by Sherwood Smith
Everyone’s heard the legends about how a heroic little girl named Sartora saved the world, but few know what really happened, or about the equally heroic kids who helped her. The only thing those kids had in common was that none of them—including Sartora—regarded themselves as heroes.
Good or bad, change takes getting used to, Leander Tlennen-Hess thought when he woke up and remembered that he was still a king.
Sometimes good or bad were tough to define, he thought as he rubbed his cheek where the book he’d fallen asleep against had pressed a line. It was good that he was now king of Vasande Leror because it meant that Mara Jinea was gone. It was going to take time to recover from the damage she’d done to the kingdom, and that kind of edged over into the bad things, because no matter how long Leander worked every day, the list of things people insisted were of the first importance just kept getting longer.
The room he’d claimed as his study was like ice. He braced himself, threw off his blanket, and hopped through the cleaning frame, which restored his clothing and his body to freshness, even if it didn’t do anything about the cold.
It was a good thing that Vasande Leror was so small, he thought as he pulled on a sturdy linsey-woolsey tunic over his other clothes. A kingdom as large as Marloven Hess to the west, for instance, would have a list that much longer.
Leander paused before the west window, rubbing his arms, and thought of Marloven Hess’s new king, Senrid, also fifteen years old. If he was still alive. Whenever Leander felt the least sorry for himself, he thought of Senrid over there in that enormous kingdom full of warriors, and the tasks that he must be facing.
Leander grimaced. It was a bad thing to have to share a border with Marloven Hess. But it was a good thing that the Marlovens had had so much internal trouble they probably wouldn’t have time to go conquering again anytime soon. Only, was it a good thing or a bad thing to think that what was bad for someone else was good for their neighbors?
In an effort to warm up, he ran down to the kitchen, where he found his step-sister, Kyale, just sitting down to a meal at the secondary prep table. From the snap in her silvery-blond brows, and the downward turn to her small mouth, she was not in a good mood.
He pretended not to notice. Maybe he could coax her out of the sulks. “Good morning, Kitty. Going out to take advantage of the good weather while we still have it?”
Kyale Marlonen looked up at Leander in exasperation.
She couldn’t believe it! How could somebody so smart, and so hard-working (he worked a lot harder than the grownups, in her opinion, and why didn’t he give more commands since he was now the king?), and so kind, be so ignorant?
“Leander,” she said, lowering her voice so the kitchen staff couldn’t hear her. “That was the most boring New Year’s Week ever. Horrible as my mother was, at least she gave parties. I could give parties. I would love to give parties, if only you would hire some servants. A princess should not have to eat in a kitchen. Nor should a king!”
As soon as the words—the very sensible, practical words—were out, his green eyes got that glassy look again. She had learned to distrust that look. Instead of saying, “You’re right, Kitty!” he was going to talk in that horrid explaining voice.
“Because we don’t have anything in the treasury, any more than we did last month.”
“Why not? Don’t the guilds pay taxes? I know they do—you were boring on for ever about which of my mother’s taxes to get rid of and which ones to keep, all last summer, before those disgusting Marlovens attacked as well as after. And I know you kept some taxes on.”
“But we won’t see any revenue from those until next year, or maybe after. Our debts are too large.”
“Debts?” Kitty set her fork down. “How could we have debts? Kings don’t have debts—everybody owes them money, they’re not supposed to owe anything. That’s why they’re kings, they protect the land, and make rules.” She glared over her breakfast rolls at Leander, whose head had bent forward, so all she could see was his black hair. And that was another thing, his hair was shaggy, hanging over the collar of that terrible old tunic—she was sure she’d seen it when he was an outlaw. When was he going to look like a king?
Her voice sharpened. “Leander, you know it’s true.”
Leander looked up from buttering his corn bread. “This is what I know today. There is no money in the treasury for decorating this castle, or hiring more people, beyond what we’ll need to finish repairing some of the worst damage the Marlovens did, and to get through the rest of winter. We’re going to have to make do.”
“Then why don’t you tell that disgusting Senrid that he should help those repairs that his disgusting warriors did? Because I know you write to him.”
Her voice was getting shrill. Leander recognized the fear of being left alone underneath the jealousy. Kitty’s mother had been a horrible person, using her daughter as a convenience for hostage and magical purposes. He had to give Kitty time.
“I’ve only written to Senrid twice, about border matters. Marlovens don’t make reparations. Their view of the world is just too different.”
“Then it’s time for Senrid to learn,” Kitty stated. “And if you’re going to waste time writing to that nasty splat-faced villain, then you could tell him to fix the mess his creepy Marlovens left here. Especially if he thinks he’s pretending to be your friend.”
Leander shut his eyes, his appetite gone. He knew better—but either he answered, or she’d keep at it endlessly. “Kyale.”
She scowled. She hated it when he used her name instead of “Kitty,” which was her favorite nickname in the world. One she’d picked herself.
“Kyale,” he said again. “If you want to help me govern, and that would be great, you’ve got to learn something about governing. I can give you a book on how we in Vasande are related to the Marlovens not all that long ago, but if you don’t want to fix your ignorance, then have a great day. I’ve got to get to work.”
He picked up his cornbread and his fast cooling eggs, and retreated up to his study, her shrill, angry voice chasing after, “Who are you calling ignorant? You’re ignorant of proper manners! You don’t live in that nasty, muddy outlaw forest camp anymore, so why can’t you at least . . .”
As Leander walked through the kitchen, the cook and helpers went on with chopping and mixing and checking the big brick bake-oven, as if they hadn’t heard the argument. The latest argument.
When he reached the back stairs, which was the shorter way up to his study, Kitty’s small figure appeared in the doorway behind him, her silken skirts swaying, her silvery blond hair swinging.
“And you could at least take a day away from work,” she yelled. “You were more fun as an outlaw!”
“That’s enough, now, your highness.” That gruff voice was Llhei, her governess, who had managed to give Kitty what little upbringing she had when Queen Mara Jinea wasn’t around. Leander caught a glimpse of Llhei’s comfortable form in her long Sartoran robe, and the back of her neat gray head, as she shepherded Kitty along the hall in the other direction.
“But it’s the truth! And I’m so bored, Lhei, and Leander never does anything fun anymore, and what’s the use of being a princess if I have to eat in the kitchen, and nobody ever comes to see us?”
“Like I told you, you have to be a friend to make a friend.”
“I thought those Mearsiean girls were my friends, but . . .”
Their voices faded as they turned the corner next to what used to be the grand hall, only most of the decorations had been stripped and carried off after Mara Jinea’s defeat, by her former hirelings.
When he reached his study, Leander grimaced at the barren gray stone above his book shelves. The truth was, if he could go back to living in the forest, he’d grab it in a heartbeat. Even in winter. So far, the castle was scarcely warmer than outside, especially as they could only afford a few Fire Sticks. Feeling guilty about the sizable sum he’d spent on magic books, Leander had divided the Fire Sticks between Kitty, the kitchens, and the rooms where Arel and his stonemasons and wood carvers were doing the repairs.
He piled the eggs onto his corn bread and carried the sandwich to the window, where he could munch and look out at where big, burly Alaxandar drilled the castle guard—all twenty-odd of them. Not like they could defend the castle against a determined assault, as they’d learned a few months back. The Marlovens hadn’t even broken a sweat. But, as Alaxandar said, “We’ll go on as we mean to, because not to try is worse.”
“Leander?” That was tall, shambling Arel, five years older than Leander at twenty, and newly made a master carpenter. He’d taken over as castellan. He balanced some kind of wood-smoothing tool on one thin shoulder as he wiped his pointed nose on his sleeve. “Sorry. Caught a cold. There’s someone here to see you.”
Arel’s quick footsteps retreated down the hall toward the back stairs. Leander wolfed down the last couple of bites and followed more slowly, wondering why Arel had come all the way upstairs to tell him, instead of snagging him at the kitchen—oh, of course. To avoid Kitty, who fretted when Leander’s old gang forgot to say ‘your majesty’ or bow, or perform any kind of protocol.
Leander’s mood was somber as he descended to the parlor, which was the only other room with a Fire Stick. Leander knew the off-duty servants used it, as it was the most comfortable room in the palace, where they’d gathered all the nicer furnishings, rugs, and cushions not carried off or destroyed during the trouble.
He was expecting another angry guild messenger, or a town representative; what he found waiting was a girl his age, quite as tall as he was, with black eyes and long, stringy black hair.
“Hibern?” Leander stopped where he was, surprised and alarmed. “Did Senrid send you? Is there . . .”
“A war party on its way?” Hibern said, her sardonic smile reminding Leander briefly of Senrid, though the two did not resemble one another in the least. Maybe it was a Marloven characteristic. “No.” She waved her hand at her clothes, which belatedly Leander noticed. She did not wear the dull colors Leander was used to seeing on the few Marloven’s he’d encountered. She wore a robe with sky blue as an outer layer.
“You’ve joined the Sartoran Magic Council?”
Hibern laughed. “I’m a long way from that. I have a tutor.” Her smile vanished. “And things are so desperate right now that they’re putting us students to work as they train us.” She waved a skinny hand at the walls. “I’m on my way to see Senrid, actually. Our monthly visit. But I stopped to see how you and Kitty are, and to warn you to strengthen all your protective wards. There is troubling news from Sartor—”
“Fern!” Kitty danced in, smiling happily. “I didn’t know you were here!”
“I just arrived,” Hibern said. “Was talking magic with Leander first, then I wanted to find you.”
Kitty flushed with pleasure. “Came to see me?” Her happiness faded. “Magic with Leander? That horrible Senrid is not attacking, is he?”
“No, he’s not attacking anybody.”
“How about executions? Every day before breakfast?” Kitty asked snidely, and Leander winced.
Hibern turned her palm down, and made a little pushing motion that Kitty and Leander both recognized as a typical Marloven gesture. “Not a one.”
Kitty smiled broadly. “Well, then! If there’s no danger, may we offer you some breakfast? We have cinnamon rolls, and I can order you some eggs, or they could make you oatcakes. I remember you people like to eat oats.”
Hibern’s thin face was usually serious, emphasized by her straight brows. She looked younger when she flashed a grin. “I don’t need any food. It’s much later in the day where I was before my transfer. But I wouldn’t mind something hot to drink.”
“I will give the order,” Kitty said importantly, and then ran out, because she didn’t want Hibern to know that there was no servant on duty to give any orders to.
“I apologize for the insults,” Leander said awkwardly.
“Oh, I don’t mind. My country was not very good to yours, nothing can change that. Or change how you and Senrid first met. What I choose to remember is what a big help Kitty was to us, in spite of that bad beginning.”
“She was glad to have helped,” Leander said, adding at Hibern’s smile, “though maybe not at the time.”
“I know. I remember.” Hibern’s quick grin flashed again. “I think her insults were actually good for Senrid, in a weird way I’m not even sure I can explain.”
“Maybe because they were funny, but not a threat? He’s lived under threat so long,” Leander said. “At least, that’s what I figured out after those few days he was here.”
Hibern pursed her lips. “I cannot say I know him, either. A very few meetings, for short periods, and often we end up arguing about dark magic and light. But you might be right.” She glanced at the door. “Anyway, whatever she says, I know that Kitty means well. And whatever he says, Senrid actually wants to mean well. I think.”
Leander wondered if she meant I hope. “He kept telling me that light magic is weak. Ineffectual.”
“I think he knows that that’s not true, it’s just that light magic has so many safeguards. And he hates mages—and rulers—who claim that light magic is preferred by those who are morally superior.”
“’Lighters.’ That’s what he called us.”
“Me as well.” She touched her robe.
“Are there any mages or kings who use dark magic who don’t make war as a habit?”
“He says he can remain neutral.”
Leander grimaced at the Fire Stick burning away. Beneficial light magic. Though dark magic could make Fire Sticks as well, he’d heard. How close were the two spells?
“The Council warns me every time I go home that those who use dark magic can’t remain neutral,” Hibern said.
Though trained by different people, Hibern and Leander knew that the word ‘dark’ was a symbol, suggesting the absence of light, the void that comes when one has used up magic potential. The form of magic called ‘dark’ was powerful, dangerous, and its spells mostly meant to destroy. The term ‘light’ signified the careful, layered use of magic that is meant to stay in balance with the magic potential of the world. Like the steadily burning sun. ‘Light’ had also come to symbolize harmony toward others, something most dark magic users scorned as euphemisms for expedience and self-righteousness.
They didn’t have to hear the sarcastic tone of voice to know that ‘lighters’ was meant as disparagement.
While Leander stared sightlessly out the window, remembering Senrid’s scorn for light magic, the pale, wintry light highlighted the emerging bones of his face. He’s going to be handsome if he grows up, Hibern thought. I wonder if he ever noticed.
She had to laugh at herself; a year ago, she wouldn’t have noticed. And now she could notice such things, but she’d put the non-aging spell on herself just in time. Maybe someday she would lift the spell and let her body finish making itself adult. But she was in no hurry. Great magic was her goal—world magic—and she did not want the clouding of sense that came with that mysterious, dangerous thing called attraction, which had caused her mother to blast her plans and marry a selfish dark mage, just because she’d, ugh, fallen in love.
Hibern hated thinking about the mess her family had become. She said, “Here’s what I just learned. There’s something really bad out there, far worse than mages and rulers arguing about who lives in harmony and who doesn’t. Norsunder is trying to make a rift near Sartor. It’s big—the biggest ever. All of us are going there to fight it.”
“A rift,” he whispered.
The magic to make a rift was rare—and almost impossibly powerful. It meant nothing less than a tear in the fabric of the real world, opening into Norsunder, which lay beyond space and time. The cost in magic potential was truly terrible. Light magic did not make rifts.
And Norsunder’s mages never pretended to be doing anything for anyone’s good except their own. They were after one thing: power. Though what they intended to use it for could vary, that much Leander had learned in reading about Norsunder’s irruptions into the world.
“A big rift?” Leander’s throat went dry. “That can only mean they want to bring across big armies. Centuries of warriors.”
Hibern said, “That’s if they make the rift. Here’s what’s important right now. Some of them are here, and they are searching. No one knows what for, but it’s happening right now.”
The quick patter of Kitty’s step sounded outside the door. “I ordered some hot chocolate,” Kitty said importantly.
Llhei appeared, obligingly carrying an old kitchen tray covered with a folded table cloth, and set with the fine porcelain that Mara Jinea had left behind; Leander had wanted to smash all those dishes, but Kitty had grown up with them, so here they were, in use.
He waited until Kitty had meticulously poured out hot chocolate for two, using her very best manners, and while Kitty asked after people she’d met in Marloven Hess, Leander slipped out and ran upstairs to scout out whatever he could find in his new library about rifts.
A novel of Sartorias deles
by Sherwood Smith
$4.95 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-054-5