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A sample from THE GLASSWRIGHTS' JOURNEYMAN!
Rani Trader looked through the panes of glass, grateful that the direction of the wind had shifted, that she was temporarily spared the stench of burned wood and melted stone from the city below her tower chamber. She forbade herself to lean out the window, to gaze into the palace courtyard and see the refugees who huddled in their makeshift tents. She drew a deep breath, fighting the urge to turn away, to close her eyes, to shut out all thoughts of the fire that had eaten its way through Moren.
No one knew how the blaze had started. There were rumors that it had begun in a tavern brawl, deep in the Soldiers' Quarter. Some said that it had sprung from an unattended fire in the Merchants' Quarter, at a sausage-maker's stall. Others said that it had begun in the Guildsmen's Quarter, or among the homeless, roving Touched.
Rani did not care how the fire had begun. She only cared that the newborn flames had been licked to full life by the spring-time winds. The blaze had fed on winter-dry wood, eating its way through entire streets of the city. Good people had died trying to protect their families, and fine trade goods had disappeared in smoke.
In the end, the fire was only stopped by an experimental engine created by Davin, one of King Halaravilli's retainers. That massive machine, intended for war, had saved some few Morenian lives, bringing down rows and rows of buildings with explosive charges, collapsing wood and mud and wattle so that the fire had nothing to consume, nowhere to go. Even Davin's creation might not have been sufficient, though, if not for a furious spring storm that flooded the darkened and charred streets after three days of fire.
Moren was crippled, wounded almost to death. The city faced a new year and old terrors – starvation, freezing cold, madness. The Pilgrims' Bell tolled as refugees huddled in the palace courtyard, on the darkened flagstones of the old marketplace, in ramshackle doorways and unsafe structures. Children were sick, and the leeches who tended the survivors identified a new disease – firelung. The sickness was first brought on by breathing heated air or too much soot, but then it spread to others, to people who were exhausted and hopeless. Firelung killed if its victims did not receive rest and warmth and good, nourishing food. Often, it killed, even if the patients were cared for.
The only shred of grace from all the Thousand Gods, was that the cathedral had been spared. The cathedral and the Nobles' Quarter, and the palace compound. Moren had the tools to rebuild, if it dared.
Rani turned her head away and pulled the shutters closed, turning back to the tome on her whitewashed table. A JOURNEYMAN'S DUTY, she read. The letters were ornate, the parchment page ringed with fine illustrations of journeymen glasswrights going about their business of pouring glass, cutting shapes, crafting fine-drawn windows.
The book was the newest in her collection, given to her by Davin. The old man had carried it all the way to Rani's tower, breathing heavily from his exertion. He had pointed toward the heavy parchment at the beginning of the text, alerting her to the beautifully crafted pages. "Read it, girl. Read it, so that you can get on with your business."
She had bridled at his acerbic tone, but she had long ago mastered swallowing her retorts to the old inventor. Instead, she had brought a lamp closer, and she had made out the words on the page: A JOURNEYMAN'S DUTY. A Journeyman Glasswright shall exhibit all the Skills learned in his Apprenticeship. He shall show Knowledge in pouring Glass. He shall show Knowledge in cutting Glass. He shall show Knowledge in setting Glass. He shall show Leadership in teaching Apprentices. He shall show Obedience in following Masters. He shall contribute one fourth Share of all his worldly Goods to his King. Only then shall a Glasswright be recognized as Journeyman by his Guild and all the world."
Rani had read the text so many times that she had memorized the words, inuring herself to the longing that swelled in her chest. She had once been part of a complete guild – apprentices, journeymen, masters – all working toward a common goal. Now, she was the only glasswright in all of Morenia. She must prove to herself that she was ready to advance, that she was ready to stake claim to the title of journeyman. She must prove that she was ready to step forward in her bid to rebuild the glasswrights' guild.
After all, no other glasswrights were likely to trust their fates to Morenia. Not after the proud kingdom's own guild had been destroyed. Not after its guildhall was torn down, stone by painful stone. Not after its own masters and journeymen and apprentices had been executed or maimed, the supposedly lucky ones traveling far from Morenia with only scars and butchered hands to show for their devotion. If Rani were to rebuild the glasswrights' guild, she would have to start on her own, vanquishing the nightmares of the past.
And so, even after the fire, Rani began each day by reading the book's exhortation, as if the words alone would make her succeed in the face of Moren's calamity. That morning, she had set herself to work on a new window, a window illustrating the disaster of the fire. She was still trying to determine a strategy for cutting the pieces – long tongues of red and yellow and orange, streamers of color to commemorate the flames that had changed forever the world that she had known. She would immortalize Moren's destruction in glass, exorcise the memories from her own mind, and cement her claim to the title of journeyman. . . .
She still did not have the skill to cut the long, flowing pieces. Instead, she would work on tinting the glass, creating the yellow and orange from clear glass and silver stain. She needed to determine the proper amount of gum arabic for the caustic mixture. She grunted slightly as she reached for a lead-embossed book, the first treasure that Davin had given her. That treatise held almost everything she wanted to know about glasswork, almost everything that she had taught herself in the three years since she had returned from Amanthia.
From Amanthia, where she had been kidnapped and forced into an army of children, children who were sold as slaves to further their dark king's evil goals. Rani had liberated that army, and she had contributed to the defeat of the evil King Sin Hazar. She had learned much on her journey to Amanthia, much about the dark power of loyalty and devotion and love.
Sight, Rani set the new book on the table, carefully bringing her lamp near and ignoring the slight tremble in her fingers. She was too aware of the power of fire. Before she could huddle over the pages of tight-written script, though, the door to the tower chamber crashed open. "Mair!" Rani exclaimed. "Where have you been?"
The Touched girl grimaced. "Tending the children. Six more cases of firelung. All Touched." The disease was spreading, working its greatest damage among the people of Moren who had the least. Rani read Mair's concern in her friend's creased brow. Mair may have come to live in the palace, but her heart was still in the streets, with the children she had raised, with the troop she had led. With a visible effort, Mair set aside her worries, asking Rani, "What have you been up to, that you look so surprised at my coming here?"
"I was reading Davin's newest treatise, about advancement to journeyman."
"Books." Mair snorted as she glanced at the volumes on the high table. Rani knew that her Touched friend was able to read; Mair had mastered her letters at the same time that the girl was learning how to survive in the City streets. Reading and writing were tools that helped a Touched girl thrive, let her read the text of royal proclamations, let her draft markers for loans.
Mair had harnessed her skills well, Rani thought, managing a troop of children with all the aplomb of a general. The Touched leader had consistently directed her followers with a combination of maternal love and mercenary zeal – skills that were sometimes wasted in the constraints of King Halaravilli's court. Mair said, "There are more important things than books."
"Certainly there are, Mair," Rani sighed. "There are funeral pyres for all the victims who were not consumed outright by the fire. There is food to distribute. There are blankets to give out. But I can't be down there all the time. I can't watch over the damage all the time."
"They're your people, Rai."
"They're not mine!" Rani heard her voice ratchet higher, and she reminded herself to breathe, to relax her throat. "I'm a merchant girl, not a noble."
"Merchant girl, guild girl, noble." Mair shook her head. "You're whatever you decide to call yourself, Rai. The fact remains that the people need you. Your king needs you."
Rani snorted. "If he ‘needed' me, he would have included me in his discussions with the ambassador from the Pepper Isles."
"You're still upset about that?"
"If I'd been there, we would have negotiated for more spices. We could have taxed the cinnamon and the pepper – we could have raised the salt tax. We'd have money to rebuild the city by the end of summer."
"Rai, he obviously didn't see it that way."
"Of course he didn't! He doesn't understand how to bargain!"
"He understands how to be a king." Mair shrugged. "He's overlord of the Pepper Isles. If he demands too much of them, they'll rebel. Morenia can hardly fight a battle now, not to keep its outlying territories in line."
Rani did not bother to respond. If she had been involved in the negotiations, the matter would never come to open rebellion. She was more skilled than that.
After all, she had been born into a merchant family. In her earliest days, she had learned to manipulate her older brothers and sisters, how to lure customers into the family shop, how to hone the barest edge of a bargain. Negotiating was in her blood.
"In any case, Rai," Mair conceded in a conciliatory tone, "The king says he wants you there tonight."
"Tonight! He's meeting with the Holy Father. He'd banish me before a messenger from the Pepper Isles but permit me to stand before the worldly representative of all the Thousand Gods?"
"Of course the king wants you there. You were the First Pilgrim."
Rani had been selected for that honor almost five years ago, when she had been caught up in the mystery of Prince Tuvashanoran's death. She had been tangled in a web woven by the evil Brotherhood of Justice, a cabal that had conspired to get her taken into the royal household, to have her adopted by the then-king as the First Pilgrim. The Brotherhood had wanted her to execute Halaravilli, to end his life and advance the cause of so-called Justice. Rani had freed herself from the Brotherhood a long time ago. A lifetime ago.
"The church hardly needs to be reminded of mistakes it made five years ago."
"The church made no mistakes. They got you in the palace."
"For all the good it's done Moren these past few weeks! Why does Hal want me? The Holy Father's so old that you could go in my place, and he wouldn't know the difference."
Mair ran her fingers through her always-tangled dark hair as she peered at Rani's blonde tresses. "I think he'd notice."
"He might," Rani conceded. "But Hal certainly wouldn't. He's forgotten what I look like."
"Is that what this is all about?" Mair clicked her tongue as she crossed the room. When she perched on top of a high stool, she looked like some benevolent bird of prey. "Rai, he's worried for the kingdom, for all of Morenia's future."
"Worried enough that he had to entertain that slattern of a princess from Brianta?"
"Worried enough that he sent her away." Mair's voice was surprisingly gentle. "She's not able to give him the funds he needs; her dowry isn't enough. He was put out with her, Rai, outright rude. He'll be lucky if her father doesn't revoke our right to travel along the Great Eastern Road. She left the palace this morning, and the rumors say the guards at the city gates learned a few new words, listening to her swear."
Rani had not heard that the princess was gone. Even as a victorious smile began to curve her lips, she managed to shake her head in a simulation of disgust. "That's what we need. Warfare on the eastern front. Any fool could see that this is not the time to provoke our neighbors."
"So now you're calling your king a fool?"
"If he acts like one, that's what I'll call him." Rani tugged at the sleeves of her gown, forcing her attention back to the formula for silver stain.
Mair laughed. "Treason, and within the palace's very walls."
"Is it treason if it's true?"
"It is treason if you speak against your king, Rai. It is treason if you leave him alone in his apartments and let him be outfoxed by the Holy Father, who was negotiating contracts before King Halaravilli was born. The church says, now, that we'll have to pay a delivery fee of one gold ingot for every shipment of food they bring in."
"An ingot! Why only an idiot –"
"Mind your tongue," Mair interrupted, laughing. "His Majesty commands you to attend him in his apartments."
Mair's words shot through Rani, jamming against her spine and stealing away her breath. "He asked for me?"
"So, now that he needs me, he can keep a civil tongue in his head."
"Let it rest, Rai! You pushed him this morning. You know that you did. Your feelings were hurt that he sent you out of the room while he spoke privately with the ambassador from the Pepper Isles."
"He dismissed me like a servant."
"He dismissed you like a friend. Like a trusted comrade who would understand that he needed to honor a guest who is narrow-minded, pompous, and rich." Mair hopped down from her stool. "Oh, stop frowning at me. You know perfectly well that the king can't take any chances on tonight's negotiations with the church, especially after he came up short dealing with the Pepper Isles. He needs more money, and faster. There are more than two hundred children who have firelung now, and the number of new cases increases every day. The Touched are going to die if they continue to live in dilapidated tents. The Touched, all of them, and other castes too. They need shelter, and food, and clothing. And if the merchants don't get trade goods for the summer fairs, it will be even worse come the autumn."
"You don't need to explain the marketplace to me, Mair."
"I'm not explaining it to you. I'm reminding you that your stubbornness can kill, Rai. Your stiff neck will hurt children, mothers, fathers, all of Morenia."
"This isn't my fault!"
"The fire isn't your fault. Anything you do to keep Morenia from rebuilding . . . now that's another tale."
"Mair, you're not being fair!"
"Nothing is ever fair, Rai. Your king needs you to attend him."
"It's hardly necessary – "
"It's hardly necessary for you to sulk up here with your glass and your treatises. You need to leave this tower. You need to walk down the stairs, to your own apartments. You need to put on your mourning gown and attend your king and his guest in his apartments."
Rani sighed and shoved away all her other arguments. There had been no reason for Hal to embarrass Rani in public. There had been no reason for him to turn his back on her, no reason for him to treat her like a dismissed servant, while he primped and preened for that Pepper Isles lackey, for the Briantan princess.
Nevertheless, in her heart, Rani knew that Mair was right. Hal was frightened. His kingdom needed to rebuild immediately. He needed to protect his subjects. If Hal could not, there were too many restless border lords who would try. Border lords, or foreign kings from the lands to the east and the south, restless neighbors who would look at Morenia's troubles as a wide-open door to opportunity.
Rani could show Hal just how wrongly he had treated her if she helped him complete his negotiations with the Holy Father. She held on to that thought as she accompanied Mair down the stairs. She let the Touched girl help her into her stiff gown of black mourning silk. As Mair combed out Rani's gleaming hair, arranging it to fall straight and clean like a maiden's, Rani reminded herself that Morenia deserved her negotiating skill.
Mair nodded approval as she held a mirror for Rani, who could not keep a smile from curving her lips. She'd show Hal. She'd show him just how narrow-minded and foolish he'd been to ignore her, when she only had Morenia's best interest at heart. . . .
"Thank you." Rani managed to smile at her friend.
"My pleasure, yer ladyship," Mair drawled, slipping back into the Touched patois of her youth.
"If ye think ye're prepared t' take on yer king. . . ."
"I'll let you know how the dinner goes."
"Oh, no!" Mair leaped for the door of Rani's chamber. "I'm coming with you."
"Mair, you said yourself that this is a private dinner, in Hal's own apartments. He won't have time to attend to you –"
"Aye, Rai, the king isn't likely to waste his time on the likes of me. But who's to say the king's men won't spare a lady a few kind words?" Mair curtseyed deeply, lowering her eyes in a gesture that might have been humble, if not for the carnal glint in their depths.
"You're still after Farsobalinti?"
"‘After him' makes me sound like a bitch in heat."
"Attending to his interests, then? Sparing time for a loyal supporter of the king?" Rani smiled. "Is that better?"
"He's a good man, Rai. He's a good man, who cares for his king and his kingdom."
"And he just happens to care for dark-eyed wenches, with hair to match."
Mair laughed, running a stiff-fingered hand through her hair. "You say that as if it's a failing."
"No failing, Mair. No failing at all." Rani smiled. "The green in your gown sets off your eyes."
She bit off a laugh as those eyes flashed rebelliously. "Mair, there's nothing wrong with making yourself attractive to a man! Nothing wrong with snagging his attention as he moves between his soup and his meat."
"A man's meat, I know. Now where's his soup?"
Rani smothered a laugh, reminding herself that she was about to enter the king's apartments as an advisor, as a lady. She had to swallow a few choice comments, though, as she and Mair made their way through the palace hallways. The Touched girl tugged at her green gown repeatedly, jerking the fabric about as if it had offended her in some way. She might have lived in the palace for five years, but she had yet to leave behind all the ways of a street urchin.
Rani found it easier to remember her mission when she stepped into the king's receiving room. A great candelabra blazed against the wall, the finest beeswax candles giving off a gentle fragrance. Farsobalinti inclined his head graciously as Rani entered the chamber. "My lady," he said, taking the hand that she offered and raising it to his lips as he helped her over the threshold. "Lady Mair."
Rani read unspoken volumes in the glance that the knight gave to Mair, in the hand that lingered on the Touched girl's arm as he gestured both of the women into the chamber. Farsobalinti had been elevated from squire to knight the year before, and little remained in his voice or his bearing of the boy who had served his king so well for the first five years of Halaravilli's reign.
Giving Mair a chance to respond to the man's attentions, Rani crossed the room, pausing by the door to the inner chamber and catching her breath, the better to hear the conversation within. She recognized Hal's voice immediately, knowing well its serious, earnest tones. The response, though, was not the ancient Holy Father's. It was a younger man, a strident man. Rani knew that she had heard that voice before; she knew that she'd met the speaker. She started to turn to Farsobalinti to inquire about his identity, but the door to the inner chamber crashed open.
"My lord," a page gasped, "the king is demanding to know – Lady Rani!" The boy stopped his breathless question and managed a quick bow. "King Halaravilli is demanding to know where you are."
"I'm here, Orsi, just waiting for you to announce my presence." Rani immediately regretted her flippant tone as the boy looked confused. After all, the page was one of Hal's cousins, the king's heir, in fact. It would not be proper to tease the child. Rani glanced at Mair for reassurance. "Shall we?"
"Go ahead," Mair said, her smile for Farsobalinti alone. "The king asked for you, not for a dark-haired Touched girl." Rani almost snorted; the young knight did not even wait for the inner door to close before he sidled closer to Mair. Rani's belly flipped as she watched Mair raise a hand to straighten the nobleman's band of mourning, but she forced herself to set aside the picture of Mair's fingers on the man's firm arm, of Farso's widening smile. Rani did not have time to speculate on what the couple did in the shadows.
Instead, she focused on the room in front of her. Orsi – Orsomalanu – Rani reminded herself, held the door open. The boy cleared his throat before addressing his liege. "Your Majesty." Hal looked up expectantly, and the page bowed to his king and the visiting dignitaries. "Holy Father, Your Grace. The Lady Rani arrives."
Hal crossed the few steps toward Rani, his dark eyes immediately registering the single ruby around her neck. A flush rose in her cheeks as she remembered him giving her the stone, presenting it to her at the end of the summer in celebration of her eighteenth birthday. He had insisted that she wear it, and she had felt his fingers against her flesh, warm and dry. He had fumbled at the closure, and the ruby had started to slip down the front of her dress. She had caught it before it slid away, and they both had laughed easily, comfortably.
Now, Hal looked as if he would never laugh again. In the five years since he had ascended to the Morenian throne, Hal had come into his man's height. He was a full head taller than Rani, and over the past winter, he had increased the breadth of his shoulders, spending day after day practicing his fighting forms with his broadsword and shield.
Half a decade of ruling, though, had aged the king in other ways as well. Rani could see dark smudges beneath his brown eyes, smears of sleeplessness that indicated his suffering over the latest disaster to strike his city. His cheeks were gaunt, standing out beneath his unruly chestnut hair, hair that only half conceded to the weight of a crown. Hal continued to wear the black mourning that he had donned the day after the fire, and Rani wondered if Farso had needed to fight to get Hal to place the bejeweled crown across his brow. Even in the best of times, Hal was inclined to wear only a thin golden circlet, a brief reminder of the status that he insisted was proven in words and actions more than jewels.
Nevertheless, the crown that Hal wore that night was fitting. It was woven of interlocking Js, the letter that stood for Jair, the founder of the royal family and the pilgrim who had first cemented the faith of the Thousand Gods in Morenia. It matched the heavy chain of office that hung about Hal's neck, the sole jewelry resting on his mourning velvet. Both crown and chain contained clusters of pearls and rubies in the loops formed by each J. Hal had worn them when he was invested with his religious title, with the office that ran parallel to his worldly crown. Hal was the Defender of the Faith; he had received that charge at the hands of the Holy Father within weeks of ascending to the throne of Morenia.
Most importantly, though, the crown and chain reminded all present that Morenia was a long-lived kingdom, a land that had seen its share of disasters, but which had survived all, with the house of Jair intact. Hal might be reduced to asking the church for money, but his kingdom would survive. Morenia would prevail.
As if remembering this strength, Hal managed a smile as he handed Rani into the room. "Holy Father, Father Dartulamino, you remember Rani Trader, our treasured sister?"
Sister. That was not how Rani would have asked to be presented. Nevertheless, she thought as she collapsed into an automatic curtsey, "sister" was appropriate. Particularly since the Holy Father had presided over the religious service five years before, the ceremony where Rani was welcomed into the House of Jair, where she became the First Pilgrim for a year. Then, she had become a member of the royal family, if only temporarily. She had been expected to spend a year living in the palace, living as a member of the royal House of Jair. One year,
five. . . . The Thousand Gods worked in mysterious ways.
As Rani rose from her obeisance, she concentrated on the fourth person in the room, on Father Dartulamino. His had been the voice that she had heard from the outer chamber. Of course it had seemed familiar! Rani knew Dartulamino from other hallways, from other meetings.
Dartulamino was a member of the Fellowship of Jair.
Rani cast a hurried glance toward Hal, wanting to confirm the priest's secret identity. The Fellowship was a shadowy organization, and its members generally kept their daily lives hidden. In fact, in the three years since one of the Fellowship had come close to assassinating Hal, the cabal had drawn its ranks even closer. Glair, the leader of the cell that operated in Moren, had disavowed the crazed nobleman who had drawn steel against Hal; she claimed that the attacker had acted on his own, without approval or permission from the Fellowship.
After much debate with Rani and Mair, Hal had decided to accept Glair's explanation. To do otherwise would have required the king to challenge the Fellowship openly. Hal's reign was still too new for that sort of upset. Instead, Hal had attempted to embrace the Fellowship even more closely, to integrate himself into their workings more completely, so that he became invaluable to them.
Rani knew that Hal had taken on special missions in the past three years, that he had offered advice and the distinct advantage of royal secrecy to at least one information-gathering sojourn that the Fellowship had conducted in far-off Brianta, homeland of First Pilgrim Jair. Rani did not know the details, but she understood that Hal was maneuvering toward the heart of the Fellowship's cell in Morenia. He had worked hard to make himself indispensable, to make himself the rumored Royal Pilgrim.
The Royal Pilgrim. . . . Neither Rani nor Hal nor even Mair – with her long history in the Fellowship – knew precisely what the Royal Pilgrim was. Hal had heard about the Pilgrim from a madman, learning the Fellowship's aspirations from the rogue member intent on assassinating him. The Royal Pilgrim would unite the kingdoms – north and south, east and west. The Fellowship pinned its future on the figure. Hal and Rani might not know the details, but they understood one crucial fact: Hal must ingratiate himself even farther with the Fellowship if he were to claim true power in its ranks.
And while Rani had not been privy to all of Hal's maneuvers within the Fellowship, she had attended at least two secret meetings of that brotherhood where the sallow Dartulamino had spoken. The man was a priest; he had dedicated his life to the holiness and the sanctity of the Thousand Gods. Now, he was clothed in the simple green robes that all the priests wore in springtime, his unadorned surplice falling from his narrow shoulders like a curtain. His lips were chapped inside his sparse black beard, but they twisted into a passing smile. "Lady Rani, you honor us with your presence." The priest turned toward his superior and raised his voice. "Father, do you remember Lady Rani?"
The Holy Father leaned forward, his skull-like head trembling on a neck that seemed too thin. Rani caught her breath; she remembered looking up at the Holy Father with all the awe of a child, with the certainty that he alone stood between her and the tricksy power of all the Thousand Gods.
King Halaravilli's reign had not been kind to the Holy Father. The old man was bent, as if his spine were collapsing upon itself, and his hands shook with uncontrolled palsy as he leaned heavily on an oaken walking stick. His gaze was cloudy, and his right eye watered, as if he were bothered by dust or new-mown hay. His voice quavered as he raised a trembling hand in blessing, "Lady Rani. First Pilgrim. But that was not your name then, was it?"
Rani blushed at the subterfuge she had played so long ago. "No, Holy Father. You knew me as Marita."
"Blessed be Jair," the Holy Father intoned, and Rani was not certain that he had heard her or that he had understood her words.
In any case, Dartulamino aped the Holy Father's sacred sign across his own chest, and then the younger man turned back to the king. "Aye, blessed be Jair, who watches over all Morenia," the priest said. Rani thought she heard a warning behind those words, a message from the Fellowship. Before she could be certain, though, Hal gestured his guests over to the marquetry table that stood in the center of the room.
Ordinarily, Rani admired the inlaid wood, letting her fingers play across its impossibly smooth surface. Tonight, though, she found the beautiful work distracting, just as she found that she could not concentrate on the finest golden goblet or the carved ivory fork beside her trencher. She was present as a negotiator, as a merchant. She would have time to dwell on all the finery later. For now, she needed to devote her attention to the trade being conducted around her.
That work was not long in beginning. As the servants brought in steaming trays of fresh-roasted meats, Dartulamino nodded shrewdly. A footman served him a portion of pheasant prepared with fresh herbs, and the priest observed, "It's surprising to see the Defender's kitchens unaffected by the recent tragedy in Moren's streets."
Defender. The title was perfectly appropriate, but it underscored Hal's submission, labeling the king a servant to the church. Not a good stance for beginning negotiations.
"Unaffected?" Hal sat back in his chair to let the footman place food on his own trencher.
"Hardly, my lord. My kitchens, my palace, all of Moren suffers from the fire. I merely hoped to honor you and the Holy Father, and to provide you with a token of my pleasure that you could join us tonight."
"One man's token –" Dartulamino began, but he was interrupted by the Holy Father staggering to his feet. "Father?" the priest asked solicitously, easing a supportive hand beneath the elderly prelate's arm.
"In the name of Jair, let us pray."
Rani obediently bowed her head, watching Hal and Dartulamino follow suit. The footman, caught by surprise as he held a platter of new-dug carrots, tucked his elbows closer to his side, inclining his head. "In the name of all the Thousand Gods, let us offer up gratitude for the food placed before us this night." The Holy Father's voice quaked less as he continued his speech. "In the name of Til, the god of goldsmiths, let us give thanks, for Til has guided us in the creation of things of beauty and things of worth, and Til has seen that the coffers of the church are never empty."
Rani intoned, "In the name of Til," thinking that it was a good sign that the Holy Father had mentioned the church treasury on his own. She swallowed hard and raised her head, prepared to settle down to business.
Before she could reach for her goblet, though, the Holy Father continued: "And let us pray in the name of Kif."
"In the name of Kif," Rani muttered. In the name of Kif, in the name of Win, in the name of Bur, on and on the Holy Father droned.
"And let us pray, first and last, always and longest, in the name of First God Ait Ait brought the world out of nothingness, breathing it into being, with the power of his lungs and his thoughts alone. Ait blessed all of creation, the earth and the sky, the darkness and the light, and each of the Thousand Gods. Ait blessed men and women, adults and children. He blessed each of the castes, welcoming the nobles and priests, the soldiers, the guildsmen, the merchants, the Touched. He blessed the seasons, the turning spring, the summer and autumn and winter. Blessed be First God Ait."
"Blessed be First God Ait," Rani echoed, and she thought that she detected a note of exasperation in the voices of Hal and Dartulamino, as well as the servant who continued to hold the carrots.
"Very well, then," the Holy Father said after an expectant pause. "Don't stand on ceremony for an old man." Rani swallowed several sharp retorts before she managed to reach for her goblet.
Dartulamino appeared to take refuge in his wine as well. After a sip, the young priest raised an appreciative eyebrow toward his host. "Defender, you honor us by serving Liantine red."
"This is the last that survived – our cellars were flooded by the storm that stopped the fire. I'm grateful for the opportunity to share it with you." Hal inclined his head. Rani took a sip of her own wine, but the fine bouquet was lost on her. What was Hal thinking, admitting that the storm had caused such damage? If he intended to negotiate for a loan from the church, he should hardly start by admitting desperate need.
"Of course, we expect to purchase more stock, now that it is spring, and the sea passage is safe between here and Liantine," Rani said. Hal glared at her, and she buried a tart reply beneath a bite of carrot. Dartulamino certainly did not miss the exchange; he studied her closely. Rani swallowed hard and forged ahead. "We intend to trade a great deal with Liantine in the coming year."
Hal was clearly furious, but he did not have a chance to make additional bidding mistakes before the priest said, "That surprises me, lady, after the blow the gods have dealt fair Moren."
"Was it the gods?" Hal finally asked. "It seems to me that we men and women made mistakes. I hear now that the fire may have been started by a smith's flame, left unattended as the breeze picked up."
"And could that not be the work of Ith, Defender? Or of Pron?"
"Why would the god of blacksmiths rise up against all Moren? Or the god of wind?" Hal asked.
"What could the entire city have done to have angered those righteous gods?"
"Prayer!" the Holy Father exclaimed, and Rani was not certain if he was responding to Hal's question or if he was replying to words that only he heard. "Prayer is the answer to all the people of Moren, to all Morenia, to all the world!"
"Aye, Holy Father. Prayer is always advantageous," Hal replied courteously, pausing to see if the ancient priest would continue. The old man, though, returned to his roast fowl, forking a huge bite into his mouth and chewing with relish.
When it became apparent that the Holy Father was not going to comment further, Hal said, "We prayed, of course, after we toured the city, after we saw the damage done by the fire. It will take much to rebuild from this loss."
"The church has offered up many prayers of gratitude that it was spared the flame." Dartulamino made a holy sign across his chest, his hand standing out like a skeleton's claw against the green cloth.
Rani waited for Hal to continue. As much as she disliked making an opening bid in any transaction, she realized that she was likely to have no choice. After all, the priests were the ones who had everything to offer here. Hal had admitted as much. After swallowing a crust of bread, she said, "All of Moren is grateful that the church was spared. Otherwise, we could not turn to you in our need."
Hal set his goblet on the table with a crash. Rani refused to meet his gaze, even when his hands rose from the table. She knew that he would be adjusting his crown, using the movement to remind her that he was her king, her sovereign and her overlord. He was the one who should be conducting the conversation.
Well, if he were so determined to run the negotiations, when was he planning to begin?
Rani saw the priest barely hide a smile as he said, "All of Morenia may turn to the church in need. That's why we exist, to offer succor in the name of all the Thousand Gods."
Again, Hal did not take advantage of the opening, and Rani sighed, setting down her ivory fork. She eyed the priest steadily and said, "We are pleased to hear you say that, Father Dartulamino. Because we asked the Holy Father to supper so that we might negotiate a loan of the funds that we need to rebuild Moren."
"Rani." Hal merely spoke her name, but there was an entire argument behind his words.
She braced herself and met his gaze. "Your Majesty?"
"I am certain that the Holy Father did not intend to barter bars of gold over his pheasant."
"I am certain, Your Majesty, that the Holy Father did not realize the straits of his flocks. He did not realize our need, our desire to help the faithful who would offer up their thanks eternal to Jair and all the Thousand Gods, if only they had a roof to shelter them and food on their tables and wine to drink."
Hal's fury was clear; his jaw turned to stone. Rani knew that she had overstepped her bounds. She would have to argue with him later. She would explain so that Hal understood, so that he knew that she was right to begin the bargaining now. She turned back to Dartulamino, to the man who clearly would decide the church's role in the rebuilding of Morenia. "Surely, Your Grace, you have heard about the firelung in the camps. Two hundred children stricken, and more falling ill every day. Their parents are succumbing as well, good Morenians all, who need our help, our support. The Touched have been harmed the greatest of all, for it was they who maneuvered Davin's machinery into place, they who made the sacrifice that ultimately saved what is left of Moren. The Touched, of course, have the fewest resources to fall back on in times of trouble, the least food and shelter. We must help them if they are to survive."
"My lady," Dartulamino began, and Rani could see quite clearly that he did not intend to give her what she asked. The church would not help unless Hal paid dearly – paid with money, paid with loyalty, paid with prayer. . . . She drew a breath to cut off the priest before he could make an argument that she could not answer.
"Dartulamino," the Holy Father said, and Rani was shocked to realize that she had forgotten the old man. "Help me, son." The ancient priest fought to push back his chair, to stagger to his feet. "Where. . . ."
Dartulamino hastened to assist the elderly cleric, settling a familiar hand under the Holy Father's elbow. The younger priest smothered a flash of annoyance as he said to his king, "Excuse us for a moment, Defender. The Holy Father inquires about the location of your nearest garderobe."
If Hal were surprised by the request, he managed not to reveal his emotion. Instead, he rose to his feet, gesturing toward the outer door of the chamber. "You'll have to help the Holy Father down the hall. There is a curtained alcove, around the corner to the right." The old man began to shake his way to the door, leaning on both his oaken walking stick and Dartulamino's arm.
The younger priest looked over his shoulder as they reached the threshold. "We'll finish this discussion when I return. If you cannot agree to the church's terms, Defender, I trust that Jair will provide."
Rani heard the hidden message from the Fellowship, and she caught her breath before she could ask if Dartulamino's words were a promise or a threat. Even Hal was spared the need to find civil words when the Holy Father clutched his aide's arm more tightly. Dartulamino leaned forward to help the elderly prelate through the doorway. Rani was vaguely aware of Farsobalinti jumping to attention in the outer room, and she saw a dark flutter that certainly was Mair, ducking into a shadowed corner of the antechamber. Before Rani could be certain, though, Hal slammed the door closed.
"What in the name of the Thousand Gods do you think you're doing?"
"What did you think you were gaining by making that poor old man walk all the way down the hall? You could have let the Holy Father use the garderobe in the inner room." Rani gestured toward the door that led to Hal's private apartments.
"I wanted them down the hall so that they didn't hear me order you back to your chamber like the manipulative child you're acting tonight."
"You're not ordering me anywhere! You don't know what you're doing here. You need me!"
"For what? To exaggerate and lie? To lead them to the conclusion that I don't need their help at all? To let them decide that all of Moren can die of firelung?"
"My lord, they know you're desperate. Anyone who's walked through the city knows that you've lost more than half of Moren. Your people are dying. They're starving and they're sick. Your borders are bracing for an attack like peasants fearing wolves. You need the church's help."
"And you think I'm going to get it by boasting of my supposed wealth?"
"We have to boast of something!" Rani's voice broke as she shouted out the last word, and she forced herself to lower her voice. "We have to come to them from a position of strength. You know that. You're just afraid, because of the fire, because of all that we have lost. My lord, the fire was not a judgment upon you. It was not some vengeance of all the gods. It was an accident, and now we have to make things right."
"I'm not sure I believe it was an accident. I heard a new rumor today, Ranita Glasswright, one that I chose not to share with our religious leaders."
Her blood was chilled by his using her guild name. He never called her that. "And what was that?"
"I heard that the fire started on the grounds of the old glasswrights' guild. I heard that it was set to teach all future glasswrights a lesson. To teach the crown a lesson, for consorting with the guild that cost Morenia her rightful king."
The accusation stole Rani's breath away, and she could do nothing but gape for several heartbeats. She had fought that battle. She had paid dearly to clear her name, to salvage the reputation of her guild, to identify the true killers of Prince Tuvashanoran. "My lord, you cannot believe –"
"I'm telling you what I hear, Rani. And if I'm hearing it, you can be certain that the church is, too. Just think of how they could use that tale, if they decide that you hold too much power in my court. Even you should understand enough statesmanship to understand the danger."
"Even –" she started to repeat, shocked by the scorn in Hal's voice.
"I need hardly tell you that the Holy Father is not my vassal. I cannot control the church. I cannot rein it in. You've heard Dartulamino – he has not called me by my royal title this entire evening. He addresses me as ‘Defender', as a subordinate of the church. If the priests want command over all of Morenia, I'll have no choice but to give it to them."
Still reeling from the angry accusation behind Hal's words, Rani made her voice stiffly formal.
"Your Majesty, you will always have choices."
"Like what?" Hal hissed. "Borrowing from the Fellowship? You know that I have worked toward a position of power there, but I have not gained their complete confidence yet. Can you possibly be so poor a merchant that you think they should hold my note?"
"Why are you so angry with me? My lord, you summoned me here! I came to help you!"
"You embarrassed me! You made me look like an impotent fool. Morenia has no place for a so-called guildmistress who doesn't even understand how to work with her king."
Guildmistress. Rani began to understand the true threat behind the gossip that Hal had heard. He was linking all of this to the glasswrights' guild – the fire, the disease, his fears for his kingdom. He was going to take out all of his frustration, all of his hopelessness, on her one dream, on a dream that was so distant that she had yet to complete her first step, achieving the rank of journeyman. Anger stiffened her spine like steel bracing a stained-glass window.
"It was not my intention to embarrass you, Your Majesty."
"Intention or no, that's what you've done. That's what I get for thinking a caste-jumping merchant would help me negotiate."
Hot tears threatened to scald Rani's cheeks. "You've no right to call me names, Your Majesty. You've no right to question the choices I've made in the past – choices that benefitted the crown. I've helped you, and I will again, once the glasswrights' guild is reformed."
"If the glasswrights' guild is reformed! How do you think I'm going to pay for that, Rani? How do you think I'm going to finance a guildhall and masters and the finest Zarithian glass? Or were you planning on charming that out of the church as well? Or maybe you were planning on undercutting me with the Fellowship and asking them to pay for your guild! Is that what this is all about?"
The accusation shocked Rani, slicing through her rage like the sharpest sliver of glass. "You're mad! Is that truly what you think of me, Halaravilli? Do you honestly believe that I would whore the glasswrights' guild to the first party wealthy enough to build me a hall?"
Hal's eyes blazed at her, fiery above the smudged hollows of his exhaustion. "I really don't know what to think any longer, Ranita Glasswright."
She was across the room before she consciously heard his words; her hands were on the iron latch. She registered the sneer in his last word, the disdain he held for her name, for her. She started to turn back, started to ask one more question, but she was stopped by the king's bitter voice: "Perhaps my father was right, after all. Perhaps he needed to destroy the glasswrights' guild. Perhaps he needed to see it torn stone from stone, to protect Morenia itself."
Rani's fury was a physical thing, shaking through to the pit of her stomach. She pulled on the door latch with all of her strength, sending the oak planks crashing against the wall. Then she ran through the antechamber, past the astonished embrace of Farsobalinti and Mair, past the shocked pair of returning priests. She lifted her skirts as if she were a child, and she fled through the palace corridors, taking the steps to her tower room two at a time, until she was safe, secure behind another oaken door.
How dare he?
How dare Hal drag her into that dinner, force her into negotiations, only to betray her? How dare he imply that she would sell herself, sell her guild to the Fellowship? How dare he think that she would turn from him, turn toward the church, abandon him?
How dare he?
Only when she had torn the ruby necklace from her neck, only when she had ripped the band of mourning from her sleeve, did she force herself to sit at the table that was spread with fiery glasswork. She sat on her stool, and she rested her hands on the book she'd been studying. She tried to concentrate on the words, tried to measure her skill, tried to convince herself that she had learned enough to call herself a journeyman.
As the Pilgrims' Bell tolled its mournful count long into the night, Rani found that she could not think past the tears that slicked her cheeks, could not reason past the sobs that tore her throat. Without a guild, without merchants' wealth, without the trust of her king, she was very, very alone in the center of a dying Morenia.
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