Three weeks before the spring solstice, one week after the door to Kalches had first appeared in this whimsical, unpredictable, willful house where he had lived for the past month and more, Taudde stood before that door, his hand on the knob, recruiting his nerve to open it.
The door to Kalches, land of music and sorcery and the high winds that both cut like knives and sang like harps, stood in the long hallway of the house, between two high, narrow windows. Brilliant sunlight blazed through the nearer of the two; silver moonlight glimmered through the other. Between day and dark stood this door: solid, weathered, and ordinary, exactly as though it was a normal door and had always waited there for a hand to fling it wide. Though it did not match any other door in the house, somehow it did not look out of place. Its frame had been hewn roughly out of granite. The door itself was of common pine, the wood neither stained nor painted nor carved with any decorative figures nor even planed entirely smooth. When Taudde opened that door . . . when he opened it, he knew exactly the wind, fragrant with pine forests and the cold, clean scent of lingering winter, that would skirl out of the distant mountains and into this house.
He did not mean to step through the door, not yet. But this afternoon, weather permitting, he would finally step from this house into Kalches, crossing all the intervening miles in an instant.
He was not looking forward to that at all. Or he was, of course, in a way. He had been so long away; no matter how bitterly he would miss Lonne and the sea, he couldn’t help but anticipate his return to the stark, cold country that was his home. But his homecoming would certainly be . . . fraught. Taudde did not at all relish the thought of facing his grandfather and explaining everything that had happened. Or, really, anything that had happened.
Still, he dared not leave his return too late. Three weeks was little enough time.
He had asked leave from the prince of Lirionne to step through that door and into Kalches. Tepres had granted it, of course, exactly as he had promised. At noon today, Taudde would formally ask leave from the king of Lirionne himself, Geriodde Nerenne ken Seriantes. The king would also grant it. Taudde had very little doubt of that. Then he would open this door for the third time, and step through, from the spring of Lonne, the Pearl of the West, into the high, stark winter of Kalches.
With Leilis, so that was something, at least; no matter how little Taudde expected to enjoy his own interview with his grandfather, he did expect to enjoy witnessing the meeting between that stiff old man and Seathrift of Cloisonné House, which was the name Leilis went by when she put on the robes and manners of a keiso. He wanted to watch the old man try the edge of his tongue against her wit and unshakable composure. She would render his grandfather absolutely speechless, which was not something many people could do, but Taudde had no doubt she would do it. He looked forward to that very much.
But though he was resolved to go through, he thought he had better see how the weather lay on the other side of this door. This door opened into the mountains above the town of Kedres, not into the town itself, and storms were common in those mountains as winter turned to early spring. If the weather looked too difficult, well, that would be reason enough to put off his homecoming at least another day.
“Well? Will you open it, or do you merely mean to admire it as it stands?” inquired a light, quick voice at his shoulder. It was a voice that, to Taudde, was unmistakably underlain with an echo of the dragon’s voice. When ordinary men called Prince Tepres the Dragon’s heir, they were generally thinking merely of the king, the infamous Dragon of Lirionne. But ordinary men did not know of the true dragon beneath the mountain, and ordinary men did not possess Taudde’s trained ear.
Karah, Moonflower of Cloisonné House, the newest and youngest keiso in all of Lonne, stood beside the prince, her fingers twined with his. Though she had come to this house this morning ostensibly to visit her younger sister, Taudde’s student Nemienne, the romance between Prince Tepres and the beautiful young keiso was a very, very open secret throughout Lonne. Karah was far too honest to hide her feelings for the prince, and as his father did not disapprove, Prince Tepres also openly acknowledged his infatuation with her. Everyone looked forward to an eventual flower wedding. This gave the city a charming, pretty subject for speculation and gossip and helped take everyone’s mind off the coming solstice. Taudde was perfectly certain the king had thought of that, and would not have been surprised to discover that Prince Tepres was deliberately making certain public gestures of favor for the same reason.
Jeres Geliadde, the prince’s companion and bodyguard, stood behind them both. Nemienne hovered to one side, most of her attention on the door. She had long since accepted her sister’s romance with the prince and wasn’t much concerned with that; she was much more interested in doors and windows and the whims of the house. And in Kalches. Taudde had not yet decided whether he would permit her to accompany him to his home. He was almost certain it would be safe enough for her to come, but . . . he wasn’t entirely certain. None of them could be entirely certain about anything of the kind until the solstice came and went and did not give way to a summer of iron and blood and fire.
Prince Tepres said drily, “If you are not inclined to open it, Taudde, I might lay my hand to it.”
Jeres Geliadde cleared his throat.
“Or, then, perhaps not,” the prince conceded, tilting a straw-pale eyebrow at Jeres. He did not touch the door, but half turned to give his bodyguard an ironic look. The prince’s thin, arrogant mouth seemed made for irony. He bent that look on Taudde. “Someone needs to, however.”
Taudde eyed Prince Tepres with resignation.
“Of course my father will give you leave to go, Taudde. Surely you don’t doubt it.”
Taudde steadied himself with an effort of will. “No. I don’t doubt your father’s . . . generosity.”
“Your own grandfather’s, then?” the prince asked, more gently than was his habit.
A sudden hammering on the door interrupted Taudde’s attempt to frame an acceptable answer.
It wasn’t the door to Kalches; that would have been far beyond merely startling. This was merely the ordinary door that simply opened out onto the Lane of Shadows. Men did come to that door from time to time: mages who came to study bardic sorcery or the occasional tradesman daring enough to seek custom among the mages who lived along this lane. Prince Tepres, of course, or one or another of the young men who were his companions. Now and again, on a few memorable occasions, the king himself.
None of them had a knock quite of this sort. There was a disconcerting urgency to it.
Prince Tepres, quirking a pale eyebrow at the intrusion, stepped forward to answer that hammering. It was not his place to do so, but he might have meant to reprimand whomever was there for so rude a summons. Certainly whoever pounded roughly on the door would be embarrassed to find he had disturbed not a mere foreigner but the Dragon’s own heir.
Taudde, moved by an alarm he did not entirely understand, said sharply, “Wait!” just as the prince reached the door.
The prince, startled, turned his head, to look back at Taudde.
Jeres Geliadde, responding perhaps to the alarm in Taudde’s voice, thrust himself past Karah and Nemienne and strode suddenly forward, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword.
The prince’s hand fell on the latch. The latch dropped and turned under the pressure of that touch.
The door slammed open.
For a heartbeat, that was all. There were men there, poised on the weathered gray stone of the porch, a crowd of men: a few in the black of the King’s Own and a handful in the flat red and gray of the army; two men in the black and white robes of mages, and, most fraught of all, three men wearing robes embroidered at cuffs and collar with the saffron-gold that no one in Lonne but those of royal blood had any right to wear. The one in the forefront was a man nearing middle years, heavyset and hard-featured, powerful and angry. The man a step behind was younger and more elegant, with a narrow mouth and small chin; his angular eyes cold with bitter triumph. The third was a younger man, well back, surrounded by soliders.
Taudde had never met the left-hand princes of Lirionne, but he knew at once who they must be: the youngest must be Prince Geradde, of whom he knew nothing but the name. The cold, elegant man must be Prince Telis, whom the folk of Lonne called Sa-Telis, the serpent, even to his face. He had a serpent’s look to him: a cold look. He was said to be mage-gifted and clever and dangerous to cross.
And the one in front had to be Prince Sehonnes, eldest of the king’s sons, but keiso-born and thus not his father’s heir.
Not the king’s heir so long as Prince Tepres lived.
Taudde’s flute, recently carved of driftwood he had gathered himself from the broken shore below the Laodd, was in his hand. It had come there as automatically as Jeres Geliadde had drawn his own sword. But it was not the same as his old flute, which Taudde missed suddenly and acutely.
But for a long, reverberating moment, no one moved or spoke. Jeres would have leaped forward, he had his hand on his prince’s arm, ready to snatch him back from danger. But Prince Tepres had flung up a hand to check him and by that seemed to check them all, so the moment drew out, tension singing in the air until it became all but audible.
Prince Sehonnes, too, held up his hand. He, as Tepres, might have meant to restrain his men. But there was something else in the gesture. Something ostentatious, something that was meant for display: Look at me, like a vain boy showing off a new and expensive bauble to his friends.
Prince Tepres was staring at Sehonnes, at his hand . . . at the ring he wore: a heavy iron ring in the shape of a dragon, with twin rubies for eyes. Their father’s ring. The ring of the Dragon of Lirionne. Tepres had paled. His thin mouth set hard and stern, and he put his shoulders back and stood very straight. He looked, in that moment, very like his father.
“Brother,” said Prince Sehonnes, grimly, and Sa-Telis added, sharp and urgent, “I want the sorcerer alive!”
Tepres tried to swing the door closed. The heavy gauntleted hand of one of the soldiers caught it, a booted foot came down to brace it open, a sword went up . . . Jeres jerked his prince back and caught that descending blade with his own shorter sword, closing with the other man to counteract the soldier’s advantage of reach, shoving the man back out onto the porch with his weight and the sheer force of his will. But Jeres was only one man, and the door was still open.
Tepres, unarmed, reached after a sword he did not have.
Taudde lifted his flute, meaning to get those men off his porch and sweep the left-hand princes after them – perhaps he would fling them all into the dark under the mountain; he thought he could and was frightened and angry enough to try. But the mages blocked him, Sa-Telis stepping to the side to get a clear view of Taudde. Of course the mage-prince and his allies had known Taudde would be here. Both those mages had actually studied with him – he recognized them now – they knew very little sorcery and pretended to scorn what little they knew, but they knew him a little, and they had plainly come prepared to counter his sorcery.
And Taudde, who had devoted considerable thought during the past winter to ways in which a bardic sorcerer might avoid being caught in a magecrafted net of silence, found himself, in the moment in which it mattered, unprepared to meet them. He had more or less trusted the Dragon of Lirionne; he had not expected the door of this house to open onto enemies and sudden battle.
So he was not quick enough to answer the attack when the mageworking set itself against him, binding him into silence so that his flute uttered no sound, so that his shout of frustration fell into silence and was utterly lost. Taudde found himself unable to unravel that mageworking as fast and as powerfully as the two mages set it.
Out on the porch men struggled, but Taudde, caught by a web of magecrafted silence, could not hear them. Jeres had killed one man. Another of his attackers, slashed across the belly, folded slowly down over his terrible wound. The man’s mouth was open, but if he was screaming, Taudde could not hear him, either. Prince Sehonnes’ mouth was open as well, but he seemed to be shouting rather than screaming. He was pressing straight forward through the melee, toward Prince Tepres. One soldier had gotten around Jeres – there were too many men, far too many, they were getting in each other’s way, but that wouldn’t last and anyone could see how this particular battle must end.
Tepres, unarmed save for a short belt knife, gestured urgently for Karah and Nemienne to get back and himself stepped forward to face his attackers. Nemienne was trying to pull her sister away, but Karah was clearly refusing to go without Tepres – the girl wasn’t actually wrong, the prince absolutely could not be allowed to sacrifice himself – Taudde started forward, meaning to grab the prince’s arm and haul him bodily back farther into the house, which after all was not an ordinary house – there was no need, even now, for heroic last stands, but with the silence on him he could not even say so.
Jeres Geliadde faced two more armed men, but another man, behind him, kicked him behind the knee, and Jeres collapsed to one knee. The man drew back his sword for a killing thrust . . . and Jeres, his face blank, lunged upward and sideways and whirled his sword around in a short, vicious arc. Prince Sehonnes’ hand leaped away from his arm, seemingly of its own accord, blood spraying across the gray stone. The left-hand prince staggered, his expression one of disbelief and anger rather than pain. At the same time, the man behind Jeres completed his thrust, and Jeres, his body fully extended in his own smooth attack, could not even attempt to counter that blow. He did not counter it, and the sword slid into him, stabbing from back to front so that several inches of the blade emerged from his chest.
Despite that terrible blow, Jeres, in a smooth continuation of his own movements, as though stepping through the choreographed movements of a dance, caught Sehonnes’ amputated hand as it descended and flung it with deadly accuracy past half a dozen startled soldiers and through the door of the house. Where Prince Tepres, as though the move had been practiced in advance, put up his own hand and caught it.
For a moment that seemed frozen in time, everyone stopped. Prince Sehonnes, face twisted, clutched at his maimed arm. Even the serpent-prince hesitated, his dark eyes narrowed, to all appearances unmoved, but his attention momentarily fixed on his stricken brother.
Taudde, feeling as though he had been somehow caught in a play, was seized now by a wild desire to laugh. He seized Tepres’ arm in a hard grip and pulled him, resist though he would, back down the hall, sweeping the girls with them, and the pause shattered. In perfect silence their enemies came after them, rushing forward – too many and too well armed and nothing to laugh at, so that Prince Tepres yielded at last and backed up willingly, shoving Karah behind him, but it was impossible, anyone could see they would not be able to get clear. The soldiers rushed forward, and in that instant, without thought, Taudde seized the knob he found ready under his hand, flung open the door, and snatched Prince Tepres and Karah sideways out of the house and out of Lonne entirely, into sudden dazzling cold. The mage-prince strode forward, his mouth open in an inaudible shout, but Taudde slammed the door shut between them, staggering with the force of that motion and with footing gone suddenly uncertain.
Prince Tepres, staggering also, jerked himself free of Taudde’s grip, shoved Karah away toward safety, and whirled back toward the door to face his brothers, lifting Sehonnes’ amputated hand as though he might fling it at their faces in a macabre gesture of defiance.
Only the door was not there. Where it should have stood was only brilliant light pouring down a steep knife-edged ridge and into the empty gulf beyond, light glittering off an equally steep cliff rising on the other side: light and naked stone, empty air and blowing snow, here in the heights where snow would linger all through the short northern summer.