The justice of my effort to illuminate the maneuverings of someone who expects to pass unremarked into the silt of history can be left to future generations. My purpose began simply, to break that silence. But how can one truly comprehend another’s motivations, much less follow their every action?
Impossible. Perhaps all I’ve achieved is to expose the arrogance of my youthful goal. I know not, except to say here it is, the last chronicle.
As always, where, when, and with whom to begin? Especially with someone whose concern extended to an entire world?
Why not begin with the last day of the year 4768.
A bitter winter had swept across the Sartoran continent weeks ago; of late the topic of most concern was the sudden acquisition of Enaeran by its neighbor Sles Adran.
In the north?
The transfer from the southernmost continent to the far north left Sveneric dizzy for a breath or two, as his senses adjusted to the different air. The season in Twelve Towers, the capital of the Land of the Venn, was mid-summer, but the Land of the Venn, just east of the sea of storms, seemed more like winter to anyone else.
The transfer-Destination lay on the outer perimeter of the royal palace. The city’s stone towers surrounded him, with almost no west-facing windows. The wind howled around the spires, keen as the edge of a new-forged sword. You could feel the weight of history here. Sveneric forced his inner heat to ignite as his tearing eyes watched the bright-colored pennants snap and stream like live things.
A wide stone-flagged terrace opened to an antechamber. Two Household Arm guards scanned him briefly. He stood still under those appraising gazes, expecting the moment he passed a signal would go by a faster route to report: young man alone, unarmed.
You had to be tough to live up this far north. He’d liked reading Venn’s history, but in childhood had never thought to see it—until he met the new ruler of the Venn, Erenlara Loryard-Araeth Sophar, during the war.
A woman in layers livery, mostly blue, glided silently between two pillars and gave him a formal greeting. “With whom have I the honor of speaking?” the woman asked, her palms together, fingers pointing downward.
He told her, and, “Sven-rik,” she said, the middle vowel completely absent, as it was in Marloven and related tongues—audible reminder that they had all come from these people, ages ago.
She waited for the rest (there was always a rest in the Land of the Venn, even from the meanest vagrant, if that person came to the capital Twelve Towers), and he added, “of Sartor. I came to give your queen New Year’s greetings.”
He was led to a high-ceilinged room painted deepening shades of blue, so that the top emulated a twilight sky. All the moldings and decoration drew the eye to symmetrical, elaborately interlocked forms that pleased the eye. Outside the chamber—completely out of sight—Sveneric sensed one of the brown-garbed knights taking up a watchful stance.
He’d barely had time to take in the room when he heard the sound of running feet and Erenlara herself appeared at the great doorway. “Eren!”
“Sveneric,” Erenlara cried in delight. Though she’d seen him now and again over the past few years, he had not visited Venn since they were sixteen or so. And this year they would both turn twenty-five.
She wore white with gold and blue embroidery, a garment of complicated panels and folds. Sveneric glanced from her slim form to a face of perfect symmetry, and noted with dismay a fresh scar near her hairline—like her people, who seldom saw the sun, she was light of skin and hair.
And she moved with one shoulder held rigid and stiff. Her hands gloved in soft cotton.
It hurt him to see this evidence that she was still driving herself to impossible standards. He had once assumed it was lingering grief for her brilliant, beloved older brother, whose reign had been so short. He knew she had assiduously carried out his plans for dismantling the weight of power on a single individual, which had been so disastrous for the Venn over the centuries. He considered ways to approach asking, and began with, “Traveling the worldgate still?” the implied why in the air.
They had begun their friendship at age twelve, speaking frankly to one another about everything, from debating earnestly on how Sartoran and Venn history diverged from the southern granting of defense rights in castle-building, to speculating whether or not a bird could hover in the air if there was no wind. But when they reached their mid-teens, and he found his feelings for her intensifying from friendship to headier realms, she had begun to seem more elusive, not less.
His question sounded idle. It was not.
“I was a catalyst,” she said, touching the healing cut on her scalp with a gloved finger. “Very nearly a catalyst for catastrophe. I did save the situation.” She looked down at her gloves; he could smell the medicine from where he sat. “But I should not have come so close to disaster in the first place. Ah, there is yet so much to learn.”
“Why?” he burst out. “The war is over, Norsunder gone. Your ships patrol for peace, and your trade is welcome in every harbor. Why spend yourself so far from home, in others’ causes?”
She faced him directly, and his senses, by now focused all on her, registered the prickle of suppressed intensity. “Why,” she asked in a soft voice that did not carry, “did you give yourself over to the enemy during the war?”
That one took him completely by surprise. “Who told you that?”
“My surmise was then correct?”
His astonishment must be showing; he saw a hint of smile at the corners of her schooled mouth. She was never rude, but he read in that smile: Am I really the only one who hides motivations?
What she said was, “We are the same age, Sveneric. There is very little that would astonish me, these days.”
And her voice in memory echoed, the context being self-sacrifice, I would do that—willingly!—for the Venn.
“I apologize for being insufferable,” he said straitly, as she began to walk again. They crossed a hall with a stream thundering down from an upper level over boulders, and all along it trees and ferns and the most delicate flowers grew in profusion, lit from a great row of clerestory windows set toward the south.
“Not that. Never that,” she said when they had passed the thunderous falls. “You do not wish to answer my question?”
“Only because it was a stupid idea. And dangerous, not just to me but others, for I was playing at being grown up without understanding the conflicts of the adults around me.”
“Ayah,” she murmured, wincing in sympathy, though her gaze was ahead, and not on him.
“And not only did it not accomplish what I was after—which was Imry’s ear regarding his hidden talent—but I managed to set off several near disasters.”
“Detlev was angry with you?”
“No. Yes. Not because of my action, you might say, but because I did not consider the consequences thoroughly. The disasters did not happen, though I deserve no credit for that.”
Two huge golden doors swung open. Sveneric gazed in awed silence upon a throne room the likes of which he had never seen.
“A fine example of barbaric splendor?” she asked, her smile wry again. “I noticed that in the south the mode is now simplicity.”
Is that a shaft at Detlev? Sveneric laughed inwardly at himself. He’d never been able to predict how she would react; the last time he had come here she had said, My eyes are fixed beyond the stars. Oh, how silly that sounds out loud, how pompous. I am so ignorant, and there is so much to learn.
He’d pondered those words ever since. He hadn’t asked because he was not certain he could bear the answer.
He looked around the throne hall. It was huge, of course, carvings and art and fantastic mosaics a mighty riot of upward and outward-moving color in the great tree mosaic covering one wall. Crystal, highly polished silver and gold, and various faceted jewels were set into the whole so that the colors worn by the person on the throne, and the movements made by that person, would be reflected in brief and no doubt occasionally startling flashes of colored light throughout the vast room.
He tried one last time. “That was a fine deflection, throwing us back to my blunder during the war. But I answered your question. Mine to you remains, why? I’ll narrow, it, why drive yourself so hard when there is peace, and you have done well, and we’re still young?”
She turned to face him, there in the chamber of her ancestors, her pupils so large that her eyes seemed dark, except for the reflection of the light overhead. “Because,” she said, “time is running out.”
But she turned to describe the decorations, and the New Year’s ritual to come, which would see yet more Eyes of the Crown sworn to service—these chosen by the people, and Sveneric accepted that that rare window of confidence had closed.