Kerrigan stared into the coiling firelight, and watched the flames petals burgeon and despair in endless instants, one supplanting the next. Her mind was as empty as a Faerie song. This day had given her a first taste of violent death, against which her father's wasting passing seemed to have been a pleasant prelude. She had never seen so much blood as was splattered around their carriage, where the guards who had been about to consummate their betrayal assayed to fight the lone barbarian. And he had dismembered them.
Even when she had seen animals slaughtered there had not been so much blood. She shivered in her riding dress, already rumpled and stained. It was a cool garment, meant to be worn only in the privacy of the carriage. Out in the open, she was uncomfortable and exposed. She wrapped her arms around herself, and rubbed thin shoulders.
The barbarian returned to the fire with the corpse of a lynx in one hand. He carried no weapons, and he was still unclothed, but not a scratch gave witness to either the previous encounter or his capture of the lynx. He had broken its neck.
Kerrigan looked away, nauseated at the sight of him beginning to prepare the catch. Closing her eyes couldn't protect her from the slick, sobbing sound of an animal body being taken apart. He skinned it with his thumbnail.
When she opened her eyes again she was being offered hot strips of meat on a flat rock. With a mewl, she pushed it away, and the barbarian did not force it on her. He set it by the fire, which had been refueled, blazing brighter than before, and set about eating his own much larger portion. Nearly the whole animal. When he was finished he slipped away again, silent as a nightmare, and the fire dimmed slightly, or appeared to. It was probably only imagination and distress that played with her mind.
Kerrigan spent a while in contemplation of that statue, the one that looked like her, only perfected into marble. Grey veins pulsed beneath its white non-flesh, and in the flickering of the campfire the sculpture was nearly alive. In the emptiness of her awareness, there arose a question.
Is this why he took me? Is this why I am here, instead of with my mother? A sudden, wordless panic took her, and she grappled to her feet. She tried to mark her bearings, only to discover that she had none. Her legs moved of their own accord, lithe and long relative to her body. They carried her away from the rough campsite and deeper into the ruins.
She panted past mounds of rubble and half buried cornices, pillars that stood proud, or lorn, or else in tumbled heaps, like exhausted orgies. Her pace increased, and her breath turned ragged even as her slippers came to pieces, abraded by the gravel and shattered bricks. There was no hint of the barbarian, no hint of any life here. It was dark, for the moon slept these nights, and the stars were dim, occluded by the clouds.
Gods of the sky, she prayed, you laughing ones, let it rain and wash me from this terror. Let this not be real. Let me be married to some fat rich boor, and never see dear Aric in my life, but do not let this be.
The barbarian appeared before her as solid as a cliff. His hand swallowed her upper arm. His eyes arrested her.
"It is dangerous to run." His voice held no accusation. "You are never alone in this place. That is why no one comes here."
"Then why did you bring me here?" Kerrigan quavered.
The barbarians oddly smooth face twisted wryly. "To be alone." He herded her back to the camp. It was not nearly so far as she imagined. At least he did not do her the indignity of carrying her like a roll of cloth again. He was gentle enough, if implacable.
When they returned to the camp, the barbarian opened one of the packs to remove a musty and ancient fur, which he unrolled in a cleared space. After a moment, Kerrigan realized that it was the pelt of a bear, yet the fur was golden, tinged with bronze.
"What is it?" she asked, wonder drawing her out of her trauma. She had never heard of a bear so large as it must have been, nor one of that color.
The barbarian was appalled. "You do not know? Have you no songeaters? Do your people carry no memories!?"
Kerrigan went back a step, and the barbarian softened, sensing how he had frightened her.
"It is a Yogi, a plains bruin. The greatest of all beasts. Even dragons do not challenge them."
The girl laughed. "Dragons aren't real!" Something in her had forgotten her duress. "You're telling tales."
The barbarian gaped at her, his shock at being laughed at so plain that it struck Kerrigan as hilarious, and sent her into a further paroxysm. She could see that he was not angry with her, that there was no anger in him. He seemed a different being than the one that had murdered the guards.
He looked at her in a different way now, and her laughter stopped. He drew her to stand on the fur, and she trembled terribly. Her throat sealed shut, and her eyes pinched. She could feel his nearness by the heat of his immense and dangerous body. His hands cupped the sides of her face, nearly hiding it. He was looking at her hair, an orange and flashing fall. When his eyes lowered to rove the rest of her body she experienced it as a physical pressure, as if his fingers pressed the flesh beneath her shift, and her trembling increased.
"You laugh, child, because you know so little." His hands slipped to her shoulders, enveloping them, and he pushed her effortlessly down onto the pelt.
Kerrigan lay on her back, her eyes squeezed shut tight, waiting for what would surely follow. She was unsullied, but a girl could hardly be raised in the city without some understanding of what it meant to be a woman. Tears stung at her cheeks.
The heat of his presence diminished, and she realized that he was no longer kneeling over her, though she refused to look. The barbarian made a disgusted noise from a few paces away.
"Sleep, child. I will not take you that way."
* * *
Ursula the Unloved was not hiding in her favorite carrel. Not hiding, no, only being inconspicuous in her nook, a section corner of the library where she could not be seen from more than six paces away. The freestanding shelves all stood well above her head, and the stacks were a maze. Here alone did she feel safe. No one knew where she was, and she could count the footsteps of anyone who came near.
She leaned against the shelves, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Books were spread around her like a magic circle, open and outpouring. Diagrams, war machines. A wooden palette covered her lap, and heavy paper overtop of it.
Problems, workings, mechanisms, to these her mind retreats. Hamal Qua Loman, who is that? No such concerns could enter here. She would not be married. That was someone else.
On her lap the lines flurried in sharp slashes, all precise. It was a ballistae, or something like it. The pulleys were altered, and that was not a bolt it fired.
"Interesting design." Ursula jumped, and the schematic slid away. The man standing almost overtop of her was dressed in a white robe, a ruby hung from a thin gold chain around his neck. His face was kindly, though pale. His irises were the color of smoke.
"Thyriel." Ursula breathed. "You frightened me."
"You need to be more aware of your surroundings, cariad. A mad Chelonian could have broken its way in here and I am not sure you would have noticed."
Ursula reddened, and gathered her papers. "You're quiet." She muttered.
"The design is interesting," Thyriel continued, "though I wonder if this hobby of yours would survive a battle."
"What do you mean?"
The royal philologist made a spiraling motion with his forefinger.
"What your weapon would do in practice, it would have to be exactly balanced of course, but the bodies it would leave behind, the maiming. I do not think you realize what you do."
Ursula frowned. "It's just an artifice."
A beatific smile. "It isn't important what a thing is. Only what it does. How many times must I repeat it?"
She rolled her eyes. "Until I can remember," she recited.
"You tell it true," Thyriel clapped his hands behind his back, "Now will you tell me how you feel about your soon-to-be Lord? The palace speaks of nothing else."
"I wasn't going to think about it today."
"Hence the machines meant to deliver death, yes. Though I wonder if that is not a subtle comment of your thoughts upon the matter after all. In any case, I worry for you, and should you have anything to say, I would that you know I will listen. I would be glad to listen."
Ursula unfolded her design, worrying the crease with her thumb.
"I am not glad," she said, and that was all for a while. Then, "He does not care anything for me. He does not even look at me. I don't know why he wants this."
"You are the first princess," Thyriel reminded her.
"What does that matter? In Carrolan, women may wield power as men. Here, it is only a title."
Thyriel tilted his head slightly. He no longer gazed upon the girl in her distress. He examined the shelves and the volumes therein. "The marriage will bequeath a measure of honor on his house, as well as a token fief, a little gold."
"None of that he needs. His house has more knights than the royal retinue, and an honor from Petronus is no honor at all to him."
Thyriel looked pleased. "Truly, do you think so?"
Ursula shrank inward on herself. "He may not look at me, but I have seen him look upon my father. There is nothing there save spite."
"Contempt as well, we must not stint contempt."
Incongruously, Ursula laughed. "You've seen it too?"
"Yes, cariad. We two are not the only ones, though we may be the only ones who are of note. So now that we have arranged the premise thusly, why do you believe good Loman might desire the hand of the first princess in trothal?"
She shook her head. "It doesn't make any sense to me."
Thyriel clucked disapprovingly.
Ursula screwed up her face. "I know what you want me to say, that it puts him in line for the throne and the Shield. But so what? He would be seventh, after my father, bless his fatness. My brothers are all men, not children to die with a cough in the winter. One or two may die in the hunts or in tourney. Not all six."
"Yes," Thyriel said, "that is what all of them will think."
"House Petronus has held Petronica since the fall of Valanthia. It is the most noble and most ancient house. None other has ever held the throne, not for thirty centuries and as many insurrections. It has always held. The shield does not break." Ursula spoke from memory.
"Yes," Thyriel agreed, "that is what all of them will say. And another man might scheme to wed the first princess for no reward greater than being able to claim that he had wed her. Does Hamal strike you as such a man?"
Ursula sat bolt upright, eyes stretching. "He means to kill them!"
Thyriel placed his palm lightly upon her shoulder. "Shhh," He admonished her, "do you want everyone to know?"
"Yes!" She gaped at him. "We have to tell everyone!"
A sad, knowing smile betrayed the philologists amusement. "Will they believe you?"
"No," Ursula caught herself. "But won't you tell them? They will believe you. You're the royal counselor."
"Certainly," Thyriel nodded, "when they ask I am duty bound to answer. They will not ask, however, and my order is sworn to take no active hand in the politics and intrigues of the realm. That is not our purpose. If we did so, the kings would rule no longer, and it would be only philosophe against philosophe, wielding noble houses as our pawns."
Ursula was appalled. "But he could kill them. He could usurp the throne. And the Shield! My forefathers have always held the Shield, ever since the death of the First Hero, and Patrick Petronus-"
Thyriel cut her off with a look. "You ramble when you're upset. And I understand your passion in this matter, yet I must demur. I test the limits of my vows even now, in tutoring you, and I can go no further. It is of no moment whether one house stands over another. That Petronus still rules in Petronica is a matter for fortunes concern. There is nothing of particular virtue in their rule. There is no righteousness in royalty or rulership. Not inherently, at the least."
"Tell my father that."
"I have done so, many and many a time. It is the burden given unto us that we should serve the truth in all things. The truth is our light. King Magal laughs at my impertinence, and reminds me of the luck that is mine, that Philologists are granted immunity to speak."
Ursula gathered the books in a pile, agitation clear in the motion of her hands. She stared at them awhile, and tucked her drawing instruments under one arm. Thyriel observed her in silence.
"What am I supposed to do?" she said. "I can't be married to him now."
"You can and you will," Thyriel said solemnly, "because you have no choice. If you have choices in other milieus, then it is your will that will decide them, to good or ill."
Emotions flicked over the plain girl's face, behind her absence of expression. Then she spoke in a voice almost inaudible, words that in a perfect world, none would ever have to speak. "Help me."
"Fortune provides for the Fenryth," Thyriel said, serene, "but the fox must provide for herself."
With that he left her to the books. Ursula stood staring after his whispering robes long after they had gone from sight, silently bemoaning the philologists and their riddles. So she was the fox, was she? A chubby, frightened fox whose stress was giving her acne. What exactly was she supposed to provide for herself? As first princess, Ursula had all of her needs provided for as a matter of course; she was taken care of. This entailed no power, no control. A change in her routine was attained only when she snuck away, as she had done this day, despite the fact that she was due to lunch with Lord Hamal. She felt no guilt avoiding that appointment. It wasn't as if he had any desire to see her. It was only a formality. Exiting the library, she wore a distracted air, her mind occupied by the ponderous duties ahead of her, and the possibility of a threat to the empire. Surely Thyriel could not believe that her family was in danger for true. He could never have worn it so lightly if that was so.
She did not see her brother, Allum, alike with her in age, materialize out of a side corridor that kept watch over the entrance to the library. One sure step, and then he pushed her. The wind burst from her lungs as she hit the wall hard enough to make her arm pop in its socket. Allum grabbed her to keep her on her feet, but that only increased the hurt.
"They made me look for you, ingrate. Lord Hamal is awaiting you. He has been half a turn."
"I'm sorry," Ursula sobbed. "I didn't mean to..."
"It doesn't matter," her brother sneered. "Everyone knows how stupid you are. That's no excuse." He dragged her down the hall, all the way to the nearest stair, and then pushed her up them. Lowborn servants bobbed heads at their passing, scurrying out of the path required by Allum Lastborn of Petronica, her twin.
Lord Hamal recieved her in her own sitting room, with two of his men at arms and Daya acting as chaperons. A small fire was set into the hearth, its heat hardly seeping into the set stones of the floor. Thick woven carpets and baroque tapestries lent an air of luxury to the chambers of the first princess. This was not an honor anyone had done to her. The costly bedightment was far older than she, hearkening back to a daughter well-loved by her king, many generations past.
The two men at arms leered at her as she took her seat at the table neatly set for their repast. On his side, Lord Hamal had given voice to his impatience by completing his meal in her absence. Now all that remained was a melting of the flavored ice that had been brought up from the cellars. Many a noble did not realize that the cooled drinks and treats common to the palace would disappear if not for the artifice that had been gifted to the Petronus' line nearly a millennia ago; a miraculous device apparently made for nothing more ponderous than freezing water. Ursula knew.
"Where have you been?" Hamal growled at her.
"She was in the library," Allum answered for her, "I-"
"Get out, boy," Hamal commanded, and Ursula's brother reddened.
He seemed about to make a retort, but Hamal's heatless gaze overbore him, and he stomped away, crashing the door behind. The men at arms chortled cruelly after him.
"So you were in the library?" The words fell flat.
Ursula nodded, eyes lowered to the congealed gray in the bread bowl before her. Her hands bunched tightly in her lap.
"That is no place for a women. It is unseemly."
"I am sorry, my lord. I did not mean to be late."
"Yes. I haven't yet decided what would be the best lesson for you. But we can agree that you have no reason to be among the bookkeepers. You are a princess. Not a clerk."
"I would rather be a scholar," she said, quite without thinking.
The room was still. Daya, standing aside with her hands clasped at her waist, shot Ursula a pained glance.
"You are young," Hamal stood slowly, "I understand your confusion."
"My lord," Ursula's words faltered under his gelid regard.
"I have conceived a lesson. I cannot give it to you directly, not until we are wed. But this will suffice." He seized Daya roughly, and a high yelp escaped her before a brisk slap brought silence. Without bothering to remove his leftovers from the table he pressed her forward onto the wood, crushing the crusts into her hair and cheek. The girl didn't dare to resist him, so he had the leisure of both his hands to undo his own leggings and to pull up her skirts. Ursula could not look away from her friend's face. She saw the shame writ large there, and the sudden stab of pain. Eyes crumpled shut, and the seep of tears. Vauge, stifled noises peeked out from between Daya's teeth, then were drawn back down. The only sound in the chamber was the grating of the table's joints as it was repeatedly stressed, and that of Lord Hamal's breathing as he lost sight of his stern lesson and began to simply enjoy himself, possibly forgetting Ursula's presence entirely.
When he drew away, tidying himself, Daya slipped from the tabletop and curled into a ball on the tiles, gathering in her skirts. One of Hamal's men barked his approval. The other had a hand in his tunic and a look of animal focus on his face.
"There," Hamal said, his cheeks well-colored. He came around the table and took Ursula's chin in his hands. "Now you know a woman's place. I forgive you for not knowing before. Someone must teach you, after all. Now that you understand, I expect your behavior to be more proper in the future." He regarded her a moment longer. "Do not disrespect me again." He left, and a beat after, the boots of his two retainers could be heard tramping away down the hall.
"I'm sorry," Ursula said. "I'm so sorry."
Daya said nothing.
* * * Hamal Qua Loman was pleased, both with himself and with his circumstances. A warm lassitude was spreading from his loins, adding a hint of swagger to his stride. As a young man he had been given as hostage to the Lomans, and he had done well enough by them to be adopted and honored. But he had been born a Myrminde, and in his heart, a Myrminde he remained. His uncle was the second most powerful man in Petronica, and they kept in regular contact, coded messages burned once read.
How many kings in the history of the land, seventy, wasn't it? By some quirk of the headless gods, they had been Petronus to a man. The green tiger ascendant. Why not the crow, the horn, or the stag? The land and its people were soft. Peace was rampant and debilitating. Petronica was as libidinous and impotent as its king, and over him, the Shield of Nine. What Hamal could not do with that shield on his arm! Carrolan, Ashram and the Keepholds. All the realms of men could well be brought to heel. Kingdoms no longer, but empire. It was his destiny. One homely girl was all he required. He would bed her and get her with child. Then the sons of Petronus would begin to die. Worthless churls, one and all. His uncle had worked years to put all the proper men in place. Chance and mischance, tragedy unto tragedy, they would die.
One girl, not a gem at that. He scratched himself and smiled. He would have to keep that handmaiden about. Once she was no longer needed to watch over the princess, he could imagine an excellent use for her.