Everyone knows that the course of history is twisted by the tectonic energies of wars caused by the clashes of kings and mages; the great hold back chaos like the boulders that stand against the rushing water, and evil is the flood that changes the landscape entirely, until it is vanquished.
What we sometimes forget is that small, almost unnoticed actions—the lighting of a leaf on the water’s surface, the meeting between bird and bug, and the dance of the turtle—also create widening ripples, until their consequences intersect with those of the plunging rock.
Or, the matters of kings.
This part of my story involves three quests; some sought a magical object that would aid their efforts to free the world, and some did not know until it was over that there had been a quest at all.
I must begin with an innocent who never quested, consciously or unconsciously. She would in the fullness of time serve as catalyst to great change, just as the cataract and the storm are influenced by the frog and the turtle, the wind and the air.
Chantala Shagal, Crown Princess of Sles Adran, sat in a window seat, looking out over the snow-covered rooftops of Nente in tiers below her. The window seat was in a hidden alcove, carved from stone, in the older part of the royal palace. She liked the feeling of complete privacy it gave, although she was aware that the entire household knew she could be found there.
Her gaze drifted over the city. The smooth white mantles of snow on the roofs and the gleaming gold and yellow and white of the stone below them gave her quiet pleasure. She could pretend it was home. The sky was blue, the clearest it’d been for at least a month. It was a beautiful day for—
The familiar anxiety churned her insides. She leaned her forehead against the diamond-paned glass of the window and shut her eyes.
Today Chantala turned eighteen, and Royal Uncle Bartal was giving a ball in her honor. Chantala shivered inwardly at the thought. She wished she were back home in Denwy. She wished her mother was alive. Mother would tell Royal Uncle Bartal to leave her be.
Her old nurse Mariana approached with quiet step. “Come, Chantala,” she coaxed. “Time to get ready.”
Mariana watched her uneasily as Chantala slowly left the window seat, her narrow hands clutching her elbows. Chantala’s wraith-like form was shrouded in a close gown of heavy silk; no matter how rich the fabric, how clever the design, nothing could hide how thin she was. The finest gown (so the courtiers said, tittering) looked like a bag on a stork.
The walls had little nooks and shelves with lamps, books, a couple carved statues and a cloth doll—obviously rather old—with long silk-strand hair and a dress that would have graced any Royal Court.
Chantala was also far too pale; even in this dark hall one could see the blue tracery of veins beneath her thin skin, which was considered vulgar. Though no one would dare to point that out in public, not about the Royal Princess.
Sadly, Mariana reflected as she gently combed out Chantala’s light brown locks, Chantala wouldn’t care if they did. If she even heard it. She usually wandered about in a world of her own, one mired in her childhood. They stood directly before the huge fireplace in the bedroom. Bartal’s palace was well-insulated, for a palace, and he made sure Chantala’s rooms always had plenty of firesticks, but she was always cold anyway.
Mariana brushed Chantala’s hair, trying to induce a shine in it. She parted it in the middle, drew it smoothly back over her ears and fitted the pearl-edged cap on her head, leaving the hair to hang free down her back.
Mariana stepped away to survey the effect, knowing Chantala wouldn’t show any interest in looking in a mirror. “Let’s rub some color into your cheeks and your lips, child.” Mariana held out the crushed rose petal salve. “You’re so pale you’ll stand out.”
This was exactly the right approach: Chantala’s single interest in her appearance was not to be noticed.
Someone knocked. Mariana recognized that imperative rap, and waved away the waiting maidservants, moving to the door to open it herself.
As the footman who had done the rapping bowed himself out of the way, Mariana dropped into a deep curtsey. Bartal stepped in and smiled at Chantala, who bowed her head, palms together as she made the proper dip, heir to king. “Good evening, Royal Uncle,” she said in her soft, almost toneless voice.
“You are lovely tonight, dear niece,” Bartal said, smiling widely and a little ironically.
Chantala thanked him gravely; in the background, Mariana’s lips tightened, then she schooled her face. She remained in her low curtsey, head bowed, while Bartal extended his arm to Chantala. As soon as the door was shut on them, Mariana creaked upright again, hating Bartal anew as she set about ordering things to be comfortable and warm as soon as Chantala returned.
Bartal noticed the slight nervous tremor of Chantala’s hand. He made a strong effort to smooth his voice to gentleness, though he didn’t worry about her seeing his face. She never met anyone’s eyes if she could help it, and even when she did, he’d discovered that she seldom recognized his expression for what it was. Things like hate, contempt, and malice passed right by. But she did feel dread—especially if she had to be an object of any sort of attention. Then there was no getting anything out of her.
If she hadn’t been indisputably his heir, and the Duchas of Denwy, and surprisingly and overwhelmingly popular with the populace of that large and influential province, he would have seen to it that she suffered a tragic accident shortly after her mother’s. But his two marriages had not produced an heir, and as for that supposed Birth Spell, no amount of courting mages in either light magic or dark could force it to work. Though Bartal was cynical about most things, he was very proud of the long reign of the Shagals. He had only Chantala to continue his bloodline—so he must simply pair her with someone he had chosen, then he would have the raising of a grandchild as suitable heir.
In the meantime, cloud-minded Chantala was, but not stupid. She had proved unexpectedly adamant. She wouldn’t come to court without that sour-faced Mariana, who Bartal remembered from his own childhood.
He knew well his sister had spent her time poisoning their minds against him, and though he knew his forces could reduce mighty Denwy to rubble, he did not want to sap the strength of Sles Adran, so that it became a beggarly travesty like Adon-Marsael’s Enaeran. Though it suited his plans to have Enaeran weak. The time would come when he would rule the whole Arcardan Plains from Nente, and he would need strength to achieve it. Denwy was to be his backbone.
First he had to secure it by coaxing Chantala into marriage with the man he’d chosen.
He’d taken great care to praise his army commander-in-chief Navor Mandracar before Chantala and that old woman. The rest should follow, shouldn’t it? A girl steeped in poetry, romanced by a handsome and dashing courtier—of course she’s going to fall for him. But the romance was proceeding at the pace of ice melting.
So he worked on her as he walked her down to the ballroom. He even got her to flush with pleasure before they entered when he gallantly broke a spray of blossoms from the potted bush beside the grand doors and handed it to her with a flourish and a bow. She tucked it into her embroidered sash and was still smiling when he took her arm and they entered the ballroom.
He signaled the waiting musicians with a glance. The musicians struck up the fanfare to the promenade, and Bartal and Chantala fell into step. Everyone took their places behind them. When the two had made their circuit and reached the throne with its more modest padded heir’s chair, the ball began.
Bartal was pleased to see that his courtiers were not napping. Chantala was surrounded by the most prominent peers, but Mandracar attached himself to her side until she promised him the first taltan.
It was especially galling to the ambitious that Chantala, Duchas of Denwy, had so easily attached the handsome Mandracar, but she scarcely looked at him. She was so clearly minding her steps that she could as easily have been partnered with a broomstick.
Under the expectant and watchful gaze of the king, Mandracar got her to stay next to him. But she did not know what to say to him. He was tall, well built, with glossy long black hair and a thin black mustache—Bartal had brought mustaches back in fashion, having gained a taste for them when traveling in the north. Mandracar’s bronze skin made his pale hazel eyes stand out by contrast, as the glossy black mustache seemed to emphasize his strong white teeth.
Chantala found him vaguely frightening; to the court, the couple looked like a panther and a stork.
“Are you enjoying yourself, Princess Chantala?” he asked once they sat down.
“Oh, yes, thank you, Honor,” she answered gravely.
“You look tired. May I fetch you anything?”
“No, thank you, Honor.” She turned to watch the dancers.
Catching a glare and an impatient shooing gesture from Bartal, Mandracar cudgeled his mind for another topic of conversation. “Beautiful day, today, was it not?”
“Yes. I didn’t get to watch the sunset today,” she said regretfully. “It was time to get ready. Did you see it?”
At this rare return he had to answer positively. “Why yes, I did. Most beautiful. Clear sky, you know.”
“I hope it is tomorrow.” She smiled wistfully. “It is almost as pretty as sunset at home.”
Mandracar sidled a glance. The king had better be watching. This was one of their longest conversations. “I would dearly love to see the sunsets in Denwy,” he added slyly.
She smiled, her face almost becoming animated. “I have a poet in Denwy. He used to tell me such stories, in addition to writing poems. He would have come to Nente, I’m sure, but wasn’t around when his majesty invited me to come. I wish I could hear from him—”
Mandracar remembered Bartal’s description of the sharp-eyed old fellow in loud, ragged clothes whose figurative language made far too many references to ambition, and Norsunder, betrayal and greed. Once Chantala had been extricated from Denwy, Bartal had made certain the old nuisance vanished.
Her face was closing over again, and Mandracar said swiftly, “Do you know any of his poems?” and was able to congratulate himself once again on his success: she embarked on a long recitation.
This recitation was excruciatingly stultifying, but he was rewarded by the grim smile Bartal gave him as he strolled by with a couple friends.
Bartal had been clear. The courtship was to be as real as he could make it—that is, Chantala kept happy—or Denwy would rise in revolt. And Bartal knew that there were many among his nobles who hated his “treaty” with Norsunder, and would take any excuse to rise against him if rich, powerful Denwy led the way. But the reward, if Mandracar succeeded, would be worth the effort: his child would be the future king or queen. But he had to marry her first. Oh well. He’d done a lot worse things in his rise to power.