The Glasswrights’ Apprentice
“Talented new author Mindy Klasky makes her debut with The Glasswrights’ Apprentice, a dark twist on a familiar fantasy theme. A young apprentice ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and becomes entangled in a ruthless conspiracy to steal the throne. Ms. Klasky creates remarkably shaded characters, especially the heroine, who through flawed choices, learns in the end she can only speak truth. The result is an absorbing read indeed; look for this author to develop in fascinating ways.” — Romantic Times
The Glasswrights’ Apprentice won the Barnes & Noble Maiden Voyage Award for best first speculative fiction novel in 2000.
Mind your caste… Rani Trader was born a merchant, but now she is an apprentice in the prestigious Glasswrights’ Guild. When Rani witnesses a murder, she’s accused of being the killer. On the run, Rani must masquerade through her kingdom’s strict castes as she attempts to discover the actual assassin. Will she find the real killer before her own life is forfeit?
The Glasswrights’ Apprentice, the first volume in the Glasswrights Series, is available from Amazon Kindle | Amazon Print | Apple | Audible UK | Audible US | B&N Nook | B&N Print | Diesel Ebooks | Ebooks.com | E-reads | Google Play | Kobo | Sony. The Glasswrights’ Apprentice is published in German as Die Lehrjahre der Glasmalerin.
<<< Chapter 1 >>>
Rani Trader pushed through the throngs in front of the cathedral, sparing only the Pilgrims’ dusty robes from her sharp-elbowed thrusts. Fighting the crowd gave her an opportunity to spend some of the rage that pulsed in her thirteen-year-old veins, and she barely remembered to protect the precious basket that was slung over her arm.
The day had begun far too early, with Cook splashing a cup of icy water in her sleeping face, swearing at her to get her miserable bones down to the kitchen. As Rani crouched on the icy flagstones, dispensing threads of dried cotton to the faintest of smoldering embers, she shivered so hard that her teeth ached. Still, she managed to fill her lungs with breath after breath, blowing life into the fire that her fellow apprentice, Larinda, had let die during the night.
Of course, Rani could not speak out against Larinda, even when Cook kicked her for being so slow at building up the flame. Apprentices needed to stand by each other no matter what the assault from journeymen, masters, or servants.
That miserable dawn had only been a harbinger of a terrible morning. Rani had helped Cook stir the great cauldron of sticky porridge, ignoring the protest of her own belly as she ladled the noxious stuff into bowls for the masters and journeymen. Even if the food had been palatable, Cook never made enough for the apprentices to eat their fill.
When Rani’s parents had bought her way into the prestigious glasswrights’ guild, it had never occurred to them to question the fare that would be served at the apprentices’ table. Now, there was not a night that Rani’s belly did not cry out in hunger. Even when Cook prepared enough food for all, it was difficult to swallow the rations, thinking of the mice that swarmed in the pantry.
Rani knew that she was learning humility. She knew that she was learning patience. She knew that she was learning the blind obedience that paved the way to the highest level of her chosen craft. Still, when her belly growled and the sun had only climbed halfway to noon, it seemed that she would never be an Instructor.
Now, in the cathedral square, a Pilgrim stepped backward and ground his leather-heeled boot into Rani’s inadequate soft shoe, unaware of the girl behind him. She stifled a cry and caught her large basket before it toppled to the cobble stones. Nevertheless, she heard glass clink hard against metal, and she offered up a quick prayer to the Thousand Gods that the knife had not cracked the jar of lemon water.
Thinking of the tart-sweet drink, Rani swallowed hard, and for the hundredth time, cast aside the shameful thought of sneaking a hand into the basket and extracting a morsel from the treasures Cook had ordered her to bring to Instructor Morada. Rani bore fresh-baked caraway bread and a plump sausage, the latter newly carried in from the smokehouse. She had watched as Cook counted out a half-dozen tiny, tart apples, and she had almost swooned when she was required to cut a slab of rich, creamy cheese to complement the feast. Almond honey cakes anchored the basket, and Rani could smell their heady fragrance over the less enticing odors of the perfumed and over-heated crowd.
She would not dishonor the guild. She would serve Instructor Morada with humble obedience, even if she fainted from hunger.
Directing a well-aimed kick toward a Touched brat who refused to let her pass, Rani permitted herself an angelic smile, indulgently dreaming of the day she was presented with her Instructor’s sash. Instructors were glasswrights who had completed both their apprenticeship and their journeys and returned to the guildhall. Treated with the greatest esteem, they were courted daily by the guild, enticed to stay and impart their knowledge to worthless wretches of apprentices, instead of setting up profitable masters’ workshops.
Rani’s immediate concern, though, was not instruction, but making her way through the thick crowds closest to the cathedral doors. Everyone hoped for a glimpse of Prince Tuvashanoran in his Presentation regalia. It was not every day that a living king stepped down as Defender of the Faith, in favor of his eldest son. Even though King Shanoranvilli would retain the throne and all the secular power in the kingdom, he was transferring his role as religious leader of this people. The honor bestowed on Tuvashanoran was great; in fact, the event was unusual enough that Rani’s guild had been commissioned to re-glaze one of the cathedral windows in commemoration.
Even now, Instructor Morada was putting the finishing touches on the work, making certain that the glass had settled well in its armature. Ideally, the window would have been completed well before Presentation Day, but there had been countless delays. First, they had not been able to get rare cobalt glass from the eastern province of Zarithia. Then, when the glass finally did arrive, the yellow stain had refused to take to the blue, leaving muddy streaks across the surface instead of the expected grassy green. Even after new glass was found to replace the faulty stuff, work had gone slowly. Designs had been mistakenly erased from white-washed tables, and a dozen grozing irons – used to cut the planes of glass – had gone missing from the store-rooms.
As late as yesterday morning, Rani had blended pot-paints for Morada to stipple into the final design, adding the last touches to the window as it rested in its cathedral armature. Morada had climbed down the scaffolding to view her handiwork in the full light of the previous noon, only to decide that a little more stippling was needed in the Defender’s face, filling out the fierce features that symbolized the heart of the Pilgrims’ faith. Of course, the paint could not be added once the sun had passed to the cathedral’s western side – it was impossible to see the effect on the glass. Morada contented herself with rising at dawn, forcing Rani to re-mix the pot-paints in the sleepy hours after she had served up Cook’s glutinous porridge.
Now, as the sun lent autumn’s warmth to the cathedral wall, Rani stood at the foot of the scaffold. Often, she thought that scaffolding was the reason she had yearned to be a glasswright in the first place. She loved climbing, loved the feeling that she was moving above the workaday world. Slinging Morada’s lunch over one shoulder, Rani tossed back her short, black cloak and grasped the narrow wooden supports. Her hands were well-used to climbing, and she started up the structure with a scant breath of prayer to Roan, the god of ladders. Roan had watched over Rani since she first climbed to her bed in the loft of her father’s shop.
The touch of wood sliding beneath her fingers was comforting, familiar, and Rani was almost at the top of the scaffold before she realized that the usual rope supports had been pulled up to the plank platform at the top. Before she could question that oddity, she was confronted by Morada’s look of outrage. “Ranita! What are you doing here?” Sheer fury coated the Instructor’s words as completely as yellow stain on glass, and Rani bowed her head in an apprentice’s immediate apology. Morada towered over the girl, the grey streak in her jet hair lashing out like a cruel whip. The Instructor set her bony hands on her hips, and even as Rani averted her gaze, she could make out the spider web of white glass-scars on the woman’s fingers.
“I’m sorry Instructor Morada. Guildmistress Salina sent me with your lunch. She said to bring it to you before the Presentation.”
“I don’t need any lunch! Can’t you see I’m finishing the window? I don’t have time to be interrupted by a stupid apprentice.”
Rani didn’t like Morada much under any circumstances, and she was particularly rebellious after her fight through the crowd. It took a full count of ten before she yielded to the guild’s precepts. “I am sorry, Instructor, if this apprentice has failed to meet your expectations.” Rani remembered to lower her eyes, which was just as well, given the smoldering resentment she was unable to quench completely. In fact, she imagined that her anger gave off the acrid stench of burning. “I beg your pardon, Instructor, and I beg leave to assist you in your work.”
“No!” Morada’s outraged cry was enough to cause Rani to meet her agate gaze, even though she knew she would pay for the insolence. The cold hatred that greeted her sent a shiver down the girl’s spine. Morada was not taunting her with an Instructor’s typical cool superiority; she was not channeling the tight rage that Instructors reserved for slow or recalcitrant students. Rather, the woman’s lips were white with suppressed fury, and she lurched threateningly to where Rani huddled on the edge of the scaffold platform. “Didn’t you see that I pulled up the rope support? Even you are old enough to know when Instructors do not wish to be disturbed.”
Rani’s eyes darted to the pile of rope beside the scaffold’s wooden ladder, coiled high against the cathedral’s stone wall. “Instructor, I merely acted on Guildmistress Salina’s orders -”
“Apprentice, you ‘merely’ violated one of the most basic guild rules. If you want to do anything other than grind paint for the next ten years, I strongly advise you to stop talking back to your superiors and leave this scaffold. Now.” Rani wanted to explain, to soothe Morada with a joke and a story, but the Instructor’s fury cut her off. Under guild rules, Morada was wholly in the right, even if Rani had had no choice but to follow Guildmistress Salina’s instructions.
Rani set the basket of food carefully on the scaffold platform, edging aside a coil of lead stripping.
Lead stripping had no place at the cathedral. The Defender’s Window should have been fitted entirely in the workshop, colored glass laid into a sturdy lead frame on the surface of a white-washed table. Now Rani could place the acrid smell she thought she had imagined – Morada had lit a brazier to heat the lead and bend it to her needs. Such a menial task was far beneath an Instructor, especially an Instructor as famed as Morada. And Rani, having witnessed Morada humbling herself to an apprentice’s job, was certain to be penalized.
“If you please, Instructor Morada,” Rani could hardly speak past the constriction in her throat as she tried desperately not to see the offending metal coil. “Would you like me to tend to the brazier while you finish your work?”
Morada’s hand flew faster than Rani could follow, and then the girl’s cheek stung; her eyes watered involuntarily against the slap. “I would like you to remember your place, Apprentice. Get your miserable carcass down the scaffold, and return to the guildhall. You have shown nothing but insolence since you were ordered to assist on this window. You merchant-rats are all the same – too stupid to follow directions and too stubborn to learn.”
Protest bubbled in Rani’s chest, the words fueled by her stinging cheek. Still, Morada was the Instructor, and Rani only needed to swallow twice before managing the guild’s formula. “Yes, Instructor, you speak the truth, imparting wisdom to this Apprentice.”
“A mynah could say as much. Go, wretch! I’ll see you in the Hall of Discipline when I return to the guild.”
“Yes, Instructor.” Rani turned to the rope guide, ready to toss it down to steady her descent.
“Apprentice!” The word cracked out in the autumn air, brighter than the sunlight on the cathedral’s new copper roof. “You climbed up here without the rope. You can certainly make your way down without it.”
This time Rani could not keep from gaping at Morada. Anger was one thing – Rani constantly set the Instructors’ teeth on edge because she had not mastered the obsequious tones of her fellow apprentices. But to be forced to descend the scaffold without the rope, when one was perfectly available…. Rani might have been confident in her climbing skills, but it was a foolish risk to descend without a guide rope. “Or perhaps you’d like a faster way down?” Morada’s eyes were furious, and Rani had no doubt that the woman would follow through on her threat – at the very least giving Rani a shove to help her down the wooden ladder.
“No, Instructor.” Rani scurried to the platform edge, catching her lower lip in her teeth as she steadied her feet against the suddenly too-smooth wooden rungs. She silently appealed to Roan, and despite one slip in the middle of the structure, the god of ladders guided her feet safely to the ground. Only when she had made her way to the bottom of the scaffold did she indulge the hatred that simmered beneath her heart, spitting onto the ground to get a nasty taste off her tongue. Merchant-rat! Rani’s parents had paid good money to get her into the guild – better money than Morada would earn for the Defender’s Window, whatever the Instructor’s mastery of her craft.
Even now, the guild payment forced Rani’s family to live like paupers. Her older brother, Bardo, who had hoped to make his Pilgrimage this year, had had no choice but to postpone his journey. Of course, he could walk the Path of the Gods here in the City, but that was not the same. Every night, as Rani fell asleep in her closet of a room, she tormented herself with the knowledge that she – she alone – was responsible for her family’s failure to complete the Pilgrimage and gain immediate passage to the Heavenly Fields upon their deaths, long may those be in the future.
Such speculation drove her to the familiar verge of tears. After all, it wasn’t as if she had asked for the privilege of coming to the guild. Certainly, she had shown skills in that direction – even as a toddler, she had enjoyed laying out the trinkets at her father’s stall in the marketplace. Unlike Bardo and her other brothers and sisters, she was not interested by the mere glint of sunlight on silver. Unlike her mother, she did not care whether the goods were of the highest quality, imported from mysterious Zarithia. Unlike her father, she did not give a tinker’s dam if the till were full at the end of the day.
Rather, she felt the way the goods should look on their table; she knew how the wares could best set off their own attractions. Her parents quickly learned that when she set out the boards, more trinkets were sold. After a brief training period – an apprenticeship, Rani grimaced – she had been assigned that duty on a regular basis. It was her accomplishments that let her merchant family sell more, her skill that permitted her folk to buy her way into the guild.
Now that she lived in the chapter-house, her family was reduced to setting out its own displays, to its unaided attempts to seduce passing customers. So, when Instructor Morada berated Rani for buying her way into the guild, the woman did not know the true edge of her cutting words. Rani had cost her family their spiritual blessings, their savings, and – most importantly – their future, since their stall would not generate equal profits without Rani’s gift.
By the time Rani worked her way around to the front of the cathedral, she was completely convinced that her suffering at the guild’s unsympathetic hands was unwarranted. She, the poor glasswright’s apprentice…. She had done nothing to warrant scorn from her Instructors. She had done nothing to garner the beating that she would certainly get at the hands of the disciplinarian – a beating that would hurt all the more since it would fall on top of the bruises still painted across her back from last week’s exploits.
No, there was nothing to be gained by speeding back to the guildhall. And, looking around at the crowd, Rani realized that there was everything to be gained by watching the Presentation. After all, it was not every day that religious ceremonies flooded the City’s streets. If the disciplinarian were going to beat her, Rani might as well give him good cause. She might as well enjoy this Presentation Day. And if Larinda had to work harder back at the guildhall, then so much the better. After all, Larinda had let the fire burn down, and turn about was fair play.
Brushing a hand against her still-stinging cheek, Rani began the steady process of worming her way to the front of the crowd. She had a distinct advantage over the other people in the cathedral square – because she was dressed in an apprentice’s somber uniform, her short tunic of black wool and her simple cape left her free to dart into places that appeared smaller than a toddler. For once, she was grateful that she was short for her age. At one point, though, she pushed too hard, and a velvet-clad woman – the wife of a Soldier by her complicated hairpiece – reached out a jeweled hand to grab at Rani’s shoulders. The glasswrights’ apprentice actually laughed out loud as she evaded the woman’s grip, darting forward in the ranks as the woman’s absurdly stiffened gown forbade her from following.
It wouldn’t do to have a Soldier after her in all this chaos, Rani chastised herself. That would warrant special attention from the disciplinarian – if a Soldier broke caste to come to the guildhall and complain about her behavior. Still, he could only complain if he caught her outright, and that was not likely. As Rani ducked in front of a line of Noble children, all dressed in identical regalia, she barely resisted the urge to make a face at their wailing protests. Heraldry was one of the many studies that Rani would master as an apprentice, but for now, she contented herself with memorizing the emblem on their coat of arms. She would check later to see which family she had offended.
Rani’s heart beat faster, and she realized that for the first time since she had joined the guild she was actually enjoying herself. And why not? Guildmistress Salina could not know how long it would take to deliver Instructor Morada’s lunch. She could not guess how long it would take for Rani to work her way through the crowds, to return to the tedious job of scrubbing down the glaziers’ white-washed tables. If Rani planned properly, she could be gone for the better part of the afternoon, and her absence never missed. Larinda might even be required to scrub clean the tables, all by herself. And the pots from the morning’s porridge.
Ducking past a heavily-perfumed woman who sported several chins, Rani suddenly found herself on the lowest step of the cathedral entrance. She was surrounded by Nobility; each extravagantly-robed person around her was related in some distant way to the prince who would be Presented that morning. Conditioned since birth to yield to the strict lines of rank and privilege, Rani was assailed with doubts for the first time since leaving the scaffold. It was one thing to frolic for an afternoon, free of the guild’s over-watchful guardians. It was another to flout social tradition and set foot inside the cathedral during a Noble feast day. Before she could finish measuring her desire against her wisdom, the crowd carried her forward, depositing her on the cathedral’s doorstep, in front of the chief royal herald.
That man, dressed in the crimson and gold raiment of the king’s household, looked down his impossibly long nose at her. Rani itched to pick up a piece of charcoal, to sketch out the scene on the cathedral steps. She would capture the pointed arch of the doorway, the carved ranks of the gods who waited to escort Pilgrims to the Heavenly Fields. Against it, she would sketch the herald’s flowing cape, his austere dignity reinforced by the waves of glass. His hair, coiffed in the accepted style of a king’s servant, would also be frozen in her drawing, and then she would apply all of her skill to record the man’s disdainful sniff. Rani would have laughed aloud at the pompous man preserved forever in the windows of her mind, but the herald chose that moment to notice her.
“You!” he barked. “You have no purpose here for the Presentation!” His staff of office crashed down on the top step.
“Begging your pardon,” Rani bobbed into the deep curtsey appropriate to offer a Noble, for the herald assumed his master’s rank when he dealt with a lowly Guildsman. “I have been sent to the cathedral on guild business, good sir. My Instructor is finishing the Presentation Window even now.” Well, that much was true, Rani assured herself, trying to smile against the thunderhead that clouded the herald’s face.
“Go around to the transept door, then, Apprentice Glasswright. There are good people waiting to honor their lord this Presentation day.” The man sniffed at her costume before turning his attention to the next Noble party that craved admission to the spectacle.
“Begging your pardon,” Rani began again, scarcely bridling her impatience. “I need to get inside the cathedral.”
There. She did not precisely lie. She did not say that she needed to enter the cathedral on guild business – if she had done that, the disciplinarian could not find a punishment brutal enough. No, Rani merely told the truth – she did need to see the Presentation if she was ever going to capture the momentous event in glass of her own.
She could see that the herald did not believe her. Before the man could speak, though, the crowd surged forward, grumbling its impatience with a hundred hundred voices. For one instant, the herald glared at her, furious that she dared to challenge his authority. Then, a Noble woman was shoved by the crowd and kept her balance by planting one long-nailed hand in the middle of Rani’s back. Startled, Rani coughed as the breath was forced out of her, and she, too, caught herself on the nearest available object – the herald’s staff of office. The herald, predictably, squawked his outrage and directed a well-aimed kick toward Rani.
The crowd’s fury raised in pitch – fury that a Noble woman should be left sprawling before a herald, even if that herald sought a petty revenge. Reading the reaction with the skill of his office, the herald immediately stepped forward to assist her ladyship, steadying the woman in her voluminous skirts. His solicitousness was eloquent testimony to his fear of losing his appointment. The woman would have none of it, and she brushed away his impertinent fingers with her handkerchief, keening as if his touch burned her. The crowd’s hum turned into a distinctly hostile murmur.
Rani took advantage of the confusion to duck inside the cathedral.
The massive nave was the greatest in the world, stretching seventy paces to the crossing tower. Rani had already studied the windows that lined the aisles on either side, mammoth planes of glass depicting, on the left, the story of the World’s creation from the breath of First God Ait, Man’s creation from the breath of the World, Good and Evil’s creation from the breath of Man. The right aisle told the story of Jair, of his humble birth among the casteless Touched and his unparalleled rise into the castes, first as a Merchant of trinkets from a blanket in the square, then as a Guildsman-weaver, fashioning similar blankets. The windows displayed the battles that Jair had fought as a Soldier, his miraculous saving of the City, which was even then old beyond memory. The last row of windows approaching the transept contained Jair’s final transformation, from Soldier to Noble-Priest.
The cathedral windows, surmounted by roundels showing dozens of the Thousand Gods, were stunning because they formed the Final Route for pilgrims. Five windows were singled out to reflect the specific stations of Jair’s Pilgrimage, the four castes. Huge altars nestled beneath each of the pilgrimage windows, and banks of candles flickered in the shadowy cathedral. Rani was drawn to the Guildsman’s altar as surely as if a tether tugged her.
Glancing around to make sure that she did not attract undue attention from the mostly Noble crowd, Rani dug into the small pouch at her belt, reluctant fingers excavating a copper that she had saved for boiled sweets. She could hardly attend such a momentous event as Prince Tuvashanoran’s Presentation without lighting her own candle, sweets or no. Her family would never live down the shame – as if they had not taught their Merchant-daughter how to worship in the cathedral. She hesitated only an instant before depositing her coin in the convenient cask, then she selected the longest candle in the nearby basket, to make up for her sacrifice.
Rani lit her taper and muttered the Guildsman’s Prayer, words that had already become familiar in the short months since her apprenticeship. Every morning, under Cook’s watchful eye, she muttered the Prayer upon awakening. She spoke it before each meal, before each artistic undertaking, before each installation of finished glasswork, in penance before the disciplinarian and – finally – at the end of every day, on her knees beside her pallet. “May all the gods look upon my craft with favor, and may they take pleasure in the humble art created by my hands. May Jair Himself be pleased with the humble offering I make, and may the least of my works bring glory to the world. May my works guide me to the Heavenly Fields in my proper time, as the gods do favor. All glory to the Thousand Gods.”
Despite her best intentions, Rani rushed through the last few words, unable to pry her attention from the crowd. Not surprisingly, with the vulture of a herald standing guard over the door, most of the folk were Noble. Of course, each of the major Guilds was in evidence – the Tilers, the Embroiderers, the Painters, the Armorers, others that Rani could not see from her current vantage point. Each guildmaster or guildmistress wore a heavy robe of office, surmounted by a cloak emblazoned with that particular guild’s symbol. Rani did not immediately see the glasswrights’ Guildmistress Salina, but she calculated a path that would keep her as far from the other craftsmen as possible, eager to avoid a confrontation. Nowhere in the cathedral did she espy another apprentice.
Rani’s evasive course took her down the right aisle, bobbing beneath the masterful Pilgrimage windows. In fact, with a final elbow placed sharply in the side of a Noble girl (a child too young to complain to her non-observant mother), Rani made a space for herself at the edge of the south transept. Craning her neck, she could just make out the massive window where Instructor Morada toiled. From inside the cathedral, the glasswork looked complete, with all its lead stripping in place. That completeness, though, may have been a deceptive trick of the light, for the sunlight was brilliant – strong enough to hint at the scaffolding just beyond the window. Rani noted that those rays focused through the window exactly as the guild had intended.
There, at the foot of the transept altar, was a pool of brilliant blue light. Blue, because that was the color of the King’s heir, the color of pure intention and noble goals, the color of the Defender of the Faith. The clear light focused through the glazed robe of the Defender in Morada’s masterpiece, untempered by other hues, even by the riot of color streaming through neighboring windows. Pride filled Rani’s narrow chest and straightened her spine.
She might have boasted to her neighbors, or at least flashed the guild-blazon on her cape a little more flamboyantly, if the Defender’s procession had not begun at that precise moment. Trumpets rang out as if a battle loomed, and a strained hush fell over the crowd. The fanfare was repeated once, then twice, and then two times more – a total of five to match the Touched and the four castes that Jair had lived.
With each repetition, pockets of worshipers fell to their knees – first the few Touched who had been permitted to enter the cathedral as servants to Nobles. In rapid procession, the scattered Merchants knelt (Rani almost forgot and fell to her knees), followed by Guildsmen (Rani gratefully remembered her new status), Soldiers, and finally Nobles.
The trumpets gave way to a choral antiphon, sung by children who were secreted in the clerestory aisles far above the worshipers. Those clarion voices rang out like chimes on the gates to the Heavenly Fields, and Rani shivered at the unexpected beauty. As the fluted notes echoed off the cathedral’s ceiling, Prince Tuvashanoran processed down the aisle.
Each royal step was marked by the crowd’s gasp of awe and admiration. Trapped at the edge of the south transept, Rani was tempted to pinch her way to the nave, but she restrained her twitching fingers, knowing that she had an uninterrupted line of sight to the azure puddle of light and the Presentation itself.
And she was not disappointed.
Prince Tuvashanoran was easily the most popular Noble in the City’s history. Not only was he breathtakingly handsome, but he was the very flower of knighthood. He had won the golden spurs with ease in the Spring Tourney, treating his opponents with compassion and respect. Various princesses from rich and fabled lands to the north and east were presented at court on a regular basis, and the Prince entertained them all – singing in his rich baritone, playing his lute, and showing off his horsemanship in the castle’s central courtyard. But he was more than a courtier.
Last spring, when the thaw was late and wet snow was still deeper than a man’s chest, wolves had coursed down the hills outside the City. On a damp, foggy night, Prince Tuvashanoran came across the Pilgrim’s Bell unmanned, despite the clear danger to the travelers who made their way through the misty countryside. Rather than send for servants and waste valuable time, the prince stood by the bell himself, tolling the heavy metal through the night with such calm precision that not a single person in town realized anything was amiss. Five Pilgrims straggled in during the fog-ridden night, one with tales of narrowly escaping a giant beast, a Wolf of the Underworld.
Prince Tuvashanoran led a hunting party that very day, despite having not slept the entire previous night. He rode the beast to earth and presented the gigantic pelt to the High Priest so that the warm fur could be distributed to the needy among the Touched.
Now, the legendary Tuvashanoran strode down the nave, golden fillet catching the gleam of tinted light from the clerestory windows. Each step was a ballet of grace; each turn of his head was a symphony of responsibility.
When he reached the altar, Tuvashanoran knelt, bending his regal knee before the impossibly ancient High Priest. The old man’s face was obscured beneath a high, jeweled miter, his age-wasted body enlarged by a voluminous cope. The High Priest beamed at his spiritual son, then raised shaking, liver-spotted hands to hover over Tuvashanoran’s raven hair.
As the children’s antiphon reached its musical climax, the prince bowed his head in complete submission to the Thousand Gods. The High Priest’s lips moved in unheard prayer before the old man helped the young lord to rise, turning him back to look at the gathered masses. Tuvashanoran was visibly touched by the homage proffered by the worshipers, and he spontaneously raised his hands to echo the High Priest, gathering in his people’s adoration like a lowly merchant-farmer bringing in sheaves.
The echoing antiphon faded, and an acolyte stepped forward, moving with a careful choreography that contrasted with Tuvashanoran’s spontaneous gesture. The prince shrugged off his cloak, stepping away from the jewel-encrusted garment that was worth more than the glasswrights’ guild could command in an entire year of commissions. The acolyte staggered under the heavy garment as one of his fellows spread a golden cloth before the altar.
Only when the fabric was an unrippled puddle of metallic silk, did Tuvashanoran return to his kneeling posture. He offered up his joined hands to the High Priest, tendering the sort of fealty usually reserved for the Crown. The High Priest, expecting the honor, took those royal hands between his own, nodding solemnly before setting palsied palms upon the Prince’s bowed head. There was a long moment during which not a rustle of silk or velvet could be heard, and then the Priest’s voice echoed up to the clerestory. “Who brings this man before the altar of the Thousand Gods?”
“It is I, Shanoranvilli ben-Jair, King of Morenia, Lord of the City, and Defender of the Faith, who brings my son to the altar.” Rani started guiltily; she had not even seen the king process down the nave. From the crowd’s indrawn gasp, Rani realized that few others had watched their liege approach, so captivating was Tuvashanoran.
Looking across the dais, Rani could see the entire royal family looking on in pride. Beside King Shanoranvilli stood his young wife, the exotically beautiful Queen Felicianda. Prince Halaravilli was there as well, scarcely two years older than Rani herself, and Prince Bashanorandi, Rani’s own age. A flock of princesses rustled on the platform, craning their young necks to see what their eldest brother was doing. Or half-brother, Rani amended mentally – Prince Bashanorandi and the princesses were all Queen Felicianda’s children; only Tuvashanoran and Halaravilli survived from the king’s first marriage.
The High Priest did not appear to be concerned with the complicated relationships in the royal family. Turning to King Shanoranvilli, he intoned gravely, “Defender of the Faith, you call yourself. And what proof do I have that you bear that title?”
While the king’s voice might quaver, there was nothing weak or yielding in his stance on this brightest of bright days. Keeping his eyes on the High Priest, Shanoranvilli raised sere hands to the heavy chain of office encircling his neck. Even at this distance, Rani could make out the massive, interlocked J’s of the chain, the letters so ornate that they were hardly recognizable. J for Jair, J for the royal house. “I wear the Defender’s Chain, Father, symbol of my obligation to the Thousand Gods and reminder of the power that those gods give to me.”
“And why do you come into the Gods’ House today?”
“I come to transfer this Chain, to one who, in his youth, can Defend the faith better than I.”
The High Priest looked down at the king, as if he were considering this offer for the first time. Rani shivered at the expression in the Holy Father’s eyes, for she had seen such a look once before – the night she forsook her parents’ house for the guild. There was pride there, but it was buried beneath sorrow, the emotions so keen they sliced across the cathedral’s charged air.
“And do you come here of your own free will?” The priest asked at last, his bushy eyebrows arched high so that they merged into one commanding line above his far-seeing eyes.
“Aye, I come of my own free will.”
“And you, Prince Tuvashanoran, do you take up this burden of your own free will?”
“Aye, I take it up of my own free will.” The Prince’s voice was proud and strong, hurtling up to the windows with the vigor of youth.
“Then let the Church prepare you for your duties.” The High Priest raised a trembling hand, and a cloud of acolytes swarmed about the dais. Rani knew that the boys were her own age, apprenticed to the church and its priests even as she served the guild. Still, they looked like little children as they darted about the kneeling Prince, averting their eyes to the stony floor rather than gaze directly at their liege. The whole thing was ridiculous, Rani scoffed – these same boys were Tuvashanoran’s cousins, his closest family. Only royalty would be permitted to participate in a ceremony as important as Tuvashanoran’s Presentation. The royal boys could not truly have been overwhelmed with awe in the space of a few hours.
The old man, for his part, merely gave a curt nod, indulging in a single wave of a liver-spotted hand to confirm that the child was acting in the justice and light of all the Thousand Gods. Only when the Prince managed a spare nod as well, did the boy actually summon the nerve to lift up the golden fillet, to hold aloft the symbol of worldly commitment. Thin lines of enamel-work caught the cobalt sunlight, flashing brilliantly to the crowd.
As the acolyte stepped away, bearing the worldly burden, Rani felt the urge to shout with pride for the glory of her Prince. The High Priest raised his arms, as if summoning the force of the heavens. “Welcome to the house of the Thousand Gods, my son. Welcome to the most holy seat of the Pilgrim. As you set your feet upon the Defender’s road, you must let the gods know of your desire to serve them, of your desire to be their sword arm in the battles of the world.” The High Priest gestured to a naked sword that lay upon the altar, unadorned steel glinting with a deadly power.
“Before you take up this new weapon for your battle, drink of this cup, the stirrup cup for the journey you now undertake to serve your people, the kingdom of all Morenia, the community of the faithful.” The priest held out one withered hand and an acolyte stepped forward to pass the old man a gilded chalice. The goblet was heavy, requiring two trembling fists to raise it before the awed people. With a bow, the priest passed the chalice to Tuvashanoran, who paused for a moment to settle the weight of metal and jewels in his own grasp. When he raised the cup, he found the exact focus of light from the Defender’s Window, making every facet of each embedded jewel wink at the congregation. Then, Tuvashanoran drank deeply, swallowing the holy wine with relish, with the fanaticism of a soldier riding off to battle. Only when the massive cup was drained did he hand the treasure back to the high priest.
The old man nodded proudly. “Now, my son, prostrate yourself in the house of the Gods, before the Pilgrim’s Table, and offer up any thoughts that would make you impure to carry out your mission in the world.”
Rani heard the congregants’ collective sigh as Tuvashanoran followed the Priest’s orders. The prince moved like a cat, fully composed, aware that every eye in the cavernous nave was tied to him. Touching his brow to the base of the altar, Tuvashanoran unconsciously flicked the edges of his undertunic, causing the snowy linen to billow into angelic wings. Then, before the image could be lost and the Prince could become just an ordinary man kneeling before an ordinary block of marble, Tuvashanoran prostrated himself before the altar of the Gods.
A lump of pride grew in Rani’s throat as she watched. She might only be an apprentice. She might only be the youngest child of a merchant family, a family that had scrimped and saved to buy her way into a guild. Still, she was a part of the force that had painted the portrait before her, part of the brotherhood that crafted the regal image of a Prince shedding his temporal crown to take up his spiritual one. Rani could not keep from casting her eyes up toward her small contribution to this pageant, to the window that Instructor Morada had scarcely finished in time for the Presentation. Whatever panic had been in the guildhall, whatever rage Morada had expressed on the scaffold, it had been worthwhile, for that rush and fury had created this perfection.
As Rani glanced up at the window, something caught her eye. A year ago, she would not have seen anything out of place in the careful leaded design. A month ago, she would not have recognized the outline of a bow against the glass. A week ago, she would not have realized that the bow was not part of the intricate armature. But only yesterday, she had white-washed the table that had borne the drawings for this window. She had scrubbed for hours, wiping out Instructor Morada’s charcoal lines; she had studied the precise pattern of lead and glass that created the masterpiece. Rani knew that there was no need for lead in that precise arc.
An archer’s bow leaned against the window.
Even as Rani recognized the danger, the bow was pulled away from the glass. She could imagine an assassin stepping back on the scaffold, moving the tip of a carefully fletched arrow to a single missing pane of glass. Rani thought she could hear the arrow nocked to the string; she could feel the tension of calloused fingers pulling the string to the archer’s ear.
And all the while, Prince Tuvashanoran lay before the altar, unknowing. Rani struggled for breath in the suddenly close cathedral, clambering to her feet. In the silence of the praying congregation, her voice rang out, piercing and shrill. “Your Highness! To arms!”
Guards leaped forward before she had completed the four words. Tuvashanoran jumped into a fighter’s crouch, all holy ritual forgotten as he grasped the ceremonial sword from the altar. The motion tore him around in a half-arc, already searching for the threat carried on a child’s voice.
For one instant, there was nothing. Utter stillness gripped the congregation, the priest, the prince. Then, with the impossible momentum of a swooping hawk, a flash of light cut through the cobalt pool. The silence was cloven by a man’s outraged bellow, and Prince Tuvashanoran whirled around to face his people. Even as the crowd surged toward the altar, Rani could see the black-fletched arrow blooming from the socket of the prince’s right eye.