Three weeks before the spring solstice, one week after the door to Kalches had first appeared in this whimsical, unpredictable, willful house where he had lived for the past month and more, Taudde stood before that door, his hand on the knob, recruiting his nerve to open it.
The door to Kalches, land of music and sorcery and the high winds that both cut like knives and sang like harps, stood in the long hallway of the house, between two high, narrow windows. Brilliant sunlight blazed through the nearer of the two; silver moonlight glimmered through the other. Between day and dark stood this door: solid, weathered, and ordinary, exactly as though it was a normal door and had always waited there for a hand to fling it wide. Though it did not match any other door in the house, somehow it did not look out of place. Its frame had been hewn roughly out of granite. The door itself was of common pine, the wood neither stained nor painted nor carved with any decorative figures nor even planed entirely smooth. When Taudde opened that door … when he opened it, he knew exactly the wind, fragrant with pine forests and the cold, clean scent of lingering winter, that would skirl out of the distant mountains and into this house.
He did not mean to step through the door, not yet. But this afternoon, weather permitting, he would finally step from this house into Kalches, crossing all the intervening miles in an instant.
He was not looking forward to that at all. Or he was, of course, in a way. He had been so long away; no matter how bitterly he would miss Lonne and the sea, he couldn’t help but anticipate his return to the stark, cold country that was his home. But his homecoming would certainly be … fraught. Taudde did not at all relish the thought of facing his grandfather and explaining everything that had happened. Or, really, anything that had happened.
Still, he dared not leave his return too late. Three weeks was little enough time.
He had asked leave from the prince of Lirionne to step through that door and into Kalches. Tepres had granted it, of course, exactly as he had promised. At noon today, Taudde would formally ask leave from the king of Lirionne himself, Geriodde Nerenne ken Seriantes. The king would also grant it. Taudde had very little doubt of that. Then he would open this door for the third time, and step through, from the spring of Lonne, the Pearl of the West, into the high, stark winter of Kalches.
With Leilis, so that was something, at least; no matter how little Taudde expected to enjoy his own interview with his grandfather, he did expect to enjoy witnessing the meeting between that stiff old man and Seathrift of Cloisonné House, which was the name Leilis went by when she put on the robes and manners of a keiso. He wanted to watch the old man try the edge of his tongue against her wit and unshakable composure. She would render his grandfather absolutely speechless, which was not something many people could do, but Taudde had no doubt she would do it. He looked forward to that very much.
But though he was resolved to go through, he thought he had better see how the weather lay on the other side of this door. This door opened into the mountains above the town of Kedres, not into the town itself, and storms were common in those mountains as winter turned to early spring. If the weather looked too difficult, well, that would be reason enough to put off his homecoming at least another day.
“Well? Will you open it, or do you merely mean to admire it as it stands?” inquired a light, quick voice at his shoulder. It was a voice that, to Taudde, was unmistakably underlain with an echo of the dragon’s voice. When ordinary men called Prince Tepres the Dragon’s heir, they were generally thinking merely of the king, the infamous Dragon of Lirionne. But ordinary men did not know of the true dragon beneath the mountain, and ordinary men did not possess Taudde’s trained ear.
Karah, Moonflower of Cloisonné House, the newest and youngest keiso in all of Lonne, stood beside the prince, her fingers twined with his. Though she had come to this house this morning ostensibly to visit her younger sister, Taudde’s student Nemienne, the romance between Prince Tepres and the beautiful young keiso was a very, very open secret throughout Lonne. Karah was far too honest to hide her feelings for the prince, and as his father did not disapprove, Prince Tepres also openly acknowledged his infatuation with her. Everyone looked forward to an eventual flower wedding. This gave the city a charming, pretty subject for speculation and gossip and helped take everyone’s mind off the coming solstice. Taudde was perfectly certain the king had thought of that, and would not have been surprised to discover that Prince Tepres was deliberately making certain public gestures of favor for the same reason.
Jeres Geliadde, the prince’s companion and bodyguard, stood behind them both. Nemienne hovered to one side, most of her attention on the door. She had long since accepted her sister’s romance with the prince and wasn’t much concerned with that; she was much more interested in doors and windows and the whims of the house. And in Kalches. Taudde had not yet decided whether he would permit her to accompany him to his home. He was almost certain it would be safe enough for her to come, but … he wasn’t entirely certain. None of them could be entirely certain about anything of the kind until the solstice came and went and did not give way to a summer of iron and blood and fire.
Prince Tepres said drily, “If you are not inclined to open it, Taudde, I might lay my hand to it.”
Jeres Geliadde cleared his throat.
“Or, then, perhaps not,” the prince conceded, tilting a straw-pale eyebrow at Jeres. He did not touch the door, but half turned to give his bodyguard an ironic look. The prince’s thin, arrogant mouth seemed made for irony. He bent that look on Taudde. “Someone needs to, however.”
Taudde eyed Prince Tepres with resignation.
“Of course my father will give you leave to go, Taudde. Surely you don’t doubt it.”
Taudde steadied himself with an effort of will. “No. I don’t doubt your father’s … generosity.”
“Your own grandfather’s, then?” the prince asked, more gently than was his habit.
A sudden hammering on the door interrupted Taudde’s attempt to frame an acceptable answer.
It wasn’t the door to Kalches; that would have been far beyond merely startling. This was merely the ordinary door that simply opened out onto the Lane of Shadows. Men did come to that door from time to time: mages who came to study bardic sorcery or the occasional tradesman daring enough to seek custom among the mages who lived along this lane. Prince Tepres, of course, or one or another of the young men who were his companions. Now and again, on a few memorable occasions, the king himself.
None of them had a knock quite of this sort. There was a disconcerting urgency to it.
Prince Tepres, quirking a pale eyebrow at the intrusion, stepped forward to answer that hammering. It was not his place to do so, but he might have meant to reprimand whomever was there for so rude a summons. Certainly whoever pounded roughly on the door would be embarrassed to find he had disturbed not a mere foreigner but the Dragon’s own heir.
Taudde, moved by an alarm he did not entirely understand, said sharply, “Wait!” just as the prince reached the door.
The prince, startled, turned his head, to look back at Taudde.
Jeres Geliadde, responding perhaps to the alarm in Taudde’s voice, thrust himself past Karah and Nemienne and strode suddenly forward, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword.
The prince’s hand fell on the latch. The latch dropped and turned under the pressure of that touch.
The door slammed open.
For a heartbeat, that was all. There were men there, poised on the weathered gray stone of the porch, a crowd of men: a few in the black of the King’s Own and a handful in the flat red and gray of the army; two men in the black and white robes of mages, and, most fraught of all, three men wearing robes embroidered at cuffs and collar with the saffron-gold that no one in Lonne but those of royal blood had any right to wear. The one in the forefront was a man nearing middle years, heavyset and hard-featured, powerful and angry. The man a step behind was younger and more elegant, with a narrow mouth and small chin; his angular eyes cold with bitter triumph. The third was a younger man, well back, surrounded by soldiers.