Wishes In Summer
By Marion Crane
|There was a northern coast, looking across a Channel toward a land haunted and riven by magic. There was a range of rain-forested mountains tinted blue by distance, where magic had fossilized into vague legend.
In between: Kytheu, bisected by its brown-silver river, apparently neither magical nor mysterious.
Midsummer in Kytheu City arrived in company with thieves, mercenaries, merchants, hayseed farmers’ second sons out gawking at the world, and footloose nobles on their Grand Tours. More of them all, this season. Lady Terlein of the Hawks would become Kytheu’s elected Queen at harvest-time. Terlein of the calm beauty, the cold intellect, whose motto was "I neither love nor hate."
No one wanted to miss the upsurge in both trade and intrigue.
"...So then Parrot ruffled his emerald-green wings, and squawked ‘That was your seventh quest, sir knight. You may claim seven wishes from me, one for each quest.’ And though we know the mortal knight Lincaistre wished for his Sifantae sword, his Sifantae wife, his gold-bay Sifantae horse, and for a long and happy life, we have no idea what his other three wishes were...” Haptin’s voice trailed off amid the applause.
"Wish I had paying listeners today,” Haptin groused halfheartedly at the ragtag crowd in front of his wife’s Inn.
From under the table, someone made a raucous noise like a jungle parrot.
"You want better tales? Try paying me in real coin. I’m sure you’ve heard of the stuff? Round, flat, bronze? A hole in the center to string it up and count it?”
"We pay,” belched Goru the Wide, sloshing his tankard in proof. "Good stories, Haptin. Better beer. You’re learning the bard’s trade in spite of yourself. Someday you’ll be telling them tales and selling that beer to the Warlord.”
"Learning?” Haptin’s voice wandered close to an indignant squawk. "Heard better recently?”
"No,” Goru admitted. "But when I was fifteen, I heard a Damothan rebel singing. Man made old legends seem real as that wart on my nose. T’was during the remembrances for the old Hawk, after he died and the Council found out he’d named Terlein Heir and Warlord...”
In a craggy castle high above the Firelark Inn, a woman with grey-streaked red hair balanced a cutlass in her sword-hand. The hand shook. After nudging the weapon back into its fleece-lined sheath, the woman muttered, "I wish I was strong and young again.”
She stared bleakly out at the rose-dusted summer haze. Her balcony afforded a sweeping view both north and south. Terlein of the Hawks never looked north if she had a choice. The south view was less polluted by memory. There, the Tyura Vang bared their teeth at the world, their lushly forested peaks glowing like folds of dark blue and ice-white velvet in the afternoon light. In the near distance, a few hundred feet below Terlein's eye level, brick bell towers rose up out of the swarming rose-tiled roofs and narrow streets of the city. Like the long docks that fringed the river’s east and west banks, the towers were signatures of Kytheu’s merchant class. Between the wild southern mountains and the complacent city, there seemed no middle ground. A trick of the haze hid the leagues of farmland in between.
A vista of no compromises. Her inner landscape, too, was bordered by one choice and another, with only mists between. Terlein shook her head tiredly. "Would that I were young and unclaimed by Kytheu,” she whispered, "so I would not have to decide between two oaths ...”
"It’s done!” caroled brown-haired Sivonie, as she undid the veil from its embroidery frame and draped the cloth over her own head. She’d stitched the last mother-of-pearl spangles onto the silver-cloth veil. It resembled a curl of moonlit mist, freshly drifted off the Channel, not like a human-made thing at all.
It almost looked Sifantae.
The elder folk, the first inhabitants of the jungle-cloaked mountains and fertile plains, were known for the magic bound within their weapons and works of art ... and for tales of priest-artisans who made every project into a prayer-made-manifest. Their gods were strange, terrible, unknown. Their gods had vanished back into the velvet mountains long ago, even before the Riverlands were settled by humans. The latecoming settlers might not have comprehended Sif creeds, but they understood the value and beauty of Sifantae work, and paid well for it. So well that counterfeits like Sivonie’s were almost as valuable.
The money, untouchable, meant little to her. It went into the pockets of her Guildmasters and Mistresses. Sivonie loved the addictive enchantment of creation, as if the treasures she made could carry her along with them into cloudy Sifantae realms. She daydreamed sometimes that she came close to Sifantae standards.
But how would she ever know? Who would ever tell her, a freewoman to be sure, but still so low in the ranks of artists that no one would ever know her name? Certainly never while her work went unsigned.
Bonded servants of Kytheu’s Embellishment Guild, being less than paying apprentices, never signed their works. They had their own subtle revenges. No one would know that Lady Migian’s moonstone and shell veil had wreathed Sivonie’s aquiline features first, in a stolen moment of beauty.
"Hsst!" said Keem, another servant, as Sivonie peered wonderingly at her changed reflection in the cracked mirror of the workroom. "Don’t ye dare leave a mark on that! Make sure ye’ve left none a’ yer dark hair tangled in the cloth. Migian’s hair be yellow as dawnlight. Want her noble husband to explain himself?" Keem’s stern voice faltered as a fit of giggles overtook both girls.
"I made Migian’s veil," Sivonie said smugly. "I’m not likely to ruin it in one minute.”
"So’s I see. It looks like it should live on yer head,” said Keem enviously. "Would ye enjoy that? Being a noblewoman and wearing silver veils?”
"It scratches,” said Sivonie as she laid the veil aside and wrapped it in soft white muslin. "The cloth, I mean. I don’t know about the other. I think a sword of state must be heavier than a gold-plated steel needle.” Sivonie frowned, holding the veil to her lips. "I just wish I could do what I love simply because I love it. Not because some airheaded princess places an order with Guildmistress Elainah...”
At Kytheu’s North Gate, the guards noted a well-dressed stranger with a mediocre sword strapped in a rust-stained backharness. In the middle of the Gate, the man stopped his bay mare, covered his ears as if he’d heard some irritating or painful sound. Then he grinned, slapped his hands on his thighs. The mare flicked her ears back at him in a ‘you-behave-in-front-of-company’ way, which in turn made her rider laugh aloud. The mare snorted. She began to pick her way delicately through the crowd, since it was obvious he wasn’t going to offer any useful guidance.
His eyes were half-closed, his hands now slack on the reins. The cheap glass gems on his sword hilt sizzled faintly with emerald and blue lights. Did he, perhaps, hear the echoes of three wishes? It seemed he did.
"I hear you,” he whispered, subsiding under the curious stares of the guards. "I hear you all...”
"Is it true?” asked a barge captain in from the northern river delta.
"Has Queen Terlein sworn to crush the Damothan Empire, once she has the Commonwealth treasury behind her?”
"She’s not Queen yet,” said Haptin, innkeep, romantic, newsmonger, and would-be bard. "But my sister’s husband’s first child Sivonie works up at the keep as a ‘broideress. Servant-jabber says War-lord Terlein’s simmering a deal with the Damothan rebels, to help take that cesspool across the Channel with as little of our blood and money as can be.”
At the table below the painted lark sign, a third man growled a somber curse and drained his stoneware tankard. "She’s not even a native Kytheunan. The old Hawk adopted her as heir and Warlord out of a blood-debt to some foreigner. Maybe even a Damothan Sif king.”
"Pardon me, master storier,” the well-dressed stranger interrupted, though courteously. "I am new to Kytheu. Perhaps you could aid me in a minor quest?”
He drawled the city-state's name the old-fashioned way, "KAI-thee-oh” instead of the slurred "KI-thew”. By that, all the onlookers knew he was a Channelman.
With the innkeep’s habit of sucking up details, Haptin noted the stranger’s sky-blue silk tunic, gray leather trousers and soft boots, and gray cotton brocade over-robe. The man’s hands were calloused and ruddy from weather, striped white with old scars. In contrast, his face was pale, his gaze curiously open and mellow as a fool’s, or a holy-man’s.
Then again, only a fool would wear such a tastelessly gaudy sword on his back.
Completing the odd scene was a powerful-looking but placid bay mare. Satisfied that her rider intended to stay off her back for a little while, the mare began nosing for stray blades of grass around the edges of the cobblestones. Her tack and saddle had been crafted from strong, greenish leather with no ornaments. Expensive gear nonetheless, Haptin thought, noting the reptilian scales of the Delta crocodile still left on the saddle and breast-band.
Underneath a helpful grin, Haptin thought: That’s a trained warhorse, or I’m Goru’s granny. Why is a man who walks like a seasoned mercenary got up as a noble dandy? With green glass baubles stuck to the hilt of a cheap blade?
Haptin smelled a story and rallied.
"A quest?” he asked, even as his mind was sponging up the stranger’s appearance.
"I’m looking for a woman,” the man began uncertainly.
"Ain’t we all,” burped Goru the Wide, whose meditative grin had been getting wider and wider the longer he studied the stranger.
"Stow it, Goru!” snapped another in a hushed whisper, and whacked the other man with an empty wineskin. It made a rude sound, like a chicken dying of gastritis. Another of Haptin’s disreputable friends poked his head up from under the table, made a face at the noise, grabbed an unguarded bottle, and subsided back to his lair.
"What is her name, this lady you seek?” Haptin said grandly over the ruckus.
The stranger wrestled out from a saddlebag a heavy yellow parchment envelope wrapped in green ribbons, and sealed with an officious-looking blob of hard, imprinted brown wax.
Wavering lines of script decorated the parchment. After turning the thing this way and that, the stranger looked up triumphantly.
"Sivonie,” he said, then seemed crestfallen. "I think. It could say Madam Olvera at the Blown Rose in Kaspaterre, for all I can puzzle out the magistrate’s squiggles. But I had him say the name for me thrice, when he paid me five silver pieces to deliver it. This woman Sivonie’s supposed to work up at the Hawk’s Keep. I can’t go in there, and the lady’s inherited some money from some old loon of a grand-da up in Kaspaterre, and the Kaspa lawyers asked me when I was passing through to deliver a message, right to Sivonie’s people at the Firelark by the North Gate in Kytheu--”
"Ow” said Goru in a rumble of gaseous admiration. "You could spin that tale into socks.”
"Into veils,” came a somewhat mystical comment from under the table, followed by another dying-bird squawk as Haptin, stressed to the limit, grabbed the empty wineskin and began flailing madly with it.
"Get out! Get out! You’ve admired my poems and stolen my beer and insulted this fine gentleman enough today! Off with you... all of you!”
En masse and grumbling, the squad of listeners wandered off. Haptin turned around, red with shame over their antics. The parchment lay on the weathered wood of the table, weighted with five square coins of Kaspa silver. No well-dressed stranger or placid bay mare was in sight down the cobbled length of the street.
Haptin shrugged. Either the gentleman had been offended by the under-the-table drama, or he’d been simple-headed enough to take Haptin’s orders as literal truth. Haptin pocketed the silver uncertainly and ran a finger along the ribbon-and-wax seal of Sivonie’s envelope. The envelope was too light to contain actual money. A bank writ? He thought again about the spidery script on the outside of the parchment. He wondered what Sivonie would think of inheriting money from a man none of them had ever heard about. Then he caught himself wondering what Madam Olvera of the Blown Rose looked like, and shook himself awake guiltily.
"Spinning yer own thoughts into skeins, storyteller?” said Baid Andriss from under the table, startling the innkeeper.
"Here now--” Haptin snarled in a gusty, helpless way. Andriss was less foolish-looking than the stranger. A miscast mind-twisting spell in his youth turned Andriss, a journeyman sorcerer, into the Northgate neighborhood’s patron halfwit. He was reckoned prophetic, at times. Haptin often respected him more than he did those left with all their wits. But not today.
"Thought I told you to be off!”
"If ye can’t remember what ye said two minutes ago yer worse off than I,” chuckled Andriss as he unfolded his thin, spidery body from beneath the table. He seemed more lucid than usual. His agate-brown eyes glittered feverishly under the thatch of his unkempt dark hair. "Was eying yer man with the rusty sword, I was. Rememberin’. D’ye know, I was at Channel Southbank when the War spilled across the water?”
"I know, I know,” soothed Haptin, from habit.
"There were men there hard as steel, ‘neath their shrouds. Did ye know? Damothan noble-caste warriors wear veils in public all their lives.”
"What are you blathering about?” Haptin prodded, caught up in a private daydream of a grateful Sivonie showering him with coins. The Firelark prospered, thanks to him and shrewd Maraga, but a little largess would always be...
"Veils,” said Andriss in an urgent whisper. "Veil-folk ne’er learn to guard their faces. It makes ‘em open-eyed as babes." Then he shrugged and shambled off down the street, muttering.
Haptin remembered that comment later when he showed the parchment to his wife.
"A grand-da? In Kaspaterre?” Maraga asked. "Sivonie’s family didn’t have kin up by the Channel. But they lived there, until the War twenty years ago killed her mother and drove them down here. It was lucky that her father found your sister to wed. Sivonie would have grown up motherless.”
Sivonie was rooming in the keep’s servant quarters that week, because of the hours needed on sewing the veil. Maraga took the parchment and the silver up the next morning. Though not paltry, the coinage was hardly an inheritance worthy of lawyers and magistrates. There was no other money. No bank writ of credit. No discernible treasure map. The thick envelope was empty.
"A grand-da? In Kaspaterre?” Sivonie asked in rank disappointment. She’d been holding out for a treasure map. How heroic, how adventurous! Faced with an empty envelope, she felt the walls of the guild house close around her. They were as comforting as the fine quilts she sewed to ease the winter chills, and as utterly predictable in their pattern and substance.
"A thief,” said Maraga decisively. "That messenger must have been a thief all along. I’ll have the watch out looking for him, Sivvie, to get the rest of your money.”
Terlein stood again on the high balcony. Below her, a festival tapestry made huge and flung across the plains, lay Kytheu’s blue-black bulk and starry amber lights, ribboned with the silver river. City noises rose toward her with astonishing clarity, like air bubbles rising from underwater moss. Bats giggled and glided through the warm night air. A shadow made of dark blue and purple cloth detached itself from a hiding spot next to her, and waited considerately until Terlein had moved back from the edge before clearing its throat.
When the whirl of activity subsided, Terlein had the shadow pinned on the tiles, with her dagger at its throat. During her attack on the supposed assassin, she’d ripped his face-veil off. The pounding rush of her blood quieted, as she stared at the pale features grinning up at her in the torchlight. All at once her stern, beautiful mask cracked, exposing what she must have looked like years before. Unguarded, open, a young woman straining to keep down her shocked laughter.
"Josen?” she asked incredulously. "Josen Arait? My father’s songmaster?”
"Who else would I be, Warlord? The Old Man of the Channel, come to rescue his exiled Southbanker children?” snorted the man. "Let me up, will you? I’m not as young as I used to be, and that kraken’s hold of yours hasn’t gotten any gentler. The Old Man sends his greetings. He says it’s time.”
"Ha,” said Terlein. She grimaced as her own knees popped and cracked. "What in the ancestors’ names are you doing here, you fool? They shun people like you, here.”
"Then why haven’t they shunned you?”
"For the same reason,” Josen shrugged out of his stalking mantle and smoothed out his blue silk tunic. "We aren’t wearing veils or masks, and we seem like nice people.”
Terlein looked at the visible part of his tacky sword, smothering another laugh. "That’s... that’s horrid, Josen. What is that thing? You can’t cut butter with that, much less fight with it.”
He gave Terlein an unreadable look. "Are you well, Warlord? I don’t seem to remember you as being so... so unbalanced.”
Terlein shook her head. "The years here have made me different, Josen. The old Hawk gave me a home in exile after Father died. He helped patch me up after those rogue spells nearly killed me. I didn’t know he was going to proclaim me heir! I’ve put on faces that I didn’t feel for these people. Oh, Josen, for the honesty of a face behind a veil! I have to get out of here before I go mad, or fall apart.”
Josen leaned nonchalantly against the tower wall. "At least you’ve had a home these twenty years. I’ve been a bloody adventuring freebooter. And I’ve learned something: boots aren’t free. Neither are weapons, food, and a healer when something goes wrong. How goes the subversion of Kytheu’s treasury?” Terlein’s shoulders sagged perhaps half an inch. "Badly. It was a dishonorable plan to start with. To command the treasury and help the rebels in Damothan, I have to sell myself to the merchants of Kytheu. A Warlord leads their army and gets a pension. Anything more means wearing a crown and deciding peasant’s squabbles. Oh, and listening to those damned Ministers of Trade and Taxes and such. I wish I knew what the old Hawk did to back them down. I bark and they jump, but then they go back to the old refrain of ‘we can’t afford another war!’”
"Then leave them.”
"I can’t!” Her voice died away in ashamed silence. "They need me. Look at them. It took them twenty years to decide on a new Ruler.”
"That must mean they don’t need one very much.”
"I owe Kytheu for hiding me until the Damothan Oracle summoned me back. And he damn well took his time about it.”
Josen shrugged. "The Old Man of the Channel’s got a lot on his mind. Would you rather command Kytheu or your rightful people? The rebels need as many good commanders as they can get.”
"They’re still waiting for the young heroine to come charging out of the south,” Terlein said bitterly. "Well, she died. She died when my father fell on the battlefield at Camien and that usurper began the War with Kytheu. She died when I woke from a coma, to find myself aged beyond my years. I’m a hag, not a warrior. There’s nothing left to rally around.”
"Not true,” Josen said softly. He raised one hand to caress the ugly sword in its back-sheath. There was a brief glow, like lightning seen many miles away. Then a different sword hung in the leather harness. Josen drew the blade and held it reverently before Terlein.
The rusted metal was now mirror-bright and strong, with a subtle wave pattern dancing along it. The flawed paste gems had changed to searing green emeralds and sapphires the color of jungles and clear summer evenings.
"Oh,” said Terlein, then breathlessly, "Illusion? No, since any competent magic-user would sense its true form. A complete transformation! But how did you even find the sword of Lincaistre? It’s been lost for three hundred years.”
Josen smiled. "Fourteen of us made a search of the coast. We found old Mad Emperor Jukanne’s hoard. Seems he hated what the sword told him about himself, and had it banished to a vault on one of his private islands.”
Terlein raised one eyebrow in inquiry.
"Let’s just say we had an adventure, and leave it at that. Now we don’t need Kytheu and its gold. We’ve got enough old Sifantae gold to buy mercenary companies from half the world over, and the sword that will confirm your royal heritage. Now we need a War-Queen to lead us.”
Tears, long held back, welled in Terlein’s eyes. She reached out to take the sword. Her hand spasmed again. The beautiful weapon fell from her grip. It flashed like a meteorite under the torchlight, and clanged mournfully on the tiles.
"Too late for anything but a farce,” said Terlein, averting her eyes from the sword. "I leave my southern nest and run right back to the front? The usurper would love that. Josen, I have bone-stiffness in my wrists. I can’t hold a sword anymore. I can cast a few spells from memory, but the most I’m good for now is a figurehead. It would take a power greater than mine to make me young again.”
Josen took a deep breath. "It doesn’t have to be so. Kytheu can have a powerful Queen. Damothan can have its Warrior back,” he said tentatively.
Terlein picked up the sword, tender as a mother with her best-loved child. A look of intense determination flickered across her face, then she was the impassive Warlord again. "How?” she asked.
Sivonie took the envelope to her father down in Northgate, along with the broken wax seal and green ribbons. Her father took one look at it, sat down, and began to alternately weep and laugh. He held the ribbons up to lamplight. The shadows of sinuous runes, different than the Kaspa script, were revealed in the two-layered ribbons. Sivonie’s father kissed the ribbons, then burnt them to white ash amidst a storm of thwarted family inquiry. It was midmorning before any of them got more out of him than: "A grand-da in Kaspaterre, indeed!”
His wife, Sivonie’s foster mother, chewed her fingernails in worry. Haptin and Maraga got a doctor for him. The doctor proclaimed it was nerves and gave the poor man poppy cordial. By then another message had come for Sivonie.
A summons from Terlein herself!
Sivonie brushed her dark brown hair until it shone like silk floss, scrambled into her best dress, and at ten o’clock that morning found herself in a carriage bound for the Hawk’s Keep. The ride was a whirlwind. Sivonie remembered nothing of it save hurtling under the twin granite Hawks guarding the citadel’s front gate, and thinking spitefully about the servants’ entrances she’d passed through before.
The whirlwind settled when she met Terlein and Josen. "Sivonie,” said the tall, imposing woman wearing the royal red surcoat, "I am told that you have a genius for craftwork. That you have more than enough sorcerer’s skill to weave magic into what you do. That is rare and precious, for one of Kytheu.”
"Yes, Your Majesty,” said Sivonie nervously. So the Guildmistress knew her little tricks... but was Sivonie to be praised for them or punished?
"I’m not Queen yet,” Terlein replied with a sad smile that lit up her fine-boned face. "I need the help of all my people. I am not of this land. Your last King angered many in Kytheu by naming me as heir. I thought I was alone here, Sivonie, without any of my kin. Now I have learned this may not be so. Josen?” she turned to the battle-scarred but still handsome man-at-arms guarding the door. "Will you uncover the sword again?”
To Sivonie, Terlein said, "Do not be alarmed. The sword is enchanted to sense a person’s true bloodline and unlock their hidden gifts. Sivonie, we two might be related. Put out your hand so I can be certain.”
Struck dumb in amazement and delight, Sivonie complied. Just like the old tales, adventure had been waiting right around the corner after all!
Terlein guided the young woman’s hand, brushing Sivonie’s tingling fingertips across the blazing gems on the hilt. White sparks wheeled across Sivonie’s field of vision.
She heard sonorous drums, the breathy laments of bone flutes, the voices of an alien, ancient chant. An image flickered out of confusion: a line of veiled knights riding their steeds across an endless windswept plain, under a dark sky filled with storms and lightning. The steeds were less like horses than giant deer, and the grass of the plains was a startling azure. It was a wild scene, beautiful, sadder than any bard’s dirge. Sivonie’s throat closed from longing and wonder.
When her sight cleared, she saw Terlein looking at her with a strange mixture of guilt, joy, and pain.
"What did I see?” Sivonie gasped.
"Our distant Sifantae ancestors, riding across the fields of Time from the lands they had to leave behind before coming to this one,” Terlein whispered. "I read the runes of your bloodline in the sword’s blade! Your mother was a Damothan rebel with my father’s strike force. The two of them must have been lovers, just before he fell at Camien. I never knew. You are royal Damothan, Sivonie, like me. Sifantae stock, like me. My sister by blood!”
Sivonie slumped to the inlaid wooden floor of the audience chamber. The threads of her life were in glorious, utter disarray. What was she, a humble stitcher of the Guild of embellishers, or a northern sorcerer-princess born to wear a noble’s veil and carry the regal lighting-bolt heraldry of the Damothani?
She swallowed, trying to control her shaking body. In all of Haptin’s tales, a hero come into his or her birthright always behaved with grace.
"What do you wish of me, my sister and Warlord?” Sivonie asked formally, unaware how well she parroted Haptin parroting a true feudal vassal.
"Help me win a war,” said Terlein.
Sivonie gaped, the Sifantae daydream crumbling under the onslaught of too much bright reality. "I can’t use a sword. I can’t cast war-spells. What do you mean?”
"You made a wish for adventure and a different life, but you’re too young to bear the weight of Kytheu’s crown. In that body. And I am too old to be a strong fighter in the battles ahead. In this body...”
Sivonie’s eyes grew wide. "A switch?”
Josen nodded. "The sword’s magic can do that, too, one time for each bearer. But only one time. Sifantae blood in your veins makes the exchange easier.”
"I will not lie to you, my sister,” said Terlein. "My body is not wrecked, but it wouldn’t be as fine a house for your mind and soul as your own. Those of Sifantae blood can reasonably expect two hundred years or more, but the damage done to my body in its youth can never be erased. Once the switch is made, it cannot be reversed. What you lose in youth, you might gain in power. The Kytheunan monarch is a figurehead, at least when the monarch-to-be is under suspicion of being foreign. But someone raised here might be able to play their own games. And win them over.”
"And you get another chance at being a warrior,” said Sivonie. "But would your... our... people recognize you?”
"The sword can vouch for my soul, by blazing my name and lineage on the air for all to see,” Terlein shrugged. "And your body has as much royal birthright as mine.”
Sivonie sat back.
Terlein’s offer was a mirror. Instead of showing far-off lands of mist and jungle and the treasure-ridden ruins of Sifantae cities, it gave her Kytheu. A living, mortal city. A place she had known since walking-age, but so new when seen through the windows of the Hawk’s Hall. "It reminds me...” she trailed off, not yet trusting the wave of utter certainty that flooded her mind.
Terlein grinned. "Of what?”
"Haptin tells a tale of the Green Parrot of Kaspaterre, which offers a Sifantae iron key to a few travelers in the coastal jungles north and south of the Channel. The key may unlock either a treasure vault or an evil temple. But if you don’t take it, you’ll never know, will you? I will help you,” Sivonie said decisively.
As easy as that. Throwing away her body for a half-sister she’d never met! Terlein was only in her mid-thirties; what passed as a handicap for a Damothan War-Queen could be lessened to an annoyance to Kytheu’s Queen. It wouldn’t all be easy.
Sivonie had dealt with elder relatives’ stiff joints, worn teeth, and other ailments. But as a Queen, oh, as a Queen what she might gain! Two centuries of life! What good she might do for Kytheu, even knowing the sneaky games the merchants and nobles played on each other... She would make it a good life. Sivonie grinned at Terlein and Josen. Obviously, they hadn’t expected her swift answer. "Besides, one of my teachers says that needlework can be good for stiffness in the hands. A needle’s a lot lighter than a sword, after all. And I hear both are lighter than that iron key.”
Josen bit back a strangled laugh. Terlein glanced quizzically at him. With a thump, Josen sat down on the floor. "A green parrot and a key. By all my ancestors’ misguided gods, a green parrot and a key...”
"Yes, Sir Josen. It’s an old Sif fairy tale,” said Sivonie helpfully.
"It’s how I got the damned sword back,” said Josen.
"Oh, my,” said Terlein. "Are you sure it wasn’t helped along by good Damothan rum and swamp fever?” "It’s true, Sir Josen,” Sivonie offered seriously. "If you really took the Parrot’s key, that means it has seven quests for you in seven years. If you leave Kytheu before you’re done with them, bad luck will befall you.”
"I think it’s starting already,” he muttered.
"Good,” said Terlein practically. "You can stay here and learn about Kytheunan folk legends for me. I never took the time, more fool I. Seems these people might have as much magic as the Damothan. It’s just quieter and better mannered.”
"Better mannered? There was a crocodile twenty-five feet long watchdogging the entrance to Jukanne’s hoard! Which was bad enough, then my man Kamb has to stick it with an arrow and we find out it’s Jukanne’s vengeful spirit-form. The croc, not the arrow...” Josen trailed off indignantly. The two half-sisters were laughing at him. Except for hair and height, they looked uncannily alike at the moment.
Five hours later, Sivonie sat brushing her grey-streaked foxy hair, working loose the tangles and knots in both the hair and her hands. Terlein hadn’t taken care of them, that was all. Warm gloves at night and bitterweed tea would make them almost as flexible as Sivonie’s own, and in time for the crowning, too. She halfway planned on scandalizing the Guild and making her own coronation robes. But that would be impolite -- and dangerously revealing. The only needle Terlein had ever used was a makeshift surgeon’s needle strung with gut, on the front lines of the War.
"Are you well, Warlord... er, I mean...” Josen stopped, flustered by the young woman in the older body. Already, the body had a different look. Lusher, more elegant, more aware of the slide of unbraided hair against a heavy silk over-robe. A sorceress, not a warrior. Which proved, he thought, some old stories about Sifantae magic. Their powers accompanied the soul, not the body it occupied. Terlein’s magic had been of the forthright, stand-to-attack variety. No wonder she’d let subtle Kytheu run her ragged! But Sivonie was another matter. Josen decided that if she lived through the next few political quagmires, she’d make a good Queen. Then he remembered that Terlein--the real one--had ordered him to see to it that Sivonie survived.
"Damn,” Josen said, thinking vile thoughts about a bird.
"What’s wrong, Sir Josen?”
"I have to figure out what to call you,” he sniffed critically. "And having a foreigner as your crony isn’t going to endear you to Kytheu.”
"Terlein always had both foreign and native counselors. And Josen--I’m not as young and blind as you think. Something of this body is wearing through after all. In public or in private, call me Terlein, or Warlord,” said Sivonie, looking down a little sadly at the Northgate neighborhood where her family lived.
She could see the tile roof of the Firelark, small as a square-cut carnelian in a child’s ring. "Haptin would love this tale. But Haptin has a mouth like a baby pelican; in snatching up just one more fish, he tends to drop three more. He couldn’t keep it secret. Funny. I always wanted to be a traveling actress or an adventurer. Now I’m an actress in my own city.”
"No less of one than Terlein,” Josen offered. "It looks like we all three took the Parrot’s key, eh? Our families are the price we pay for our quests. Ever heard the Sifantae saying: ‘There are no happy endings, but take comfort, for there are no real endings at all--’”
Sivonie saw an anthill commotion down at the Gate, slowed by distance and blurred by summer dust. One leather-clad rider had just shot out the Gate, whooping, on a gold-bay mare that danced and curvetted like a warhorse. Sivonie on her balcony thought she heard words in the whoop, and painted the scene in her mind’s eye:
"Hang on, Sivvie!” yelled Haptin as he pelted after the young woman. "Tell me about the interview! Tell me about the parchment! Where are you going with that man’s bay mare and his shoddy sword?”
"To Kaspaterre,” sang out the rider as she shook her long brown hair out of her face. "I’ve a grand-da who left me some money!”
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