Shift by S. L. Thorne

EXTRACT FOR
Shift

(S. L. Thorne)


Chapter 1

“I give you the ability to Become, that you might understand the world and your place in it. I give you Understanding, that you might be one.” -Caelyrima, Mother Chimera


She rode Northwest for the first time in her life. She had been North, into the Mistwood, more times than she could count, but never on the King’s Road. And, most certainly, not with such an entourage. Hunting was a different matter, with different accoutrement; a different kind of wagon entirely, for holding camping gear and returning with fresh meat for the castle. Hunting was a matter of a week’s roughing it deep in the Mistwood just a few miles from her beloved cliff-side home in the Mistwood Reach, sometimes farther if the hunting was not as good. This... this was almost a travesty. Three wagons holding furnishings and numerous trunks, plus two handmaidens currently riding in a carriage lady Petra felt certain she should be riding in. However, so long as lady Petra was in that carriage and it was not pouring rain, Lady Caelerys Maral would not be in it.
Lady Petra was an old friend of her father’s, one of those stern and nosy widows that were affable enough with her late husband’s friends, but with inflexible and distasteful ideas of how young women should comport themselves. The only daughter of Duke Elyas Maral, Caelerys had ideas of her own and they did not mesh with some of the more rigid, new philosophies of the Elder Church; of which lady Petra was a devout supporter.
Caelerys was fair-skinned, pretty in an oval way, with eyes of the most vivid, deep sapphire. Her hair was the almost black of the northern blackwood, but glints of deep red could be seen when the sun finally shone upon it. Mostly it flowed freely down her back, drawn from her face with combs. She wore a split skirt and riding leathers, as if this were an ordinary ride, even though she knew it was not. At least she could pretend for a while. Beneath her, Wraith sensed her shifting mood and danced sideways.
The silver buckskin mare wanted to run. She was tired of this lacklustre pace. Riding was serious business, not this drudgery which seemed, to her, to have no purpose. Caelerys tightened her knees and wrapped the reins once more around her gloved hand, leaned forward and gave the mare a pat on her neck in apology. Soon, she promised.
She looked behind her. Four days back, past the trailing wagons and the small army of men, lay Taluscliff, her home. A home she might never see again. Already she missed the cool, salty wind off the cliffs of the palisade, the rust-brown basalt columns that rose in sweeping spires by the sea; the northern moors where she would ride and hunt small game with her falcon, Tempest, who was overhead, somewhere. Already she missed her father, the occasional visits of her uncle, and even her rather brash, youngest brother, Vyncet.
It occurred to her that, at a more reasonable pace, it would only take her two days to get back.
With a sigh, she turned forward again, settling back into her seat and casting her mind to what lay ahead: the city. Not just any city: The City, DragonsPoint on the King’s Bay. The largest gathering of humanity in Elanthus. The prospect overwhelmed her. She could face a charging boar and keep her wits about her, but unknown people terrified her.
At least there were two people in DragonsPoint she would know: Willam, her eldest living brother and father’s heir, and Janem, Master Smith and Maral subsequent. One she barely knew, the other she missed sorely. Willam had gone to Court when he was ten, hostage to the King’s Justice after their eldest brother, Landyn had attempted a mad rebellion against the crown in father’s absence. She barely knew Willam, and Landyn had been killed the year she was born. Janem... she smiled, thinking warmly of him, with his flashing dark eyes and dark brown hair and ready smile. She had grown up with him.
Mace rode up along-side her, a smile on his lined face. He ran a hand through grizzled hair where it rebelled against the loose queue he wore it in. “It is good to see you smile, little bird.”
Mace was the Master Bowman of House Maral and he had been calling her ‘little bird’ since she was five. She smiled more in spite of herself. Of all her father’s men, Mace was her favourite. He had taught her all she knew of the bow and the hunt.
“It won’t last,” she warned.
“I’ll take it, my lady.” He signalled some of the men behind him and one of them galloped past and out of sight. “About a mile ahead, around that bend, is an inn where we will stop and eat and ready ourselves for entrance to the city. If you wish to stretch the fidget out of that filly, now is the time.”
Caelerys did not wait for further invitation, but pressed her knees against the sterling hide and tore off down the road. Mace kept pace a length behind and she could hear the hoof-beats of at least two more speeding up.
It was a short gallop, but exhilarating after four days of wagon pace. Tempest stooped, levelling out at the last and flying smoothly between the riders, the tips of her black-flecked wings deliberately brushing Caelerys’s ear.
Caelerys was laughing as they reined in, prancing to a halt in the packed dirt courtyard of a pretty little stone inn. She and Wraith both had needed that. As she swung over and dropped from the saddle, a woman in a crisp, starched apron rushed out to meet them. She seemed momentarily surprised by the unladylike dismount but carried on as if nothing were amiss. She had seen all sorts upon this road and had long ago learned to pretend everything was as it should be.
“I have a room ready for you, my lady, as yer man asked. A bath bein’ drawn as we speak and a dinner on the way up.”
Caelerys’s spirits fell almost immediately. This was it, the final stretch. If she ran now... she could throw herself into the saddle and be away before her men could remount, ...but Mace would find her. And her family was counting on her. This was far too important and no Maral had ever fled a battle. Retreated intelligently, sued for peace when the costs were too great, aye. Run in cowardice? Never. She would not be the first.
She thanked the goodwife politely and followed her into the comfortable establishment. The Mist’s End was like any other inn, like the one at the other end of the road at her end of the Mistwood: a busy common room with fireplace and bar, stairs to one side and a row of rooms above. Several people eating in the taproom looked up at her entrance but went back to their food, curiosity satisfied. Only one watched her for any real length of time. The proprietress led her up the stairs to a modest room.
Caelerys seated herself at the small table and allowed a plump maid to serve her a light meal of stewed capon and warm bread. Two other maids came and went carrying water to fill a brass tub near the fire. She was almost finished with her food when lady Petra blew in the room with a scowl of disapproval.
She stared imperiously at Caelerys from the door for a long moment. Cae remained unintimidated. She had long ago lost her fear of the widow. The dame decided to pick her battle. “That is that last meal you will eat that has not been tasted first. Do you understand?” she demanded frostily.
The heel of bread fell from her suddenly nerveless fingers.
Lady Petra’s eyes narrowed in triumph. “Yes, Lady Caelerys. Tasted. You are entering into a viper’s nest of intrigue where the physical dangers will not necessarily come from a man charging you with a sword. Death will be unseen or come in the night, at unprotected moments.”
“But why would anyone...”
She stepped into the room and allowed the handmaids and her own lady in waiting to enter. “Because you stand in their way. Because you became friends with the wrong person. Because you wore the same colour gown to the same function as another lady and looked better in it.”
Caelerys was horrified.
“Good. I see I have finally managed to instil fear in you. You will be living among wild animals, exposed to every element and predation with only your wits to defend you. Some of these beasts will be benign. Some openly hostile. Others will seem harmless and even friendly, only to turn on you in a moment if it suits them. You must learn the difference.”
Cae pushed what remained of her meal away, no appetite remaining. It was a brutal analogy, but one she understood. The cold pit in her stomach at the thought of dealing with strangers grew larger. Mutely, she allowed Fern to draw her to the small bathtub and wash the dust of the road from her body without getting her hair wet.
Lady Petra bustled about, directing the maids what to pull from the trunk that had been brought up. “Now, as much as I feel a lady should ride, demurely unseen, within a carriage, in this case, I agree with your father...” She was interrupted by a large white falcon, as Tempest sailed through the open window and landed on the edge of the tub. A black peppered feather landed in the water and Cae giggled, reaching up to stroke the blue beak. Scowling, lady Petra continued. “You should ride in state at the head of the procession. That bird should be on your wrist and properly hooded and jessed...”
This earned her a glare from both girl and bird. The way the fowl’s dark eyes bored into her made lady Petra feel as if the beast understood far more of what was said than was natural. Cae found her back-bone again. “No. There will be no hoods and no jesses. She is far too well manned to need either. The last time she wore jesses, she got hopelessly tangled and nearly eaten by a wildcat.”
“And if she gets loose and someone finds her? How will they know she is not a wild bird for the taking?”
Caelerys fingered the gold band around the bird’s ankle, engraved with her name and house. “This. And I would be surprised if anyone could catch her. And no one else can fly her.”
“That is because you have spoiled her,” she sniffed. “I swear that bird is more pet than hunter. You’ve ruined her.”
Cae laughed, stroking the white breast feathers, admiring the scattering of black. “She should be. But she isn’t. She protects me.”
Lady Petra sighed, turned back to the task at hand, aware she would never win this fight. “You will ride side-saddle, the hawk on your wrist...”
“Falcon.”
“You will... what?”
“Falcon. Tempest is a gauvan, a very rare falcon, not a common hawk.”
The brown eyes narrowed. Cae gave a tiny shrug of her head, rose from the water and stood to be rinsed.
Lady Petra watched as Fern poured a last ewer of warm water over the girl’s nubile young body, assessing her while she had the chance. Caelerys was a woman flowered, she knew, but she also knew many young girls who flowered before they bloomed. The dukes’ daughter, however, was blooming. She had the height of her family, tall for a girl of just seventeen, but with the appearance of petiteness, and none of the coltish awkwardness one expected at that age and height. There was silent strength in her arms and legs, a criminally athletic body for a girl, but she was healthy and curving and soft, ...and still growing.
As the girl accepted the towel Fern wrapped around her, rubbing herself dry, lady Petra nodded to herself. She would gain maybe a few more inches in height over the next two years, still acceptably shorter than most men, and there would be no need for padding her bodice, or corsetry for trimness and posture.
The old dame continued. “You will ride at a sedate pace through the street of DragonsPoint up to the castle where you shall meet your brother Lord Willam. You will be courteous.”
“Always,” Cae said, began dusting her naked body with a small fur wand with a glistening powder from a little leather bag. The warm scent of honey filled the air.
“You will not speak unless spoken to and you will comport yourself as the eldest daughter of a Great House should. Now, the coronation of King Rorlan will be in seven days. Lord Willam will present you before the king and bring forth the gifts your father has sent with you. You will then mingle with the members of court, making yourself presentable and noticeable.”
“What’s the point if I can’t talk to them?” came the muffled voice from within folds of heavy blue silk.
“They will speak to you if you approach. Your father says you are to make a list of your impressions of the men,” she added, her tone conveying her true feelings about the idea and Caelerys’s capacity to intelligently comply. “You and I will go over that list before it is sent on to your father, and I will inform you which of the men are, in fact, eligible. You are to convey to the new king your father’s condolences upon the untimely death of his brother and generally make yourself available. You are here to make a suitable match to the advantage of your House.”
Caelerys sighed, running her hand across the silk bodice with its high collar, embroidered silver netting and seed pearls sewn at the junctures. It was the finest dress she owned. “I know my duty, lady Petra. Father has already told me what he needs of me. I know what is expected. I may be young, but I am not so foolish or silly as you seem to think me,” she said firmly, sitting to allow lady Petra’s lady in waiting to dress her hair. “I have no intention of falling in love with the first pretty face or kind gentleman to pay attention to me. I will look for a suitable match, and withhold my affections until such time as negotiations are done. Only then will I consider love.” Caelerys had very firm ideas of what she was looking for and what she would settle for, but she kept these to herself. She knew that, for every nursemaid and bardic tale of love against all odds, there were ten that ended in tragedy and heartache. No, she kept her heart locked tightly away and would not give it lightly.
Lady Petra studied her, seemed satisfied. “You might do after all.” She softened, nibbling upon what was left of Cae’s lunch. “This is not to say that you won’t come to love your husband. The Eldest knows I hated mine.”
Caelerys turned to look at her. “Then why did you agree to light the candle?”
“Because it was what my family required. House Reynelds is a knightly house at best, and House Petra a minor but impoverished one. My family had the money, Petra had the status. I came to love him in the end. Even his more noxious habits became dear. I am a creature of comforts, my lamb, and my mother was ambitious. ...Leave a little hanging around her temples, Marigold. It frames her face nicely.” She smiled, a surprisingly warm expression. “Don’t worry, little one. Your father will not likely marry you to someone loathsome.”
The air had chilled a little by the time Caelerys was as ready as she could be made, and a fog had begun to rise out of the Mistwood. When she finally descended the stairs, everyone in the common room stopped to stare. What had slipped upstairs had been a bright cheeked, rough young girl. What came down was a beauty. The silk flowed after her like a cloud, the perfect shade of blue to bring out the jewel-tone of her sapphire eyes. The collar encircled her throat like a necklace of metallic lace and pearl, expounding her innocence. Not even the white leather pad strapped to her left shoulder detracted from the vision of the demure Lady of Court.
Outside, the rest of her entourage had caught up and were taking a short rest. Cartyr, the head of the cadre, was dividing the men between the caravan, which would follow later, and the Lady’s honour-guard. Even the aged Mace caught his breath as Caelerys stepped out of the door into the courtyard.
A stable boy led Wraith to a mounting block and held her. The mare had been brushed until she shone like metal and stood there with her head and ears up. Her saddle had been changed to the dreaded side-saddle, and Caelerys allowed Mace to take her hand and lead her over. Wraith tossed her head as she approached and Cae noticed that tiny silver bells had been attached to her bridle by sapphire ribbons. Cae strongly suspected Wraith was playing with them, dancing rambunctious just to hear them ring. Mace handed her into the saddle and Cae adjusted her skirts. Tempest waited until she was settled before dropping onto the leather pad. Thankfully, she refrained from picking at her hair.
The men who were to ride with her mounted quickly as Cartyr shouted. Two of them taking their places just ahead of her, the Maral banners at stirrup. A breath of wind lifted the deep blue fabric, unfurling the rampant white stag of her House and Caelerys took a deep breath. This was it. Cartyr took point, his men falling in behind the lady, and Mace rode beside her, bow in hand. She knew he would drop back when they came to the great bridge, but she took comfort in his presence whilst she had it.
The mist held onto the day as they rode out of the wood an hour later. It trailed after them, cloaking the procession in an aura of mystery and fey pageantry, as if reluctant to relinquish them from its enchanted grip. The few people on the road made way for them, and even the low estates, bringing in livestock or tending fields, stopped to watch them pass. The standard-bearers’ mail gleamed in the afternoon light, and the lady herself seemed to float across the ground on a horse of brushed silver.
They paused at the top of the hill which gave Caelerys a moment to absorb the sight before her. Mace stepped his horse up beside hers, spoke softly, “DragonsPoint, little bird. Jewel of the Western Sea. The centre of humanity in Elanthus.”
“It looks like it houses half of it,” she breathed. She tried to take it all in, and couldn’t. The green hill sloped a little less than gently down to the river, though the road wound more softly against the side of it. The broad river was filled with barges and small boats and spanned by a bridge the size of a village. The bridge was massive and towered, guarded by two stone dragons that held up the massive front gate, and by two smaller bronze ones on the city side. Beyond that, she could see the curve of King’s Bay and the masts of a sea of ships breaking up the skyline. The city itself curved along in between river and bay and rose in an uneven sprawl. The walls were high and of a pale, greenish stone and pierced by one or two smaller gates, which had what looked like drawbridges for docks. At the far end of the city, upon a hill, rose a castle in a dark green stone with white slate roofs and many coloured pennants.
Whatever Cartyr had been waiting for had occurred. At a signal from him, her escort began moving forward and Mace dropped back behind her. The road was cleared all the way to the bridge, and what people were there stared without shame. They drank in the pageantry, feasting on the details to sustain them in their small hours. Caelerys caught the wide eye of a small child and smiled. Tempest half spread her wings, giving a shrill cry of pure pride, much to the child’s delight. Cae turned her eyes forward to the bridge dragons, feeling overwhelmed and doing her best not to show it.
The guards at the first gates saluted the banners as they passed unchallenged. And then Caelerys was beneath the arch of stone claws thirty feet high and feeling the difference in the sound beneath Wraith’s hooves. The world seemed unrooted suddenly, the sound of it different, almost hollow. She was surprised to see narrow buildings lining the length of the bridge. They seemed to be small customs offices and barracks, among other things.
And then she was out the second, bronze gates and in the city proper and she thought, for a moment, that her ears would burst. The noise was immense. On her shoulder, Tempest cried, stepping closer to her neck and spreading her wings protectively around Cae’s head. She shifted her shoulder minutely and the bird began to settle down, though still complaining. Even Wraith did a twisting side-step as they entered the wall of living sound.
Two of the men-at-arms rode up beside her, just far enough back that she could be seen, but not enough that anyone could take advantage of the opening. People paused only a breath to stare, getting out of the way of the horses, but otherwise going about their business. Caelerys had to force herself to calm down. Wraith was beginning to sense her unease and tossing her head. The bells could barely be heard over the mass of voices and people. She tightened her grip on the reins and stared straight ahead, focusing on whatever she could to get her mind off her fear. There were so many bodies. And, if lady Petra was to be believed, anyone of them could decide she had offended them and try to kill her. By the time they were approaching the green gates of the castle, she had decided the idea was ridiculous. By then, she had something else to occupy her thoughts; like the sheer size of the building.
Greenstone Citadel was easily three times the size of her family’s great keep, a spare eleven acres across. It rose in mossy stone high above the large inner courtyard that was almost a village market of its own; with a blacksmith, wainwright, large carriage house and stable, and a barracks. Broad, sweeping steps led up to the massive front doors, stained green with delicate, flat, golden dragons fastened to it, their bright claws slipped into the crack in between as if ready to pull them open upon request. There were just as many people in deep green and yellow livery as were not, and Caelerys noted a young woman emerging from one out-building with a basket of fresh bread upon her head who deftly avoided running into another young man from the building next to it who was laden under smoked hams as easily as if this happened every day.
In all, though the scale was beyond her, it was not that different from home. The parts of the village important to a castle’s upkeep were just within the castle itself and not at its feet. When she looked up, it almost reminded her of looking up at Taluscliff from the beach, just with more spires and peaked roofs, and smoother walls. She was just taking note of trunks and furniture being moved in through a side door when a vaguely familiar voice hailed them.
She turned to look for the voice, saw a tall, broad young man with dark curling locks that fell to his shoulders calling for his horse. He strode over to her with all the solemn, noble grace of an emperor stag. While Wraith was a dainty mare, she was not short. Even so, the man’s head came to her waist. She looked down into the dark blue eyes, set in a handsome, strong face and recognized traces of the slender young man she had last seen two years ago at Harvest. “Willam?”
He quirked a smile, “Little sister.”
She reached to be lifted from the saddle but he shook his head. “Now is not the time, Lady Caelerys,” he said with unusual formality. He stepped back and took his reins from the approaching stable hand, turned to address Cartyr. “We head to Stag’s Hall now.” He threw himself into the saddle of a broad warhorse, a rich brown with heavy, white-feathered legs and a broad blaze on his wide nose.
Caelerys frowned, reluctant to re-enter the noise of the city proper. She held her tongue though, knowing from experience that he would not explain right now. She rode sedately beside him and wondered about this brother who was nearly a stranger.
“How was the ride?” he asked civilly.
“Boring,” she replied.
He chuckled. “Plenty of excitement here,” he conceded. “Maybe not to your tastes.”
She cast her eyes over the packed road and milling people, and, even from the elevated place where the castle sat, all she could see spreading below her were buildings and people. “I will miss riding.”
“There are places to ride,” he said. “Just beyond the castle, there is a training ground and a small wood, fields. They have an army to keep in shape, after all. The tourney will be held there, which is why the streets are so crowded. People coming for the King’s Tournament. There will be events the ladies can enter if you like. Equestrian and Archery, for instance.”
His sister lit up as he had known she would. “Would I really be allowed?”
“Encouraged, even. Granted, not the jousting or the grand melee, though there is rumour of a woman slipping into the lists. The council is battling as to whether or not there should be any rule against it, and of course, the church wants there to be.”
Caelerys was suddenly grateful for this brother she did not really know. She realized that he had put her at ease in spite of being surrounded by hordes of strangers. It began to dawn on her that there was no need to worry about dealing with them because she was just another anonymous member of the press. Well, not anonymous, but certainly nothing was expected of her in the way of social interaction. The mention of the church reminded her of something unpleasant though. “Will lady Petra be staying with us?”
Willam shook his head, and Caelerys thought there was a hint of relief at his reply, “No. She has her own place in town. She will be visiting often though, to make sure you are properly attired and briefed on courtly manners and that your maids know what will be expected of them.” He hesitated a moment, gave her a sidelong look. “How do you feel about this... whole thing?”
She took a deep breath before answering. “I know my duty to the family. I will do my best to find the best choice for household alliances while still trying to find someone I can deal with. I would like a friend if nothing else. Have you found a bride, yet?”
Willam seemed confused a moment, then caught what she had asked. He cleared his throat and concentrated on the road ahead of him. “I haven’t had the time. DragonsPoint has been chaos the last month.”
Her eyes slid over the pale grey slate of a stately building, an actual anvil standing at the top of the marble steps: the symbol of the Eldest and the Divine Right of Man. The place did not engender comfortable thoughts. “What exactly happened? I had not heard.”
This surprised him. “Father didn’t tell you?”
She rolled her eyes skyward, “Lady Petra,” was all she needed to say.
Willam laughed softly, clearly a noise he was no longer used to making. He gestured to an impressive, walled residence off to the right. “Lady Caelerys, welcome to Stag’s Hall.”
Two liveried men threw open the dark wooden gates to admit them to the little courtyard. It was a great deal smaller than home but of good size. Three stories, a decent stable and small forge. As she rode inside, the sounds of the city muffled again; still there, but less intrusive, not unlike the background hum of a forest full of life, just different beasts. The building itself was grey stone with dark wood shutters on its narrow windows. Before she knew it, Willam was lifting her down from the saddle and she had to cling to him a moment, letting her legs uncramp from the unnatural pose she had been holding for hours. When she was ready, he took her arm and led her into the house.
It was nice. Not structured in a way she knew at all, but then, she had lived in a fortress all her life with occasional stays in a hunting lodge. There was a large foyer, not unexpected, a solar and a study off to the side and a wide staircase leading to the upper floors. Between the stairs and the study was a corridor that led to other parts of the house and he took her down this way first. There were hallways here, leading to the kitchen and servants’ quarters, but what was of greatest interest to her was a door braced in iron shaped like roses just past the dining room. It opened into an inner courtyard complete with a broad kitchen garden and a trellis against one wall where roses had been recently planted. The late afternoon sun shone against one wall and glinted off broad glass windows, and nearly all of the third story rooms had balconies.
A decent-sized aviary took up one corner, filled with the soft chirring of nesting toomi, the dull brown and grey little birds used for carrying messages. Caelerys had always been fond of them. They mated for life, and so complete was their devotion that the male would find the female no matter where she was, even if she was sent to a different aviary, even one he had never been to before. The wives were kept safe in household aviaries and the husbands were delivered to the various places where urgent messages were likely to be sent from. Once released, message tied to their leg, they headed straight for their wives. If you wanted to silence a house, you killed the females. The males, strangely, would never return to the nest, either losing their way or out of instinct. Somehow they always knew, and very often did not survive long themselves. The unattractive little birds were used as the symbol for lasting marital unions and were often given as wedding gifts.
Willam stood back and watched his sister tour the garden. He had been told she was a fairly accomplished herbalist and hoped the garden would be to her liking. He had ordered the roses planted because he wasn’t sure if she would be happy with nothing pretty to look at. In fact, beyond that she was pretty, shy, well-read and a more than decent huntress, he knew next to nothing about this dark-haired girl who was now his responsibility. She had stopped to examine the roses, peering under a few of the leaves and frowning.
“We can have whatever you wish moved out to make room for more flowers,” he told her. “Just make a list. We have not had a lady in residence in a very long time, so all we have had need of was a kitchen garden.”
“Who tends it?” she asked.
“We don’t have a gardener. The kitchen staff have been maintaining things since they are the ones using it. They asked permission to use the space and I granted it.”
“And now you are taking it back,” she said, the slightest hint of reproof in her voice. “No. No need. It will suit my purposes as is. If I could have this patch over here for some specific, more medicinal flowers and herbs, I will be happy. But you might want to consider a dedicated gardener, or at least one who’s main responsibility is the garden with light duties elsewhere. Some of what I’ll want requires a knowing hand. And they need to stop dead-heading the roses,” she said, fingering a cut stem. “I know it makes them produce more blooms, but the hips are too useful.”
It was moments like these that one found it hard to remember how young she was. “As you wish, little sister. Just give a list of what you want done to Fennel. She’s been managing this end of things. Any other changes you want, tell her. She’ll ask me if she feels it needs approval.” He gave her a long look, not wanting to say it but feeling the need, “Just don’t turn the house upside down.”
She looked over at him, frowning. “Why would I do that?”
He looked uncomfortable. “Because girls... want things and need them a certain way, need to feel in control of a house and this one runs smoothly right now...”
She set her hands on her hips and tipped her head in that bird-like way he remembered from the few times he had come home. “And what, pray tell, gives you that idea?”
“I’ve seen it happen. Woman moves into a house, no matter her age and sweeping changes are in the offing.”
She decided to be uncharitable. “I’ll let you know.” She lifted her head, looking over to the aviary. “Jelma, tyet!” she called sternly in Old Vermian. The falcon lifted her snowy head guiltily, launched herself from the top of the tall cage and sailed easily back to her leather-cased wrist. She landed gingerly, being careful. She bobbed and twisted her head in apology. Caelerys sighed and relented, stroking her in her favourite places. She looked up to realize her brother was frowning at the bird. “What?”
“I had forgotten about her. I can have a mews built, but it’ll have to be in the main courtyard if she’s going to bother the toomi.”
“If that is all that’s bothering you, don’t worry about it,” she smiled. “She sleeps in my room. I brought her stands. She’ll likely be tagging along behind me no matter where I go anyway. And don’t worry about the toomi. She will leave them alone,” she said the last directly to the bird who sighed.
Willam shook his head and reached for his sister’s free hand. “Let me show you the rest of the house.”

Shift by S. L. Thorne

EXTRACT FOR
Shift

(S. L. Thorne)


Chapter 1

“I give you the ability to Become, that you might understand the world and your place in it. I give you Understanding, that you might be one.” -Caelyrima, Mother Chimera


She rode Northwest for the first time in her life. She had been North, into the Mistwood, more times than she could count, but never on the King’s Road. And, most certainly, not with such an entourage. Hunting was a different matter, with different accoutrement; a different kind of wagon entirely, for holding camping gear and returning with fresh meat for the castle. Hunting was a matter of a week’s roughing it deep in the Mistwood just a few miles from her beloved cliff-side home in the Mistwood Reach, sometimes farther if the hunting was not as good. This... this was almost a travesty. Three wagons holding furnishings and numerous trunks, plus two handmaidens currently riding in a carriage lady Petra felt certain she should be riding in. However, so long as lady Petra was in that carriage and it was not pouring rain, Lady Caelerys Maral would not be in it.
Lady Petra was an old friend of her father’s, one of those stern and nosy widows that were affable enough with her late husband’s friends, but with inflexible and distasteful ideas of how young women should comport themselves. The only daughter of Duke Elyas Maral, Caelerys had ideas of her own and they did not mesh with some of the more rigid, new philosophies of the Elder Church; of which lady Petra was a devout supporter.
Caelerys was fair-skinned, pretty in an oval way, with eyes of the most vivid, deep sapphire. Her hair was the almost black of the northern blackwood, but glints of deep red could be seen when the sun finally shone upon it. Mostly it flowed freely down her back, drawn from her face with combs. She wore a split skirt and riding leathers, as if this were an ordinary ride, even though she knew it was not. At least she could pretend for a while. Beneath her, Wraith sensed her shifting mood and danced sideways.
The silver buckskin mare wanted to run. She was tired of this lacklustre pace. Riding was serious business, not this drudgery which seemed, to her, to have no purpose. Caelerys tightened her knees and wrapped the reins once more around her gloved hand, leaned forward and gave the mare a pat on her neck in apology. Soon, she promised.
She looked behind her. Four days back, past the trailing wagons and the small army of men, lay Taluscliff, her home. A home she might never see again. Already she missed the cool, salty wind off the cliffs of the palisade, the rust-brown basalt columns that rose in sweeping spires by the sea; the northern moors where she would ride and hunt small game with her falcon, Tempest, who was overhead, somewhere. Already she missed her father, the occasional visits of her uncle, and even her rather brash, youngest brother, Vyncet.
It occurred to her that, at a more reasonable pace, it would only take her two days to get back.
With a sigh, she turned forward again, settling back into her seat and casting her mind to what lay ahead: the city. Not just any city: The City, DragonsPoint on the King’s Bay. The largest gathering of humanity in Elanthus. The prospect overwhelmed her. She could face a charging boar and keep her wits about her, but unknown people terrified her.
At least there were two people in DragonsPoint she would know: Willam, her eldest living brother and father’s heir, and Janem, Master Smith and Maral subsequent. One she barely knew, the other she missed sorely. Willam had gone to Court when he was ten, hostage to the King’s Justice after their eldest brother, Landyn had attempted a mad rebellion against the crown in father’s absence. She barely knew Willam, and Landyn had been killed the year she was born. Janem... she smiled, thinking warmly of him, with his flashing dark eyes and dark brown hair and ready smile. She had grown up with him.
Mace rode up along-side her, a smile on his lined face. He ran a hand through grizzled hair where it rebelled against the loose queue he wore it in. “It is good to see you smile, little bird.”
Mace was the Master Bowman of House Maral and he had been calling her ‘little bird’ since she was five. She smiled more in spite of herself. Of all her father’s men, Mace was her favourite. He had taught her all she knew of the bow and the hunt.
“It won’t last,” she warned.
“I’ll take it, my lady.” He signalled some of the men behind him and one of them galloped past and out of sight. “About a mile ahead, around that bend, is an inn where we will stop and eat and ready ourselves for entrance to the city. If you wish to stretch the fidget out of that filly, now is the time.”
Caelerys did not wait for further invitation, but pressed her knees against the sterling hide and tore off down the road. Mace kept pace a length behind and she could hear the hoof-beats of at least two more speeding up.
It was a short gallop, but exhilarating after four days of wagon pace. Tempest stooped, levelling out at the last and flying smoothly between the riders, the tips of her black-flecked wings deliberately brushing Caelerys’s ear.
Caelerys was laughing as they reined in, prancing to a halt in the packed dirt courtyard of a pretty little stone inn. She and Wraith both had needed that. As she swung over and dropped from the saddle, a woman in a crisp, starched apron rushed out to meet them. She seemed momentarily surprised by the unladylike dismount but carried on as if nothing were amiss. She had seen all sorts upon this road and had long ago learned to pretend everything was as it should be.
“I have a room ready for you, my lady, as yer man asked. A bath bein’ drawn as we speak and a dinner on the way up.”
Caelerys’s spirits fell almost immediately. This was it, the final stretch. If she ran now... she could throw herself into the saddle and be away before her men could remount, ...but Mace would find her. And her family was counting on her. This was far too important and no Maral had ever fled a battle. Retreated intelligently, sued for peace when the costs were too great, aye. Run in cowardice? Never. She would not be the first.
She thanked the goodwife politely and followed her into the comfortable establishment. The Mist’s End was like any other inn, like the one at the other end of the road at her end of the Mistwood: a busy common room with fireplace and bar, stairs to one side and a row of rooms above. Several people eating in the taproom looked up at her entrance but went back to their food, curiosity satisfied. Only one watched her for any real length of time. The proprietress led her up the stairs to a modest room.
Caelerys seated herself at the small table and allowed a plump maid to serve her a light meal of stewed capon and warm bread. Two other maids came and went carrying water to fill a brass tub near the fire. She was almost finished with her food when lady Petra blew in the room with a scowl of disapproval.
She stared imperiously at Caelerys from the door for a long moment. Cae remained unintimidated. She had long ago lost her fear of the widow. The dame decided to pick her battle. “That is that last meal you will eat that has not been tasted first. Do you understand?” she demanded frostily.
The heel of bread fell from her suddenly nerveless fingers.
Lady Petra’s eyes narrowed in triumph. “Yes, Lady Caelerys. Tasted. You are entering into a viper’s nest of intrigue where the physical dangers will not necessarily come from a man charging you with a sword. Death will be unseen or come in the night, at unprotected moments.”
“But why would anyone...”
She stepped into the room and allowed the handmaids and her own lady in waiting to enter. “Because you stand in their way. Because you became friends with the wrong person. Because you wore the same colour gown to the same function as another lady and looked better in it.”
Caelerys was horrified.
“Good. I see I have finally managed to instil fear in you. You will be living among wild animals, exposed to every element and predation with only your wits to defend you. Some of these beasts will be benign. Some openly hostile. Others will seem harmless and even friendly, only to turn on you in a moment if it suits them. You must learn the difference.”
Cae pushed what remained of her meal away, no appetite remaining. It was a brutal analogy, but one she understood. The cold pit in her stomach at the thought of dealing with strangers grew larger. Mutely, she allowed Fern to draw her to the small bathtub and wash the dust of the road from her body without getting her hair wet.
Lady Petra bustled about, directing the maids what to pull from the trunk that had been brought up. “Now, as much as I feel a lady should ride, demurely unseen, within a carriage, in this case, I agree with your father...” She was interrupted by a large white falcon, as Tempest sailed through the open window and landed on the edge of the tub. A black peppered feather landed in the water and Cae giggled, reaching up to stroke the blue beak. Scowling, lady Petra continued. “You should ride in state at the head of the procession. That bird should be on your wrist and properly hooded and jessed...”
This earned her a glare from both girl and bird. The way the fowl’s dark eyes bored into her made lady Petra feel as if the beast understood far more of what was said than was natural. Cae found her back-bone again. “No. There will be no hoods and no jesses. She is far too well manned to need either. The last time she wore jesses, she got hopelessly tangled and nearly eaten by a wildcat.”
“And if she gets loose and someone finds her? How will they know she is not a wild bird for the taking?”
Caelerys fingered the gold band around the bird’s ankle, engraved with her name and house. “This. And I would be surprised if anyone could catch her. And no one else can fly her.”
“That is because you have spoiled her,” she sniffed. “I swear that bird is more pet than hunter. You’ve ruined her.”
Cae laughed, stroking the white breast feathers, admiring the scattering of black. “She should be. But she isn’t. She protects me.”
Lady Petra sighed, turned back to the task at hand, aware she would never win this fight. “You will ride side-saddle, the hawk on your wrist...”
“Falcon.”
“You will... what?”
“Falcon. Tempest is a gauvan, a very rare falcon, not a common hawk.”
The brown eyes narrowed. Cae gave a tiny shrug of her head, rose from the water and stood to be rinsed.
Lady Petra watched as Fern poured a last ewer of warm water over the girl’s nubile young body, assessing her while she had the chance. Caelerys was a woman flowered, she knew, but she also knew many young girls who flowered before they bloomed. The dukes’ daughter, however, was blooming. She had the height of her family, tall for a girl of just seventeen, but with the appearance of petiteness, and none of the coltish awkwardness one expected at that age and height. There was silent strength in her arms and legs, a criminally athletic body for a girl, but she was healthy and curving and soft, ...and still growing.
As the girl accepted the towel Fern wrapped around her, rubbing herself dry, lady Petra nodded to herself. She would gain maybe a few more inches in height over the next two years, still acceptably shorter than most men, and there would be no need for padding her bodice, or corsetry for trimness and posture.
The old dame continued. “You will ride at a sedate pace through the street of DragonsPoint up to the castle where you shall meet your brother Lord Willam. You will be courteous.”
“Always,” Cae said, began dusting her naked body with a small fur wand with a glistening powder from a little leather bag. The warm scent of honey filled the air.
“You will not speak unless spoken to and you will comport yourself as the eldest daughter of a Great House should. Now, the coronation of King Rorlan will be in seven days. Lord Willam will present you before the king and bring forth the gifts your father has sent with you. You will then mingle with the members of court, making yourself presentable and noticeable.”
“What’s the point if I can’t talk to them?” came the muffled voice from within folds of heavy blue silk.
“They will speak to you if you approach. Your father says you are to make a list of your impressions of the men,” she added, her tone conveying her true feelings about the idea and Caelerys’s capacity to intelligently comply. “You and I will go over that list before it is sent on to your father, and I will inform you which of the men are, in fact, eligible. You are to convey to the new king your father’s condolences upon the untimely death of his brother and generally make yourself available. You are here to make a suitable match to the advantage of your House.”
Caelerys sighed, running her hand across the silk bodice with its high collar, embroidered silver netting and seed pearls sewn at the junctures. It was the finest dress she owned. “I know my duty, lady Petra. Father has already told me what he needs of me. I know what is expected. I may be young, but I am not so foolish or silly as you seem to think me,” she said firmly, sitting to allow lady Petra’s lady in waiting to dress her hair. “I have no intention of falling in love with the first pretty face or kind gentleman to pay attention to me. I will look for a suitable match, and withhold my affections until such time as negotiations are done. Only then will I consider love.” Caelerys had very firm ideas of what she was looking for and what she would settle for, but she kept these to herself. She knew that, for every nursemaid and bardic tale of love against all odds, there were ten that ended in tragedy and heartache. No, she kept her heart locked tightly away and would not give it lightly.
Lady Petra studied her, seemed satisfied. “You might do after all.” She softened, nibbling upon what was left of Cae’s lunch. “This is not to say that you won’t come to love your husband. The Eldest knows I hated mine.”
Caelerys turned to look at her. “Then why did you agree to light the candle?”
“Because it was what my family required. House Reynelds is a knightly house at best, and House Petra a minor but impoverished one. My family had the money, Petra had the status. I came to love him in the end. Even his more noxious habits became dear. I am a creature of comforts, my lamb, and my mother was ambitious. ...Leave a little hanging around her temples, Marigold. It frames her face nicely.” She smiled, a surprisingly warm expression. “Don’t worry, little one. Your father will not likely marry you to someone loathsome.”
The air had chilled a little by the time Caelerys was as ready as she could be made, and a fog had begun to rise out of the Mistwood. When she finally descended the stairs, everyone in the common room stopped to stare. What had slipped upstairs had been a bright cheeked, rough young girl. What came down was a beauty. The silk flowed after her like a cloud, the perfect shade of blue to bring out the jewel-tone of her sapphire eyes. The collar encircled her throat like a necklace of metallic lace and pearl, expounding her innocence. Not even the white leather pad strapped to her left shoulder detracted from the vision of the demure Lady of Court.
Outside, the rest of her entourage had caught up and were taking a short rest. Cartyr, the head of the cadre, was dividing the men between the caravan, which would follow later, and the Lady’s honour-guard. Even the aged Mace caught his breath as Caelerys stepped out of the door into the courtyard.
A stable boy led Wraith to a mounting block and held her. The mare had been brushed until she shone like metal and stood there with her head and ears up. Her saddle had been changed to the dreaded side-saddle, and Caelerys allowed Mace to take her hand and lead her over. Wraith tossed her head as she approached and Cae noticed that tiny silver bells had been attached to her bridle by sapphire ribbons. Cae strongly suspected Wraith was playing with them, dancing rambunctious just to hear them ring. Mace handed her into the saddle and Cae adjusted her skirts. Tempest waited until she was settled before dropping onto the leather pad. Thankfully, she refrained from picking at her hair.
The men who were to ride with her mounted quickly as Cartyr shouted. Two of them taking their places just ahead of her, the Maral banners at stirrup. A breath of wind lifted the deep blue fabric, unfurling the rampant white stag of her House and Caelerys took a deep breath. This was it. Cartyr took point, his men falling in behind the lady, and Mace rode beside her, bow in hand. She knew he would drop back when they came to the great bridge, but she took comfort in his presence whilst she had it.
The mist held onto the day as they rode out of the wood an hour later. It trailed after them, cloaking the procession in an aura of mystery and fey pageantry, as if reluctant to relinquish them from its enchanted grip. The few people on the road made way for them, and even the low estates, bringing in livestock or tending fields, stopped to watch them pass. The standard-bearers’ mail gleamed in the afternoon light, and the lady herself seemed to float across the ground on a horse of brushed silver.
They paused at the top of the hill which gave Caelerys a moment to absorb the sight before her. Mace stepped his horse up beside hers, spoke softly, “DragonsPoint, little bird. Jewel of the Western Sea. The centre of humanity in Elanthus.”
“It looks like it houses half of it,” she breathed. She tried to take it all in, and couldn’t. The green hill sloped a little less than gently down to the river, though the road wound more softly against the side of it. The broad river was filled with barges and small boats and spanned by a bridge the size of a village. The bridge was massive and towered, guarded by two stone dragons that held up the massive front gate, and by two smaller bronze ones on the city side. Beyond that, she could see the curve of King’s Bay and the masts of a sea of ships breaking up the skyline. The city itself curved along in between river and bay and rose in an uneven sprawl. The walls were high and of a pale, greenish stone and pierced by one or two smaller gates, which had what looked like drawbridges for docks. At the far end of the city, upon a hill, rose a castle in a dark green stone with white slate roofs and many coloured pennants.
Whatever Cartyr had been waiting for had occurred. At a signal from him, her escort began moving forward and Mace dropped back behind her. The road was cleared all the way to the bridge, and what people were there stared without shame. They drank in the pageantry, feasting on the details to sustain them in their small hours. Caelerys caught the wide eye of a small child and smiled. Tempest half spread her wings, giving a shrill cry of pure pride, much to the child’s delight. Cae turned her eyes forward to the bridge dragons, feeling overwhelmed and doing her best not to show it.
The guards at the first gates saluted the banners as they passed unchallenged. And then Caelerys was beneath the arch of stone claws thirty feet high and feeling the difference in the sound beneath Wraith’s hooves. The world seemed unrooted suddenly, the sound of it different, almost hollow. She was surprised to see narrow buildings lining the length of the bridge. They seemed to be small customs offices and barracks, among other things.
And then she was out the second, bronze gates and in the city proper and she thought, for a moment, that her ears would burst. The noise was immense. On her shoulder, Tempest cried, stepping closer to her neck and spreading her wings protectively around Cae’s head. She shifted her shoulder minutely and the bird began to settle down, though still complaining. Even Wraith did a twisting side-step as they entered the wall of living sound.
Two of the men-at-arms rode up beside her, just far enough back that she could be seen, but not enough that anyone could take advantage of the opening. People paused only a breath to stare, getting out of the way of the horses, but otherwise going about their business. Caelerys had to force herself to calm down. Wraith was beginning to sense her unease and tossing her head. The bells could barely be heard over the mass of voices and people. She tightened her grip on the reins and stared straight ahead, focusing on whatever she could to get her mind off her fear. There were so many bodies. And, if lady Petra was to be believed, anyone of them could decide she had offended them and try to kill her. By the time they were approaching the green gates of the castle, she had decided the idea was ridiculous. By then, she had something else to occupy her thoughts; like the sheer size of the building.
Greenstone Citadel was easily three times the size of her family’s great keep, a spare eleven acres across. It rose in mossy stone high above the large inner courtyard that was almost a village market of its own; with a blacksmith, wainwright, large carriage house and stable, and a barracks. Broad, sweeping steps led up to the massive front doors, stained green with delicate, flat, golden dragons fastened to it, their bright claws slipped into the crack in between as if ready to pull them open upon request. There were just as many people in deep green and yellow livery as were not, and Caelerys noted a young woman emerging from one out-building with a basket of fresh bread upon her head who deftly avoided running into another young man from the building next to it who was laden under smoked hams as easily as if this happened every day.
In all, though the scale was beyond her, it was not that different from home. The parts of the village important to a castle’s upkeep were just within the castle itself and not at its feet. When she looked up, it almost reminded her of looking up at Taluscliff from the beach, just with more spires and peaked roofs, and smoother walls. She was just taking note of trunks and furniture being moved in through a side door when a vaguely familiar voice hailed them.
She turned to look for the voice, saw a tall, broad young man with dark curling locks that fell to his shoulders calling for his horse. He strode over to her with all the solemn, noble grace of an emperor stag. While Wraith was a dainty mare, she was not short. Even so, the man’s head came to her waist. She looked down into the dark blue eyes, set in a handsome, strong face and recognized traces of the slender young man she had last seen two years ago at Harvest. “Willam?”
He quirked a smile, “Little sister.”
She reached to be lifted from the saddle but he shook his head. “Now is not the time, Lady Caelerys,” he said with unusual formality. He stepped back and took his reins from the approaching stable hand, turned to address Cartyr. “We head to Stag’s Hall now.” He threw himself into the saddle of a broad warhorse, a rich brown with heavy, white-feathered legs and a broad blaze on his wide nose.
Caelerys frowned, reluctant to re-enter the noise of the city proper. She held her tongue though, knowing from experience that he would not explain right now. She rode sedately beside him and wondered about this brother who was nearly a stranger.
“How was the ride?” he asked civilly.
“Boring,” she replied.
He chuckled. “Plenty of excitement here,” he conceded. “Maybe not to your tastes.”
She cast her eyes over the packed road and milling people, and, even from the elevated place where the castle sat, all she could see spreading below her were buildings and people. “I will miss riding.”
“There are places to ride,” he said. “Just beyond the castle, there is a training ground and a small wood, fields. They have an army to keep in shape, after all. The tourney will be held there, which is why the streets are so crowded. People coming for the King’s Tournament. There will be events the ladies can enter if you like. Equestrian and Archery, for instance.”
His sister lit up as he had known she would. “Would I really be allowed?”
“Encouraged, even. Granted, not the jousting or the grand melee, though there is rumour of a woman slipping into the lists. The council is battling as to whether or not there should be any rule against it, and of course, the church wants there to be.”
Caelerys was suddenly grateful for this brother she did not really know. She realized that he had put her at ease in spite of being surrounded by hordes of strangers. It began to dawn on her that there was no need to worry about dealing with them because she was just another anonymous member of the press. Well, not anonymous, but certainly nothing was expected of her in the way of social interaction. The mention of the church reminded her of something unpleasant though. “Will lady Petra be staying with us?”
Willam shook his head, and Caelerys thought there was a hint of relief at his reply, “No. She has her own place in town. She will be visiting often though, to make sure you are properly attired and briefed on courtly manners and that your maids know what will be expected of them.” He hesitated a moment, gave her a sidelong look. “How do you feel about this... whole thing?”
She took a deep breath before answering. “I know my duty to the family. I will do my best to find the best choice for household alliances while still trying to find someone I can deal with. I would like a friend if nothing else. Have you found a bride, yet?”
Willam seemed confused a moment, then caught what she had asked. He cleared his throat and concentrated on the road ahead of him. “I haven’t had the time. DragonsPoint has been chaos the last month.”
Her eyes slid over the pale grey slate of a stately building, an actual anvil standing at the top of the marble steps: the symbol of the Eldest and the Divine Right of Man. The place did not engender comfortable thoughts. “What exactly happened? I had not heard.”
This surprised him. “Father didn’t tell you?”
She rolled her eyes skyward, “Lady Petra,” was all she needed to say.
Willam laughed softly, clearly a noise he was no longer used to making. He gestured to an impressive, walled residence off to the right. “Lady Caelerys, welcome to Stag’s Hall.”
Two liveried men threw open the dark wooden gates to admit them to the little courtyard. It was a great deal smaller than home but of good size. Three stories, a decent stable and small forge. As she rode inside, the sounds of the city muffled again; still there, but less intrusive, not unlike the background hum of a forest full of life, just different beasts. The building itself was grey stone with dark wood shutters on its narrow windows. Before she knew it, Willam was lifting her down from the saddle and she had to cling to him a moment, letting her legs uncramp from the unnatural pose she had been holding for hours. When she was ready, he took her arm and led her into the house.
It was nice. Not structured in a way she knew at all, but then, she had lived in a fortress all her life with occasional stays in a hunting lodge. There was a large foyer, not unexpected, a solar and a study off to the side and a wide staircase leading to the upper floors. Between the stairs and the study was a corridor that led to other parts of the house and he took her down this way first. There were hallways here, leading to the kitchen and servants’ quarters, but what was of greatest interest to her was a door braced in iron shaped like roses just past the dining room. It opened into an inner courtyard complete with a broad kitchen garden and a trellis against one wall where roses had been recently planted. The late afternoon sun shone against one wall and glinted off broad glass windows, and nearly all of the third story rooms had balconies.
A decent-sized aviary took up one corner, filled with the soft chirring of nesting toomi, the dull brown and grey little birds used for carrying messages. Caelerys had always been fond of them. They mated for life, and so complete was their devotion that the male would find the female no matter where she was, even if she was sent to a different aviary, even one he had never been to before. The wives were kept safe in household aviaries and the husbands were delivered to the various places where urgent messages were likely to be sent from. Once released, message tied to their leg, they headed straight for their wives. If you wanted to silence a house, you killed the females. The males, strangely, would never return to the nest, either losing their way or out of instinct. Somehow they always knew, and very often did not survive long themselves. The unattractive little birds were used as the symbol for lasting marital unions and were often given as wedding gifts.
Willam stood back and watched his sister tour the garden. He had been told she was a fairly accomplished herbalist and hoped the garden would be to her liking. He had ordered the roses planted because he wasn’t sure if she would be happy with nothing pretty to look at. In fact, beyond that she was pretty, shy, well-read and a more than decent huntress, he knew next to nothing about this dark-haired girl who was now his responsibility. She had stopped to examine the roses, peering under a few of the leaves and frowning.
“We can have whatever you wish moved out to make room for more flowers,” he told her. “Just make a list. We have not had a lady in residence in a very long time, so all we have had need of was a kitchen garden.”
“Who tends it?” she asked.
“We don’t have a gardener. The kitchen staff have been maintaining things since they are the ones using it. They asked permission to use the space and I granted it.”
“And now you are taking it back,” she said, the slightest hint of reproof in her voice. “No. No need. It will suit my purposes as is. If I could have this patch over here for some specific, more medicinal flowers and herbs, I will be happy. But you might want to consider a dedicated gardener, or at least one who’s main responsibility is the garden with light duties elsewhere. Some of what I’ll want requires a knowing hand. And they need to stop dead-heading the roses,” she said, fingering a cut stem. “I know it makes them produce more blooms, but the hips are too useful.”
It was moments like these that one found it hard to remember how young she was. “As you wish, little sister. Just give a list of what you want done to Fennel. She’s been managing this end of things. Any other changes you want, tell her. She’ll ask me if she feels it needs approval.” He gave her a long look, not wanting to say it but feeling the need, “Just don’t turn the house upside down.”
She looked over at him, frowning. “Why would I do that?”
He looked uncomfortable. “Because girls... want things and need them a certain way, need to feel in control of a house and this one runs smoothly right now...”
She set her hands on her hips and tipped her head in that bird-like way he remembered from the few times he had come home. “And what, pray tell, gives you that idea?”
“I’ve seen it happen. Woman moves into a house, no matter her age and sweeping changes are in the offing.”
She decided to be uncharitable. “I’ll let you know.” She lifted her head, looking over to the aviary. “Jelma, tyet!” she called sternly in Old Vermian. The falcon lifted her snowy head guiltily, launched herself from the top of the tall cage and sailed easily back to her leather-cased wrist. She landed gingerly, being careful. She bobbed and twisted her head in apology. Caelerys sighed and relented, stroking her in her favourite places. She looked up to realize her brother was frowning at the bird. “What?”
“I had forgotten about her. I can have a mews built, but it’ll have to be in the main courtyard if she’s going to bother the toomi.”
“If that is all that’s bothering you, don’t worry about it,” she smiled. “She sleeps in my room. I brought her stands. She’ll likely be tagging along behind me no matter where I go anyway. And don’t worry about the toomi. She will leave them alone,” she said the last directly to the bird who sighed.
Willam shook his head and reached for his sister’s free hand. “Let me show you the rest of the house.”

EXTRACT FOR
Shift

(S. L. Thorne)


Chapter 1

“I give you the ability to Become, that you might understand the world and your place in it. I give you Understanding, that you might be one.” -Caelyrima, Mother Chimera


She rode Northwest for the first time in her life. She had been North, into the Mistwood, more times than she could count, but never on the King’s Road. And, most certainly, not with such an entourage. Hunting was a different matter, with different accoutrement; a different kind of wagon entirely, for holding camping gear and returning with fresh meat for the castle. Hunting was a matter of a week’s roughing it deep in the Mistwood just a few miles from her beloved cliff-side home in the Mistwood Reach, sometimes farther if the hunting was not as good. This... this was almost a travesty. Three wagons holding furnishings and numerous trunks, plus two handmaidens currently riding in a carriage lady Petra felt certain she should be riding in. However, so long as lady Petra was in that carriage and it was not pouring rain, Lady Caelerys Maral would not be in it.
Lady Petra was an old friend of her father’s, one of those stern and nosy widows that were affable enough with her late husband’s friends, but with inflexible and distasteful ideas of how young women should comport themselves. The only daughter of Duke Elyas Maral, Caelerys had ideas of her own and they did not mesh with some of the more rigid, new philosophies of the Elder Church; of which lady Petra was a devout supporter.
Caelerys was fair-skinned, pretty in an oval way, with eyes of the most vivid, deep sapphire. Her hair was the almost black of the northern blackwood, but glints of deep red could be seen when the sun finally shone upon it. Mostly it flowed freely down her back, drawn from her face with combs. She wore a split skirt and riding leathers, as if this were an ordinary ride, even though she knew it was not. At least she could pretend for a while. Beneath her, Wraith sensed her shifting mood and danced sideways.
The silver buckskin mare wanted to run. She was tired of this lacklustre pace. Riding was serious business, not this drudgery which seemed, to her, to have no purpose. Caelerys tightened her knees and wrapped the reins once more around her gloved hand, leaned forward and gave the mare a pat on her neck in apology. Soon, she promised.
She looked behind her. Four days back, past the trailing wagons and the small army of men, lay Taluscliff, her home. A home she might never see again. Already she missed the cool, salty wind off the cliffs of the palisade, the rust-brown basalt columns that rose in sweeping spires by the sea; the northern moors where she would ride and hunt small game with her falcon, Tempest, who was overhead, somewhere. Already she missed her father, the occasional visits of her uncle, and even her rather brash, youngest brother, Vyncet.
It occurred to her that, at a more reasonable pace, it would only take her two days to get back.
With a sigh, she turned forward again, settling back into her seat and casting her mind to what lay ahead: the city. Not just any city: The City, DragonsPoint on the King’s Bay. The largest gathering of humanity in Elanthus. The prospect overwhelmed her. She could face a charging boar and keep her wits about her, but unknown people terrified her.
At least there were two people in DragonsPoint she would know: Willam, her eldest living brother and father’s heir, and Janem, Master Smith and Maral subsequent. One she barely knew, the other she missed sorely. Willam had gone to Court when he was ten, hostage to the King’s Justice after their eldest brother, Landyn had attempted a mad rebellion against the crown in father’s absence. She barely knew Willam, and Landyn had been killed the year she was born. Janem... she smiled, thinking warmly of him, with his flashing dark eyes and dark brown hair and ready smile. She had grown up with him.
Mace rode up along-side her, a smile on his lined face. He ran a hand through grizzled hair where it rebelled against the loose queue he wore it in. “It is good to see you smile, little bird.”
Mace was the Master Bowman of House Maral and he had been calling her ‘little bird’ since she was five. She smiled more in spite of herself. Of all her father’s men, Mace was her favourite. He had taught her all she knew of the bow and the hunt.
“It won’t last,” she warned.
“I’ll take it, my lady.” He signalled some of the men behind him and one of them galloped past and out of sight. “About a mile ahead, around that bend, is an inn where we will stop and eat and ready ourselves for entrance to the city. If you wish to stretch the fidget out of that filly, now is the time.”
Caelerys did not wait for further invitation, but pressed her knees against the sterling hide and tore off down the road. Mace kept pace a length behind and she could hear the hoof-beats of at least two more speeding up.
It was a short gallop, but exhilarating after four days of wagon pace. Tempest stooped, levelling out at the last and flying smoothly between the riders, the tips of her black-flecked wings deliberately brushing Caelerys’s ear.
Caelerys was laughing as they reined in, prancing to a halt in the packed dirt courtyard of a pretty little stone inn. She and Wraith both had needed that. As she swung over and dropped from the saddle, a woman in a crisp, starched apron rushed out to meet them. She seemed momentarily surprised by the unladylike dismount but carried on as if nothing were amiss. She had seen all sorts upon this road and had long ago learned to pretend everything was as it should be.
“I have a room ready for you, my lady, as yer man asked. A bath bein’ drawn as we speak and a dinner on the way up.”
Caelerys’s spirits fell almost immediately. This was it, the final stretch. If she ran now... she could throw herself into the saddle and be away before her men could remount, ...but Mace would find her. And her family was counting on her. This was far too important and no Maral had ever fled a battle. Retreated intelligently, sued for peace when the costs were too great, aye. Run in cowardice? Never. She would not be the first.
She thanked the goodwife politely and followed her into the comfortable establishment. The Mist’s End was like any other inn, like the one at the other end of the road at her end of the Mistwood: a busy common room with fireplace and bar, stairs to one side and a row of rooms above. Several people eating in the taproom looked up at her entrance but went back to their food, curiosity satisfied. Only one watched her for any real length of time. The proprietress led her up the stairs to a modest room.
Caelerys seated herself at the small table and allowed a plump maid to serve her a light meal of stewed capon and warm bread. Two other maids came and went carrying water to fill a brass tub near the fire. She was almost finished with her food when lady Petra blew in the room with a scowl of disapproval.
She stared imperiously at Caelerys from the door for a long moment. Cae remained unintimidated. She had long ago lost her fear of the widow. The dame decided to pick her battle. “That is that last meal you will eat that has not been tasted first. Do you understand?” she demanded frostily.
The heel of bread fell from her suddenly nerveless fingers.
Lady Petra’s eyes narrowed in triumph. “Yes, Lady Caelerys. Tasted. You are entering into a viper’s nest of intrigue where the physical dangers will not necessarily come from a man charging you with a sword. Death will be unseen or come in the night, at unprotected moments.”
“But why would anyone...”
She stepped into the room and allowed the handmaids and her own lady in waiting to enter. “Because you stand in their way. Because you became friends with the wrong person. Because you wore the same colour gown to the same function as another lady and looked better in it.”
Caelerys was horrified.
“Good. I see I have finally managed to instil fear in you. You will be living among wild animals, exposed to every element and predation with only your wits to defend you. Some of these beasts will be benign. Some openly hostile. Others will seem harmless and even friendly, only to turn on you in a moment if it suits them. You must learn the difference.”
Cae pushed what remained of her meal away, no appetite remaining. It was a brutal analogy, but one she understood. The cold pit in her stomach at the thought of dealing with strangers grew larger. Mutely, she allowed Fern to draw her to the small bathtub and wash the dust of the road from her body without getting her hair wet.
Lady Petra bustled about, directing the maids what to pull from the trunk that had been brought up. “Now, as much as I feel a lady should ride, demurely unseen, within a carriage, in this case, I agree with your father...” She was interrupted by a large white falcon, as Tempest sailed through the open window and landed on the edge of the tub. A black peppered feather landed in the water and Cae giggled, reaching up to stroke the blue beak. Scowling, lady Petra continued. “You should ride in state at the head of the procession. That bird should be on your wrist and properly hooded and jessed...”
This earned her a glare from both girl and bird. The way the fowl’s dark eyes bored into her made lady Petra feel as if the beast understood far more of what was said than was natural. Cae found her back-bone again. “No. There will be no hoods and no jesses. She is far too well manned to need either. The last time she wore jesses, she got hopelessly tangled and nearly eaten by a wildcat.”
“And if she gets loose and someone finds her? How will they know she is not a wild bird for the taking?”
Caelerys fingered the gold band around the bird’s ankle, engraved with her name and house. “This. And I would be surprised if anyone could catch her. And no one else can fly her.”
“That is because you have spoiled her,” she sniffed. “I swear that bird is more pet than hunter. You’ve ruined her.”
Cae laughed, stroking the white breast feathers, admiring the scattering of black. “She should be. But she isn’t. She protects me.”
Lady Petra sighed, turned back to the task at hand, aware she would never win this fight. “You will ride side-saddle, the hawk on your wrist...”
“Falcon.”
“You will... what?”
“Falcon. Tempest is a gauvan, a very rare falcon, not a common hawk.”
The brown eyes narrowed. Cae gave a tiny shrug of her head, rose from the water and stood to be rinsed.
Lady Petra watched as Fern poured a last ewer of warm water over the girl’s nubile young body, assessing her while she had the chance. Caelerys was a woman flowered, she knew, but she also knew many young girls who flowered before they bloomed. The dukes’ daughter, however, was blooming. She had the height of her family, tall for a girl of just seventeen, but with the appearance of petiteness, and none of the coltish awkwardness one expected at that age and height. There was silent strength in her arms and legs, a criminally athletic body for a girl, but she was healthy and curving and soft, ...and still growing.
As the girl accepted the towel Fern wrapped around her, rubbing herself dry, lady Petra nodded to herself. She would gain maybe a few more inches in height over the next two years, still acceptably shorter than most men, and there would be no need for padding her bodice, or corsetry for trimness and posture.
The old dame continued. “You will ride at a sedate pace through the street of DragonsPoint up to the castle where you shall meet your brother Lord Willam. You will be courteous.”
“Always,” Cae said, began dusting her naked body with a small fur wand with a glistening powder from a little leather bag. The warm scent of honey filled the air.
“You will not speak unless spoken to and you will comport yourself as the eldest daughter of a Great House should. Now, the coronation of King Rorlan will be in seven days. Lord Willam will present you before the king and bring forth the gifts your father has sent with you. You will then mingle with the members of court, making yourself presentable and noticeable.”
“What’s the point if I can’t talk to them?” came the muffled voice from within folds of heavy blue silk.
“They will speak to you if you approach. Your father says you are to make a list of your impressions of the men,” she added, her tone conveying her true feelings about the idea and Caelerys’s capacity to intelligently comply. “You and I will go over that list before it is sent on to your father, and I will inform you which of the men are, in fact, eligible. You are to convey to the new king your father’s condolences upon the untimely death of his brother and generally make yourself available. You are here to make a suitable match to the advantage of your House.”
Caelerys sighed, running her hand across the silk bodice with its high collar, embroidered silver netting and seed pearls sewn at the junctures. It was the finest dress she owned. “I know my duty, lady Petra. Father has already told me what he needs of me. I know what is expected. I may be young, but I am not so foolish or silly as you seem to think me,” she said firmly, sitting to allow lady Petra’s lady in waiting to dress her hair. “I have no intention of falling in love with the first pretty face or kind gentleman to pay attention to me. I will look for a suitable match, and withhold my affections until such time as negotiations are done. Only then will I consider love.” Caelerys had very firm ideas of what she was looking for and what she would settle for, but she kept these to herself. She knew that, for every nursemaid and bardic tale of love against all odds, there were ten that ended in tragedy and heartache. No, she kept her heart locked tightly away and would not give it lightly.
Lady Petra studied her, seemed satisfied. “You might do after all.” She softened, nibbling upon what was left of Cae’s lunch. “This is not to say that you won’t come to love your husband. The Eldest knows I hated mine.”
Caelerys turned to look at her. “Then why did you agree to light the candle?”
“Because it was what my family required. House Reynelds is a knightly house at best, and House Petra a minor but impoverished one. My family had the money, Petra had the status. I came to love him in the end. Even his more noxious habits became dear. I am a creature of comforts, my lamb, and my mother was ambitious. ...Leave a little hanging around her temples, Marigold. It frames her face nicely.” She smiled, a surprisingly warm expression. “Don’t worry, little one. Your father will not likely marry you to someone loathsome.”
The air had chilled a little by the time Caelerys was as ready as she could be made, and a fog had begun to rise out of the Mistwood. When she finally descended the stairs, everyone in the common room stopped to stare. What had slipped upstairs had been a bright cheeked, rough young girl. What came down was a beauty. The silk flowed after her like a cloud, the perfect shade of blue to bring out the jewel-tone of her sapphire eyes. The collar encircled her throat like a necklace of metallic lace and pearl, expounding her innocence. Not even the white leather pad strapped to her left shoulder detracted from the vision of the demure Lady of Court.
Outside, the rest of her entourage had caught up and were taking a short rest. Cartyr, the head of the cadre, was dividing the men between the caravan, which would follow later, and the Lady’s honour-guard. Even the aged Mace caught his breath as Caelerys stepped out of the door into the courtyard.
A stable boy led Wraith to a mounting block and held her. The mare had been brushed until she shone like metal and stood there with her head and ears up. Her saddle had been changed to the dreaded side-saddle, and Caelerys allowed Mace to take her hand and lead her over. Wraith tossed her head as she approached and Cae noticed that tiny silver bells had been attached to her bridle by sapphire ribbons. Cae strongly suspected Wraith was playing with them, dancing rambunctious just to hear them ring. Mace handed her into the saddle and Cae adjusted her skirts. Tempest waited until she was settled before dropping onto the leather pad. Thankfully, she refrained from picking at her hair.
The men who were to ride with her mounted quickly as Cartyr shouted. Two of them taking their places just ahead of her, the Maral banners at stirrup. A breath of wind lifted the deep blue fabric, unfurling the rampant white stag of her House and Caelerys took a deep breath. This was it. Cartyr took point, his men falling in behind the lady, and Mace rode beside her, bow in hand. She knew he would drop back when they came to the great bridge, but she took comfort in his presence whilst she had it.
The mist held onto the day as they rode out of the wood an hour later. It trailed after them, cloaking the procession in an aura of mystery and fey pageantry, as if reluctant to relinquish them from its enchanted grip. The few people on the road made way for them, and even the low estates, bringing in livestock or tending fields, stopped to watch them pass. The standard-bearers’ mail gleamed in the afternoon light, and the lady herself seemed to float across the ground on a horse of brushed silver.
They paused at the top of the hill which gave Caelerys a moment to absorb the sight before her. Mace stepped his horse up beside hers, spoke softly, “DragonsPoint, little bird. Jewel of the Western Sea. The centre of humanity in Elanthus.”
“It looks like it houses half of it,” she breathed. She tried to take it all in, and couldn’t. The green hill sloped a little less than gently down to the river, though the road wound more softly against the side of it. The broad river was filled with barges and small boats and spanned by a bridge the size of a village. The bridge was massive and towered, guarded by two stone dragons that held up the massive front gate, and by two smaller bronze ones on the city side. Beyond that, she could see the curve of King’s Bay and the masts of a sea of ships breaking up the skyline. The city itself curved along in between river and bay and rose in an uneven sprawl. The walls were high and of a pale, greenish stone and pierced by one or two smaller gates, which had what looked like drawbridges for docks. At the far end of the city, upon a hill, rose a castle in a dark green stone with white slate roofs and many coloured pennants.
Whatever Cartyr had been waiting for had occurred. At a signal from him, her escort began moving forward and Mace dropped back behind her. The road was cleared all the way to the bridge, and what people were there stared without shame. They drank in the pageantry, feasting on the details to sustain them in their small hours. Caelerys caught the wide eye of a small child and smiled. Tempest half spread her wings, giving a shrill cry of pure pride, much to the child’s delight. Cae turned her eyes forward to the bridge dragons, feeling overwhelmed and doing her best not to show it.
The guards at the first gates saluted the banners as they passed unchallenged. And then Caelerys was beneath the arch of stone claws thirty feet high and feeling the difference in the sound beneath Wraith’s hooves. The world seemed unrooted suddenly, the sound of it different, almost hollow. She was surprised to see narrow buildings lining the length of the bridge. They seemed to be small customs offices and barracks, among other things.
And then she was out the second, bronze gates and in the city proper and she thought, for a moment, that her ears would burst. The noise was immense. On her shoulder, Tempest cried, stepping closer to her neck and spreading her wings protectively around Cae’s head. She shifted her shoulder minutely and the bird began to settle down, though still complaining. Even Wraith did a twisting side-step as they entered the wall of living sound.
Two of the men-at-arms rode up beside her, just far enough back that she could be seen, but not enough that anyone could take advantage of the opening. People paused only a breath to stare, getting out of the way of the horses, but otherwise going about their business. Caelerys had to force herself to calm down. Wraith was beginning to sense her unease and tossing her head. The bells could barely be heard over the mass of voices and people. She tightened her grip on the reins and stared straight ahead, focusing on whatever she could to get her mind off her fear. There were so many bodies. And, if lady Petra was to be believed, anyone of them could decide she had offended them and try to kill her. By the time they were approaching the green gates of the castle, she had decided the idea was ridiculous. By then, she had something else to occupy her thoughts; like the sheer size of the building.
Greenstone Citadel was easily three times the size of her family’s great keep, a spare eleven acres across. It rose in mossy stone high above the large inner courtyard that was almost a village market of its own; with a blacksmith, wainwright, large carriage house and stable, and a barracks. Broad, sweeping steps led up to the massive front doors, stained green with delicate, flat, golden dragons fastened to it, their bright claws slipped into the crack in between as if ready to pull them open upon request. There were just as many people in deep green and yellow livery as were not, and Caelerys noted a young woman emerging from one out-building with a basket of fresh bread upon her head who deftly avoided running into another young man from the building next to it who was laden under smoked hams as easily as if this happened every day.
In all, though the scale was beyond her, it was not that different from home. The parts of the village important to a castle’s upkeep were just within the castle itself and not at its feet. When she looked up, it almost reminded her of looking up at Taluscliff from the beach, just with more spires and peaked roofs, and smoother walls. She was just taking note of trunks and furniture being moved in through a side door when a vaguely familiar voice hailed them.
She turned to look for the voice, saw a tall, broad young man with dark curling locks that fell to his shoulders calling for his horse. He strode over to her with all the solemn, noble grace of an emperor stag. While Wraith was a dainty mare, she was not short. Even so, the man’s head came to her waist. She looked down into the dark blue eyes, set in a handsome, strong face and recognized traces of the slender young man she had last seen two years ago at Harvest. “Willam?”
He quirked a smile, “Little sister.”
She reached to be lifted from the saddle but he shook his head. “Now is not the time, Lady Caelerys,” he said with unusual formality. He stepped back and took his reins from the approaching stable hand, turned to address Cartyr. “We head to Stag’s Hall now.” He threw himself into the saddle of a broad warhorse, a rich brown with heavy, white-feathered legs and a broad blaze on his wide nose.
Caelerys frowned, reluctant to re-enter the noise of the city proper. She held her tongue though, knowing from experience that he would not explain right now. She rode sedately beside him and wondered about this brother who was nearly a stranger.
“How was the ride?” he asked civilly.
“Boring,” she replied.
He chuckled. “Plenty of excitement here,” he conceded. “Maybe not to your tastes.”
She cast her eyes over the packed road and milling people, and, even from the elevated place where the castle sat, all she could see spreading below her were buildings and people. “I will miss riding.”
“There are places to ride,” he said. “Just beyond the castle, there is a training ground and a small wood, fields. They have an army to keep in shape, after all. The tourney will be held there, which is why the streets are so crowded. People coming for the King’s Tournament. There will be events the ladies can enter if you like. Equestrian and Archery, for instance.”
His sister lit up as he had known she would. “Would I really be allowed?”
“Encouraged, even. Granted, not the jousting or the grand melee, though there is rumour of a woman slipping into the lists. The council is battling as to whether or not there should be any rule against it, and of course, the church wants there to be.”
Caelerys was suddenly grateful for this brother she did not really know. She realized that he had put her at ease in spite of being surrounded by hordes of strangers. It began to dawn on her that there was no need to worry about dealing with them because she was just another anonymous member of the press. Well, not anonymous, but certainly nothing was expected of her in the way of social interaction. The mention of the church reminded her of something unpleasant though. “Will lady Petra be staying with us?”
Willam shook his head, and Caelerys thought there was a hint of relief at his reply, “No. She has her own place in town. She will be visiting often though, to make sure you are properly attired and briefed on courtly manners and that your maids know what will be expected of them.” He hesitated a moment, gave her a sidelong look. “How do you feel about this... whole thing?”
She took a deep breath before answering. “I know my duty to the family. I will do my best to find the best choice for household alliances while still trying to find someone I can deal with. I would like a friend if nothing else. Have you found a bride, yet?”
Willam seemed confused a moment, then caught what she had asked. He cleared his throat and concentrated on the road ahead of him. “I haven’t had the time. DragonsPoint has been chaos the last month.”
Her eyes slid over the pale grey slate of a stately building, an actual anvil standing at the top of the marble steps: the symbol of the Eldest and the Divine Right of Man. The place did not engender comfortable thoughts. “What exactly happened? I had not heard.”
This surprised him. “Father didn’t tell you?”
She rolled her eyes skyward, “Lady Petra,” was all she needed to say.
Willam laughed softly, clearly a noise he was no longer used to making. He gestured to an impressive, walled residence off to the right. “Lady Caelerys, welcome to Stag’s Hall.”
Two liveried men threw open the dark wooden gates to admit them to the little courtyard. It was a great deal smaller than home but of good size. Three stories, a decent stable and small forge. As she rode inside, the sounds of the city muffled again; still there, but less intrusive, not unlike the background hum of a forest full of life, just different beasts. The building itself was grey stone with dark wood shutters on its narrow windows. Before she knew it, Willam was lifting her down from the saddle and she had to cling to him a moment, letting her legs uncramp from the unnatural pose she had been holding for hours. When she was ready, he took her arm and led her into the house.
It was nice. Not structured in a way she knew at all, but then, she had lived in a fortress all her life with occasional stays in a hunting lodge. There was a large foyer, not unexpected, a solar and a study off to the side and a wide staircase leading to the upper floors. Between the stairs and the study was a corridor that led to other parts of the house and he took her down this way first. There were hallways here, leading to the kitchen and servants’ quarters, but what was of greatest interest to her was a door braced in iron shaped like roses just past the dining room. It opened into an inner courtyard complete with a broad kitchen garden and a trellis against one wall where roses had been recently planted. The late afternoon sun shone against one wall and glinted off broad glass windows, and nearly all of the third story rooms had balconies.
A decent-sized aviary took up one corner, filled with the soft chirring of nesting toomi, the dull brown and grey little birds used for carrying messages. Caelerys had always been fond of them. They mated for life, and so complete was their devotion that the male would find the female no matter where she was, even if she was sent to a different aviary, even one he had never been to before. The wives were kept safe in household aviaries and the husbands were delivered to the various places where urgent messages were likely to be sent from. Once released, message tied to their leg, they headed straight for their wives. If you wanted to silence a house, you killed the females. The males, strangely, would never return to the nest, either losing their way or out of instinct. Somehow they always knew, and very often did not survive long themselves. The unattractive little birds were used as the symbol for lasting marital unions and were often given as wedding gifts.
Willam stood back and watched his sister tour the garden. He had been told she was a fairly accomplished herbalist and hoped the garden would be to her liking. He had ordered the roses planted because he wasn’t sure if she would be happy with nothing pretty to look at. In fact, beyond that she was pretty, shy, well-read and a more than decent huntress, he knew next to nothing about this dark-haired girl who was now his responsibility. She had stopped to examine the roses, peering under a few of the leaves and frowning.
“We can have whatever you wish moved out to make room for more flowers,” he told her. “Just make a list. We have not had a lady in residence in a very long time, so all we have had need of was a kitchen garden.”
“Who tends it?” she asked.
“We don’t have a gardener. The kitchen staff have been maintaining things since they are the ones using it. They asked permission to use the space and I granted it.”
“And now you are taking it back,” she said, the slightest hint of reproof in her voice. “No. No need. It will suit my purposes as is. If I could have this patch over here for some specific, more medicinal flowers and herbs, I will be happy. But you might want to consider a dedicated gardener, or at least one who’s main responsibility is the garden with light duties elsewhere. Some of what I’ll want requires a knowing hand. And they need to stop dead-heading the roses,” she said, fingering a cut stem. “I know it makes them produce more blooms, but the hips are too useful.”
It was moments like these that one found it hard to remember how young she was. “As you wish, little sister. Just give a list of what you want done to Fennel. She’s been managing this end of things. Any other changes you want, tell her. She’ll ask me if she feels it needs approval.” He gave her a long look, not wanting to say it but feeling the need, “Just don’t turn the house upside down.”
She looked over at him, frowning. “Why would I do that?”
He looked uncomfortable. “Because girls... want things and need them a certain way, need to feel in control of a house and this one runs smoothly right now...”
She set her hands on her hips and tipped her head in that bird-like way he remembered from the few times he had come home. “And what, pray tell, gives you that idea?”
“I’ve seen it happen. Woman moves into a house, no matter her age and sweeping changes are in the offing.”
She decided to be uncharitable. “I’ll let you know.” She lifted her head, looking over to the aviary. “Jelma, tyet!” she called sternly in Old Vermian. The falcon lifted her snowy head guiltily, launched herself from the top of the tall cage and sailed easily back to her leather-cased wrist. She landed gingerly, being careful. She bobbed and twisted her head in apology. Caelerys sighed and relented, stroking her in her favourite places. She looked up to realize her brother was frowning at the bird. “What?”
“I had forgotten about her. I can have a mews built, but it’ll have to be in the main courtyard if she’s going to bother the toomi.”
“If that is all that’s bothering you, don’t worry about it,” she smiled. “She sleeps in my room. I brought her stands. She’ll likely be tagging along behind me no matter where I go anyway. And don’t worry about the toomi. She will leave them alone,” she said the last directly to the bird who sighed.
Willam shook his head and reached for his sister’s free hand. “Let me show you the rest of the house.”