On a rocky cliff above the Inland Sea, Dragon lifted her head and breathed a deep sound. No human could have heard her, but the fisherbirds all dove for their nests and fell silent, and the fish below darted this way and that with delight.
Dragon dug a stone from the rock, leaving a small hollow.
Tortoise, grumbling, stumped up the hollow and spat gummily into it.
Phoenix dropped a feather onto the bile. Feather and spittle shimmered and melted into pure water.
Tortoise turned on his brother with a vicious hiss. “Leave my spit alone! No interference! You promised!”
Unicorn planted a massive hoof between the two, so suddenly that Tortoise retracted his head.
Phoenix laughed. Tortoise, extending his head again, gave another hiss and turned away.
Unicorn tapped on his shell with her horn. “You’ve been busy, brother.”
“I’m not the only one. I thought none of you were interested in the affairs of these mortals.”
Dragon shook her head. “I care. I said so from the first.”
“You don’t count,” said Tortoise.
Dragon shook her head again and gave a bubbly laugh.
Tortoise and Phoenix eyed one another from either side of Unicorn.
Phoenix said, “Why is it that everyone calls for you, but everyone comes to us? Could it be because they think you can be bought? Could it be that you can?”
If a tortoise can smirk, Tortoise smirked. “If the price is right.” He swiveled his neck to meet the eyes of each sibling in turn. “Phoenix is sworn not to interfere. Unicorn sits on her haunches droning about life and death being the same thing, Dragon plays Happy Families with humans. I’m the only one the humans fear. I’m the one they come to in their weakness.”
“And we,” said Unicorn, “are who they come to in their strength.”
With patently false surprise, Phoenix said, “Do you know: I think I prefer that?”
“Enjoy your philosophizing,” said Tortoise. “The game’s not over yet.” With astonishing swiftness, he crawled to the edge of the cliff and threw himself into the water, far below.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
CHAPTER 1 – THE TRUE KINNINGER
Kinnan thought of himself as a man of action, yet he seemed to have done little these past ten years but wait. Wait for the uprising that never swelled, wait for answers from powerful men who always answered no, wait for Salali, wait for Brady.
He sat awake on his straw pallet in the goat shed. The animals were as restless as he was. They stirred in their dry straw bedding, bleating softly as if murmuring among themselves. The moon shone a cool silver light through the uncovered window, casting long impenetrable shadows.
Brady must return soon, or be done without. Meanwhile, Kinnan had Salali’s word that his cause was fermenting within the populace. For no reason he could give, he trusted that word, and would wait on it and act on it. The time would ripen soon and he would move. Perhaps he would skirt the Kozabirian border to Istok, join with Anshar’s band, and begin. Perhaps he would move among the people incognito, testing them for himself, revealing himself when he found the support he hoped for.
And then? Warfare, blood, and ruin. How many fighters could Landry field? The Swords, of course, but how many of the citizen militia would stand with Landry, and how many with Kinnan-called-beren-Ada? How many of the Thanes would stand with the current crown, and how many fighters could they bring with them? Would families divide and fight among themselves?
Landry must be deposed. Landry must be punished. For what he had done to the country, for what he had done to the people, for what he had done to Kinnan and Kinnan’s friends and Kinnan’s kin, Landry must be made to pay.
A slight noise from outside brought Kinnan to his knees, peering over the windowsill. He could see the garden and the stone privy. He could see the back of the cottage, its row of hives quiet in the relative cool of night; an angled view of the side with its chimney, its shuttered window faintly lit by the embers of the hearth fire, some of the well-yard. He could see no movement.
As quietly as he could, he dressed and pulled on his boots. He buckled on his sword and slipped out of the shed and around the corner of the house.
Moder Zglaria stood – tall, broad, black-gowned and white-skinned – in the clearing, her walking stick planted firmly before her, her face raised to the moon. Her turban, with its squashy knot in front, made her head look over-large and mis-shapen. She lowered her head, and Kinnan was shocked at the tenderness he saw where he was used to seeing sharpness or knowing or hooded looks. Her glance flicked to him, and the softness was covered again.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Nothing, yet. Did I wake you with my wandering about? I couldn’t sleep.”
“Neither could I.” Kinnan crossed the yard to her, his soldier’s eyes taking in the periphery of clearing, sky, and the low-sloping roof of the little stone cottage. “I’m tired of waiting.”
Moder smiled. “Are you?”
“Who knows what’s happened to Brady? Do you?”
“Who knows when he’ll be back? If he’ll be back? Do you?”
Moder Zglaria said nothing, then put out a hand. “He’s coming now. Can’t you hear him?”
Kinnan listened a little harder. He heard the nearly-inaudible rush of wings, then an over-sized owl swooped into the clearing and Brady stood with them.
“A welcoming committee!” the younger man said. He turned to Moder Zglaria and, to Kinnan’s astonishment, embraced her and kissed her chalky cheek.
The old woman laughed and rubbed her face with the back of her hand.
“Kinnan!” Brady dropped to one knee. “What is it I call you?”
“Your Grace,” said Moder Zglaria.
“What?” Kinnan knuckled Brady’s head in a mock punch. “Stand up, boy, and make sense. What happened to you? Why this sudden respect for me and….” He trailed off, staring again at Moder, still with the back of her hand on Brady’s kiss.
The varier stood. “I saw her – Sorcha – your sister.”
“Sister…. She acknowledges me?”
Kinnan smacked his hand with his fist and stared off into glory.
“It’s close to dawn,” Moder said. “Let’s wake the others and have a talk.”
Brady led the way.
Kinnan stepped in front of him. “Where did you see her? What did she say?”
“I’ll tell it all at once. She’ll want to hear it fresh – Elsie will. I saw her parents.”
Moder followed, leaning heavily on her stick. “You have been busy.”
Kinnan and Salali sat on the bench against the wall and Moder sat at the table. In honor of the occasion, she lit a branch of beeswax candles to supplement the glow of the fire and the feeble light of dawn. Brady helped Elsie bring fresh milk, cheese, flatbread, and berry preserves up from the cold room, carrying on a mock flirtation with Salali all the while. At last, everyone had eaten and Moder waived the cleaning-up until later.
“Where should I start? Well, first: I went to Sorcha in the form of a dog and made friends. She was…. She looked….”
“Never mind that now.” Moder Zglaria lit a pipe. “Answer the beren Ada’s questions, if you have any mercy.”
Brady smiled a private smile with the old woman and spoke to Kinnan. “Sorcha is willing to admit you as her brother. She doesn’t want the throne – or so she says. She thinks Landry’s frightened and dangerous. I helped her leave the Waystation, and she and Hayward have taken refuge at Oakwood with his grandmother. Hayward thinks they can hold it.”
Kinnan leaned back against the wall. “So.”
His one impediment had removed itself. He had been afraid that his half-sister Sorcha – a shadowy figure, never met, and wife of Landry’s brother – would thwart him, somehow. Or would step over the debris of his revolution and claim what he had won. Or would get herself martyred in the turmoil and so set the people’s hearts against his action. Now his way to the crown seemed free of these familial obstacles.
“I have news for you, too, Elsie. I saw Devona.”
Elsie’s face brightened. “You did?”
“I told her where you are –” Brady cast a worried glance at Moder, who relieved him with a nod. “She told me…. She told me…. Should we talk alone?”
“No.” Elsie was silent a moment, staring at the table.
“They called her Tabby,” said Kinnan. In two blunt sentences, he told what Elsie had remembered, including the two visits by the woman Tabby called Grace.
“You saw her, then!” Brady tapped on the table to break Elsie’s reverie. “You’ve met her!” When Elsie looked at him bleakly, he said, “I told you about when I was a boy. When the viper almost killed me, and a Layounnan woman saved my life, and died doing it?”
Elsie nodded as Brady got up and took two things from his knapsack.
He put his blue-enameled tinderbox on the table, and the ebony knife case. “I showed you these and told you they were hers. I told you I kept them, hoping to give them and my thanks to her family if I could ever find out who she was.”
Brady looked at Kinnan. “I gave my thanks to your sister. Now I thank you.”
“Why…?” He had only been partly attending, most of his mind on tactics, strategies, and hopes.
“When I saw Sorcha beren Ada, it was like seeing the woman who saved me over again. That woman was Layounnan, on the way to Kozabir.”
“How long ago, Young Master?” asked Moder Zglaria.
“Ten years. Ten years ago, a needle passed through the fabric of the world. In and out, and the stitches looked like separate things, but now they draw together. Ten years ago, a woman stopped with me for some months. She made a dress of rough cloth and gave her gown to me.” Moder looked at Elsie, and pointed with the stem of her pipe. “It was that gown you wore the day you came, and we washed the only set of boy’s clothes you had then and waited for them to dry.”
“Her gown,” Elsie whispered. “Grace’s gown.”
“The woman was with child. She gave birth, stayed some weeks more, and left. When she left, she said the name she’d given me had been false, that she was Karol beren Ada, and that she intended to do what she could to put her brother, Kinnan, on the throne. She said she would look for him in Kozabir.”
“The Emir knew her,” Kinnan said. “He would have listened to her. She could have bought an army there…. But she never came. I would have known.”
The old woman touched the tinderbox, then the knife. “I gave her these things as parting gifts.”
Then Kinnan heard, as an echo in his mind, what Brady had said, how he had recognized Sorcha, and why. He groaned. Ambitions and rights and arms forgotten, he mourned his sister. “Karol!” He felt stabbed to the heart, as he had when they told him the mother he hardly knew had died, as he had when his father died, and when they told him his brother was dead and his sister, Karol, was missing. He had long assumed she was dead – the certainty shouldn’t have this power to hurt. “Why?” His voice was plaintive as a child’s. “Why did she….” He shook his head.
Brady spread empty hands. “I’ve often asked myself the same question.”
“I remember the first time I saw her.” Kinnan looked at the door, as if she would step through again, young and alive. “I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. The second time she came, she brought me this –” He held up one wrist encircled by the bronze bracelet. “It went around my arm several times, back then. I’ve worn it ever since, for her sake.”
“I’d bring her back to you, if I could.” Brady’s eyes were bright with pity.
“Gone.” Kinnan seemed not to hear. “And her child gone, too. If there’s any comfort to be taken, it’s that she thought she left her baby safe.”
Elsie’s eyes misted with memory. “She said to call it Gosling, and I loved it as my own.”
Moder Zglaria’s keen gaze rested on Elsie. “That baby wasn’t her first.”
Salali laughed. “Blind! Are you blind?” She pointed to Kinnan, then to Elsie. “Look at the shape of their eyes. Look at their jaws, at their cheekbones. Look at the set of their mouths.”
Brady drew back from Elsie, inspecting her, comparing her to Kinnan, comparing her to Sorcha.
“I see it.” He looked to Moder Zglaria for confirmation. “Don’t I?”
“I don’t,” said Kinnan.
Elsie shook her head. “Are you saying my mother…?”
Moder Zglaria finished the sentence for her, “…was Kinninger Karol beren Ada, Kinnan’s half-sister, and Brady’s deliverer.”
“And Gosling’s mother. My mother. ‘Grace’ was… our mother. And Landry killed….”
Brady touched the tinderbox and knife. “It seems a thousand years since I told you where I got these and why I carry them.”
“And you said you’d pay her back if you could. And all the time, you were saving me. Her daughter. One of her daughters.” She blinked, but tears rolled in large round drops to fall from her cheekbones into her lap.
“Where’s the proof?” Kinnan leaned forward, hands fisted on his knees. “You can’t claim a bloodline based on chance resemblance. Even if I believe it, the people would want proof, and so would the Thanes and the rulers of our neighbors. I have my sister’s letter, signed by her hand and marked with her seal.”
Moder chuckled. “If she legitimated her brother, why would she have left her children nameless?”
The old woman went to a chest carved with long-tailed birds. She took out a bundle wrapped in homespun cloth, and a tooled leather belt. Holding her burden close, she returned to the table and put belt and bundle in Kinnan’s lap.
He spread the belt along the table. Its pattern of leaves and flowers was scored in many places.
“The Swords hunted her through the woods,” the old woman said.
Kinnan unwrapped the bundle and let the homespun fall to the floor. He held Karol’s gown in trembling hands. It was made of red wool, thin and light, heavily embroidered with gold and green crescents. “I’ve seen her wear it many times.” He fingered the rents and ravels of the ruined finery.
Moder turned the skirt inside out. A pocket the size of Kinnan’s hand was sewn at the waist, laced shut with white ribbon. “Open that.”
He did, and drew out an oilcloth packet sealed with the remains of a sprig of dried sage pressed in wax. Inside was a letter. There were two entries, made in slightly different ink, dated four years apart.
“…the Bahari baby farm,” he read, “under the name of…Tabby. …This child, if I deliver safely, I will leave under the name of Gosling.”
Kinnan beamed indulgently at the young woman. “You are my little niece.”
Elsie raised her head. Yes, Kinnan thought, he had seen that chin-tilt, that firming of the mouth, that spark – on both sides of Karol and Cameron’s clashes of will.
“And you,” she replied, “are my mother’s baby brother.”
A rapid wheeze began quietly and grew louder, breaking the tension and resolving itself into Salali, doing her best to keep her laughter silent.
Moder Zglaria grinned and drew on her pipe.
“You think it’s funny?” Kinnan asked the trinket-woman. “You shouldn’t. Your reward hinges on my fortunes. Why should you laugh?” When Salali made no reply, he realized the answer. “I wanted it to be ‘if you help me gain the throne,’ but you insisted Landry’s overthrow was the condition. I thought it was the same thing.”
Brady couldn’t help a lopsided grin. “Farukh told you it wasn’t a bargain he’d have made.”
Salali’s laughter stopped. She met Kinnan’s glare with flashing pride. “You were warned, as the boy says. My terms were plain and you agreed to them. Have I tricked you? Take back your vow, then. I don’t want a promise unwittingly given and unwillingly kept.”
Kinnan reddened. “What do you take me for? I made the bargain. Have I asked to be released? You’ve done your part.”
Salali turned away, disgruntled at the concession.
Moder Zglaria lifted an eyebrow. “You’re counting your losses too soon, Young Master. It does seem ‘Elsie’ has the right of bloodline, but you have the mandate bag – had you forgotten?”
Brady put out a hand again and fiddled with the knife and tinder box on Moder’s table. “Does a mandate bag have to be rich?”
Kinnan opened his mouth to say Of course.
“No,” said Moder Zglaria. “It only has to be true. Why?”
“The woman who saved me – Karol – had a bag with her, but not like Kinnan’s. It was old and torn and dirty and empty. We buried it with her.”
“Buried the mandate bag of Onagros?” Kinnan thrust his jaw at Brady as if it were a fist.
Moder nodded. “That was right.”
“How could it be right?”
“It was time for a renewal, maybe. He said the bag was old and worn and empty. Maybe it’s time for a new bag, a new mandate, a new pledge between monarch and people. Maybe yours, Young Master.”
Was it possible? It did seem hard – all the suffering and struggle, the waiting and desire – all for someone else’s benefit. He had grown used to thinking of himself as rightful Kinninger of Layounna, unwilling but unquestioned. Now that the weight of duty was lifted, he found he couldn’t give it up so easily. This possibility was sweet, like the last fresh apple of autumn.
Moder Zglaria stirred and stood. She blew out the candles, gripped her stick, and stumped across the room to open the door. The light of the risen sun shone in.
Then Kinnan remembered her tale of a badger who wanted to be emperor of the world. He stole a look and saw her, silhouetted against the light, remembering it, too.