Avaryan Rising Vol. II
by Judith Tarr
Elian of Han-Gilen is the pride and scandal of her father’s princedom.
She has out-ridden, out-hunted, and out-shot every suitor. Now comes one whom she could bring herself to love: no lesser man than the throne prince of the Golden Empire. But Elian swore an oath as a child to a foster brother who is now a warrior king. Consort to an imperial heir or squire at arms to a conqueror: Elian must choose, and in choosing, decide the fate of two empires.
“Elian! Oh, Lady! Elian!”
The Hawkmaster paused in mending a hood and raised an inquiring brow. Elian laid a finger on her lips.
The voice drew nearer, a high sweet voice like a bird’s. “Lady? Lady, where have you got to? Your lady mother—”
Elian sighed deeply. It was always her lady mother. She bound off her last stitch and smoothed the crest of feathers thus attached to the hood: feathers the color of fire or of new copper, rising above soft leather dyed a deep and luminous green. Flame and green for the ruling house of Han-Gilen: green to match her much-patched coat, flame no brighter than her hair.
She laid the hood in the box with the others she had made and rose. The Hawkmaster watched her. Although he was not mute, he seldom spoke save to address his falcons in their own wild tongue.
He did not speak now, nor did she. But his eyes held a smile for her.
In the mews beyond the workroom, the hooded falcons rested on their perches. The small russet hunters for the ladies and the servants; the knights’ grey beauties, each with its heraldic hood; her brother’s red hawk shifting restlessly in its bonds, for it was young and but newly proven; and in solitary splendor, the white eagle that came to no hand but that of the prince her father.
Her own falcon drowsed near her brother’s. Though smaller, it was swifter, and rarer even than the eagle: a golden falcon from the north.
Her father’s gift for her birth-feast, a season past. It had been new-caught then; soon it would be ready for proving, that first, free hunt, when the bird must choose: to come back to its tamer’s hand or to escape into freedom.
She paused to stroke the shimmering back with a feather. The falcon roused slightly from its dream, a tightening of talons on the perch, an infinitesimal turning of the blinded head.
The mews erupted in a flurry of wings and fierce hawk-screams. Only the eagle held still. The eagle, and Elian’s falcon, that opened its beak in a contemptuous hiss and was silent.
The Hawkmaster emerged from his workroom, followed by his two lads. Wordlessly they set about soothing their charges.
The cause of the uproar paid it no heed at all. She fit her voice admirably well, plump and pretty, wrinkling her delicate nose at the scents of the mews and holding her skirts well away from the floor. “Lady, look at you! What her highness will say—”
Elian had already thrust past her, nearly oversetting her into the mud of the yard.
The Princess of Han-Gilen sat among her ladies in a bower of living green, her gown all green and gold, and a circlet of gold binding her brows. A delicate embroidery lay half finished in her lap; one of her ladies plucked a soft melody upon a lute.
She contemplated her daughter for a long while in silence. Elian kept her back straight and her chin up, but she was all too painfully aware of the figure she cut. Her coat had been her brother’s; it was ancient, threadbare, and much too large. Her shirt and breeches and boots fit well enough, but they stood in sore need of cleaning. She bore with her a faint but distinct odor of the stables, overlaid with the pungency of the mews.
She was, in short, a disgrace.
The princess released Elian from her gaze to stitch a perfect blossom. Once the most beautiful woman in her father’s princedom of Sarios, she remained the fairest lady in Han-Gilen. Her smooth skin was the color of honey; her eyes were long and dark and enchantingly tilted, with fine arching brows; her hair beneath its drift of veil was deep bronze with golden lights.
Her one flaw, the chin that was a shade too pronounced, a shade too obstinate, only strengthened her beauty. Without it she would have been lovely; with it, she was breathtaking.
At last she spoke. “We have been searching for you since the morning.”
“I was riding.” In spite of all her efforts, Elian knew she sounded sullen. “Then I had an hour with the Hawkmaster. Will you be keeping me long, Mother? The embassy from Asanion will be arriving today, and Father has a council just before. He bade me—”
“At your insistence.” The princess’ voice was soft but unyielding. “He is the most indulgent of fathers. Yet even he would not be pleased to see you as you are now.”
Elian battled an impulse to straighten her coat. “I would not attend council in this state, my lady.”
“Let us hope that you would not,” said the princess. “I have heard that you have done so in garb but little more proper. Breeched and booted, and at your side a dagger.”
The princess continued her embroidery, each word she spoke as careful and as minutely calculated as the movements of her needle. “When you were still a child, I suffered it, since your father seemed inclined to encourage it. There were some who even found it charming: Han-Gilen’s willful Lady trailing after her brothers, insisting that she be taught as they were taught. You learned fighting and hawking and wild riding; you can read, you can write, you can speak half a dozen tongues. You have all the arts of a Gileni prince.”
“And those of a princess as well!” Elian burst out. “I can sew a fine stitch. I can dance a pretty dance. I can play the small harp and the greater harp and the lute. I have a full repertoire of songs, all charming, all suitable for a lady’s bower.”
“And some scarcely fit for a guardroom.” The princess set down her work and folded her hands over it. “My daughter, you have been a woman for three full years. When I was as old as you, I had been two years a wife and nigh three seasons a mother.”
“And always,” muttered Elian, “a perfect lady.”
The princess smiled, startling her a little. “Nay, daughter, I had been a famous hoyden. But I had not so doting a father, nor so lax a mother. With the coming of my woman’s courses, I had perforce to put on a gown and bind up my hair and accept the husband my family had found for me. I was fortunate. He was scarce a decade older than I; he was comely; and he was kind to me. The man chosen for my sister had been none of those things.”
Elian’s hands were fists. She kept her voice level with an effort of will, so level that it was flat. “I have another suitor.”
“Indeed,” said the princess with unruffled patience. “One whom you would do well to treat with something resembling courtesy.”
“Have I ever done any less?”
The princess drew a slow breath: her first sign of temper. “You have been . . . polite. With utmost politeness you rode with Lord Uzian the Hunter, and brought back two stags for his every one, and slew the boar that would have destroyed him. You saved his life; he remembered an earlier betrothal and departed. When the two barons Insh’ai would have dueled for your hand, you offered most politely to engage each one and to accept the one who bested you. You defeated them both, and thus they lost you with the match. Then I call to mind your courtesy to the Prince Komorion. Lover of scholarly debate that he was, you engaged him in dispute, demolishing him so utterly that he retreated to a house of the Grey Monks and forsook all claim to his princedom.”
“He was more than half a monk already,” Elian said sharply. “I had no desire to wed a saint.”
“Apparently you have no desire to wed at all.” Elian opened her mouth to speak, but the princess said, “You are the daughter of the Red Prince, the Lady of Han-Gilen. Hitherto you have been permitted to run wild, not only because your father loves you to the point of folly; I too can understand how sweet is freedom. But you are no longer a child. It is time you became a woman in more than body.”
“I will wed,” said Elian, speaking with great care, “when I find a man who can stand beside me. Who will not stalk away in a temper when I best him; who will be able, on occasion, to best me. An equal, Mother. A king.”
“Then it were best that you find him soon.” The velvet had fallen aside at last, baring steel. “Today with the embassy of Asanion comes the High Prince Ziad-Ilarios himself, heir to the throne of the Golden Empire. He has sent word that he comes not only to propose a new and strong alliance with Han-Gilen; it would be his great pleasure to seal that alliance by a union with the Flower of the South.”
Elian had never felt less like a flower, unless it were the flameflower, that consumed itself with its own fire. “And if it is not my pleasure?”
“I encourage you to consider it.” The princess raised a slender hand. “Kieri. Escort my lady to her chamber. She will prepare herself to meet with the high prince.”
Elian stood stiff and still in a flutter of ladies. They had bathed her and scented her. Now they arrayed her in the elaborate gown of a Gileni princess.
A tall mirror cast back her image, mocking her. She had not been a pretty child: awkward, gangling, all arms and legs and eyes.
But suddenly, as she grew into a woman, she had changed. Her awkwardness turned to a startling grace, her thinness to slenderness, her angles to curves that caught many a man’s eye. And her face—her strong-jawed, big-eyed face, with her mother’s honey skin and her father’s fire-bright hair—had shaped itself into something much too unusual for prettiness. People looked and called it interesting; looked again, much longer, and declared it beautiful.
She glowered at it. Her gown dragged at her; a maid weighted her with gold and jewels, while another arrayed her hair in the fashion of a maiden, falling loose and fiery to her knees. Gently, with skillful hands, a third lady began to paint her face. Rose-honey for her lips, honey-rose for her cheeks, and a shimmer of gilt around her eyes.
A low whistle brought her about sharply, winning a hiss of temper from the maid with the brushes.
Elian’s glare turned to laughter and back to a glare again as her brother fell to his knees before her. “Ah, fairest of ladies!” he cried extravagantly. “How my heart longs for you!”
She cuffed him; he swayed aside, laughing, and leaped to his feet. He was tall and lithe, and as like to her in face and form as any man could be. Unlike most men of the Hundred Realms, who reckoned their beards a deformity and shaved or plucked them into smoothness, he had let his own grow to frame his face. It made him look striking, rakish, and more outrageously handsome than ever.
“And all too well you know it,” said Elian, tugging at it.
“Ai, woman! You have a hard hand. And you so fair the god himself would sigh after you. Are you setting yourself to melt the hearts of Father’s whole council?”
“If Mother has her way,” Elian said grimly, “I’ll win a better prize than that. Prince Ziad-Ilarios is coming to have a look at the merchandise.”
Halenan’s laughter retreated to his eyes. “So I’ve heard. Is that why your anger is fierce enough to set me burning even in my lady’s chamber?”
“Little help you need there,” she said.
He grinned. “I find marriage more than congenial. Even after five years of it.”
“Don’t you?” She thought of his two sons, and of his lady in her bower awaiting in milky calm the advent of their sister.
A love match, that had been, and it had startled most of Han-Gilen; for his bride was neither a great lady nor a great beauty, but the broad-hipped, sweet-faced, eminently sensible daughter of a very minor baron. That good sense had taken her quite placidly from her father’s minute holding to the palace of the Red Prince’s heir, and kept her there through all the murmurings of the court, as the high ones waited in vain for her handsome husband to tire of her.
With a sharp gesture Elian dismissed her ladies. As the last silken skirt vanished behind the door, she faced her brother. “You know why I can’t do as Mother is asking.”
“I know why you think you can’t.”
“I gave my word,” she said.
“The word of a child.”
“The word of the Lady of Han-Gilen.”
He raised his hands, not quite as if he wanted to shake her. “Lia, you were eight years old.”
“And he was fifteen,” she finished for him, with very little patience. “And he was my brother in all but blood, and people were plenty who said he was that too, because no man could be the son of a god, least of all the son of the Sun. And whether he was half a god or all a man, he was heir by right to a barbarian kingdom, and when the time came, he went to claim his own. He had to go. I had to stay. But I promised him: My time would come. I would go to fight with him. Because his mother left him a kingdom, but his father begot him to rule the world.”
Halenan opened his mouth, closed it. Once he would not have been so kind. Once he would have said what he could not keep from thinking.
The thinking was cruel enough between them who were mageborn and magebred. To Mirain their foster brother, son of a priestess and a god, great mage and warrior even in his youth, Elian had been the merest infant: his sister, his shadow, trailing after him like a worshipful hound. Wherever he was, she was sure to be.
It was certain proof of his parentage, a wag had said once. Who but a god’s son could endure such constant adoration?
And now he was a man grown, king in distant Ianon and raising legends about his name. If he even remembered her, it would not be as a woman who kept her word; it would be as a child who had wept to lose her brother, and sworn a child’s heedless oath, more threat than promise.
“What will you do?” Halenan pricked at her. “Join his harem in Han-Ianon?”
“He has slaves enough,” she snapped, the sharper for that her cheeks had caught fire. “I will fight for him, and wield my magery for him, and be free.”
“And if he has changed? What then, Lia? What if he has gone barbarian? Or worse, gone all strange with the god’s power that is in him?”
“Then,” she said with steadiness she had fought for, “I will make him remember what he was.”
Halenan set his hands on her shoulders. She came perilously close to laughing. Even in the utmost of exasperation, he took care not to rumple her gown. That much, husbandhood had done for him.
He glared at her, but half of it was mirth. “Little sister, tell me the truth. You do all of this simply to drive the rest of us mad.”
“I do it because I can do nothing else.”
“Exactly.” He let her go and sighed. “Maybe after all you should go to Mirain. He could make you see sense when no one else could.”
“I will go when it is time to go.”
“And meanwhile, you turn away suitor after suitor, and refuse adamantly to tell even Father why you do it.”
“You don’t, either.”
“I keep my promises.” Their eyes met; his wavered the merest fraction. He rallied with a flare of Gilen temper. “Maybe I should. Mother would see the perfect resolution: a match between you and your oldest love. With the Hundred Realms for a dowry, and Avaryan’s Throne for a marriage couch, and—”
She struck him with a lash of power.
It stopped his mouth. It did not stop his mind. He was laughing at her. He always laughed at her, even when she pricked him to a rage.
“It’s love,” he said, “and absurdity. And maybe desperation.”
“You never were a match for me.”
He bowed to the stroke, utterly unoffended. “Come now, O my conqueror. We’re late for council.”
We hope you have enjoyed this sample chapter of
The Lady of Han-Gilen
by Judith Tarr