Gerin Atreyano moved with an easy stride across the castle’s main practice yard, the toes of his boots kicking up whorls of dust from the bare patches of dirt scattered between clumps of dry brown grass. He carried a wooden sword held deftly in his right hand; his left was free. Practice today was with swords alone – shields were not permitted. He wore a leather jerkin under a half-sleeved shirt of chain mail, leaving his lower arms bare. His black, shoulder-length hair was covered by a plain steel helm with flared cheek-guards and an old round dent on the left side, just above the ear.
The heat was stifling, like the hot breath from an oven, but Gerin did his best to ignore it. He focused instead on his opponent. Anything else — the boys and soldiers talking and sparring in other parts of the yard, the clacking sound of wood striking wood or a grunt as someone took a blow – was a distraction he could not afford.
Gerin scarcely blinked as he circled his younger brother. Therain panted and wiped sweat from his eyes with his free hand. His gaze darted about the yard, shifting from Gerin to the swordmaster and back to the older boy again. “Don’t keep looking at me, Therain,” said Odnir Helgrim, the swordmaster. With his bull neck, barrel chest and shaved head, he seemed as solid and immovable as Paladan’s Tower, in whose shadow he stood. “I’m not the threat. Concentrate on your brother. I’ll wager if you look my way again, Gerin’ll make you regret it.”
Therain said nothing, but no longer glanced at Helgrim. He made several short thrusts at Gerin’s sword, which Gerin easily knocked aside since he was taller by several inches and had a longer reach. At twenty-two, Gerin was broad-shouldered but lean, with slender arms and long, agile legs that gave his movements a fluid, graceful flow. He had a narrow nose with an ever-so-slight bump in it at the bridge, and dark blue eyes set above wide cheekbones. He used his eyes to distract his brother, opening them wide and staring hard at Therain without blinking, trying to unnerve him.
Despite being shorter, Therain weighed nearly as much as Gerin. He was built like the men from his mother’s family, solid and strong, like a block of roughly-cut stone, his features thick and blunt. He also had his mother’s straight black hair and dark, piercing eyes. “This isn’t a mummer’s dance,” growled Helgrim as the brothers continued to circle one another. “By the gods above, you’re supposed to be fighting!”
The two had been practicing for more than an hour. They were exhausted, but Helgrim’s chiding spurred them into action. Gerin was certain his brother would attack, and he was not disappointed. Therain thrust at Gerin’s left side, then pulled back when Gerin moved to parry – Therain then lunged toward his chest. But Gerin anticipated the move and was ready for it. He knocked Therain’s sword aside with a vicious upswing, then drove the blunt tip of his weapon into his younger brother’s stomach. Therain staggered backward and fell before he could regain his balance, landing hard on his back. He lay panting in the dirt, trying to catch his breath. He held his stomach painfully; it was not the first time he’d been struck there today.
Gerin stood over his brother and shook his head. “That’s the second time I’ve knocked you down,” he said. “What’s wrong with you today? I think Reshel could give you a good whipping if she had a mind to.”
“You’re such an idiot,” spat Therain.
“Why, because I keep beating you?”
Therain stood up and shoved Gerin hard in the chest, then left the yard, ripping off his mail and throwing it on the ground. When he was gone, the swordmaster folded his arms across his chest and stared at Gerin. Dark hair covered his arms like a pelt; old scars puckered his skin like runic characters. The tattoos on the backs of his hands – a circle within a circle – marked him as a Taeraten of the Naege, the most elite class of fighter in all of Khedesh. “You shouldn’t taunt him, my lord.”
Gerin wiped sweat from his face. “I was just kidding him a little. But he was bad today; even you have to admit that. And he won’t learn if he’s not pushed.”
“I push Therain quite enough,” said Helgrim. “He doesn’t have the natural ability with a sword that you and your father have, but he’s not as bad as you think.” He scratched the side of his head, just above his ear. “Though today was an off day, I’ll grant you.”
“I’ve seen him practice with some of the guards. He seems pretty good with them.”
“He is. It’s just you he has trouble with.”
“Then maybe he shouldn’t fight me anymore. It doesn’t seem to be doing either of us any good.”
“Aye, we’ll see. It’s probably a good idea for the two of you to practice with others for a while, at least with swords. Although maybe I should have the two of you practice together with bows. Maybe he can show you a thing or two.” Helgrim chuckled.
Gerin was not amused. He hated the fact that Therain was better than him with a bow. Much better, actually. It gnawed at him like a bit of rot at the heart of a tree. And if he were to be completely honest with himself, he had to admit that Therain was nearly his equal in battle strategy and tactics. His younger brother could be far too rash for his own good, taking chances that in a real fight would get him or his men needlessly killed, where Gerin was cool and methodical and took only carefully calculated risks. He would not deny, though, that his brother had some gifts in combat planning. Not that he would ever tell him that to his face.
But, by the gods, Gerin could whip him handily with a sword.
He picked up Therain’s sword and mail from the ground. “I’m done for the day. It’s just too hot to practice.”
“Yes, my lord.” Odnir spat into the dirt and wandered off toward the other boys.
Gerin carried the two swords and Therain’s chain mail from the yard and entered the storeroom in the ground floor of Paladan’s Tower. He removed his own mail shirt and jerkin, leaving only a damp, stained linen tunic covering his torso. His hair was matted to his head.
He craned his neck to look up at the spire after he exited the recessed archway that marked the tower’s only ground-level entrance. Its dark reddish stone gave the tower a rusty look that contrasted starkly with the whiter color of the castle’s curtain wall. He had not been up to the top of the tower for a long time. He shielded his eyes to better see the pinnacle. The original bell housing had been enlarged and the bell removed by Paladin Atreyano two hundred years earlier so he could create an observatory to watch the motion of a red-tailed comet said to be a sign of the ending of the world. The bell was in a storeroom beneath the tower, crated and covered with ages of dust.
He considered climbing the long spiral stair to the observatory – the view was spectacular, perched high above the sharp-edged side of Ireon’s Hill over the Kilnathé River – then thought better of it. It was not quite noon, but the heat was already terrible, and he was tired from his practice.
He entered the inner bailey through the Genshel Gate, which opened to a narrow tunnel that passed beneath the inner defensive wall. Arrow loops lined the tunnel walls, and the ceiling contained more than a dozen murder holes.
Marble statues of Vendel and Ulgreth Atreyano flanked the steps that led to the main doors of Blackstone Keep. He felt a stirring sense of pride when he looked at the faces of his ancestors, the father and son who had taken a minor noble house and forged it into a power of the westlands that had eventually grown into a royal dynasty. What great men they must have been, he thought. Men with vision, and the will to see it done. He wondered if he would ever have such a bold vision for the future, as well as the strength needed to do whatever it took to make that vision real. Vendel and Ulgreth had been great men, to be sure, but they had also been unrelenting, single-minded of purpose, and at times cruel – necessary and perhaps inevitable, but it took a certain kind of mettle to do what they had done. Several competing noble houses that had feuded with them for power had been eradicated at their hands, and the trouble-making Pashti had been mercilessly crushed. That’s why they were great, he told himself. Because they had the courage to make the hard decisions. He wondered if he could make the same decisions himself. He wanted to be great, the greatest Atreyano who ever lived – yearned and lusted for it the way other boys his age lusted after girls – but when was the price simply too high? Was it even possible to know, or was that a question to be sorted out by those who came after to write the histories?
Protect the kingdom, your family, and yourself, his father had once told him. And not always in that order. Sometimes you must look after yourself first in order to do the same for your family or the realm. And it may be that you will be called upon to sacrifice yourself so that the others may live. Such are the choices that may face you one day when you are king. He’d never forgotten those words, spoken to him on his thirteenth birthday, when his mother and father had presented him with Glaros, the gleaming and ancient sword of the Atreyano heir, said to have been forged for Ulgreth at the command of his father when Ulgreth had been appointed the first Atreyano duke of Ailethon. Both the words and the sword were equally precious to him.
The recessed doors of the keep were forged of black iron with a golden stag’s head raised upon them, the sigil of House Atreyano. The arch and keystone of the doors had been cut from black rock said to have fallen from a star during the building of the castle, after the razing of the wooden Pashti fort that had once stood upon this hill.
There was no breeze coming through the open windows in his rooms. The curtains hung so still they might have been hammered from lead. He was washing, shirtless, over a standing basin when a Pashti serving girl arrived with water and bread. “Is there anything else you need, my lord?”
“No,” he said, splashing water on his face. “This is all.”
Gerin was chewing on a soft crust of bread when his father entered. Abran Atreyano had arrived only a few days ago, stopping at Ailethon to see his children on his peregrination through the westlands, visiting lords both great and small. Abran had only been king of Khedesh for six months before deciding to set out on his lengthy journey, something his counselors had advised him against – they said it was far too soon for a new king to be away from the capital for so long, but Abran would not be swayed. Once he’d made a decision, it was rare that he ever gave it thought again, and rarer still that he changed his mind.
He’d not always been so intractable. King Abran Atreyano was a hard man, often distant and gruff to his children, doling out his affection in carefully calculated doses (except for Reshel, his youngest daughter and favorite); yet he’d taught Gerin a great deal about governing, lessons he’d needed to know when Gerin’s grandfather, Bessel Atreyano, had died suddenly, sending Abran to the capital of the kingdom and leaving Gerin as the new Duke of Ailethon. Gerin had been overwhelmed with his new duties – and still felt that way to a large degree – but without his father’s sometimes harsh preparations, he would have been completely lost.
Abran had changed when Gerin’s mother had died of a terrible wasting sickness two years ago. Something in his father had perished with Vanya, and the few soft edges on Abran had become cold and hard. He became even more distant and withdrawn, losing himself for long hours in black, grim moods his family had quickly learned not to interrupt. Gerin wondered if the moods still took him now that he was king, but knew better than to ask.
He waited patiently for his father to speak. Abran was tall like his eldest son, with brown wavy hair swept back from a high forehead. His trim beard was beginning to show flecks of gray, and the lines around his eyes that had once shown themselves only when he smiled or laughed had become permanent engravings in his face. Over the past few years a vertical furrow had appeared between his eyebrows and had gradually deepened, as if some invisible force were slowly pressing it inward.
A short dagger with a ruby set in its hilt rested within its black sheath, which dangled from a leather belt. His shirt was made of finely-woven linen, deep blue with gold-thread embroidery on the collar and sleeves, and buttons of mother-of-pearl. He stood stiffly and folded his arms across his chest as he looked at his son, much the way Master Helgrim had done earlier.
Gerin stood straighter and swallowed his bread. “Hello, Father.”
“Hello, Gerin.” There was a tightness in his father’s voice that Gerin did not like. He looked around the room as if inspecting it for dust. “I was surprised when I found your old rooms empty.”
“Matren practically threw me in here. He said the lord of the castle has always occupied these rooms and that it was my duty as the new duke to take them.” It had seemed vaguely indecent for him to move here and make these rooms his own. They had, after all, been the rooms his parents had occupied practically his entire life. But Matren Swendes, the castellan of Ailethon, had constantly asked when Gerin would like to move from his old rooms, what should remain in the lord’s quarters and what should be put in storage, until Gerin had finally given in and commanded that it be done out of sheer exhaustion.
“Let’s go to your study. We need to talk.”
I’m in trouble, he thought. Though he was now master of this huge castle and all of its holdings, just a few words from his father made him feel like a guilty child again.
Gerin sat in the chair at his writing table while his father poured two cups of water, one of which he handed to his son.
“Therain’s upset,” said Abran. “You taunt him to embarrass him.”
“I was just teasing him a little. He deserved worse. He was really terrible at practice today.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’re the lord of Ailethon now. You need to act the part, which means you don’t belittle your brother in public.” His tone made it clear that Gerin would be very unwise to argue the point.
“You’re too quick to think the worst of your brother. You do taunt him in front of his friends; I’ve seen you do it, so don’t bother denying it. Most of the time it’s nothing. The gods know that my brothers and I didn’t always get along, and still don’t. Your mother’s death hit him very hard, more so than the rest of you. You cast a long shadow, and it’s hard for him to step out of it sometimes. Your mother understood this. She knew how to give him confidence. I wish I had her talent for doing that, but I don’t. And now I’m not here to help him.
“Things come very easy to you, Gerin, as they did for me. Swordsmanship, hunting, falconry, even your studies with Master Aslon. I’ve talked with Matren since I’ve returned and he says you’re doing a fine job as duke. You hardly have to exert yourself to excel. That’s why I pushed you as hard as I did. Harder than everyone else. If I didn’t, you would expect everything to be easy. I demand that you be the best you can be. You will be king one day, after me, and you must be ready for all manner of hardships and difficult decisions. It was my duty to see that you’re prepared, as much as you may not have liked it at times. When you’re angry with me because of something I did to you, remember that my father did the same to me, and his father to him. It is a small price to pay for the privilege and power we enjoy.”
Gerin did not speak. He knew quite well how much his father had pushed him compared to his brother and sisters. The pressure his father had put on him to do things “not just well but perfectly” had been unbearable at times. He remembered vividly the moments when he failed to live up to those expectations – a hunting trip when he let a spectacularly-antlered stag get away because of a wildly errant bow shot; his father finding him after his very first night out drinking with Balandrick, passed out on the floor of the corridor just outside his door, his face near a pool of his own vomit; a May Fair joust in which Gerin had been handily defeated by Tomis Belvendur, causing Abran to lose a considerable wager with Tomis’s father; and too many others to contemplate. The withering sense of disappointment in his father’s narrowed eyes, the set line of his mouth, the small shake of his head, was even worse than when he simply yelled at him. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was to disappoint his father. He wanted his father to always be proud of what he’d done, always approve of him; but his father’s expectations were so ridiculously high that even when Gerin excelled it seemed merely satisfactory to Abran. What more could he do?
Gerin felt himself growing red at the humiliating memories and tried to push them from his mind. His jaw clenched, and he forced himself to relax it. His father demanded perfection from him and not his other children, yet his brother and sisters and even some of his friends, saw Gerin as overly-confident, even arrogant. He bristled to think about it. They had no idea of what he had to live up to: both his father’s expectations, and his own. Sometimes he thought they were just waiting for him to fail so they could gloat. Couldn’t they see how hard he worked, and how hard his father had pushed him? Why would they want him to fail?
“He’s a better archer than me,” volunteered Gerin. “Even Master Helgrim pointed that out.”
“Yes, I am aware of that.”
Gerin winced; he could practically see in his father’s mind the memory of Gerin’s arrow missing that magnificent stag by at least twenty feet.
“I told Master Helgrim we shouldn’t practice together anymore. At least not with swords.”
“I agree. There’s no point in frustrating both of you. You can practice with Balandrick or other members of the guard. You won’t improve if your limits are not tested, and they won’t be with Therain. He’s not bad with a sword. I’ve seen him practice with other boys. You just intimidate him, especially with that particular weapon. Though none of this will matter for much longer. One of the reasons I came here was to officially announce that I will be sending Therain to take control of Castle Agdenor and its lands.”
“Really? So soon?” Castle Agdenor had been held in escheat by Yurleng Sevreas since Abran’s cousin Lesen had died. “Are you sure he’s ready?”
“He will do fine, just as you are doing fine. I’ve already sent word to Count Sevreas of my decision. I’ve granted him a small holding in Lormenien where he and his family can retire. I will make it clear to him that if he does not go quietly, or leaves behind trouble for Therain, he will find himself on the wrong side of a dungeon door, and quite possibly the headsman’s axe.”
Abran finished his water and set the cup on the table. “I know how brothers are. I know they fight, sometimes bitterly, but you need to be aware that your actions have repercussions beyond what you might think. Remember that the next time you’re about to make some biting comment to your brother and hold your tongue.”
* * *
Gerin spent the evening studying philosophy with Master Baelish Aslon. He could have ended his studies upon becoming lord of the castle, but he learned enough of interest from Master Aslon that, at least for the time being, he continued.
The old scholar wore the gray-and-black mantle and silver wrist bands of his Order even in the sweltering heat. What little remained of his white hair was as thin as spidersilk and combed straight back along his skull. His left eye had grown milky over the past several years, but his right – a blue so light it seemed transparent – was as lively as ever.
“Our minds, Gerin,” said the Master, his voice as raspy as a rusty hinge, “are incapable of perceiving the underlying forms of reality. We must translate these basic forms into objects we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands, much as we translate the languages of antiquity. If I were to show you a page of characters in the Hodetten tongue it would be nothing more than marks on a page to you. You need a key to translate Hodetten into Kelarin so that you can read and understand it. Only then will it have meaning.
“The same is true for reality itself. In its natural state it is meaningless to us. But our minds have incredible power.” He grinned at the prince, showing yellowed, uneven teeth behind thin pale lips. He tapped at his temple with a forefinger. “They are the key we use to translate naked reality into things we can understand, like the chair upon which you sit or this table.”
The Master went on at length about the deductive reasoning Esklaro Vendos Laonn, the founder of his order, used to arrive at the conclusions he set forth in his Principle of True Forms. Gerin listened attentively and asked several more questions before the Master finished. Philosophy was the kind of dull, dry material that made him wonder if he shouldn’t just call an end to these sessions. He understood that thinking about philosophical questions helped exercise the mind, but he felt that many of the questions were meaningless themselves. What did it matter if there were a “true” form of his writing desk? The Master himself said it was impossible to ever see it. What good did it do him to know it was there?
He preferred the Master’s teachings on military history and the lives of generals and soldiers. Battle strategy and tactics, castle fortifications, sieges, weapons, the sheer logistical problems in moving large armies – those were the kinds of lessons he enjoyed. And Master Aslon was an able teacher in those areas, which was probably the single most important reason he continued his tutelage. When Gerin had told the old scholar that he would carry on with his studies after becoming duke, Aslon’s only condition was that Gerin not dictate the topics. “I must teach as I see fit, with subjects of my choosing.”
He glanced out the window and sighed. What he really wanted to be doing was drinking a few beers with Balandrick Vaules, his friend and personal guard, and flirting with the bar maids at The Red Vine tavern in Padesh. It was just too hot to think about the true form of reality. It was too hot to think about anything.
“My lord, are you paying attention?” asked the Master.
The prince was jolted back to the matters at hand. “Of course, Master Aslon. You were saying…?” He sighed. War and family history – and beer and women, he thought sadly – would have to wait for another day.
* * *
The next morning, Gerin found his sister Reshel eating breakfast in her sitting room.
“Reshel, can I see you when you’re done?”
She looked up at him and smiled. “Certainly.” Her blonde hair was pulled back from her delicate face by a gold brooch shaped like a gull with outstretched wings. It had been their mother’s, and he knew Reshel prized it above almost all of her other possessions. The gull was the sigil of her House, the Tagars of Orlemoré.
Long lashes framed wide blue eyes set above a slender, almost fragile nose. At seventeen, her hips and breasts were just beginning to fill out, but even now it was apparent that her slight frame would never have the full figure of her mother or older sister Claressa. They were as different as Therain and Gerin, and fought almost as much. I wonder if Father’s ever talked to them about their bickering?
Reshel was a curious and intellectual girl, always listening and absorbing everything she read or heard. That was why he’d come to her now.
“What do you want to talk about?” She took another spoonful of eggs and dabbed at her mouth with a linen napkin.
“The gods. I want to know what you think about them. What you really think.”
She arched an eyebrow at him and straightened in her chair. “That sounds intriguing.” She looked at him a little more closely. “Are you all right?”
“I didn’t sleep well last night. I’ll be in the library. Will you come when you’re finished?”
“Yes. I won’t be long.”
* * *
Reshel’s silk skirts whispered across the tiled floor as she crossed the room to the reading table where Gerin was sitting. She sat down across from her brother, folded her hands, and regarded him somberly. “What are you reading?”
She looked surprised. “Why are you reading that? You’re usually buried in history books.”
“You could look at this as a history book of sorts.”
“You know what I mean.” She gestured toward the slender volume. “The story of the beginning of the world and the battles of the gods and men is hardly the kind of history you normally read.” She folded her hands in her lap. “So why do you want to talk about the gods? Is that what kept you awake last night?”
“They were on my mind, yes.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Do you think the gods really involve themselves in the affairs of men? I mean, the old stories say that Telros himself fought on the battlefield when King Iolstath warred with the Threndish, but do you really think Telros was there? That the chief of our gods would concern himself with such things? Or that when Miendrel sounds Flestos a war will happen?”
Reshel paused before answering. “I don’t know, Gerin. I have no reason to doubt the stories. Why do you ask?”
“I’m trying to understand the gods and their motivations, but so much of it doesn’t make sense to me.”
“That’s why they’re the gods. We can’t understand them. They’re not human, and we can’t expect them to behave like us. We don’t have the capacity to understand their perspective or their motives.”
Just as I can’t see the true form of this table, he thought, recalling his lesson from the night before. Or even your true form. The idea that Reshel had a true form that was totally foreign and unknowable to him was startling; he had not considered the Master’s lesson in regard to people. “Do you think the priests can control the gods with their prayers and sacrifices?”
“Of course not!” She sounded almost offended by the question. “Men don’t control the gods.”
“But aren’t all the rituals of the temple just that? Attempts to make the gods do the bidding of men?”
“No. The priests say the prayers in the hope of moving the gods to grant their wishes. They’re said with such exacting care so the gods will hear them. We’re a noisy race. The gods don’t hear everything. The prayers are a way of getting their attention. Sometimes they grant them and sometimes they don’t. I don’t think we can ever know why. All we can do is ask.”
“Then why are so many of the rituals worded like commands? Like the priests are ordering the gods to grant their prayers? Amnen Petring acts as if he can order trees to fall over.”
“That doesn’t matter. I don’t think the words matter at all, and maybe not even the ritual itself, except in getting the gods to hear it in the first place. It’s how the priest feels that’s most important. It’s what’s in his heart. I think that’s more important than anything. That’s probably the real reason the prayers don’t work all the time, even when it’s the same prayer said by the same priest. It’s his intention – and maybe his attitude – that matters most in determining if a prayer is granted. The rituals and words are there to call the attention of the gods and help guide the feelings of whoever is praying, but even if Miendrel hears someone praying that he will wind Flestos doesn’t mean the god of war will listen.”
Gerin thought about that. It was an interesting idea he hadn’t considered.
“So are you going to tell my why you’re thinking about the gods?”
He looked at her and smiled. “For now, I’m going to keep it to myself.”
“All right.” She knew better than to press him when he was reluctant to speak, and he was grateful for that.
“How are you doing with Father here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he was the lord of this place our entire lives. Six months ago you became duke, but now Father returns and it seems like suddenly everything’s the way it’s always been. Does it seem like your rule here every existed? That is was nothing more than a dream?”
Gerin smiled and shook his head. His perceptive sister. She and Claressa both could see to the heart of anything, no matter how hidden it might be to those around them. “Yes, it’s strange with him back. I feel like a child again. It’s too soon since he left. Everyone still thinks of him as the duke, not our king.”
She stood and patted him on the arm. “That will all change. One day, when you become king, the same things will be said about you. That you have always seemed the master of Ailethon.”
So much had changed in his life recently. His grandfather’s death, his father’s coronation as king, his own rise to the lordship of Ailethon…he hoped things settled down soon, and for a long time.
* * *
The previous night, he’d returned to his rooms after his lesson with Master Aslon had ended. It was too late by then to venture to Padesh to drink beer; besides, Master Aslon’s teachings on philosophy had apparently withered any desire he had for carousing that night.
He hadn’t been asleep for long when he came suddenly awake. He felt certain that there was something else in the room with him. He opened his eyes to mere slits but did not move. He felt a little disoriented, still not used to seeing this room in late-night darkness. From where he lay he had a wide view of the chamber, dimly lit with the cold light of a half-moon spilling through a cross-paned window.
He saw nothing. He sat up and looked around. Perhaps one of the castle cats had managed to sneak into his study. He was about to get up and look for it when the sense of another presence in the room became overwhelming.
“Who’s there?” he whispered.
As if in answer, a diffuse yellow glow filled the air, though from no single source that he could see.
Something touched him, but not physically, as if an invisible hand had grasped his heart and mind. He felt power – raw, unbridled strength that could crush mountains if it so desired. But he also knew that this power obeyed the will of some unseen and unknown master. He felt the weight of its attention bear down on him. It wanted him – for what purpose he did not know – and he felt naked and small next to it.
“What are you?” he managed to say. The diffuse glow flashed as bright as the sun. He squeezed his eyes shut against the glare, and thought he heard a whispery voice.
“Gerin. Your time is coming.”
Then it was gone.
It had been no human spirit. No ghost haunting the old passages of the keep. He was certain of that. Only something divine could be so powerful.
A god had come to him. He was sure of it. But why? What design did it have for him?
He lay awake for a long while, alone and afraid.