a smile.

“—up to Cardegoss to be invested in the Son’s Order, like his papa before him, to be sure. The ceremony is to be performed by the holy general, the Royse-Consort Bergon himself! I’d so like to see him. They say he’s a handsome fellow. That Ibran seashore he comes from is supposed to be good for growing fine young men. I shall have to find some reason to pray in Cardegoss myself, and give my old eyes that treat.”

“Indeed,” said Ista neutrally at this anticipatory, but on the whole accurate, description of her son-in-law.

“I am Caria of Palma. I was wife of a saddler there, most lately. Widow, now. And you, good lady? Is this surly fellow your husband, then?”

The castle warder, listening with obvious disapproval to such familiarity, made to pull his horse back and fend off the tiresome woman, but Ista held up her hand. “Peace, dy Ferrej.” He raised his brows, but shrugged and held his tongue.

Ista continued to the pilgrim, “I am a widow of … Valenda.”

“Ah, indeed? Why, and so am I,” the woman returned brightly. “My first man was of there. Though I’ve buried three husbands altogether.” She announced this as though it were an achievement. “Oh, not all together, of course. One at a time.” She cocked her head in curiosity at Ista’s high mourning colors. “Did you just bury yours, then, lady? Pity. No wonder you look so sad and pale. Well, dear, it’s a hard time, especially with the first, you know. At the beginning you want to die—I know I did—but that’s just fear talking. Things will come about again, don’t you worry.”

Ista smiled briefly and shook her head in faint disagreement, but was not moved to correct the woman’s misapprehension. Dy Ferrej was clearly itching to depress the creature’s forwardness by announcing Ista’s rank and station, and by implication his own, and perhaps driving her off, but Ista realized with a little wonder that she found Caria amusing. The widow’s burble did not displease her, and she didn’t want her to stop.

There was, apparently, no danger of that. Caria of Palma pointed out her fellow pilgrims, favoring Ista with a rambling account of their stations, origins, and holy goals; and if they rode sufficiently far out of earshot, with opinions of their manners and morals thrown in gratis. Besides the amused veteran dedicat of the Son of Autumn and his blushing boy, the party included four men from a weavers’ fraternity who went to pray to the Father of Winter for a favorable outcome of a lawsuit; a man wearing the ribbons of the Mother of Summer, who prayed for the safety of a daughter nearing childbirth; and a woman whose sleeve sported the blue and white of the Daughter of Spring, who prayed for a husband for her daughter. A thin woman in finely cut green robes of an acolyte of the Mother’s Order, with a maid and two servants of her own, turned out to be neither midwife nor physician, but a comptroller. A wine merchant rode to give thanks and redeem his pledge to the Father for his safe return with his caravan, almost lost the previous winter in the snowy mountain passes to Ibra.

The pilgrims within hearing, who had evidently been riding with Caria for some days now, rolled their eyes variously as she talked on, and on. An exception was an obese young man in the white garb, grimed from the road, of a divine of the Bastard. He rode along quietly with a book open atop the curve of his belly, his muddy white mule’s reins slack, and glanced up only when he came to turn a page, blinking nearsightedly and smiling muzzily.

The Widow Caria peered at the sun, which had topped the sky. “I can hardly wait to get to Valenda. There is a famous inn where we are to eat that specializes in the most delicious roast suckling pigs.” She smacked her lips in anticipation.

“There is such an inn in Valenda, yes,” said Ista. She had never eaten there, she realized, not in all her years of residence.

The Mother’s comptroller, who had been one of the widow’s more pained involuntary listeners, pursed her mouth in disapproval. “I shall take no meat,” she announced. “I made a vow that no gross flesh would cross my lips upon this journey.”

Caria leaned over and muttered to Ista, “If she’d made a vow to swallow her pride, instead of her salads, it would have been more to the point for a pilgrimage, I’m thinking.” She sat up again, grinning; the Mother’s comptroller sniffed and pretended not to have heard.

The merchant with the Father’s gray-and-black ribbons on his sleeve remarked as if to the air, “I’m sure the gods have no use for pointless chatter. We should be using our time better—discussing highminded things to prepare our minds for prayer, not our bellies for dinner.”

Caria leered at him, “Aye, or lower parts for better things still? And you ride with the Father’s favor on your sleeve, too! For shame.”

The merchant stiffened. “That is not the aspect of the god to which I intend—or need—to pray, I assure you, madam!”

The divine of the Bastard glanced up from his book and murmured peaceably, “The gods rule all parts of us, from top to toe. There is a god for everyone, and every part.”

“Your god has notably low tastes,” observed the merchant, still stung.

“None who open their hearts to any one of the Holy Family shall be excluded. Not even the priggish.” The divine bowed over his belly at the merchant.

Caria gave a cheerful crack of laughter; the merchant snorted indignation, but desisted. The divine returned to his book.

Caria whispered to Ista, “I like that fat fellow, I do. Doesn’t say much, but when he speaks, it’s to the point. Bookish men usually have no patience with me, and I surely don’t understand them. But that one does have lovely manners. Though I do think a man should get him a wife, and children, and do the work that pays for them, and not go haring off after the gods. Now, I have to admit, my dear second husband didn’t—work, that is—but then, he drank. Drank himself to death eventually, to the relief of all who knew him, five gods rest his spirit.” She signed herself, touching forehead, lip, navel, groin, and heart, spreading her hand wide over her plump breast. She pursed her lips, raised her chin and her voice, and called curiously, “But now I think on it, you’ve never told us what you go to pray for, Learned.”

The divine placed his finger on his page and glanced up. “No, I don’t think I have,” he said vaguely.

The merchant said, “All you called folk pray to meet your god, don’t you?”

“I have often prayed for the goddess to touch my heart,” said the Mother’s comptroller. “It is my highest spiritual goal to see Her face-to-face. Indeed, I often think I have felt Her, from time to time.”

Anyone who desires to see the gods face-to-face is a great fool, thought Ista. Although that was not an impediment, in her experience.

“You don’t have to pray to do that,” said the divine. “You just have to die. It’s not hard.” He rubbed his second chin. “In fact, it’s unavoidable.”

“To be god-touched in life,” corrected the comptroller coolly. “That is the great blessing we all long for.”

No, it’s not. If you saw the Mother’s face right now, woman, you would drop weeping in the mud of this road and not get up for days. Ista became aware that the divine was squinting at her in arrested curiosity.

Was he one of the god-touched? Ista possessed some practice at spotting them. The reverse also held true, unfortunately. Or perhaps that calf like stare was just shortsightedness. Discomforted, she frowned back at him.

He blinked apologetically and said to her, “In fact, I travel on business for my order. A dedicat in my charge came by chance across a little stray demon possessed by a ferret. I take it to Taryoon for the archdivine to return to the god with proper ceremony.”

He twisted around to his capacious saddlebags and rummaged therein, trading the book for a small wicker cage. A lithe gray shape turned within it.

“Ah-ha! So that’s what you’ve been hiding in there!” Caria rode closer, wrinkling her nose. “It looks like any other ferret to me.” The creature stood up against the side of the cage and twitched its whiskers at her.

The fat divine turned in his saddle and held up the cage to Ista’s view. The animal, circling, froze in her frown; for just a moment, its beady eyes glittered back with something other than animal intelligence. Ista regarded it dispassionately. The ferret lowered its head and backed away until it could retreat no farther. The divine gave Ista a curious sidelong look.

“Are you sure the poor thing isn’t just sick?” said Caria doubtfully.

“What do you think, lady?” the divine asked Ista.

You know very well it has a real demon. Why do you ask me? “Why— I think the good archdivine will certainly know what it is and what to do with it.”

The divine smiled faintly at this guarded reply. “Indeed, it is not much of a demon.” He tucked the cage away again. “I wouldn’t name it more than a mere elemental, small and unformed. It hasn’t been long in the world, I’d guess, and so is little likely to tempt men to sorcery.”

It did not tempt Ista, certainly, but she understood his need to be discreet. Acquiring a demon made one a sorcerer much as acquiring a horse made one a rider, but whether skilled or poor was a more open question. Like a horse, a demon could run away with its master. Unlike a horse, there was no dismounting. To a soul’s peril; hence the Temple’s concern.

Caria made to speak again, but the path to the castle split off at that point, and dy Ferrej reined his horse aside. The widow of Palma converted whatever she’d been about to say to a cheery farewell wave, and dy Ferrej escorted Ista firmly off the road.

He glanced back over his shoulder as they started down the bank into the trees. “Vulgar woman. I’ll wager she has not a pious thought in her head! She uses her pilgrimage only to shield her holiday-making from the disapproval of her relatives and get herself a cheap armed escort on the road.”

“I believe you are entirely right, dy Ferrej.” Ista glanced back over her shoulder at the party of pilgrims advancing down the main road. The Widow Caria was now coaxing the divine of the Bastard to sing hymns with her, though the one she was suggesting more resembled a drinking song.

“She had not one man of her own family to support her,” dy Ferrej continued indignantly. “I suppose she can’t help the lack of a husband, but you’d think she could scare up a brother or son or at least a nephew. I’m sorry you had to be exposed to that, Royina.”

A not entirely harmonious but thoroughly good-natured duet rose behind them, fading with distance.

“I’m not,” said Ista. A slow smile curved her lips. I’m not.

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