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Chapter One of LORD BROTHER, the second part of the Ryel Saga duology
(For the synopsis and first chapter of WYSARD, Part One of The Ryel Saga, click
here.)

"Masterful fantasy by an extremely talented author" ~In The Library Reviews

The text of the following chapter is from the revised and expanded 2012 second edition.
To read print media reviews from the duology's first edition, click here
.

Carolyn Kephart's books can be purchased as digital and paperback versions at Amazon.com, and digitally at most online bookstores through Smashwords, where her short fiction is currently available free of charge.

wysard  lordbrother ryelsaga  

Synopsis of LORD BROTHER

Ryel Mirai, Steppes warrior, Lord Adept of the great wysard-citadel Markul and blood-kin to the ruling house of great Destimar, continues his search for the lost spell capable of re-joining body to soul. But as he seeks to learn the way to bring his beloved instructor in the Art back to life again, he has a rival in his quest: Michael Essern, high-blooded, proud, and greatest of Markul’s rival city Elecambron. A student of the ways and means of death, Lord Michael has sworn allegiance to the daimon Dagar, who seeks to return to the World re-embodied in Ryel’s form using the same lost Art.

High in the mountains overlooking Almancar the wysardess Srin Yan Tai imparts key truths to Ryel, who learns that he must journey into the North to find two mysterious men: Redbane and Starklander, both of whom are destined to play a part in the wars to come—wars that might prove to be Dagar’s triumph, and the World’s eternal affliction.


Ryel is inexorably compelled Northward, and becomes dangerously involved with Michael’s brother the Count Palatine Yvain, Commander of the Sword Brotherhood, a cult sworn to the Goddess of War. Yvain Essern is the keeper of secrets crucial to the wysard's quest, but the price Ryel must pay for them is higher than he ever dreamed.


When fast-closing circles of fate bring him to the sea’s edge, the wysard finds answers to many  mysteries; but war ravages Almancar, now embroiled in a reign of terror. Far off in Markul’s tower of the dead, Edris’ body awaits its rai—its imperishable life essence—that will be re-instilled by the joining-spell; but can that spell be found? And if found, put in the right hands? And once there, be made to succeed? Or will the victory go to Michael—Ryel’s cruel rival, and Lord Brother?



Lord Brother
Chapter One
 
Ryel had thought that Lady Srin intended him to ride Northward, and had accordingly mentally prepared himself for a long stint on horseback despite Jinn’s Art-sped swiftness. As matters turned out he was mistaken, as he’d been with so many things since his return to the World.

“Time’s against you, lad,” Srin Yan Tai yet again reminded him as they sat cross-legged on the yat-platform, warming their hands on their chal-bowls as their breath and the drink’s fragrant vapor mingled with the raw mists of dawn. “Days are as good as months, now, what with so much awork in the World. The Art must be your help.”

Ryel wearily blew the steam from his chal. He hadn’t slept well the night before. “My Art isn’t that strong, Lady Srin.”


“Of course it isn’t, whelp. But mine is.”


Stifling yet another yawn, Ryel peered out through the chal-haze toward Almancar, where now the tallest of the gilded towers—the spires of the Dranthene palace, where the Sovrena Diara doubtless lay still asleep, dreaming, he hoped, of him—began to glow from the light of the dawn. Gradually dawn shed its radiance over the great city, lighting the temples and the mansions, dawn warm and clear.


He glanced from the city to the wysardess at his side. “Was it you that sent Jinn to me, there on the Aqqar?”


Lady Srin, seemingly absorbed in her chal, shook her head as she drank.


“Then who?”


Ignoring Ryel’s impatience, Srin Yan Tai meditatively licked her lower lip as she gave a half-shrug. “Can’t tell you, lad.”


“You mean you know, but won’t say?”


“Meaning I know, but don’t believe it. Still, if I’m not being shamefully misled, matters should do well, if all goes as it should. Not that it has to, of course.” She, too, fixed her gaze on the great city below that lay now like a tumbled heap of jewels all agleam in the rising light. “I dreamed of war last night. War down there.”


That explained her restlessness, her frequent muttered cries and starts as she slept, which had kept Ryel wakeful. He was irritable still.


“I’ve no wish to go North. Or anywhere else, for that matter.”


Lady Srin’s black stare remained on the city, unblinking. “Ah. The reluctant hero.”


“I’m no hero.”


“So far I’m inclined to agree with you.” She gulped down the last of her chal. “Well, enough of this idle banter. Time for you to be off to save the world, if you can.”


Ryel gave an inward sigh. Part of it must have escaped, because Lady Srin turned to him, drawing his entire attention into her lightless eyes.


“Very well. Let’s forget about the World—and we may as well, since you know next to nothing about it. Think about those few people in the World you’re acquainted with, and care for. Dagar has other business to attend to at present, but I can assure you he hasn’t forgotten about those who are dear to you. At present, wherever you go, Dagar will follow, and therefore it’s most opportune that your course leads Northward, away from your mother and sister, and the Dranthene siblings.”


“I don’t know where to start. How to begin.”


“Oh, that doesn’t matter. I had a vision last night.”


Ryel dealt her an exasperated glance. “I thought you were dreaming of war.”


“I was. But things got better later on. You’ll have friends up North, lad. Friends who’ll open doors for you. It was revealed to me that a radiant spirit will guide you into Hallagh.”


“Really.”


Lady Srin growled a thunder-chuckle at Ryel’s nonexistent enthusiasm. “You’ll see. Well, let’s get started. I’m glad you haven’t eaten anything yet, because this spell is guaranteed to wring your guts.”


They descended the tree, and crossed the little creek-moat to the meadow where Jinn stood with her head up and her mane stirred by the morning breeze, in exactly the attitude Ryel had left her the night before.


“I suppose you’ll want to take your nag with you,” Lady Srin said.


In answer Ryel wrapped his arm around Jinn’s neck. At once she came to life, leaning against the wysard as if she wished his closeness, like any horse of World-kind. It gave Ryel new strength, but still he eyed Lady Srin warily.


“What are you going to do?”


The wysardess gave a sigh and a doubtful head-shake. “Something I very probably shouldn’t. But be quiet, and let me remember the spell.” She shut her eyes, silently murmuring. Then she fixed Ryel with her most quelling glare. “All right. I have it. Here we begin, lad.”


“Begin what?”


“The Spell of Translation, of course.”


Ryel all but rolled his eyes. “You can’t. It’s worthless even to try.”


The wysardess shrugged. “As I said, I get visions. My Mastery will work, trust me.” She paused. “But if it doesn’t, and some ill befalls you—like death, perhaps—I hope you’ll understand.”


“Oh, certainly. Of course I will.”


Lady Srin smiled, as grimly ironic as Ryel. “You’re young and tough—if the spell takes, you’ll survive it. A good road be yours, lad.” Suddenly she came close, putting both hands on his shoulders; pressed her cheek against his, hard, before drawing away again. “Now it starts. Move a muscle and you’re dead. Think a thought and you’re dead. Remember that.”


Ryel made no answer either by word or gesture. At his side Jinn stood, fully as immobile.


“Shut your eyes.”


Ryel did so. He could hear the guttural rumble of spell-words, none of them intelligible, as he felt his body dissolve around his rai. It occured to him that he might indeed be dying, this time for good, and he tried to open his eyes to give Lady Srin a last indignant glare. But he was utterly unbodied now. He felt as if his rai were being hurled like a burning ball at some immeasurably distant target, and for a long time he hurtled through nothingness, but then he hit. Hit hard, then shattered, then pulled together like scattered mercury, rolling bit by bit into wholeness.


*****

He felt light pressing on his eyelids like tormenting fingers, and groaned for the pain of it. But little by little the brightness grew easier to bear, until eventually he could blink, and then see. Unfortunately, everything he saw was spinning crazily, a great whirling nowhere of gray and brown. Struggling to stand up—he had at some point crumpled to his knees—he felt a sick rising in his gorge, and sat down again, lest he be wracked with retching.

Slowly he looked about him—only with his eyes, for any movement of his head brought unbearable dizziness—and found Jinn nearby, as tranquil as if no spell had ever occured. Beyond Jinn a great river flowed, murky brown and swift with snowmelt from the great mountains afar off—peaks far more massive and stern than the Gray Sisterhood, heavily mantled in white.


Ryel shivered. He felt very cold. “So,” he murmured through uncontrollably rattling teeth. “Where’s that good spirit you told me of, Lady Srin?”


At that question a sudden burst of song issued from nearby, making Ryel start. Turning about—he could move now without too much agony—he saw a swirl of smoke issuing from behind a clump of tall reeds. The smoke thickened, and now and then the singing halted in favor of coughing, but then continued merrily as ever. It wasn’t the kind of song Ryel expected from a spirit; far from it. And surely a spirit’s voice would be sweeter, or at least more on key.


Peering between the reeds, the wysard saw that the singer was of no apparent gender. It wore male garb in the Northern fashion, but its disordered beige curls fell nearly to its waist, and the timbre of its voice was sexlessly shrill and high. It was leaning over a miserable excuse for a fire, trying to coax a pile of damp twigs into a blaze. Out of pity Ryel said a word, and the twigs leapt alight, to the singer’s astonished pleasure. Deeply desirous of some of the heat he’d created, the wysard emerged from behind the reeds. At first the singer stared wide-eyed, but then it coughed a curse and snatched at its head.


“Damnation take it, my wig’s afire!”


In the next moment the smoldering heap of unkempt curls was being energetically whacked against the grass, and the singer was revealed to be a balding ginger-haired man, closer to fifty than forty. Wig in hand, he squinted up at Ryel, his teeth—yellowing where they weren’t missing—bared in either a grin or a grimace. “You’re not a highwayman, I trust? No pistols?”


Ryel had heard about pistols, and guns in general, around the Risma fires. From what he could gather, they were unreliable, inaccurate, clumsy and loud. The folk of the Steppes scorned them as newfangled and outlandish, sure to be discarded as worthless novelties. Remembering that scorn, Ryel shook his head emphatically enough that his new acquaintance seemed convinced. Blowing away the burnt hair, the highly unlikely agency of good clapped his wig back on his head and stretched out his hands to the blaze—hands with black-stained nail-bitten fingers laden with garish rings of dubious worth—and rubbed them together with gap-toothed glee.


“Come near and get warm, by all means. I’ve a great knack for making fires—although of course when I’m at home my manservant makes ‘em for me. Were you perchance listening to my song, sir?”


Ryel nodded, likewise rubbing his hands back to life. “I couldn’t help myself.”


“So you liked my little trifle, eh? ‘The Rambling Trollop’ it's called, and all the town will be singing it next week, but yours is the joy of its maidenhead. My last ditty, ‘What The Chambermaid Saw,’ was all the rage at court, but I much doubt you've heard it. I infer your ignorance from your aspect, which is most exotically Southern. You make for Hallagh, I suppose?”


“I do.”


“I'll bear you company—but let’s drink first, by way of acquaintance.” The self-professed songster drew a bottle from his coat pocket, uncorked it, and took a long swig. “What might I call you, sir?”


Dissembling seemed foolish. “My name is Ryel Mirai.”


The poet seemed to reflect as he drank again. “Ah. Of Destimar, perchance?”


“Of Almancar, not long ago.”


The songster's bleary eyes lit bright. “Indeed! Almancar! My lord of Gledrim visited its whore-quarter once, when a very young man. He said it cost a fortune and was worth every penny.” He was about to drink again, but seemed to remember himself, and passed the bottle to Ryel, who thought it well to decline with thanks—a refusal cheerfully accepted, and acknowledged with another wholehearted gulp. “Well, Mr. Mirai, you're in luck. Your travelling companion is none other than Thomas Dulard, poet and musician to three successive sovereigns, and favorite of the highest nobility—in point of fact, I'm just returning to Hallagh after a week's stay at the Earl of Gledrim's country house. And a mad week it was—the quintessence of debauchery. My head aches like a bastard.”


The poetic Dulard had a decidedly equine aspect, and was flaccidly made, foppish and slovenly. He buttoned his coat up to the neck to dissemble the less-than-pristine condition of his linen, and reassumed his hat after an unsuccessful effort to freshen its limp plumes, jauntily tilting the brim in compensation. Untying his horse, a pale and unprosperous nag, he clambered into the saddle with a wince and a muttered curse at his evidently aching head. “If I don’t trespass by inquiring, what manner of person are you, Mr. Mirai? A poet like myself, perhaps? Or, judging by your picturesque garb, a poetical subject?”


“I’m a physician.”


Dulard met Ryel's nod with a wry leer. “Indeed! An honest one? I mean no insult, sir, but most of the doctors in Hallagh make their best money by curing claps, excising inconvenient conceptions, and sewing up sword-cuts.”


They continued their progress into the city, with Dulard offering various reflections on the town and its denizens. Hallagh had outgrown its gates many years before, and the wysard and his companion traversed a sprawl of ill-built houses that lined the great road and grew ever more tightly packed as they neared the river Lorn. The poet called Ryel’s attention to the other side of the river, where the old city of Hallagh crowded onto a jutting wedge of promontory, while on the opposite bank were great houses built around Grotherek Palace for the Domina's court and the most prosperous merchant gentry. Wide well-built bridges linked the promontory and other points on the south bank of the Lorn to the northern shore, but, as Dulard wryly warned, one had to beware of the bullies and cutpurses who thronged and jostled there.


Ryel listened with all attention as he looked about him. A sharper difference between the bright paradise of Destimar and this chill Northern capital he could never have envisioned. Here were no delicate radiant spires, wafted perfumes, suave civilities. Hallagh was a city of squat-built dark stone, sooty brick and rough half-timber. Its cobbled streets teemed with jostling traffic. Wandering vendors cried their wares at the tops of cracked lungs, while the constant peal of bells overcame the general pandemonium, clanging out from stern granite temple-steeples and university towers that stood out in sharp relief against the flat gray of the sky.


Unlike Almancar, Hallagh's citizenry had no distinct stamp of feature save for a prevalent fairness of hair and ruddiness of complexion, but now and again Ryel observed men and women seemingly a race apart from the rest, conspicuously tall and well-made and pale-skinned, with hair like silver tinged with gold, and faces stern and strong. Remembering histories he’d read long ago, Ryel turned to Dulard.


“Are those Hralwi?”


Dulard gave a sour nod. “White Barbarians, to better name ‘em. It used to be they kept where they belonged, up in the ice-regions, but ever since the peace they've been swarming to the capital to gape and marvel—and cause trouble. They’re good for little else than as door-guards and paramours. The late Dominor Regnier was fully as fair in color, as is his sister Bradamaine—rumor has it that their grandmother was in her youth carried off, willingly enough I'll dare swear, by some Snow-folk braves, and when finally ransomed returned home big-bellied with barbarian get.”


At that moment Ryel saw another even more arresting sight: a group of young men and women, most of them still in their teens, brilliantly and strangely robed and bejewelled, their gorgeous finery jarring with their pasty blank faces crowned with hair clipped and stiffened and colored in the most strikingly strange of ways. They were crowded into a richly-gilded open coach, and sprawled languidly, yet with an air of restless expectation in their far-away eyes. The wysard observed that all of these persons were either tattooed or scarred on the cheeks and forehead with the device of a star within a circle—not a star of five points or of six, but made up of four intersecting lines creating eight equal divisions. Some had the marks on their hands, arms, necks; one of them apparently had his entire body thus gouged and burnt. Such deep and pervasive markings must have indeed been painful, Ryel reflected. Dulard noted the wysard's undisguised disgust, and nodded in sympathy.


“Servants of the Master,” he said. “On their way to worship, so it looks. Often they're a great deal more noisy, but from the looks of them now they're drugged to the roots of their hideous hair. All of them are sons and daughters of great lords and ladies. But here in the North marriages are as cold and bleak as the weather, meant only to join fortunes, and whatever progeny results is left to the care of servants and other ignorant folk, and brought up very carelessly for the most part. The priests of the Unseen are continually inveighing against them, to no effect. Not even the thundering denouncements of the Lord Prelate Derain Meschante can stamp out the cult, so strong it's grown.”


Ryel's memory leapt at the name Dulard spoke. “Meschante? Tell me about him.”


Dulard made a face. “There's little to relate, save that he's a scolding lout—Ralnahrian, to judge from his accent. For some years he's held great sway among the Unseen's believers—dull, sober citizens without exception. If you're curious to hear a sample of his rant, he can always be heard during services at the great church on Crown Street. He's no friend of mine, as you might guess. Aha, we've reached the Owl and Ivy. Time for a glass of ale and some breakfast—which, thanks to your present company, will cost you nothing.”


To Ryel’s more than mild surprise, the poet was as good as his word. Dulard seemed to know a great many people on a boozily familiar footing. Hardly had he entered the tavern and taken the first of many complimentary gulps and bites than the poet was asked to sing, and he obliged with some of the rankest smut Ryel had ever heard set to rhyme and music, which the clearly delighted audience chorused at the top of their lungs. None of his admirers' good cheer seemed to make Dulard much drunker than he already was, or diminished his cormorant voracity.


“You've many friends,” Ryel remarked, as they left the tavern well-fed and possibly too well-drunken, and began again to ride.


Dulard coughed away a belch. “They love me for my art. All the folk in Hallagh—in the entire realm, I would say—sing my songs and know my plays, except that puritan Meschante and his glum followers, and a few other haters of wit. And now that we speak of the latter, here's an enchanted castle I'm sure I'll never enter.”


The poet jerked an exasperated ink-stained thumb at a great walled keep that overlooked the river and Grotherek. Ryel observed the soldiers issuing in and out of the building. “What is it?” he asked. “A fortress?”


Dulard squinted assent. “The headquarters of the army, where the great Redbane has his residence.”


Ryel heard only one word that made his blood jolt, and he replied numbly over his heart's sudden uproar. “Redbane?”


“It's an odd enough sobriquet, I grant you,” Dulard said, only half noting Ryel's amazement. “But, believe me, everyone in this land knows it well. His true name's Yvain Essern, his title the Count Palatine of Roskerrek, and his office the general of Bradamaine's forces, in especial the cavalry. He has his soldiers whipped skinless at his merest whim, and loves war and carnage the way others less savage and more sane love women and drink. It's a common saying that the reason his skin's so ghastly pallid and cold is because he has no heart in his body and only ice in his veins, and his hair's so freakishly red because he washes it in his enemies' blood. Were I he,which I’m heartily glad I’m not, I’d wear a wig, but soldiers scorn ‘em, no matter how high their rank. He's fanatically devoted to the Domina, although she makes no secret of despising him—which I call wisdom on her part, not that she ever shows much in her other dealings.”


Ryel felt his heart race. “I understand that Redbane—or rather, the Count Palatine—has a brother.”


“He had two, sir,” Dulard answered. “The eldest died in battle, and the younger—Michael, styled the Earl of Morvran—left Hryeland years ago, to study the black arts, some say. He likewise was a Red Essern, and never until this generation were there two of them living at once. Many folk of Hryeland believe it's a portent of some great catastrophe to come.” Dulard suddenly sat upright in the saddle for the first time. “But now that we speak of Redbane—the enchanted castle opens! I swear, I sometimes think I have magical powers.There's Jorn Alleron, a friend of mine. I'd speak a word with him, by your leave. Come, I'll present you.” And Dulard steered his nag toward the black-uniformed, flaxen-haired, superbly-mounted officer just riding out of the gate—a man middling tall and ruggedly built, as lithe in the saddle as a Steppes brave.


Dulard bent toward Ryel, speaking in an undertone. “We're in luck, Mr. Mirai. Alleron is Redbane's personal equerry. You wouldn't guess from his proud looks that he's a mere commoner, would you? But he and his family scorn all titled rank—their honor and pride is to serve the house of Essern, which they have these many centuries gone. During the Five Years' War Alleron's father Renaye gave his own life to save that of Roskerrek's sire, the famed Warraven.”


“Warraven.” Ryel felt Edris' cloak like a sheet of flame about him as he remembered his father's words. Warraven, he thought. So it was Redbane's father whose cloak you stole, ithradrakis. Warraven, who almost killed you—


Dulard rattled blithely on. “—and Renaye died stuck like a hedgehog full of Barbarian arrows when he threw his body between his master and the attack—why, well met to you, my brave Captain Alleron.”


The flaxen officer levelled a piercing stare at Dulard, but not a muscle in his face revealed the merest hint of willing recognition. A good honest face it was, young for its forty years and neither plain nor handsome, but now unrelentingly dour.


“So, scribbler,” the captain said. “What do you want?”


At the sound of that voice, dry as alum, Dulard cleared his throat. “Why, only to give you good day, Captain, and ask the news.” He flashed a broad though not especially mirthful grin. “As you've doubtless heard, I've been away from the city the past week, as guest of his grace of Gledrim.”


The captain's facial immobility twitched. “Gledrim's a buggering wastrel.”


The poet flushed, but kept grinning. “He entertains the best company, sir, and I was made welcome among it.”


Alleron wasn't impressed. “Meaning you sang for your supper, ate it in the kitchen, and slept in a garret with the footmen and their fleas. Get you gone and save yourself a beating, for my lord can't bear the sight of your face, much less your scurvy scribblings.”


Save for his ale-blushed nose, the poet paled white as the sickly plumes of his battered hat, which he plucked off his head with an unsteady hand. “Always a pleasure to chat with you, Captain—but I've business at my bookseller's, and cannot stay.” He turned to Ryel. “I'm sorry we must part so precipitantly, sir. But I hope we may meet again, in more favorable circumstances. And so, your servant—” As he spoke he urged his nag away and effaced himself in the crowd until his bedraggled feathers were lost to sight.


Alleron turned his head and spat. “I can't abide that halfwit. Don't tell me he's a friend of yours.”


The wysard was surprised to find himself addressed, and seized what he knew was a chance beyond all expectation. “An acquaintance, and that only barely,” he replied. “We met on the road this morning.”


“Dulard's a fool. Writes doggerel full of greasy flattery dedicated to my lord, and expects to be paid for it, the ink-pissing idiot.” The captain surveyed the wysard with the razor's edge of his steel-blue stare. “What brought you to Hallagh, Destimarian?”


Ryel thought very fast, seeing unlooked-for chance opening wide its double door. “I heard that Lord Roskerrek suffers from various complaints.”


Alleron shrugged with no little impatience. “Well, and?”


“I am a physician of some skill in his disorders, and would attempt his cure, if he so wishes.”


This news was met with utmost indifference. “You wouldn't be the first.” All the time they'd talked, Alleron's steely eyes had been making a noncholant but minute scrutiny of Ryel's mare. “That's a fair bit of horseflesh.”


“I think so, too,” the wysard answered, fully as casually.


“I'll buy her of you, if I like her price.”


“You wouldn't, Captain. Trust me.”


Alleron's left mouth-corner leapt upward. “You're of the Inner Steppes, aren't you? The Stormhawk phratri, I'd guess.”


“You're not far off,” Ryel said, surprised and rather pleased. “I'm of the Elhin Gazal.”


Alleron slowly twisted his flaxen mustache with his gloved hand, his keen eyes still numbering Jinn's perfections. “The Triple Star. I'm something of a horse-scholar, doctor. The great bloodlines are my especial interest, and those of the Rismai I've committed to memory. Did I put faith in miracles, I'd say your mare seems to be one of the right Windskimmer breed.”


Ryel inclined his head. “You've a rare eye, Captain.”


Alleron swore violently, but in a reverent undertone. “What physician can afford to bestride a horse so fine?”


Ryel smiled. “Not a bad one, maybe.”


A soft yet incisive voice broke in, cold as a blade. “Who is it you speak to, equerry?”


Alleron instantly wheeled about, sweeping off his hat and bowing low. Ryel observed that the newcomer was a cavalry officer of great rank, to judge from the extreme richness of his black uniform. He was a coolly adroit horseman too, mastering with impatient ease his unruly big roan. But even more singular than the officer's dress or his horse were his looks, which the wysard knew at once. Dulard's description had not exaggerated. Redbane's hair was indeed red as blood, his skin dead white—and those ice-gray eyes with their all but invisible pupils were most certainly unsettling, especially since they were now taking a minute yet absolutely inscrutable inventory of every lineament of the wysard's every physical characteristic, and of Jinn's as well. They lingered long upon the wysard's tyrian mantle, but with no emotion that Ryel could unequivocally read.


“M'lord,” Alleron was saying, “this is a physician of Destimar who has healed lords and princes, and claims to be versed in ailments such as yours.”


The gray eyes never blinked under the broad shadow of hat-rim, never ceased their cold surmise. “I no longer wish any doctors, equerry. I believe I have told you so before, more than once.”


“But m'lord,” Alleron protested. “This man—”


“Rides a remarkably fine Steppes mare, which I’m sure you noticed first,” the Count Palatine dryly replied. “You're a good judge of horses, equerry. I suggest you keep to what you're best at.”


As Alleron drew back, clearly bruised by the rebuff, Ryel spoke. “My lord of Roskerrek, I will ask nothing for my services.”


The Count Palatine's thin lips twitched in icy derision. “Nothing, you say. Nothing buys few horses.” His strange eyes continued their unreadable examination of Ryel's cloak, and the wysard in his turn further remarked the singularities that had so forcibly impressed him at first glance.


Ryel had been much struck by the contrast between Roskerrek's figure and his face. Though the Count Palatine's garb might be rich and his body well-formed to wear it, being both slender and strong, his countenance was ill-favored to an extreme. A sour-lidded bitter-lipped face it was, shaven close save for a narrow mustache adding yet more width to the mouth, and a pointed beard further sharpening the tip of the chin—both ornaments colored the same strange blood-scarlet as the hair of his head that fell in lusterless skeins to his shoulders. But the wysard saw that Roskerrek's ugliness owed more to a lifetime of continued pain than to any inherent flaw. Protracted suffering had scored slashes deep upon the brow, etched harsh acid around the eyes, carved long furrows athwart the mouth-corners. Even now migraine made the eyelids twitch, and cramped the lines of the lips. What Ryel beheld was defacement that drove to the very soul—and for reasons he could not explain, he sorrowed for it.


Roskerrek felt the wysard's regard, and maybe his emotions. Whatever he felt he was far from showing. But his next words, though couched in the coollest indifference, said all. “That is a military cloak you wear, doctor.”


Ryel levelly met that ice-gray gaze, glad that his heart was hidden. “Is it?”


“The highest ranks of the army wore such, many years ago. The unfading richness of the color was greatly prized, and obtained by secret means now forgotten.” Roskerrek glanced pleasurelessly down at his own cloak, which was of deep gray guarded with black and silver, then back to the wysard's. “I doubt you served in the Hryeland cavalry when that garment was in fashion, doctor. My father owned one virtually identical to yours—I remember it well. But shortly after his death it disappeared—no one ever knew where.”


“I am sorry to hear it,” Ryel replied. “But many things thought forever lost may be found again.”


Alleron, clearly baffled by their talk and impatient too, broke in. “M'lord, only let him try to work your cure. I know he'll—”


The Count Palatine's soft voice frosted. “Equerry, I command you hold your tongue.”


Alleron turned his face away, blinking furiously as he whispered a curse. Roskerrek regarded the captain a long impenetrable moment, and then addressed Ryel. He was smiling, though ever so barely.


“Who I am, I believe you know. Now I would learn your name, doctor.”


Ryel told him. Roskerrek seemed to muse, as if in recollection.


“Ryel Mirai,” he murmured at last. His rain-gray eyes searched the wysard's, observing the slant, remarking the blue. “The Inner lands … and Almancar. Tell me the true price of your cure, physician.”


Astonished though he was by the Count Palatine's acuity, Ryel replied with calm. “I would have the answer to a single question.”


“That could mean little, or too much,” the Count Palatine said, again after a silence. “Whatever you desire to ask, I refuse to answer until I am cured.”


Ryel bowed his head to conceal his chagrin. “As you wish.”


In that interval Alleron muttered fervent thanks to the goddess Argane. Roskerrek heard, and smiled now with all his face, although faintly, and again addressed the wysard.


“I am at present engaged at the Ministry of Arms, Ryel Mirai,” the Count Palatine said. “But come to me here at headquarters any time after three of the clock, and we will discuss the terms of my cure—unless you have other appointments.”


“I will not fail you,” Ryel replied.


At this juncture a contingent of staff officers rode up to join the Count Palatine, and they departed for the Ministry. Captain Alleron, however, did not follow.


“I scarce know how to thank you, physician.”


“I can think of a way,” Ryel at once replied. “What do you know of a man named Guyon Desrenaud?”


The wysard never expected the response he got. Alleron paled, and darted Ryel a piercing look. “Is that the question you would have put to my lord?”


“It is.”


“Then I'm damned glad you didn't ask it. My lord's sick enough as it is—you might have proven his death, speaking that name. What's Starklander to you?”


“As yet I’m unsure. But whatever you can tell me concerning him, I’d be glad to hear.”


Straight-backed though Alleron was in the saddle, he now sat even more upright. “I knew him better than most, doctor. I was his dispatch rider during the late wars, carrying letters between him and the Domina.”


“I thought you served the Count Palatine.”


“I carried my lord's messages as well. Some there are that might tell you I'm the best rider in the realm, and can get more speed out of a horse than any other. And those sayings may well be true—but that's neither here nor there. Starklander was a man whose greatness fully matched that of my lord's, although I admit it much differed in kind. It wrung me sore when he was exiled from this land, and my one desire is to have him back in the Domina's good graces again.” He dealt Ryel a wary glint. “Do you wish him good, or ill?”


“Neither as yet. But whatever you can tell me concerning him, I would be glad to hear.”


“Well, you have my leave to learn all I know—but only on condition that you heal my lord. And if you turn out to be but another pill-rolling quack—”


“I look forward to your surprise, and my enlightenment.”


A harsh bark of laugh at that. “We’ll see. But I can't stay. My lord expects my attendance at the Ministry. If you're in need of pastime whilst awaiting my lord's return, I know some good taverns with—”


“Actually, Captain, I'd prefer directions to the church where Derain Meschante holds services.”


Alleron's steel-sharp eyes widened in amazement, then narrowed in a grin. “I'd not have thought you a religious man, doctor. But since you seek to know, he holds forth over there, twice a day.” The soldier jabbed a finger, not respectfully, toward a great steeple now hoarsely a-clang with great bells. “You'll be just in time for the second service, if you go now. Enjoy yourself as best you may—but don't forget your promise to my lord.”


“I wouldn't for the World, Captain.”


Ryel soon reached the church. After a moment's appraisal of the edifice's stark and unwelcoming exterior, the wysard entered into a long bare hall grudgingly illumned by the chill Northern noon. His appearance was uncordially remarked by the congregation, most of it sober middle class, who, from long rows of hard benches, eyed his Steppes gear askance and murmured among themselves.


A pair of gray-swathed hangdog acolytes shuffled about with wide brass salvers dull with use, into which those assembled were all but constrained, it appeared, to throw considerable amounts of money. The heaped vessels were then placed upon the bare stone altar under the grim and unsatisfied eye of the priest.


Bored to disgust, Ryel was on the point of leaving, when at that moment a shiver went through the congregation, an eager current of expectation. Turning his gaze back to the pulpit, Ryel saw that a preacher was mounting the creaking steps with a heavily resonant tread: a priest much younger than the first, his years little more than thirty. He was almost as powerfully built as Michael Essern, and nearly as tall, despite his slack round-shouldered stance. Unlike Michael he was meticulously washed, and immaculately clad in severe gray robes, and most disconcertingly repulsive of visage. In a man of right mind and clean spirit, the priest's looks would have been unremarkable, and in a man of great intellect and compassionate wisdom, they might well have been deemed attractive, such beauty does inner light confer upon even the most unpromising plainness. But Ryel only saw the pebble-hard mud-colored eyes set too closely together athwart a long jutting nose, the meager-lipped mouth. Even the hair was joyless, hanging in thin lusterless strands of washed-out brown. But at the sight of this unprepossessing man the congregation seemed as close to ecstasy as it was capable, and pressed forward to hearken unto his teachings.


After a long moment of haughtily surveying the congregation and further establishing his empire over it, the priest of the Unseen launched into a bitter harangue eloquent only in its assurance of eternal damnation, and its insistence on precepts of an exceptionally self-denying nature being followed to the letter. Although sour and shrill compared to the deep music of Michael's voice, this priest's manner of preaching was, however, incredibly similar to Michael's in its strident coarseness, and apparently had its charms for the congregation, who murmured fierce agreement with every vilification of the flesh, and delighted in each abstruse twist of murky dogma. But Lord Michael had impressed Ryel at once as possessing an intellect both subtle and deep, for all his brutality and squalor. This Hryeland priest was manifestly second-rate in every respect.


“Who is he?” the wysard whisperingly demanded of the plump burgher's wife at his left elbow. When she did not reply, he asked again, more insistently.


She glared him up and down, her overfed cheeks wobbling with indignation. “He is none other than the Reverend Prelate Derain Meschante, the most eminent divine in the land,” she hissed. “And an outland reprobate you must be, to intrude here with your idle askings!”


“So that's Meschante. By every god—”


Ryel must have said the last words too loudly, because appalled silence sheer as ice caught their echo. Meschante stood upright at last, darting a furious glare directly at the wysard.


“By every god? None but a benighted heathen would swear so grossly—and such you must be, from your outland looks. A slave to the dirty gods of Destimar, most probably of that deceiving idol of whores and wastrels, Atlan!”


Ryel faced Meschante unperturbed. When the congregation's spiteful murmurings had died down, he spoke. “You once frequented Atlan's temple, I believe. Not only the temple, but the brothel district.”


“I did indeed,” Meschante replied, quelling his flock's bleating amazement with a lowering scowl. “And there I preached the truth of the Unseen to the sin-bloated denizens of that filthy wallow. I saved souls there, outlander.”


Approving murmurs met this declaration, but Ryel only lifted his chin in scorn. “You basely insulted a woman of purer spirit than you could ever begin to comprehend, and drove into exile the man who loved her.”


“I worked the will of the Unseen,” Meschante said, sneeringly self-righteous. “Mine is the triumph, and I glory in it.”


“The Diamond Heaven still stands, for all your puritan ravings,” the wysard replied. “And Belphira Deva is no less fair, despite your bigoted insolence.”


Meschante's flaccid pallor colored dark with rage and something more, and his voice rose over the congregation's hissing hubbub. “Never speak that slut's name in this sacred place! Her damnation will come at last—but not before time claws to pieces her painted beauty and leaves her a broken crone! As for that harlot's rakehell bully, he went from her reeking bed to this realm, only to be driven forth in shame at last.”


“Driven where?” Ryel demanded.


Observing that his listeners were dividing their attention between him and the wysard, Meschante made a gesture of contemptuous dismissal. “To his doom, I devoutly pray. But if I have any means to bring about judgment on that braggart Desrenaud and his proud trollop, believe that I will use them to their limit. Now get you gone, but know that the Unseen will punish with eternal fire your impious invasion of Its sanctuary.”


Unable to stomach any more, Ryel left the church under indignant glares, glad to be back in the jostling muddy street. The service with its glum rites and sermonizings had been very long, and apparently would go on longer yet. The wysard began to wish he'd listened to some of Alleron's recommendations for taverns. But in that instant the captain's voice, harsh and urgent, broke into the wysard's thoughts.


“I hoped to find you here, doctor. You're to come with me this instant.”


Ryel turned to find the captain's honest face much distraught. “But I wasn't to meet the Count Palatine until—”


“He requires you now. I've never seen him worse. He was nearly falling off his horse when he got back from the Ministry, and we had to carry him inside. Come along, and be quick!” With a sharp slap of the reins Alleron urged his horse impatiently through the street-traffic, scattering citizens, servants, and vendors right and left.



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© Carolyn Kephart, 2020