It is a long road to Eskan Helken here in the wastes of Hethria, and longer still when you do not know you are traveling it. As I did not. The day my journey began, I had never heard of Eskan Helken, and only vaguely of Hethria. All I knew was that, after morning inspection, the Lady Moriana wanted words with me.
Hardly momentous? But no one who served the Lady Moriana answered such a summons without a degree of sweat in the palms and tallying of his own and others’ recent sins. Certainly not the Captain of her Guard. Certainly not the newly promoted Captain of her Guard.
That was in my second’s manner when I said, “Hear defaulters for me, Evis. I’m going up there,” and he nodded without meeting my eye. It spoke from the rigid stance of the two sentries I had just posted, as I clanked between them up Ker Morrya’s green marble entry steps. From the schooled face of the steward with moontrees on the back and breast of his black silk surcoat, when I said, “The Lady asked for me,” and he replied, “This way, sir.” It persisted in the fit of my helmet, which was too tight, in the slip of my boots, which were too loose. In the chill of the first long colonnade whose tiles were scalloped moss-green, jade-green, by each archful of morning sun, in the piercing sweetness of a black-beaked eygnor’s song, and the suddenly lovely curve of each water-fern’s drooping frond. Such things grow precious when you may be seeing them for the very last time.
Ker Morrya is a huge pile of a place. The Lady would add or subtract from it as fancy took her, so some part was always rebuilding, another being torn down, and the intact pieces fitted with no rhyme or reason clear to a soldier’s mind. From the first colonnade we entered a circular gallery with pillars leafed in gold, branching capitals entwined above elegant white marble bas-reliefs: the Lady in profile to the left, to the right. Contemplating a mirror, a serpent, a pomegranate. On the crimson carpet beneath stood a Gjerven swamp-tribe’s gargoyle, six feet of garishly painted red-and-blue wood.
Left turning, we emerged in a garden of pools and pergolas, geometric as a phalanx between hedges ruler-clipped. It was scented by herbs, pungent, unruly, sweetly dangerous. Under the central pergola little black Morryan bees had built a head-sized clot of a nest. Beyond rose a mezzanine hall, a wreathing maze inlaid on its russet-and-mahogany parquet work. From its central pit grew the ferny leaves and gold and scarlet florets of a dwarf delryr tree. A langu, one of the great northern pythons, slept like a round bale of tapestry against the trunk.
Two steps led out and down to a tapestry loggia, its solid wall masked by a myriad tiny bejeweled figures, dancing, reclining, beneath trees in smoky-lavender flower. A staircase turned in and up to a complete guest suite, white plaster walls inset with delicate powder-blue medallions under molded cornices: the Lady burning incense, playing with a dove, tying her girdle, discarding a shoe. The bedroom’s rear wall was torn out, the table of gold and crystal tiring ware and the four-poster’s dove-blue silk hangings open to the bricks and ladders strewn outside.
We crossed the trampled mud, wiped our feet on a Tasmarn silk rug’s gray-and-crimson damascene, some southern weaver’s masterpiece, dodged the spikes of a helymfet that had gone to sleep on its meal of ants, and entered a vestibule composed in green: malachite floor, jade-inset ceiling, green marble fretwork walls that latticed Ker Morrya’s living drapery. Beyond rose a flight of open, rough-hewn steps.
The steward stopped, lowering his voice. “The Lady is . . . by the fountain, sir.”
He vanished. I looked at the stairs and found my mouth was dry. The Lady received as she built, in kitchen, boudoir, hall or buttery. But it was rarely anyone met her by the fountain, and more rarely that those who went to such an interview came back.
It was chilly in the vestibule. The mountain beyond was already breathing back the sun. I could see facets of black, glassy rock, pockets of moss and fern and palm, glitters of silver water amid the green and black. A vague roar rose from the streets of Zyphryr Coryan, sprawled busy and populous far below. Clearly, through and over it, I heard water, a crystal, fluent tinkle, swift, unfaltering, bubbling out into air and the mountain’s emptiness.
The sun met me halfway up. I could not help a glance back, and then a halt, for the view would distract you from the Lady Moriana herself. I was on the very shoulder of the Morhyrne, the huge lopsided triangle of mountain visible a day’s sail east of Zyphryr Coryan and three days’ march to the west. Its bare black cone loomed over me. At my feet a vista of the city’s crowded roofs fell in red and white and fallow-gold patchwork to the lands of Assharral, spreading south and west and north to the horizon. On the other side, the city’s huge, peacock-blue-and-green-tinted harbor coiled away to the breadth of the eastern sea.
I lingered a moment. The air was brisk. The green things near me were tingling with it. It did not seem a fitting day to die.