The Glasswrights’ Test
A test with life and death consequences!
Rani Trader has finally been summoned by her exiled Glasswrights Guild, invited to test for the rank of master. Rani has craved such acceptance for years, and she has high hopes that all her past mistakes will at last be forgiven. Little does she know that she will be tested on far more than her knowledge of glassmaking—and the lives of loved ones hang in the balance.
Rani Trader gazed out over the hall, catching her breath as a ray of sunlight streamed through a window to illuminate a stack of undyed silk as high as her head. She turned to the tall player who stood beside her. “Tovin! It’s beautiful!”
“Money always is.” The player nodded as he looked around the hall, obviously noting which merchants were ready to trade. The auction would begin at noon, and the tension was palpable in the spacious room. Rani followed Tovin’s gaze to a cluster of men in shimmering white cloaks, garments that collected the brilliant summer sunlight and cast it back in jeweled glints.
She indicated the visitors with an arch of one eyebrow. “So, the spiderguild sent five masters.”
“They want to see just how damaged they will be by your Halaravilli’s market.”
Her Halaravilli. Rani nearly objected to the words. Hal was not hers. Had not been for nearly three years, if he ever had been. Hal belonged to Morenia. He belonged to Queen Mareka.
Tovin was only being petulant because Hal had sent three messengers to her in as many days. The king insisted he had an important matter to discuss with her, and yet when she had attended him dutifully, his attention had been stolen by the new silk hall, by the auction, by the embassy from the Liantine spiderguild. The last time he’d summoned her, she had spent an entire afternoon waiting for him to spare her a few moments, only to leave the audience hall in a flurry of skirts and speculation when Hal needed to devote his attention to a minor border dispute among his lords.
She remained curious about Hal’s demand, but she had other things to attend to—glasswright things, merchant things, player things. The king would speak to her when he was ready. For the present, she’d try to forget his requests; there was nothing she could do, in any case, and she disliked subjecting herself to the edge in Tovin’s voice while she waited. She chose to let his current comment pass.
Even as she made that conscious decision, Hal stepped into the sunlight that pooled on the dais at the front of the room. He was resplendent in his crimson robe, a garment cut from the first silk harvested from his octolaris spiders. With Rani’s help, Hal had spirited the creatures from their home in Liantine, breaking the longtime monopoly of the distant spiderguild. He had distributed them among his nobles, giving them to the newly created Order of the Octolaris and collecting valuable gold bars in exchange.
The spider gold had secured Hal’s throne, keeping him safe from powerful forces that fought to destroy his kingdom. It had warded off the voracious church, which had lent money to the crown. Even more importantly, it had forestalled Hal’s yielding to the Fellowship of Jair, a secret, shadowy organization that lurked on the edges of Morenian politics, that threatened to control all relations between the crown and other nations.
Rani and Hal—and Tovin too, now—were members of that secret organization. Rani glanced about the hall, wondering how many of the others present at this first silk auction were members of the cabal. How many had attended meetings of the secret brotherhood, shielding their faces behind black masks? How many would buy silk today and use it to fashion a Fellowship mask, turning the crown’s newfound wealth into a symbol of secret power?
Before Rani could continue her thoughts, Hal raised a hand. The gesture commanded instant silence. Every eye in the hall was directed to the dais, waiting for the bids to begin.
“Honored merchants,” Hal said. “Welcome to the silk hall. Welcome to the first new market established in our fair land since the dread fire of three years past. May Lor look kindly upon all our dealings here.”
Lor. The god of silk. Never had one of the Thousand Gods risen to such prestige in so short a time.
Hal continued. “When I first brought octolaris to fair Morenia, many said we could not build a silk trade. We could not rival the great masters of Liantine. We could not challenge our neighbors to the east.” Hal inclined his head graciously toward the knot of master spiderguildsmen and one, the oldest, narrowed his eyes to accept the salute.
“And yet,” Hal said, returning his attention to the gathered luminaries, “you have surpassed my greatest expectations. In three short years, you have grown the silk trade. You have bred your octolaris and fed them their precious markin grubs. You have harvested their silk, spun the thread, and woven the cloth. You have built a guildhall in the center of a city that was in ruins, a hall worthy of our finest masons and sculptors. And now, a mere three years since the first silk spiders arrived in Moren, we stand ready to auction off the fruits of your labors.”
A roar of approval tore through the crowd, and Hal smiled patiently as he waited for silence to return. “Before we open the auction, there are a few individuals I must recognize—people without whom we would not be present today. First and foremost, always in our thoughts, is Queen Mareka, the woman who had the courage to give us our octolaris, even when she risked her own power and prestige. Of course, my lady cannot stand beside me today, but nonetheless, I raise this cup in her honor and drink to her glory.”
A cheer echoed in the hall, obliging and obedient, but lacking the same unbounded enthusiasm that Hal had commanded for himself. Morenia had accepted Mareka because Hal had presented her, but the kingdom had no love for its queen. It did not like the fact that she was a mere guildswoman, even if she came from an exotic guild in a foreign land. It did not like that she had tricked their king, that she had manipulated him with the oldest of a woman’s wiles, snagging her crown by sparking a king’s heir inside her womb.
Still, the kingdom had mourned when Mareka lost that child in her sixth month, when her infant son was born too soon to breathe the bitter winter air. And they mourned the daughter she had borne seven months later, the tiny girl who had not lasted a single night.
But now Mareka was once again with child. Eight months along, and all seemed fine. The royal physicians had confined the queen to her chambers, demanding that she rest and conserve her strength, that she drink the blood of new lambs throughout the spring, that she make offerings to Nome, the god of children. Mareka said that she could feel her child stir within her, that she could feel him kicking strongly, all through the long nights. She was certain she carried a boy, the heir that Halaravilli needed so desperately. She husbanded her strength, fed her considerable will into the child growing within her, and she waited, waited, waited.
No, Mareka could not be at the silk hall. And she might not be pleased with what she saw, even if she had attended. Mareka had been a promising apprentice in the distant spiderguild, a willful girl, intent on serving her guild with all her might. Her loyalties might be tested too much by seeing the accumulation of silk, the vast wealth that her former masters would despise. Better, Rani thought, that Mareka not attend this first silk auction.
As if Hal were setting aside the memory of his queen’s torn loyalties, he swallowed the wine from his toast to his lady. Then, he looked out over the hall and said, “It is fitting that we bless this market before we earn our first profits here. That blessing might be done by any priest, but we know another who is well suited to invoke the Thousand Gods on this auspicious day. The octolaris who have brought us to this momentous occasion came from Liantine, and the blessing should come from there as well. My lady? Will you invoke the gods’ good graces upon our ventures?”
Berylina Thunderspear. Rani had not realized that the Liantine princess was attending the auction. Following the line of Hal’s gesture, Rani saw the dark corner where he settled his gaze. Berylina took a hesitant step, moving as if her king’s gesture pulled her from a pit of shifting sand.
The princess had grown in the three years she had spent at court. She had slimmed away her childhood roundness, melting into the softer curves of womanhood. She had gained more poise as well, becoming almost accustomed to the glare of public attention. She made her way to Hal’s dais without blushing, without fidgeting, without clutching at her simple gown of grassy green.
Some things about the princess, though, would never change. Her teeth still jutted out over her lower lip, lending her a horse-like expression. One of her eyes wandered, so that even now Rani could not tell if the girl looked out over the assembly or gazed privately at her adopted king. Berylina’s hair had escaped her demure braids, and it billowed about her face like unruly straw.
And yet there was a peace about the princess, a confidence she had never shown in her native land. When she stood at the front of the dais, her voice was quiet, so soft that the assembly needed to catch its collective breath. But her words were calm and certain. Her voice was steady as she said, “May Lor watch over all the dealings in this hall and guide all men to truth and justice in their dealings. May First God Ait guide all who traffic here. May Pilgrim Jair appear before us as a guide and model of all that is right and good, for all the days to come. In the name of all the Thousand Gods, let us pray for guidance and success forever and ever. Amen.”
“Forever and ever, Amen,” Hal repeated, smiling kindly. Few present knew the full risk he had taken, accepting Berylina into his house. Berylina’s father, Teheboth Thunderspear, had threatened war, had threatened to harry Morenia’s coasts with all the ships at his disposal. Hal had managed to negotiate a sort of peace, reminding Teheboth that the king had not placed any value on the princess when she lived in his palace, had not honored her in any way. Ultimately, at Rani’s prompting, Hal had resorted to one great negotiating maneuver, offering to return Berylina to her father, to send the princess back to Liantine against her will.
Teheboth had retreated from his negotiation then. After all, what did the house of Thunderspear want with an ugly daughter, a damaged girl, a religious fanatic who followed the paths of the Thousand Gods, even when those paths led her into shame and into poverty in the Morenian court? Hal had bristled at Teheboth’s dismissal, but he had let the final correspondence go unanswered. Berylina was safe, and war had been averted. What more could Hal truly demand?
In the silk hall, Berylina completed her whispered blessing and stepped down from the dais, immediately retreating to her darkened corner. Rani noted that Father Siritalanu waited for her there. The priest had been instrumental in the princess’s escape from Liantine, and he had overseen her religious instruction here in Morenia. The man was loyal to her beyond all reason, consistently claiming that he loved her spirit, her pure faith. Rani shrugged. Spirit, faith, lust for her body… What difference did it truly make? The man had helped the awkward Berylina settle into her new home.
From the dais, Hal recognized others, raising his cup to salute the master mason who had built the silk hall. He recognized Davin, the ancient retainer who had designed an irrigation system for the delicate riberry trees that hosted the octolaris’ sole source of food. He recognized the hordes of workers that tended to the octolaris, feeding the spiders their grubs, monitoring their cages. He also recognized the seven workers who had given their lives in the past three years, succumbing to the spiders’ deadly poison as the Morenians learned the dangers of their newfound commodity.
And then Hal turned toward Rani. His eyes sought her out in the crowd, honing in on the crimson she wore in his honor. Her throat constricted at his serious gaze, and she could not keep from clutching Tovin’s arm.
“And,” Hal said, “we recognize Ranita Glasswright, without whom we could never have raised the octolaris to success. Ranita conceived the strategy for breaking the spiderguild’s monopoly, she followed through when all action seemed impossible, and she brought us our riberry trees.” He lifted his golden cup and stared at her over the rim. Rani swallowed hard and raised her chin. It felt as if she were answering Hal with proud defiance, challenging him to count out all the costs that had been paid that day in Liantine. She had bargained for the trees, but her bidding had cost Morenia—cost the kingdom a brave soldier who had stayed behind at the spiderguild.
Rani drove away thoughts of Crestman, forcing herself not to dwell on the fate that the young soldier had chosen. Not to dwell on his enslavement in the spiderguild. Not to dwell on the look of betrayal on his face as she closed the deal for the trees.
Instead, she gazed into her king’s eyes and folded herself into a decent curtsey, looking for all the world as if she had been born to a life of finery and pomp. Hal acknowledged her obeisance, and then he sipped from the goblet. Of course, he gave no clue about the reason he had summoned her earlier in the week, no hint about that mystery.
“And my lords and ladies,” he continued. “There is one more whom I must recognize, one more who made today possible. I would not stand before you without the help of Baron Farsobalinti, Grand Master of the Order of the Octolaris.” Farso had been the first of Hal’s knights to don the brooch of the Order, and he had led the way to Hal’s financial success. The baron had presented his ten bars of gold; he had cajoled and shamed and bullied his fellow nobles into doing the same. But Farso had done even more than that—he had explored trade routes for Morenian silk, rooting out merchants who would trade in the new goods, discovering guildsmen who would adapt their broader woolen-goods looms into narrower, sturdier silk machines. He had hired the foremen for the silk hall’s construction and supervised the Touched workers who had carted straw and clay, lumber and stone. Farso had worked tirelessly for the past three years, giving of his days, his nights, his heart, and his soul.
The steady labor and constant worry had taken their toll on the young nobleman. Gone was the sunny youth who had served his king with a child’s dedication. Instead, Farso’s hair had begun to tarnish with untimely silver; fine lines spread out beside his eyes, as if he had strained them poring over account ledgers in the dark of night.
Nevertheless, Farso stood straight and tall on this victorious day, and even as he stepped forward to accept the king’s accolades, he flashed a grin at the woman by his side. Mair’s response was a smile of her own, an expression that only broadened when the babe in her arms began to fuss. Mair shifted Laranifarso, Farsobalinti’s own son, and cast her glance from her husband to her king.
Even with the pressures of the silk trade, Farso had found time enough to marry. Over a year had passed since he had vowed to honor his wife, and still Mair and Farso gazed at each other with the fierce eyes of new lovers. Lovers, that was, until Mair decided that Farso had done something foolish, had overstepped his bounds in some way. Then her tongue was as sharp as ever, full of the screeching condemnation that she had mastered as a leader among the Touched, the casteless poor who filled the streets of Moren. For now, though, she stepped back, offering up the moment of public recognition for her beloved to receive the honor of his king.
Despite Mair’s best efforts, Laranifarso continued fussing, and the Touched mother shifted him from arm to arm. Rani knew that Mair was fully aware of critical eyes in the silk hall. Some of the elite watchers might condemn her for bringing her son to the auction. Some might question her ability to manage her own child, to stop the fussing that threatened to grow into a full squall. Nearly every person in the hall scorned Mair merely for her marriage to Farsobalinti, for daring to create a union between a nobleman and a Touched girl. In fact, Halaravilli had presided over their union, attempting to deflect vicious gossip by invoking his title Defender of the Faith to bless them.
Rani shook her head as she watched her oldest friend ease back from the dais. Mair had been realistic about the courtly bias against her. She had never expected to be anything more than Farso’s mistress, nothing more than his cherished leman. Even though Farso insisted that she meant much more to him, the past three years had not proven easy. They had not flowed smoothly, despite all of Mair’s seeming blessings.
The Touched woman’s struggles for acceptance had tainted Rani’s opinion of the Morenian court. Of course, Rani had no hopes for marrying into the noble caste herself. She knew that. She knew that the only man who might have had her, Halaravilli, had other obligations—to the kingdom, to the court, to his queen. Besides, Rani had her own responsibilities. Not only was she growing her fledgling glasswrights’ guild, but she was also responsible for the players.
At Tovin’s urging, Rani had become the players’ sponsor throughout all of Morenia. She had tried to explain to him that such recognition was not necessary in her homeland, that Morenia did not have Liantine’s restrictions on travel and trade. But Tovin had shaken his head, holding to his own traditions. Despite Rani’s repeated attempts to dislodge the limitations in the usually-creative player’s mind, he would have nothing of her arguments.
The players needed sponsors, Tovin had explained at last. They needed to be subject to rules, to restrictions. Only with such limitations would good people accept the traveling acting troupe. Only with such reassurance would people open their homes and their hearts to scoundrels on the high road, to folk who had no home beyond the tents they carried with them, who had no history in the castes of Morenia. Only with a sponsor would people agree to Speak to the players.
Despite the warmth in the silk hall, Rani shivered when she thought of Speaking. Her tremor was not from fear, but rather from naked longing. Only that morning, she had Spoken with Tovin, telling him of the merchant ceremonies that she had witnessed in her youth. Tovin’s voice had woven a curtain around her, spinning a cottony nest of safety and security. Even now, she could feel his words thrumming through her chest, taking her deeper, deeper, into her knowledge, into her memories…
Swaying, Rani forced her attention back to the present, back to the silk hall and the dais where her king proclaimed: “And now, let the bidding begin. Our first lot is this bolt of crimson silk, the first ever spun in Morenia, dyed in honor of our crown. What am I bid for fair Morenia’s venture into the silk trade?”
“One gold bar!” Farso cried out, and the crowd took a collective step forward. Three merchants shouted over themselves, topping the bid, and Hal graciously nodded toward each successive bidder, gesturing toward them with the ceremonial baton of the auction conductor.
Rani looked at the excitement in Hal’s face, at the energy that thrummed across his shoulders. He had waited for this day impatiently; harrying the octolaris wranglers, demanding that silk be collected twice daily, bullying Davin constantly into building bigger looms and better ones. He had paced in front of the breeding spiders’ cages like an expectant father, waiting with frozen breath as he learned that the first clutch of spider eggs had hatched successfully on Morenian soil, that the riberry trees had borne fruit and the markin moths had spun their clumsy cocoons, producing their sightless white grubs. Long days and longer nights had slipped away as Hal pinned his kingdom’s hopes on the poisonous spiders, and now he hoped to gather in his reward.
It appeared that both merchants and noblemen were willing to oblige their king. Twelve golden bars were bid on the bolt of cloth.
“Twenty-five bars of gold!” Tovin shouted into the hall, his player’s voice rising to the rafters. The strength of his bid shattered the air, silencing the buzzing watchers.
“What is that, Tovin Player?” Hal turned to the broad-shouldered man, taking only an instant to flick his eyes over to Rani. She understood the momentary question there, the flash of doubt as he demanded to know if he were being mocked. She could only meet Hal’s gaze steadily. She knew nothing of Tovin’s intentions.
“Twenty-five bars of gold, Your Majesty. The players bid twenty-five.”
Rani ran her merchant’s mind over the figure. Tovin could pay it. The players had more than that in store after three years of touring Morenia. Exiled from their homeland, they had proven thrifty, relying on existing costumes and curtains. The players’ only cost had been a score of new glass panels, and Rani had been more than happy to supply the glass for those, to supply the lead and paint and silver stain. After all, she sponsored the players. She supported them. And she learned from them, all for free.
Rani closed her hand on Tovin’s forearm, feeling the energy pulse through the man’s taut muscle. She watched Hal measure her motion, watched him calculate the genuine offer behind the player’s words.
“Very well. Twenty-five bars of gold. And is there anyone who will bid more? Is there anyone who places greater value on the first fruit of the Morenian looms?”
Merchants looked at each other, fingering the pouches of gold at their waist. One man shook his head and eyed the other bolts of cloth, bolts that would not command the same premium as the first. A nobleman cleared his throat, drawing attention, but then he flushed and stepped backwards.
“Very well, then,” Hal proclaimed. “Twenty-five bars of gold from Tovin Player! The first bolt of silk is sold!”
Cheers rang out to the hall’s ceiling, and the crowd surged even closer to the dais. Hal acknowledged the enthusiastic congratulations, and then he stepped down, handing the traditional baton over to the silk official who had been appointed to conduct the body of the trades. Another lot—this one of undyed silk—was displayed before the crowd, and bidding began anew.
Hal worked his way through the crowd, touching one man on a shoulder before leaning down to listen to the hearty words of another. He was in his element, Rani thought. He was happy and comfortable—his land was thriving for the first time since he had taken the throne. The northern kingdom of Amanthia was paying tribute as expected. Poor Moren was springing back to life after her devastating fire—whole quarters of the city were nearly rebuilt, with wide avenues and sturdy new buildings. The spring had been warm, and plants had gone in early. The early summer had boasted days of gentle heat, punctuated by long, soaking rains. All was well in Morenia.
Rani became aware of the clutch that had gathered around Tovin, of the men who had collected to congratulate him. “A fine gesture, Player!” Count Jerumalashi was saying, one of Hal’s own councilors. “I should like to see what you do with that silk, in my own court. Speak to my chamberlain, when you have a moment—let us know when you’ll be able to play for us.”
“Of course, my lord,” Tovin said. “I would be most honored.”
“And when you’ve played for Count Jerumalashi, you can present your work for us,” Farsobalinti said, muscling his way through the crowd and offering a hand to Tovin. “You’re a good man, Tovin Player.”
“Aye,” Rani heard at her elbow, and she turned to meet Mair’s amused glance. “A grand man, that Tovin Player is.”
Rani stepped to the side, the better to converse with her friend. As she moved away from the nobles, she heard the silk master declare another bolt of silk sold, realized that he was beginning the auction of yet another lot. “What do you mean by that?”
Mair shifted the burden of her son to her left shoulder, taking care not to wake the now-sleeping babe. “Only that Tovin Player is a shrewd bargainer. You must have taught him a thing or two about driving a deal.”
“I hardly needed to do that!” Rani said, automatically springing to the man’s defense, as if he needed it.
“I meant no insult, Rai! I only meant that he made a good bargain. Twenty-five bars he’ll pay, and the story will be all through the city by the end of the day. When the troupe announces it has made costumes with the king’s silk, every person in Moren will pay a gold crown to see the next players’ next show… He’s no fool, your Tovin.”
The excited buzz of merchants bidding on silk rose higher as Rani thought, he’s not my Tovin. She glanced at the man’s copper eyes, at his unkempt curls, and a flash of longing curled through her belly—longing for the Speaking they had shared, for the quiet days when they had first returned to Moren. Days without Tovin pressuring her to wed. Days without the obligations of studying glasswrights’ lore, of plotting to rebuild her guild. Even as Tovin darted a smile to her across the hall, she thought of the argument they’d had the night before.
“Ranita, it should be enough!” he had said. “You have studied the books. You have learned new techniques. Announce that you’re re-opening the guild and be done with it.”
“It isn’t enough.” She had pulled away from him, even as she was reluctant to leave the warmth of his palms across her back. She had settled her silk dressing gown around her shoulders, jerking the sash tight as she crossed to the window. The Pilgrims’ Bell had tolled across the city, steady and secure in the moonlit night. “It isn’t enough at all.”
She’d heard him sigh from the bed and realized he was biting back a dozen arguments. He had come to stand behind her, folding his arms around her and pulling her to his chest. She could make out the criss-cross of glass scars on his fingers, perfect white in the moonlight. “Tell me, then. Tell me why. Tell me why you cannot declare the guild rebuilt and your obligation paid.”
Tears had welled up in her eyes. If she leaned forward, she could see the executioner’s block in the courtyard. She could see the stone that had cradled her brother’s neck before he paid for his treason, before he yielded up all he had to give. She could see the iron grate that led to the dungeons, to the dank stone corridors where prisoners awaited their fate. Where glasswrights had huddled in terror and rage, masters and journeymen and apprentices imprisoned for their imagined crimes against the crown.
She forced words past her tightened throat, forced a confession from her choked misery. “The obligation is not paid. I don’t know if it ever can be.” She swallowed hard. “After Prince Tuvashanoran was slain, I hid. I did not come forward, even to explain my innocence, even to say that it was all a terrible mistake. I did not say that I never meant to call the prince into range for the arrow that took his life. The glasswrights bled for me, Tovin. They paid a blood debt each time they were interrogated, the masters and the journeymen. The apprentices were maimed, for me.” Maimed. That word was not enough. That single sound could not capture the horror, the brutality. The apprentices had been culled methodically, one each day—for the entire time that Rani had remained loose in the city streets. Every sunrise, a child was torn from the pack and dragged to the courtyard, forced to the block.
Was it the executioner who did the job? Or was there another master, a butcher who specialized in hands?
Each apprentice had been forced to kneel, forced to splay trembling hands on the thirsty, frozen stone. Each was asked to confess, ordered to divulge secrets. Each was commanded to disclose Rani’s whereabouts, Rani’s allies, Rani’s plans. And each remained silent, unable to craft a reply that satisfied old King Shanoranvilli.
The blade had fallen. The thumbs rolled. The blood flowed and flowed and flowed…
And Rani could not repay the guild for that. Even though she had been innocent—she had been a victim herself—she could not declare the balance sheet even, the debt paid. Not yet. No matter how much she longed to be free from her past. No matter how much she longed to move into the future…
She had forced herself to speak to Tovin in the night, to feel her words vibrate against his broad chest even as the doleful Pilgrims’ Bell counted through the night. “I cannot mark the bill paid yet. The old guild must do that. The old masters and journeymen. The apprentices. The ones who survived.”
“You do not even know where they are,” Tovin had said reasonably.
“They are not in Morenia,” she agreed. “But I have sent messengers, trackers. Some glasswrights have returned to their homelands, to their villages. Others have gathered in other lands, in courts that are kinder to the glasswrights than Morenia was.” In Brianta, she thought as she listened to the Pilgrims’ Bell. In the homeland of Jair, where there was mercy for all.
Tovin had pulled her closer, settling her head against his throat. She could feel the steady pulse that beat there. “You are too harsh on yourself.”
“I am not harsh enough.” She held out her hands in the moonlight, turning them to capture the eldritch glow. A trick of the light made her bones stand out, as if her flesh had melted away.
“You cannot undo the past,” Tovin murmured.
She clenched her hands into fists, and her tears finally slid down her cheeks. I know, she thought. Oh, how I know. She let him fold his fingers around the knots of her own. She let him turn her toward him. She let him guide her back to the shadows of the curtained bed they shared.
And in the summer light of morning, she had pushed away the despair, the sorrow, the hopeless mourning. She had dressed in her finest crimson and attended the first silk auction in Morenian history.
“Your Tovin will turn a profit on this one, in less than a season,” Mair crowed, completely unaware of Rani’s drifting thoughts. “By Jair, he’s a wise one!”
“By Jair… “ Rani heard an echo before she could reply, and she looked up to find Princess Berylina standing before them. There was an intensity in the girl’s face, as if she listened to voices from afar, voices that whispered above the rising bids from the dais.
“Your Highness,” Rani said, automatically dropping into a polite curtsey. Beside her, Mair ducked as well, simplifying the maneuver in light of her son. She kept her head up, her eyes on the princess. Rani, too, watched the girl warily, as if she were a wild creature trapped in a stable.
“Ranita Glasswright. Lady Mair.” The princess managed to meet Rani’s gaze for a moment, a quick dart of her own right eye as her cast left eye roamed. Then, she inclined her head, studying her fingers clasping and unclasping her gown. “I am glad that you could be here today.”
“We would not have missed the first sale of Morenian silk,” Rani said, trying to warm her voice. She had no reason to dislike the princess, no reason to take exception to the girl at all. Nevertheless, she was uncomfortable around Berylina. The princess’s roaming eye made it difficult to talk to her directly, and Rani could remember too clearly the child who had stammered and blushed, unable to string together three consecutive words without a fit of shyness.
Of course, three years in Moren had changed that. As had the normal maturation of a young girl. And the attentions of Father Siritalanu.
The priest was never far from the princess, and Rani glanced up to see that he was now a mere two steps away. He kept his gaze on the princess, steady and calm, like a hound awaiting its master’s bidding. As Rani always did when she saw the pair, she wondered how the priest could divide his loyalties—how he could maintain his pledge to the church and to the crown and to his adoptive princess. The man’s intensity gave no clue to his balance.
“The first silk,” Berylina said, and her voice was shadowed by surprise, as if she had not realized that the auction was under way. “Yes, that is important.”
Rani started to shake her head and turn back to the bidding, but Berylina took a step closer. For the first time that Rani could remember, the princess set a hand upon her arm. The girl’s short fingers were stained by charcoal, red chalk, and ink. The palace rumors were true, then. Berylina continued to spell out her devotion to the Thousand Gods, to illustrate the deities as they came to her, as they spoke inside her mind. “I am grateful to you, Ranita Glasswright.”
“Grateful?” Rani repeated the word like one of the players’ talking birds, and she cast a quick glance toward Mair. The Touched girl shrugged minutely, clearly as confused as Rani was.
“For agreeing to travel with me to Brianta. I recognize the gesture as a sign of respect for my homeland, for all the Thousand Gods.”
“My lady!” Hal’s voice was falsely hearty, and he startled Rani by seeming to appear from nowhere. Even one who did not know him as well as she did would have understood that he was forcing the smile onto his face, pounding bluff good nature into his tone. He waved jeweled fingers toward the dais and the excited clutch of merchants who fought to outbid themselves on a particularly fine lot of undyed silk. “We were honored by your prayer before the auction.”
“Anything that I can do in the service of the Thousand Gods, Your Majesty.” Berylina sank into a curtsey, making a holy sign across her chest. “May Lor look upon this day with endless mercy, my lord.”
Hal automatically reached out to raise up the princess, and then he looked about him, clearly wanting to hand her off to another. He avoided Rani’s gaze as he maneuvered the girl, avoiding the demand Rani had yet to voice.
Agreeing to travel to Brianta… Rani had done no such thing. In fact, she could not travel now—she was sworn to make a dozen screens for the players. She had obligations to her players troupe, to Tovin, and to herself. Besides, there was Mair to assist, Mair and little Laranifarso.
Hal said, “I see that Princess Berylina has managed to speak with you when I could not.”
“My lord?” Rani froze her voice, and she felt Mair stiffen beside her.
“Aye, Rani.” Hal’s eyes snared hers, and she read the message there—he was pleading. Asking her not to protest. Asking her to agree meekly, to concede.
Berylina spoke, apparently unaware of the silent conversation that passed between them. “The gods have spoken. They are pleased you will accompany me to Brianta.”
“They are—” Rani started to say, but Berylina continued.
“I am summoned, you know. The Thousand have ordered me to journey to the homeland of First Pilgrim Jair. I am to undertake the complete pilgrimage, that I might hear the gods’ voices uninterrupted.”
Rani’s mind reeled. Hal had not spoken to her, had not found the time to issue his orders to her directly, and yet he had shared them with the princess. He had listened to the Liantine woman’s mysteries and her secret plots, to the truths that the gods whispered to her when she knelt in prayer. Hal was ordering Rani to act, to do something she was not prepared to do, all on the basis of the princess’s visions.
Even as Rani’s anger rose bitter at the back of her throat, she registered the rest of Berylina’s message. The girl was going to undertake a complete pilgrimage. Every Morenian desired to make such a journey in his lifetime, such a grand declaration of faith. Rani’s brother, Bardo, had planned to travel to Brianta. The family had saved for his pilgrimage, setting aside silver coins from their shop. But those coins had been traded to the glasswrights guild instead, buying Rani’s advancement.
Rani’s entrance to the guild had cut off all of Bardo’s hopes. He had rebelled in his own way, seeking out dark counsel and finding sinister allies in the city of his birth. If Bardo had been able to travel to Brianta, he might never have fallen in with the evil Brotherhood. He might have continued to live and work in the Merchants’ Quarter. He might have commandeered the family business and led the Traders to wealth and glory within their caste. He might have lived.
And now Berylina proposed taking the trip that had been denied to Bardo, traveling to Brianta with all the wealth and pomp of a princess…
“I wish you a safe journey, Your Highness,” Rani choked out, raising an angry hand to dash away the tears that had somehow appeared on her cheeks.
Berylina looked at her and glanced away, her eyes as quick as swallows at sunset. She clutched at her simple green robe, the caloya costume that marked her as a devotee of the gods. “I—” she started to say, but she lost herself in her former shyness, unable to bring herself to form coherent words.
Hal stepped closer, coming between Rani and Berylina. The movement brought him too near for comfort; Rani fought the impulse to step back. “Princess Berylina has envisioned herself on the road to Brianta, where she will serve the Thousand Gods with pride. She has also seen you, Rani, honoring Lor and Clain and First Pilgrim Jair himself.”
“We are honored by your accepting this duty, Ranita Glasswright.” The royal command was unmistakable—Hal used the traditional plural. He called her by her guild name. He spoke to her here, in the silk hall, where she could not express her misgivings. Where she could not refuse.
“The gods have spoken,” Berylina announced with a child’s simple confidence, rising out of her shy whirlpool for long enough to flash a trusting smile at Rani.
“Your Highness,” Rani said, barely managing to keep her tone even, her words patient. “You do not understand. I have other work here.”
“Alas, my lady,” the princess said, and her soft voice conveyed a true sorrow that was older than her years. “I fear that you do not understand. Clain has spoken to me. If you do not travel to Brianta now, you will never achieve mastery in your guild. You will never bring your glasswrights back to Morenia.”
Rani turned to Hal, pinning him with a heated gaze. Surely, he could have made time in his busy schedule to tell her of his command. He must have known that Rani would rebel against the princess’s vision. If he had wanted to, he could have spared her this unsettling public display. “Sire?”
“Rani.” He closed the distance between them once again, coming near enough that he could rest a hand on her shoulder. “Ranita. We all have obligations.”
“Yes, Sire. And all of my time is spoken for!”
“You will find time. You will travel to Brianta to watch over Berylina, as steadily as I would myself if I could go.”
“Sire—” she began, but she let the word trail off. Could she upset Hal’s balance? Should she disrupt the power that he was exercising, the success he was at last enjoying? He was her king, after all. She was his vassal.
She bowed her head. “Aye, Sire. I will go with Berylina to Brianta.”
Tovin stepped up beside her as she spoke, returned from harvesting his new commissions. She felt the warmth of his body through her crimson gown.
“I will travel with you, Ranita,” Tovin said as easily as if they spoke of an afternoon’s outing beyond the city walls.
Hal said, “Player, you are not required to accompany Ranita Glasswright in this task.”
“Nevertheless, I feel the call,” Tovin responded immediately, moving his hand across his chest in a fluid holy sign. If Rani did not know the player’s skill, she would have thought him struck with sudden religious fervor, with a stunning insight into the Thousand Gods and all that they intended to work in the lives of men. Tovin pressed: “Your Majesty, the players came to Morenia to serve you. Do not hamper our work. Do not order me from the side of our patron.”
“Sold!” rang out the silk master, crashing his baton against the wooden podium. Another lot of spidersilk. More gold for the royal coffers.
Rani watched Hal make up his mind. She saw him nod at Tovin, absorbing the player’s untold promises. She saw him glance at Berylina, noting the princess’s whispered prayer of gratitude to Lor, gratitude for another lot of successfully auctioned silk. She saw Hal turn to her, to Rani, taking her measurement to determine what she desired.
Of course, Rani wanted Tovin’s companionship. She wanted the player beside her, sharing with her, teaching her. She wanted his devotion. His dry humor. His glasswright’s knowledge. If she were bound to travel to Brianta, better to work with Tovin than without. She nodded her head, ducking her chin in barely perceptible agreement.
“It is settled, then. Tovin Player, you shall go.” Hal started to reach for Tovin’s hand, to seal the bargain with a royal clasp, but before he could move, the door to the silk hall crashed open. Sunlight streamed into the building, spilling across the floor like golden milk.
The silk master stopped his bidding, cutting off his recitation of the glories of the cobalt silk now on the dais. All eyes turned to the doorway, to the frantic palace messenger who sprinted into the hall.
“Your Majesty!” the boy gasped. “Come quick! Queen Mareka has fallen! The midwives stand ready—your child is about to be born!”
Klasky tells a strong, straightforward, and convincing story full of entertaining twists and turns. Her first book marked her as a writer to be watched, and those that have followed have been every bit as good or better.