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Authors: Dave Duncan

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BOOK: Magic Casement
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Then
Inos stumbled to a halt halfway down an open staircase. It was wide and sunny.
It was deserted except for two women standing in conversation, but one of them
was Mother Unonini, the palace chaplain. From the way the two were poised to
move, they were just about to complete their chat. If Mother Unonini looked up
and saw Inos unescorted, she would certainly have questions to ask.

A
door opened beside Inos, emitting a woman with a package under her arm. Inos
smiled at her, took hold of the door, and went in, closing it firmly in a
tinkle of silver bell. The small room was lined by shelves bearing rolls of
fabrics. The large lady in the middle was Mistress Meolorne. She looked up,
hesitated, and then curtsied. Rather flattered by that, Inos bobbed in return.
She had come shopping, she decided-a most ladylike occupation to which no one,
even Aunt Kade, could possibly object.

“Your
Highness is the only lady in Krasnegar who could wear this. “

“I
am? I mean, why do you say so?”

Mistress
Meolorne beamed and bunched rosy cheeks. “Because of the green, your
Highness. It exactly matches your eyes. Your eyes are exceptional, remarkable!
They are the key to your beauty, you know. I believe you have the only truly
green eyes in the kingdom.”

Beauty?
Inos peered at the mirror. She was draped in a flowing miracle of green and
gold silk. Of course she had green eyes, but now that she thought about it, who
else did?

“Imps
like myself have dark brown eyes,” Meolorne said.

“And
the jotnar have blue. Everyone but you has either brown eyes or blue.”

Rap
had gray eyes, but Meolorne could not be expected to know a minor palace
flunky. Everyone else was either jotunn or imp, one or the other. Imps were
short and dark. Jotnar were tall and fair. In summer, jotnar turned red and
peeled disgustingly. Imps tended to sicken in winter.

“I’m
neither, am I? Mistress, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of that!”
Inos’s father had brown hair and... brown eyes. Paler brown than most,
she decided.

“You
are a diplomatic compromise, your Highness, if I may say so? Your royal father
rules both imps and jotnar here in Krasnegar. It would be inappropriate for him
to favor either one or the other. “

Inos
was about to ask if that made her a halfbreed, then thought better of it. Of
course the kings of Krasnegar could not be a pure strain. For generations they
had played off their predatory neighbors by taking wives from first this side
and then that. Normally when imp and jotunn married, the traits did not mingle,
and the children took after one parent or the other, but so many royal
outcrosses had eventually produced a true mixture in Inos. She must remember to
ask her father about it. How curious that she had never noticed before! She was
neither tall nor short. Her hair was a rich deep gold, not the flaxen of a
jotunn. She did not peel in summer-indeed she took on a splendid tan. And she
certainly did not pine in the long nights, as the imps did. She was a true
Krasnegarian, and the only one.

“The
bronze for your complexion, the gold for your hair, and the green for your
eyes,” Mistress Meolorne murmured. “It was designed by the Gods
especially for you.”

Inos
looked again at the miraculous fabric that enveloped her. She had never owned
anything like this before. She had not known that such material existed. What a
gown it would make! Gold dragons on green fields and fall foliage... Whenever
she moved the dragons shimmered, as if about to fly. Aunt Kade would be
ecstatic over it and delighted that Inos was taking an interest in clothes at
last. And her father would certainly not object, for she must expect to start
playing her part in formal functions soon, as she neared her coming of age. She
would ask Kade to advise her on the design.

“It’s
the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” Inos said firmly.

“I
absolutely must have it. How much is it?”

 

2

No
one had ever suggested that Mistress Meolome might be a sorceress, but the
thought occurred to Inos as she panted up the last alleyway that led to the
castle. Three and a half gold imperials? How had she ever been bewitched into
agreeing to pay so much for a mere swatch of silk?

Aunt
Kade would have hysterics.

Aunt
Kade must not be allowed to find out.

The
best strategy was certainly for Inos to go to her father at once and explain
that she had saved him the trouble of choosing a birthday gift for her. True,
her birthday was still some time off. Also true, he had never given her
anything worth three and a half gold imperials-not close, even-but she was
growing up and she needed such little luxuries now. Surely he would understand
when he saw the silk itself and she explained why she had chosen it and why it
was so suitable. He would be pleased that she was beginning to take more of an
interest in ladylike matters... Wouldn’t he?

She
had some jewelry of her own that she might be able to sell-if she was able to
sneak back into the town again. She might raise a hall imperial that way. A
straight “three” would sound a much neater, rounder sort of number.

Father
would understand, of course, that the only alternative was his dear daughter’s
tragic suicide from the highest battlements. Possibly she could live without
the silk-she had managed so far-but she could certainly not endure the shame of
having to return it. So he would congratulate her on her good taste and see
that the money was sent as she had promised.

Wouldn’t
he?

She
reached the top of the lane and paused to catch her breath, and also to
reconnoiter the courtyard. There was only one gate to the castle and it opened
into this cobbled outer court. Now there was no wagon in sight to provide
cover, only a few ambling pedestrians. The summer sun was high enough to smile
in over the ancient stone walls and brighten the pigeons that strutted around,
cleaning up the horse droppings. Relics of winter snow bled quietly to death in
corners. A man-at-arms was standing as rigid as his pike beside the gate, with
two mangy dogs snuffling aimlessly beside him. Within the big arch of the
entrance, nosy old Thosolin would be lurking in his guard room.

It
was none of Thosolin’s business, she decided firmly. Whether or not he
had the right to stop her going out, he certainly could not stop her coming in.
She did not recognize the petrified man-at-arms, but he looked as if he were
taking his job unusually seriously and so would not interfere. She squared her
shoulders, adjusted the silk below her arm, and began to march.

She
had every right to go into the town by herself, and if she chose to do so in
shabby old jodhpurs and a leather doublet that might have been thrown out by
one of Inisso’s stablehands, well, that was certainly not Thosolin’s
business either.

She
wondered who the guard on the gate was, he must be somebody new. It was not
until she had almost reached the arch that--

He
rolled his eyes in alarm and almost dropped his pike. Then he came even more
stiffly to attention, staring straight ahead, not looking at her. Inosolan
bristled angrily.

His
cone-shaped helmet was too small, sitting like an oversize egg in the nest of
his unruly brown hair. His chain mail was rusty and much too large. His very
plain face was turning from brown to pink, showing up his freckles.

“What
on earth are you doing?” she demanded. “I thought you were off on
the mainland.”

“I’m
just back for a couple of days,” he muttered. His eyes rolled warningly
toward the guard room door.

“Well,
why didn’t you tell me?” She put her hands on her hips and
inspected him crossly. “You look absurd! Why are you dressed up like
that? And what are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the stables?”

Pudding,
the gang had called Rap when they were all small together. He’d had
almost no nose then, and not much more now. His face was all chin and mouth and
big gray eyes.

“Please,
Inos,” he whispered. “I’m on guard duty. I’m not
supposed to talk to you.”

She
tossed her head. “Indeed? I shall speak to Sergeant Thosolin about that. “

Rap
never suspected a bluff. “No!” He shot another horrified glance
toward the guard room.

He
had grown, even in the short time he had been gone, unless it was those stupid
boots. He was taller than her now by quite a bit, and the armor made him seem
broader and deeper. Perhaps he did not look quite so bad as she had thought at
first, but she would not tell him so.

“Explain!”
She glared at him.

“A
couple of the mares had to come back.” He was trying not to move his
lips, staring straight through Inos. “So I brought them. I’m going
back with the wagons. Old Hononin had nothing for me to do, with the other
ponies away. “

“Ha!”
she said triumphantly. “Well, you still aren’t doing anything very
much. You will take me riding after lunch. I’ll speak to the sergeant.”

A
mixture of fury and stubbornness came over his face, wrinkling his wide nose
until she half expected the freckles to start popping off like brown
snowflakes. “Don’t you dare!”

“Don’t
you speak to me like that!”

“I
won’t ever speak to you again!”

They
glared at each other for a moment. Rap as a man-at-arms? She remembered now
that he had expressed some silly ambition to play with swords. It was an
idiotic idea. He was tremendously good with horses. He had a natural gift for
them.

“What
good do you think you’re doing standing here with that stupid pike? “

“I’m
guarding the palace!”

Inos
snorted before she remembered again that snorting was not regal. “From
what? Dragons? Sorcerers? Imperial legions? “ He was growing very angry
now, she was pleased to see, but he made a great effort to answer civilly. “I
challenge strangers.” Tommyrot! She suppressed another snort; and there,
as if sent by the Gods, a stranger came strolling across the yard toward the
gate.

“Right!”
Inos said. “Challenge this one.”

Rap
bit his lip. “He doesn’t look very dangerous.”

“Challenge!
I want to see how it’s done.” He clenched his big jaw angrily. “Stand
back, then!” As the stranger drew near, Rap swung his pike to the level,
took one pace with his left foot, and demanded loudly, “Who goes there--fiend
or froe?”

The
young man stopped, raised his eyebrows, and considered the question. “You’re
new at this, aren’t you?” he asked in a pleasant tenor.

Rap
turned very red and said nothing, waiting for an answer. Inos suppressed a
snigger, letting just enough escape that Rap would know it was there.

“Well,
I’m not a fiend.” The stranger was quite young, slim, and not very
tall, but a blond jotunn nonetheless. Anyone less like a fiend Inos could not
imagine. He wore a brown wool cloak with the hood back, a leather doublet, and
rather baggy brown hose. She decided that his clothes were all too big for him,
which made him seem shabbier than he truly was. He was fresh-faced and scrubbed
and clean-a point of note in Krasnegar-and the sun blazed on his white-gold
hair.

“Definitely
I’m not a fiend,” he repeated. “I’m a wandering
minstrel, so I suppose I’m either a to or a froe. Yes, I must be a froe. “

“What’s
your name, minstrel?” Rap demanded hoarsely.

“My
name is Jalon. “ But the stranger’s attention had wandered to Inos.
He bowed. “And I know who this is. Your humble servant, Highness.”

He
had big blue eyes, with a dreamy air that she found quite appealing. On
impulse, she held out her hand. He took it in his long minstrel’s fingers
and kissed it.

“I
saw you when you were very small, Highness.” He had a charming smile. “I
knew then that one day you would amaze the world with your beauty. But I see
that I underestimated it.” He was a very nice young man.

“If
you’re a minstrel, why haven’t you got a harp?” Rap was still
holding his pike at the challenge position.

“How
long did you see me?” Inos asked. He could not be so very many years
older than she was. She could not recall any minstrel so young. Perhaps he had
been an apprentice accompanying his master.

He
smiled vaguely at her and turned to Rap. “Harps are heavy. “ He
pulled a pipe from a pocket in his cloak and played a trill.

“Do
you sing, too?” Rap was still suspicious.

“Not
at the same time,” Jalon said solemnly.

This
time the snigger escaped completely, and Rap shot Inos a murderous glare from
the corner of his eye.

Jalon
did not seem very worried by the pike. “But I do play the harp and there
used to be a good one on the mantel in the hall, so I can borrow that again, I’m
sure.” He did not seem as if he would be very worried by anything at
all-and there certainly was a harp on the mantel.

“Wait
here!” Rap put his pike over his shoulder rather clumsily and swung
around, stamping his boots and apparently headed for the guard room.

That
would not do at all! Inos did not want Sergeant Thosolin, and perhaps others,
coming out and seeing her wandering unaccompanied, carrying home her own
purchases. “Rap? Should you go off and leave me helpless with this
dangerous stranger?” Rap stopped and spun around, almost grinding his
teeth.

“And
the castle!” she exclaimed. “What if a troll comes, or a griffon?
And you’re not here to guard us! “

“You
come with me, then!” He was quite furious now.

“No!
“ Inos said. “I think you should take Master Jalon to the guard
room with you if you think he is dangerous. You are welcome in my father’s
house, minstrel.” That sounded very gracious and regal.

The
stranger smiled and bowed to her again. He strolled toward the guard room with
Rap. Inos lingered for a moment, then slipped through the archway, unobserved
and very satisfied.

BOOK: Magic Casement
4.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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