Part I ~ The Sealed Crown
Chapter 1 ~ Pinpricks and Mortar
He could not see what hit him. Gravel and stones gouged into his leather jacket and shoulder. He exhaled and tasted dirt. Three fingered gloved hands wrapped about his upper arms and drew him to his feet. He knew well to whom they belonged. There was a trill and the fellow said, “Amustere, are you blind?”
“Aye, quite. Thank you,” he answered and then coughed. The darkness was not complete, as he could discern the silhouette of the fellow’s physical being. The ring of his sabre unsheathed alarmed Amustere. “What’s on? Is someone else there?”
“Beside me and your wife, there is your daughter. She does not look to be in a welcoming mood.”
“Ah. Of course she’s not.” Disoriented, Amustere could scarcely stand, and so leaned upon his short ally. He heard the soft shuffle of sandled feet, but could not determine their location. He cast about with white pupiled eyes and said, “So you’ve come back, my daughter.”
“Snivelling man. That is your familial assumption,” she said, and he assumed that a scowl accompanied her tone of accusation. An unfamiliar baritone phased through her high alto.
“Did you attack me, or was it your captor?”
This question was answered with another blow, unseen and unblocked by Diver’s keen eye and sharp reflex. Amustere tumbled loose from his grasp into a stand of bushes as Diver was knocked to the side. He lay on his chest, arm twisted uncomfortably under his torso. Her shadow darkened his vision. She said, “You have something you have kept from me.”
“It was not ever yours.”
“And who bequeathed it to you?!” The shrill growl in her voice frightened him, but experience tempered his fear. He grunted, unable to move, then said, “I will continue to keep it.”
“No, you will give it to me!”
“You will have to try and take it.”
By his ear her feet tread and the scratch-crunch of gravel overwhelmed all other sound. She lifted a foot and dropped it upon his shoulder, playing with the weight she put upon it. Amustere groaned.
“You will tell me where you hide it,” she demanded coldly.
“I will do no such thing. Your captor knows me well. Pry,” he gasped in pain as she pushed downward, then added, “and I will just prattle.”
Ultimately she cried out in frustration, and then stomped down upon his shoulder, splintering several of the bones therein. Sinister laughter welled up from a dark place inside her, and she said, “I will wander until it is found, and then, you shall see me again.”
Thunder could well have pealed overhead, rain hammered upon flesh, but neither did. Diver lifted Amustere again with gentle hands and sat him at the foot of a tree. The misty cool of night had begun to coalesce about them. Diver’s thin limbs gained definition in Amustere’s clouded vision. He knelt over Amustere’s wife.
“She… is not breathing, Amus.”
“She’s been dead for a candlemark,” Amustere replied, cool as the creep of autumn. Diver could not help but trace the curious angle her neck formed, and when he asked what had happened, Amustere would not answer. Terse, Diver demanded what should be done with her body. Amustere asked, “Will you bury it?”
Diver trilled angrily and departed for a shovel. Amustere raised a hand to his face, the shadow of which cast lines out from the joints, which he flexed slowly. He intoned, “I am to answer for your loss. I bear this burden, I swear it.”
Then Diver returned and Amustere at once could hear the chuck and shunk of shifted earth. While he worked, Diver demanded, “This is how you honour her life, Goldfinch? A cold grave and stone heart?”
“Life deserves honour, not death, Seasmoke.”
They spoke no more until the prayer was offered in parting. Amustere lifted his head slowly against the many pains throughout his body and focused his eyes upon Diver, who said, “I will grant you one thing.”
“And what is that?”
“Marriage is not my way, but love I comprehend. Loss also. Do you not love her?”
“There are not words,” he murmured with a tone of finality.
“Then I will take my part of this burden, for I was powerless as you to protect them. I will say away with me until I am called.”
Amustere chose not to deny him, and nodded consent. “Diver, you must acknowledge that I stand unmoved. Until this land can again know peace, you must do the same.”
“Unmoved? But… how will we know?” Diver’s questioning expression amused Amustere, an outward emotion easily concealed.
“When this land can know peace.”
Amustere choked, for his heart was not clouded as his eyes, and he could envision clearly the circumstances of Greatshale’s ruin. A tremor hinted at the emotion he strove to constrain when he said, “We will not know it until King Rainwall is dead.”
“Let us adjourn to shelter, Amus. The weather swiftly changes,” Diver suggested as he tasted salt in the air. “You may tell me more while you rest.”
And more there was to tell, though Amustere’s strength failed him. Diver Seasmoke’s underground shelter was warm and comfortable. Amustere supposed it suited the thin limbed Alruna, being close to water and within reach of Traviel. They supped, and as long as his vitality permitted, he answered Diver’s questions.
“Who attacked Verity?”
Amustere refocused his eyes, again, and remembered. “You may believe I know, but a shadow, whose presence I do not know — and could not discern — surprised us. It stood as a beast, four-legged and yellow eyed. Verity stood beside me, and then it was gone and she as you saw her.”
Diver squinted his eyes and laid thin, yellow and white fingers upon his lower lip. He said, “She protected you.”
“I cannot say, but I will discover who. In time.”
Diver considered this, then asked, “You awoke and could not see?”
“Allegory had taken my shard. It has her in its thrall. I… did all that I could.”
This was grave, and Diver remarked to this effect. Heroic suggestions were poised, reconsidered, poised again. They would not rest until —
“No, enough,” Amustere interrupted, “Diver. This night will pass without her, and many more like it. The sun, too, will rise.”
“Yes, yes, of course it will. My sincerest apologies.”
Would his eyesight recover? Amustere felt that it would take time, and asked to remain in Diver’s care. He consented, and though Amustere refused further questioning, he said, “No one of unworthy intent can find that Crown, my friend. Like Greatshale, the wearer must pass through the darkest times untainted. Now I sleep, for my darkest times seem to have no end.”
One year later, the cusp of autumn, when leaves had dropped low and cups were raised high. Much work was done and store laid away against the winter chill. Amustere’s new home enjoyed the company of those who had helped to construct it. A late evening of mirth, music and dance was shared, yet Amustere was distant.
A full-stomached man of clear eyes and eager heart sat beside him and looked baleful at the golden tint of the two-thirds empty glass in hand. Wary to strike his shoulder in even a friendly gesture, August Browfine proffered word and said, “A fine night in a fair field. Is it not so?”
Amustere’s bowed head mumbled something, body slouched upon the bench crafted by his own hand. August frowned and waved at his wife, dancing with their knee high daughter around the crackling bonfire. Amber hues struck upon their delighted faces and renewed the determination within August.
“Would you tarry well with any of the fair lights of this gathering, Amus?” he chanced. A grumble. August leaned closer and repeated his question. Amustere was unresponsive, and so he said, “I’ve not heard a word from your mouth, grumpard. I say they’re lovely women, strong, good hearted, as you’ve seen.”
These words did not inspire confidence, and August’s heart and countenance fell. He tried again: “Is not the daughter of Tilth a beautiful young woman? Or Galeswipe? Bail? Come now, they’ve worked so very — ”
August, embarrassed, looked about for a glass and something in it, but found nothing within reach. On the off chance Amustere would become unreasonable, or even shout, August gently asked, “Aye?”
“The King remarries. Have you heard? No? Perish the notion, and perish her memory!” He dropped a slack fist upon the bench that did not rattle. “Who does he marry?”
Confused, August replied, “I know not?”
“Aye you know not! Her sister!”
August was the last man to hear the rumour and preferred it that way. In his tailor shop fashion was taste, not trend, though he was gifted to sew any article the customer desired. He despised petty meandering and understood his wife’s writings very little. Somehow this lead him to say, “I could no’ marry my wife’s sister.”
Momentarily Amustere’s head lifted. “Why not?”
“She’s dead. Twelvemonth ago, when — ”
“When! A travesty, August. Travesty! Dishonour — t’would be dishonour to celebrate union during the memory of a desecration!”
“Why would he say such…” August muttered, then said, “What day is this?”
“The very eve’ of my wife’s departure one year hence,” Amustere said in a forlorn tone. He lifted glass to his lips and emptied it with a sharp gasp.
“Come now, Amus, why the matter of the King’s joy? Drawsdale is a veritable fortress of prosperity, a wonder on the face of the land! Is it not to be proclaimed?”
“You’ve not your wife’s gift for words, August,” Amustere rumbled and rose to his feet, the barest stagger in his step. “ ‘To be proclaimed’? To whom? His lordship’s victims? How crude and cruel a man profits by the mortality of those who trusted him.”
“Oh, Amus, you’ll not — ”
“Not what, friend?” His voice was strained, and his face seemed darkened, somehow. “I will, and not hesitate to act!”
“Act? Stop this madness, Amustere. You’re raving. What action could you take, against a man such as King Rainwall?”
Amustere grinned and thought, you’ve the quizzical mind of Diver, friend, but not his decisiveness. He raised his right hand to waist level, outstretched thumb and forefinger, and while he rotated his hand, said, “I doubt you’d camprehend.”
August yawned and looked about. “When did the night become so dark? I’ve…” another yawn, “worked harder than I thought. Good night, Amus. Think on those women, will yeh…”
Amustere watched as August invited his family to their covered cart to retire for the night. Shortly thereafter the remainders departed, having their own responsibilities to attend to. They seemed oblivious to his state as they went about their well-wishing and gratitudes. Once gone, he began to make preparations, and was very congenial in the morning during breakfast.
“You’re how old?” he quested over eggs and bramble-sweet juice.
Amustere mock frowned, “Can you count to six?”
“Oh! Uh-huh!” she blurted, then raised her little fingers, palm toward Amustere. She lowered four of them and beamed, “Six!”
“Six and elevenmonth, Pewter,” smiled her mother. “Good of you not to tease him with seven. Child, take your seat.”
The little one’s lips flattened, but she obeyed and spooned more eggs into her mouth. Amustere smirked, then tried to twist a brow and failed. He looked to Pewter’s mother and asked, “Does she like to do that?”
“I’m afraid she’s more interested in weapons than August’s work.”
“Aye! I learn the bow at eight!” she supplied, excited. “Daddy teaches stitching at seven.”
Amustere cracked a grin and intoned, “She is her mother’s daughter, aye Danette?”
With a fixed expression of disinterest, Danette hefted the box at her hip over her right shoulder and placed it in the rear of the wagon, above shoulder height. Amustere watched her. He asked, “Is it not a worry that she’s so war fixed that you’ll teach her the bow? Why then, not the dagger?”
“Peh, daggers, no good t’ the sighted eye,” Pewter grumbled. Amustere made another futile attempt to quirk a brow at her observation. She was right, of course, but that was a quandary. She pardoned herself and rushed off to find August.
At length, Danette asked, “What use is a blade to one so young? A fledgling has my sighted eye to ward the wicked eye, so — ”
Amustere made an amused sound that interrupted her, and said, “How many young women learn so lethal a tool in this fair clime? Would Pinwhite neglect her daughter’s safety to complacency?”
At bent knee, low to take up another crate, Danette caught him with a scalding glare of reproach. Amustere’s grin faded and he spread his hands as if in submission. Pewter had traversed the field out of earshot, and Amustere’s eyes had oriented upon her to illustrate this point. She unclenched her jaw and said, “No woman can write as I do. You know why.”
“The Grey Troupe receives many requests for your plays.”
She stood, shoulders slumped, and a cloud of disconsolate reflection shrouded her eyes. “King Rainwall is a boastful fool. He has taken the Alrunian lands as his own. Tales of his conquest, even honest ones, please him.”
“And the request he made to have you write his history?”
“He asked for me by name, Amustere. I might as quickly be strung from the Pillars as entrust the King with my thread,” she lamented. Amustere exhaled heavily through his nose. She continued: “A tailor with wit to defy him by performance? No worldly thread ever taxed his silver one, and so he summons me? He is no fool; my husband is not the threat.”
Expectant, Amustere gazed at her and asked, “What is your answer?” She demurred with a bow of head. He said, “You would enjoy a brief respite at their expense.”
Danette’s coal dark eyes narrowed and the silver flecks within flickered. She spoke with the yield of unending patience. “You do not understand. This life is but a passing shadow. I hold on to every experience and cherish them with all of my heart.”
Amustere’s face was bitter, eyes upon the leaves that seemed to him discarded. He snapped his fingers and lit the nearest aflame. A stiff breeze snuffed out the upstart fire, and he gestured at the embers, and said, “Burn the field and what have you?”
Her eyes locked with his. “A wildfire,” she said, then lifted her crate.
“A battlefield,” he asserted, but did not thereafter interrupt her.
“Your own wit is clouded, Amustere. Do you labour under the assertion that all destruction is wanton? Answer me not, I see you’ve no mind about it.” She paused for a breath, and then added, “A child traverses a steep hill because they are fonts of boundless light. My days of youth are spent, but my hill… My steep hill is to confront the man and not die.”
Amustere’s observant mind had begun to formulate a plan. A light entered his eyes and caught Danette’s attention. “What is it that shines in your eyes?”
“The true gift of your writing is its honesty, not its language, but,” he said to interject her objection, “I am to meet the Rainwall progeny, to perform an assessment of their abilities.”
Danette shrugged and set the another crate on the wagon. “And what interest is that to me?”
“Pose as my assistant and your safety is assured. Or, apprentice, if it pleases you.”
Danette set hands upon hips and eyes skyward. Hopeful, Amustere thought, but hesitated when she turned her attention back to him. “Why would you accompany me?”
“Who knows the mind of a weaver?” Amustere answered, and waved a hand about. “They are fickle, unpredictable. Dangerous.”
“Cross paths with one such as you and see the shears hover over your thread!” she said and mimed accordingly. Her face darkened. “I will have to consult with August. He will be alone with Pewter.”
Amustere frowned curiosity, “You don’t trust him?”
“I have no lack of faith in him, but he is clumsy. His heart is like broadstone, his temperament like shale; disparate, brittle and prone to breakage.”
Amustere sought a perch and found a stump to plunk down upon. He formed a small wisp of white energy in his hand and tossed it lightly between them both. Agape, Danette gazed upon his fidgeting until he said, “When you have made the arrangements, come to me. There is a dialogue unhad as yet, and I would have it with Rainwall.”
The decision was made. Amustere and Pewter would visit Sunda Afterwillow at Greenswede Farm, a day’s journey away. A round trip would grant them three, perchance four days, unless Mama Afterwillow insisted they stay longer. She and Danette had an unspoken and many lettered understanding that spanned uncounted seasons.
Amustere and Danette knew there would be no reasoning with the conquering King, and no avoiding the encounter. Danette provided a horse and they departed that evening. Even enchanted hooves would take a pair of days to travel to Drawsdale.
Parts of Goldspire Forest still burned, vengeful flames of warding, spiteful of life. By the afternoon they neared the Alrunian capital, or what remained of it, and were turned away by disinterested soldiers. Amustere uttered a curse under his breath.
“What is it he does not wish me to see?”
Danette blinked at the coded stones and fathomed the cause of his consternation. The carved stones formed a barrier that prevented anyone without from seeing, or sensing, what was within. She whispered at his shoulder, “You can’t read them?”
“No,” he replied, then thought, but it does give me an idea. “We press on, around the foot of the hill.”
Castle Chalcedony’s five spires peaked above the rows of narrow, brick and mortar buildings, still taller than the smokestacks that reached for the clouds. Surrounded on all sides, the castle town was crowded, quite contrary to Amustere’s expectation. Brick laid streets spoke of the fortunes King Rainwall had amassed in recent years, and the modernity of Drawsdale.
Wagons and carts creaked along, oft’ immobilized by the thrall of travellers. Buildings of sophisticated architecture shielded the streets from the morning light. The street they traversed had signs carved and painted, destined for the glut of trade. Amustere rode deliberately through sparse clearings of massed travellers, searching for a man.
“How many have come to this city? How has he made this spectacle?” Danette wondered, marvelled at first sight of the enormous castle city. Smokestacks piped white columns into the air and their density gave them a clue about the industrial activity hereabout.
“Steamworks, my dear. That is how Rainwall has impressed the masses,” Amustere, tone masked by the noise in their ears. Amustere grunted affirmative and pulled Nestle’s reigns to the right. The crowd parted, complaints unheeded. “I have found him.”
“I find it unconvincing of you to speak that way…” she retorted and Amustere turned his head with a warning glance out of the corner of his eye. A swarthy fellow in orange and grey sat in a wood wrought chair leaned against a wall. He spied Amustere and lowered the stein from his lips. His moustache dripped, and he wiped his mouth with an oil stained sleeve.
Amustere stopped Nestle near the man, but stayed out of weapon reach. He bowed his head. “Good morning, Scander. How fare you?”
Scander looked to scowl, but smiled instead, though he could not wholly shake the expression. “So it’s true. You are the man who cannot be slain.”
“I’m not the flattering type, but you’ve some manner of greeting in yours.”
“I’ve a likesay ‘bout men who flirt with death, but as you’re the marrying type, you’re well advised,” Scander snarked right back. He did not rise to shake Amustere’s hand either, further demonstrating the lack of kindness between them. “And the woman?”
“She is my apprentice,” he began, and ‘clicked’ to settle Nestle. He continued, “I’ve no mind to banter. You’re my word to the King.”
“Aye, as you say,” he said. Doubtful, Scander scanned her and made his way into the dark boarded shop. His voice grated through the open doorway, “Drive a shaft into the ground, I’ll have your stone before the candle wanes.”
“And I thought you didn’t trust me,” Danette intoned.
“My vital points are at your leisure, apprentice,” Amustere replied. Danette smirked, “An’ I’d supposed that was mere folly on your part.”
Scander returned and eyed the pair with even greater skepticism. He reached up with a small satchel, which had sewn in it the seal of the King. He said, “You’ve two days. This stone will become dust at the moon’s second light.”
“Gratitude, friend,” Amustere said graciously. “I would stay, but you know how wax melts.”
Amustere accepted the satchel and as he did, Scander gripped his wrist and looked into his eyes. “Pray act with caution, friend. A silver dawn peaks on the morrow,” he said, then released Amustere’s wrist. He bowed at the waist, then removed to the shop once again. The door closed with a crisp click behind him.
That rascal, Amustere thought. He might’ve given me some warning.
“Amus, is something amiss?”
Amustere clenched his hands on the reigns. “Be wise, apprentice. Have some memory, will you?”
Danette rolled her eyes, “Aye Masterweaver.”
“You’ve a clever way of disguising your displeasure. Remember it, when you see the King.”
Danette lifted a brow, bemused by this observation, but asserted, “You avoid my question.”
He snapped the reigns that sent Nestle into a trot and they forded the lazily parting crowd. Before long Castle Chalcedony loomed over them. Sunlight illuminated the long bridge to the steel braced gate. Amustere slowed their approach to a gradual halt.
“I’ve a mind King Rainwall will not be deterred. Were I to squander the days this stone gives me, I would fall short of my assignment.”
“I thought you weren’t going to answer!”
Amustere waited a moment, then asked, “Do you see the barrier?”
Danette looked ahead at the Castle’s white stone walls and marvelled again, but as she gazed on, she felt a forbidding presence. “Aye, it is the same coded barrier we saw at the banks of Trickledown. How do we pass it?”
“With this,” he said, then pulled open the satchel and emptied its contents into his hand. A multi-faceted silver stone shimmered in his palm which he promptly clenched tight. “Think on what may happen should we not have this stone, ere we seek to leave.”
“I will think on it,” Danette remarked, and Amustere flicked Nestle’s reigns. They stopped before the gate, either side of which was a tower. Inside these were leather armoured men, one of whom called out to them:
“Be warned, strangers! You approach Castle Chacledony! State your title and purpose!”
Amustere studied the brick walls, smooth and protected by a hint of woven energy. Narrow slits granted ample radius for the aimed tip of an arrowhead, but slim opportunity for retaliation. Amustere called back, “Foxtear of the White and Fawnshale, my student! We appear at the request of his majesty!”
“Fawnshale?” Danette breathed.
“Do you not approve?”
“A slender girl of but a few summers would delight,” she said, then: “You’ve a wicked sense of humour.”
Amustere let the matter settle and added no comment. Atop the clear moat the sun distorted reflections of walls high and fearsome. The water smelled fresh. Danette saw the arrows return into the darkness, and an order followed: “Come to the gate!”
Amustere understood that permission had not been given, nor sought from Rainwall, yet. Danette felt dread nostalgia and distracted herself by examining the recently modified embattled parapets. The gate began to lift and a voice echoed among the stone: “Good day to you both, Weavers of the Light. Welcome to Chalcedony Castle.”
“Many gracious gratitudes,” Amustere replied to the unseen gatekeeper. Wary eyes could not discern the origin of the greeting, but they passed though the gate all the same and into the courtyard proper.
Danette had not seen the interior for many years and commented on some of the advancements. Men in light chainmail wielded stout bows of uncommon form at straw targets in a line. She whispered, “Longbows!”
Amustere was not as fascinated, or if he was, did not give any indication. Danette huffed, dissatisfied. Then her attention was taken again, and so she asked, “And what are those?”
Amustere turned his eyes to the sparring circle in the center of the courtyard. He explained in simple terms, “Sabres, or, iyrushia, curved blade of the Alruna.”
“Who is instructing his men!”
Amustere’s idle glance had not neglected the stranger among the red leathered, sweating men. He wasn’t Canora. His long, slender limbs belied great strength though his narrow barrel body seemed squished into the flat head of rust red and a throat of eggshell white. Two well kept spindles of silvery hair leapt from either side of his nostril holes, over which half sphere eyes contained horizontal slit pupils.
In the manner of dress of a commander, no less, Amustere observed to himself. He said aloud, “An odd sight, he. That is Abaddon Leatherwisker. Alrunian blacksmith to the royal family.”
“Ex-royal family,” Danette cited. She frowned. “Abaddon’s not his real name?”
“No, no one knows that. On the battlefield he fought like a demon, and so was given the title by his uncle, the archduke of Goldspire Abbey.”
Abaddon took stock of the pair but offered no acknowledgement. Danette pretended to survey the rest of the courtyard as they passed him by. “Is it true Rainwall is absorbing Alrunian warriors into his army?”
Amustere ‘tsked’, insulted. “Open your eyes, woman.”
Danette twisted her lips unpleasantly and prepared a verbal jab, but then thought better of it. She was busy being distracted and not observing the obvious, and her teacher, beside. She remembered to assume the role of the studious and offered a gentle apology. “I am sorry, MasterWeaver.”
“Good. Now you’ll tell me how many of these warriors are in Chalcedony,” Amustere ordered. Danette flicked her gaze about and awareness as far as she could reach. After some moments of concentration she said, “Forty two, MasterWeaver Foxtear.”
“Very good. Next we will have words with King Rainwall.”
The man Amustere knew as Ponteous Rainwall sought prize over conquest and praise over formality. Once admitted by the coded, invisible wards of peace, they felt no personal threat against their well being. The thirty six soldiers and seven knights the King employed embodied that paradigm, in addition to the forty two previously counted.
“So few servants,” Danette remarked, all but attached to Amustere’s hip. The clink and jangle of armoured warriors jostled her nerves. Amustere greeted guards with no more formality than was necessary; a wave here and there. In a long hall, alone, she asked, “Why are you so at ease? I’m terrified.”
Amustere chuckled coldly and replied, “Rainwall’s tactics are defensive and his confidence in them absolute. If we are here then he is certain we will not leave alive without his release.”
The blue of Amustere’s jacket began to make sense, Danette realized, and while she held her eye to his shoulder, she felt his attention on her. They met eyes and he nodded, then looked forward. “There is no luck, only preparation. Remember that, apprentice.”
Leather clad footsteps scraped along the stone floor, and Danette looked to the source. Amustere stepped forward and clasped hands with the portly man of thinned, silver and gold hair. He pronounced, “Auger, Auger Grinswald. How are you, my friend?”
“Saint Grinswald, MasterWeaver Goldfinch,” he responded with a touch of chastisement. He shook Amustere’s hand with both of his and did so firmly. “Introduce me to your new apprentice. I — I, oh my, dear. Your face is somehow known to me.”
Danette curtsied and replied in all politeness, “Saint Grinswald, I mean you no disrespect, but do you not sense the weave about me? It is the Air of Familiarity which Master Goldfinch is having me practise.”
“And… why might that be?” he asked, an eyebrow raised in suspicion.
“I have — ”
“The stamina of a shinfly,” Amustere interjected. Danette shot him a brief but venomous glare.
Auger smiled and bowed his head. “Amustere can be the taskmaster. There was a time he commanded that I sustain Clarity of Self for an entire day. I collapsed at home and my wife has cursed his name ever since.”
“Surely not…” Danette grinned, as though she enjoyed his sense of humour. Auger’s smile lined face pulled grim as he said, “Surely so. Every day, when she remembers he tarries in this realm, still. It was for my own good. What one can hear when one goes uncounted among his brothers and sis — ”
The lightness of his tone voice made Danette smile genuinely, but before he could carry on, Amustere cleared his throat. “My friend, is there something you need us for?”
Auger startled and examined the air over Amustere’s head. Confirmation wrinkled his brow and he said, “Why yes. I was sent to invite you to the royal dining hall for supper. Cordially.”
“We will be there. How soon?”
He thought, then answered, “Less than a candlemark. Come with me. I will take you to the waiting chamber.”
“Please, lead on.”
Six rooms and three doors later they stood in a chamber painted by the steadiest hands in the land. Nearly every surface in the room was painted with expensive and rare pigments. Auger bid them farewell and departed, citing religious duties.
Danette ran a hand over woodwork she considered rough, and remarked to Amustere that she had been raised to be a carpenter. His musty facade cracked curiosity. “A learned tradesman could earn a fine coin anywhere in Greatshale. Why did you choose to write?”
She crossed arms over her chest and frowned childishly. “I had the strength but not the talent, the… mind… one needs to comprehend my Father’s elaborate geometric puzzles.”
“Words were my Pillar granted gift, and I wanted always to share them. Ironic, then, that it was not possible to do so by my birth given name,” she supplied, taciturn. “At any rate, I can see there is no pride in this woodwork.”
“And you have no pride in weaving,” he parried. Danette half turned at him and glared hard. Amustere was placid. “No, indeed I expected none, and was not surprised that he knew you.”
“Who do you — ? Oh, you mean Auger.” Her face softened. “And why were you not surprised?”
“Auger is the local confessor and High Priest of Avalon. He was granted the gift to know the needs of others. I have known the man many years. His trust is not easily earned, but invaluable to possess.”
Danette returned to the extensively detailed mural. She sneered, “It is no concern of yours.”
“Very well,” he said though her vitriol could have been forced, Amustere did not care for her disdain. An attractive woman, he mused, admiring her slim figure briefly. August must be a fool or exceedingly trusting.
“It does not behoove a man to stare at a married woman,” Danette observed and paced about, taking in the lavishly painted room.
“No flower complains against its admirers,” Amustere responded.
“Flowers do not marry, nor do they sting with open palms.”
Her words were not playful, but the threat was empty, he felt certain of it. Even so, Amustere was apt to give her warning due credence. Wholly undisturbed, he changed subjects: “Do you know that sharing of all woodworking and smithing knowledge has been forbidden of royal tradesmen of late?”
Danette regarded him, frowned, then said, “I believe king Rainwall has Greatshale well in his charge. Drawsdale is an accomplishment the likes of which has not been seen before now.”
“Except in the eastern lands,” Amustere countered. “You do amaze so at the expanse of these borders. Does it puzzle you that Drawsdale should bring so many from so far, still?”
He lead her with a baited morsel, and it was a while before she said, “No, I believe I understand it now. That was not very chivalrous.”
Amustere let loose a small chuckle and said, “That is not a trait I ever claimed to possess.”
“Nonetheless, it was unpleasant, and I have no want to cultivate my guilt.”
“And why guilt, my dear?”
Amustere and Danette squared their shoulders toward the voice, and shrewdly appreciative of this, Ponteous Rainwall entered the room. The King’s athletic, broad shouldered figure dominated the doorway as he luxuriated in frivolously gold painted finery. A thick head of quaffed brunette hair complimented his thick, short trimmed beard; a fashionable style among rich men and dilettantes. Dark brown eyes hard as bedrock pierced their casual attitudes and commanded their attention. Danette considered that he was more attractive than his paintings and pressed metal ceremonial medallions.
A twitch brushed his thick lips, and then he smiled, hand outstretched toward her. She gently accepted with a curtsy, and he bowed his head and said, “You are beautiful, Weaver Fawnshale. I am in awe.”
Danette curtsied and replied, “My liege, you are most genteel. This room and your attention is radiant.”
“You would not say such were you not in the clutches of this tapestry,” Ponteous suggested.
Danette chuckled falsely. “Why, I was saying to Master Goldfinch that–” Amustere floated about Ponteous’ shoulder and shook his head minimally. Danette paused for thought and then said, “Ah, that guilt is unwelcome when in the presence of such masterful workmanship.”
“Perhaps,” Ponteous murmured, then backed up to regard Amustere. “MasterWeaver Foxtear, are you much displeased with your apprentice’s appalling manners?”
Appalling? Danette thought and blanched. Amustere closed his eyes slowly at her and looked to King Rainwall. “Hardly, my liege, for mistakes are the foray of the apprentice. From whence shall I gather tales for future embarrassments?”
“Well met, Amustere,” smiled Ponteous with bright, healthy teeth. “Come, let us dine together.”
Danette flustered, but shortly forgot their banter in the presence of the finest artistry in the entire kingdom. Modesty of any sort had no place in the painstakingly detailed dining hall, six horse-lengths wide, and four times as long. Framed paintings of the king’s adventurous habits were hung from the walls, and numbered ten in all. Each of the indulgences were the pride of Drawsdale, thanks to the educated expertise made possible by Rainwall’s investments in the Arts and Sciences. Resplendent in oils on canvas, he was the ideal hunter, bowyer, wrestler, swimmer, climber, singer, explorer, orator, entertainer and scholar.
The masterfully carved table of Goldspire fern draped in expensive silks and fine twine linen could not compete. Lady Idris Moon sat at one end, painted dour and dramatic in grieving veil and dress. Danette fumed and felt her animosity lashed back at her like crossbow bolt.
Every bit the Northern, she thought wryly. She curtsied and made an introduction, “Weaver Fawnshale, at your service, Lady Moonwhite. My deep consolation for your loss.”
“But not your deepest? No, that is most fair. Reserved am I also for my Lord and King, Ponteous Rainwall,” she said in a controlled tone.
Amustere bowed low at the waist, fingers sweeping the polished hardwood floor. Said he, “MasterWeaver Foxtear, at your service, my forgiving Lady. Will you tell me how long you intend to grieve for the loss of your sister, and our Queen?”
Danette took stock of Amustere’s spoken arrangement of titles, and her appreciation of his political subtlety mounted. Idris gestured to some of the seats, and Danette took one, desperate to sneak a look at her face. Amustere politely awaited her response.
“I,” she cleared her throat, delicately, “observe strict tradition. Of all men you know this, better perhaps, than even my betrothed.”
“You are well informed and most kind,” Amustere replied with no hint of admiration. As manner dictated, he directed Danette to a seat beside him, and they both sat. Rainwall joined them at the head of the table and Amustere took occasion to ask, “My liege, will the children be making an appearance this evening?”
Rainwall’s eyebrows did not operate independently, so they lifted as one. “Eager to complete your task? Commendable. I regret to say that they will not.”
“I see. Strict observance of tradition,” Amustere echoed, and Ponteous nodded.
“It is my duty to honour my beloved’s wish. Would you do less?”
“Sire, to honour the memory of my deceased wife, I would raze endless cornfields.”
As if chastised, Ponteous’ face fell. He said, “My apologies, MasterWeaver. Let us postpone our weighty discussion, for distemper only serves to increase one’s visits to the chamber pot.”
“Aye, my liege. Let us not entertain an imbalance of hospitality in the spirit it was gifted.”
Danette was flabbergasted, but easily concealed her reaction to Amustere’s biting language. Lavishly attired servants arrayed the table with hot, seasoned foods of all varieties. Amustere’s mouth watered in interest of the spiced peppers. As goblet and jug of turnpike wine arrived, Rainwall proposed a toast.
“The cusp of victory will be ours in the ruin of all hope. Our walls, assailed, shall never crumble. Ours, the brightest and highest of the Pillars. To Greatshale!”
Amustere was quick to raise his goblet with the echo, “To Greatshale!”
Idris and Danette shared a worried exchange, and then imitated the men. Under her veil, the Lady was gorgeous; fine featured and statuesque. Her eyes, cobalt blue and piercing against alabaster skin. Danette wondered if sunlight ever touched it. Rainwall began to serve himself, and his guests followed suit.
“ ‘There is no charm as deceptive as doubt, and to it you must not succumb,’ “ Danette quoted after much of her plate was clear. There was light applause. Amustere indicated approval, though he could not recall from which master the phrase originated.
“To whom may we attribute this wisdom?” Idris enquired.
“MasterWeaver Dodge,” Danette replied.
“Ah! That charlatan,” Rainwall declared. Amustere’s stern face wore a flat brow. The King continued with a small smile, “Words spoken before the turn of the blade, perhaps.”
“Well said, my love. All men are born with a shard of greatness, are they not?”
“Not all men,” Danette countered. Tension overshadowed the room and Lady Moonwhite cleared her throat with a flat hand at the nape of her neck. Amustere eyed Danette and she added, “But let us have gratitude for those in our company, and their greatness.”
“Aye, we shall,” said the Lady-Queen, and the shadows which played about her seemed to lessen. The motion was seconded by Amustere, and joined with grumbling terseness by Ponteous.
As dessert was served, Rainwall conferred with his betrothed, but remained otherwise silent and allowed the woman to exercise her verbosity. Amustere had been compelled to speak at length about the barrier wall that for an entire season repelled Rainwall’s conquering soldiers.
He had wanted the resources they had that could be had nowhere else. The township of Traviel had not taken kindly to their attempt at capture, and MasterWeaver Foxtear had stepped up in defence. Rainwall’s laughter at the length of the standoff struck Amustere has strange, even unsettling.
They laughed about the trade agreement signed and alliance formed in a way that reminded everyone about the forgiveness that was not part of the contract. Betwixt the conniving theatrics and jewel toned, fermented drinks, Amustere and Danette retired to their chambers.
To Be Continued