Among the Silvering Herd
Presenting a new original story, “Among the Silvering Herd,“ by author A.M. Dellamonica, the voice behind Tor.com’s Buffy: The Vampire Slayer Rewatch, and the author of short story “The Cage,” a contemporary fantasy love story centering around werewolves which made the Locus 2010 Recommended Reading List.
“Among the Silvering Herd” is about loyalty, tradition, and the things people will do to protect what is theirs. For centuries, the island nation of Redcap has been obligated to pay tribute to the powerful nation of Sylvanna. Suffering under the heavy burden of the contract that by rights should be declared illegal, the princesses of Redcap summon Gale, a wealthy seawoman, to advise them. Political savvy is only one weapon in Gale’s diplomatic arsenal, but she’s up against a Sylvanner ambassador who will push her to the brink . . . or over it.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Jim Frenkel.
“You’re not firing the first mate for being easy on the eye,” Captain Sloot told Gale as they dropped anchor in the harbor of Redcap Island. He sounded put out, but it was an act: they fit together like oar and lock, she and he, and they both knew he was going to win this one.
Still...“Nightjar is my ship.”
“Aye, so say her papers.”
“Have you looked at him, Royl? He’s still teething.”
“He’s grown, if only just, and a good sailor too. It’s been six first mates this year!”
“Fortune smiles on the number seven.”
“You aren’t superstitious,” Sloot said. “We’re keeping Garland Parrish, and if people think you hired him to keep you up nights—”
“And they will.”
“He can’t help the pretty face, Gale.”
“Well, what about that? People will be courting him wherever we land. He’ll marry into the first good situation he finds, or someone’ll grab him for a harem.”
“In which case, you’re free of him,” Sloot said. “Take him with you today.”
“Take the young stud to see the horned studs?”
“See if you like him, that’s all.”
“You never cared if I liked his predecessors.” She pulled her most frightful riding coat out of a big wardrobe in the cabin they shared. It was red, floppy, and thoroughly ridiculous. It was also warm and rainproof.
“Ragin’ seas, woman, you’re not wearing that?”
“This is a job for the Dotty Aunt coat.”
“That, beg your pardon, is an Awful Woman coat.”
A tap at the door, and the first mate bounded in. “Rowers are ready, Cap’n...oh. Forgive me. I forgot—”
“That I had a woman here?” Sloot asked.
He looked fuddled but didn’t deny it.
“Sit, Parrish. This woman is your employer, and it’s time the two of you met. Properly.”
Parrish, visibly surprised, took the offered seat.
“Properly? You want—Royl, you’re serious?”
What was going on? Reluctantly, Gale opened her government-issue courier’s satchel and removed a dried chrysanthemum, pale gold in color. “Royl—”
Sloot folded his arms. “I can’t have him thinking you’re the cook’s helper, Gale.”
“Kirs, if I’ve offended—” Parrish’s skin was oak brown and utterly smooth, his hair a black cap of wind-tossed curls. But it was the lips that made him so ravishing. They were full, plummy in color, and wantonly lush. They begged for biting—more so, perhaps, because he wore them with an air of innocence, of having no idea of their effect.
Over the years, about a fifth of the dried chrysanthemum’s petals had been plucked. Now Gale removed another. “My name is Gale Feliachild, Kir Parrish.”
“That’s...a Verdanii name?”
“Important one, as things are reckoned there,” Sloot put in.
If her alleged nobility impressed him, it didn’t show. “Go on, Kir.”
“When I was young,” she told Parrish, “Our Allmother ordered a divination. The priestess said that I would enjoy good health and a useful life. Then she said my life would end suddenly, in violence.”
“Murder, in other words,” Sloot clarified.
A ripple of concern she’d seen before: the boy thought she needed him to save her. Gale crushed the flower petal in her palm, rolling it to fine yellow dust.
“My parents knew better than to defy fate outright, but couldn’t resist a small enchantment. Lean forward, please.”
Parrish complied with instant, soldierly obedience, and she blew petal dust into his eyes. It was the gentlest way to weaken the spell. There were others. She could injure him, rouse him to a fury...
...seduce him, a sly inner voice suggested.
Parrish straightened, blinking. He looked at Gale more closely.
“I was scripped unmemorable, young man. I’ve one of those hard-to-remember faces, a name that rarely comes to mind—”
“Harder to imagine killing someone if you’ve forgotten them, isn’t it?” She rose, donning the floppy coat. “Well, Sloot? You happy now?”
“Delirious, Kir.” But it was relief stamped on the aging face, not joy.
Minutes later, she and Parrish were aboard the rowboat, cloaked in uncomfortable silence.
It was always thus: she’d tell someone the truth and they’d start worrying she was about to get stabbed. To distract him, she asked: “What do you know of Redcap Island?”
“It’s a kingdom,” he said promptly. “Government is stable, king’s rule is absolute. The crown passes to the eldest son upon the death of the king or his sixtieth birthday, whichever comes first. Elder kings go into a kind of ceremonial exile, along with any other sons...”
“There’s usually just one other son. They must use magic to affect the succession.”
Gale nodded. “Once there’s a healthy heir and a second son, the king’s consorts bear only daughters. The Blossoms Majestic—the princesses—run the government.”
“Have you been here before?”
“No.” A stir of excitement. “It’s supposed to be wondrous.”
Parrish beamed: “I heard there’s a kind of deer...”
“Yes. Their horns are used in a spell that makes people...charming?”
“Compelling, yes. Charismatic. Fleet officers buy them, and politicians.”
The enthusiasm in his face winked out, leaving him unreadable.
“Are you political, Kir Parrish?”
“Just a sailor.”
“Call me Gale, Parrish—I’m nobody, remember?”
Her gaze fell on his lips, her thoughts turning to the taste of ripe fruit. Stop it, you ridiculous old woman!
A young woman waited on the beach, flanked by six heavily muscled guards: three male and three female. Now the guards waded out to meet them. They marched alongside the rowboat as Gale’s sailors withdrew their oars. Then, suddenly, they lifted it. There was no jolt, no reduction in speed: they were borne aloft, from hip to shoulder—Gale had a fleeting thought of pallbearers—gliding to the beach. With no evidence of effort, they eased the boat into a drydock decorated with streamers.
“Mind that frown, Parrish,” Gale said.
“They’re not slaves?” he asked, sotto voce.
“No, Redcap is a free island. The pulvers are court appointees. They compete for the honor.”
“Bright skies, it’s good to be on dry land!” Gale brayed, bustling off the platform and folding the princess into a surprise hug. “Sapira, innit? Good to see you again! This is a lovely beach. Ever go clamming here?”
The girl pulled free, dazed. Then she caught on: this was no official visit, just two women chumming it up. “In summer, yes. I’m glad you remember me. When we met, I was a child.”
“Well, you’re grown now, aren’t you?”
“I hope so.” Sapira’s voice had the richness of a seasoned speaker’s. Her smile conveyed warmth, acceptance. She had seemed bright enough as a girl, but had not been vibrant. Now, as her attention slid past Gale, it was almost a loss, as though she had fallen into shadow.
Sapira licked her lips. “I’m sure you’ll find me every inch a woman.”
Rot.Gale coughed. “Meet my first mate, Kir Parrish.”
He bowed gravely.
It took the girl a moment to remember herself, to clasp Gale’s arm and lead everyone away from the shore.
He really is that beautiful.Gale had hoped her eye was too particular, too keen to find fault. Maybe she’ll marry young Garland in marriage and I can tell Royl to find someone more...well, someone else.
“You on your own today, Sapira?”
“The court is with the western herd,” Sapira said. “Daddy and the crown prince are collecting horns with a group of visiting dignitaries.”
“Sounds like you’re missing a party.”
“Diplomats, formal dances, empty small talk...” Sapira’s gaze slid back to Parrish. “Better to be out on the highlands.”
“I can’t wait to see these famous Redcap stags,” Gale said.
“I’ve arranged refreshments; then we’ll set out.” Atop the hill, a silk tent sheltered a table laid with tea and light fare: braised greystag, shellfish, and pickled vegetables. Uphill, horses and trail guides were waiting.
Sapira glided to head up the table. “You ride, Kir Parrish?”
“The trails are slippery. I hope you’ve got a good seat.”
“I’ll do my best to keep up, Kir.” No sign he’d picked up on her suggestive tone.
They were packed and under way in less than an hour, and Parrish wasn’t boasting—he could ride. The pulvers hiked ahead and behind, tirelessly striding through the switchbacks into the stony hills. Winter was barely over: the rivers were high and icy, the paths wet.
Twice the trail narrowed, forcing them through narrow passes overwatched by stone towers.
“Nice killing pits you got here,” Gale said.
“Relics from the days before the Fleet Charter,” Sapira said, waving to a pair of bored-looking tower guards. “Redcap was oft-attacked.”
“Your ancestors retreated to the mountains and picked the pirates off when they followed?” Parrish said.
“What about larger forces?” Gale asked. “Someone must have tried to bring an army up this trail.” The towers were well-placed, but not impregnable. Serious invaders would have come armed with magic as well as muskets and swords.
“There’s a fortress inland.”
“Fortress” proved to be an understatement. Six hours into the journey, they reached a long alpine shelf, an expanse overshadowed by a jagged rise of mountain. The rock face above the plain was bald stone the color of dried blood, topped by an enormous ice pack.
They picked a slow route across a floor of broken rock and dirty snow, slick terrain dotted with patches of young grass and flowers. Goats grazed the new growth avidly. The river they’d been following, the Kingsilver, came from higher up: it was pouring down the rock face and spilling across the plain. Fed by the glacier above, it ran fast, its water boisterous and foamy.
Looks cold.Since around her fortieth birthday, Gale had been increasingly preoccupied with keeping warm.
“You asked about invasions?” Sapira pointed.
The locals had cut their keep into the mountainside. Carved doorways rose on either side of the waterfall. The doors themselves were stained glass, lit from behind in an array of colors: gold, rose, the deep blue of the sea.
“Glass doors in a fortress?” Parrish asked.
“There are military shutters in storage. We haven’t needed them in eighty years.”
The land approach to the keep was encircled by a defensive wall. Eight feet high, with the random, tumbled shape of a rock pile, it was covered in bilious green vines. New shoots and finger-long thorns reached through its mat of snow and winter-sodden leaves.
Parrish reined in well short of the barrier. “Redcap...would that be another name for maddenflur?”
Sapira gave him an appreciative smile. “Are you a botanist as well as a sailor?”
“I know this plant. It’s hallucinogenic.”
“It has many uses, medicinal, magical, and military. Its poisons and thorns protect the wall.”
“How do you keep it from taking over?”
“The goats can digest the young shoots.”
“But they don’t crop it from the wall?”
Pleased at his interest, Sapira gestured them closer. Donning a heavy leather glove, she pulled a strand of the vine, exposing the rock below. About fifteen nasty-looking ants gathered on the stem, spraying tiny drops of formic acid.
“We add new stones to the wall each year,” she said. “The vines stitch it all together, and the ants keep the goats at bay. When maddenflur takes root elsewhere in the meadow, there are no ants.”
“So the goats eat it,” Parrish said.
As if to illustrate the point, a pregnant nanny picked her way over the wall, dodging the spraying ant poison around her hooves.
“A perfectly balanced natural defense,” Parrish said, with obvious appreciation.
“Gorgeous,” Gale agreed. “But how’s an old lady who means no harm haul her backside into your keep?”
“We take the river.”
Sapira led them to a covered barge waiting on the banks. Once they were aboard, the pulvers jumped into the turgid stream, seizing ropes of braided goatskin and using brute strength to tow the barge against the current. They skirted the crushing heart of the cataract, passing through the falls on one side. Water splashed, deafeningly loud, on the roof, sheeting down in curtains. Then they were through, entering a massive chamber, a reception hall, overlooked by a mezzanine and centered, at ground level, by the circular pool for the barge.
Two more Blossoms, a teenaged girl and an elderly woman, awaited them on an ornately decorated pier.
“Well!” Gale gushed. “This is impressive. Your enemies would have had to either brave the poison or push through the waterfall. Efficient, Parrish, wouldn’t you say? My, look at that ceiling!”
He gaped upward at the frescoes with perfect sincerity. Her heart warmed a little.
Sapira made introductions: “This is my half-sister Teale and our aunt Agate.” Agate gave Gale a quick, shrewd glance; Teale, naturally, was staring over Gale’s shoulder. “This is...ah...”
She thrust out a hand: “Gale Feliachild of Verdanii.”
“And Captain Parrish, from the Nightjar,” said Sapira.
“Not the captain,” Gale corrected Sapira sharply.
They toured the reception chamber, climbing to a parlor on the mezzanine that overlooked the docked barge in its pool. There they sat down to play a board game.
Time to find out why I’m here.Gale brought up clamming again, rattling on about the shellfish of the various islands she’d been to, making bad jokes and guffawing. It didn’t take long for Agate to bring the conversation ’round to politics.
“Before the peace, we had strong ties with Sylvanna,” she said. “Our defenses on land are considerable, as you see, but we have a lot of beach.”
“Lotta landing sites.”
“Exactly. Sylvanner ships patrolled our waters in the days before the Fleet-enforced peace.”
“And in exchange?”
“One of our more impulsive kings agreed to supply Sylvanna with ninety flawless greystag horns every year.”
“For how long?”
“Forever,” Sapira said.
“Perpetual contracts are illegal,” Parrish said.
“They are now. Ours predates the Fleet Charter,” Agate said.
“Ninety horns, Agate—is that a lot?”
Agate nodded. “The herd’s population was high at the time, and there has been some contraction since the Peace. Nothing serious, but for some decades we rarely saw more than eighty horns of the required quality.”
“And the fee?” Gale asked.
“A fixed amount, paid per horn. It was a decent rate even fifty years ago.”
“I suppose if you’re short on the ninety horns, you owe them the next year.”
“Exactly. We were deep in arrears for a long time, which suited Sylvanna. But lately, we’ve made progress.”
Gale wondered if Parrish was following this: Agate was explaining why, for decades, Redcap had been voting with Sylvanna on contentious issues within the Fleet Convene. Now they were out of debt, the Sylvanners didn’t want to give up a puppet.
“We’re not poor,” Sapira said. “But this contract will eventually beggar us. They’d let us out of it, maybe, in exchange for the inscription that makes the pulvers, but—”
“You’ve sought legal advice?”
Parrish coughed into his drink, spraying tea, his cheeks purpling. Agate gave Teale a warning glare.
See, Sloot? They can’t keep their hands off him,Gale thought.
“We’ve had the contract reviewed,” Sapira affirmed, as if nothing had happened.
“No easy way out, mmm?”
“No. And we don’t want to end up in court.”
“Hah. Sylvanner lawyers would swallow you whole.”
They were asking Gale to find a way to break it, in other words, without arbitration or court or anything that might smack of them breaking treaty. This was why she was here playing dotty aunt.
The board game concluded with Parrish winning everything—the girls were too distracted to play well. Afterward, servants led Gale to a room that overlooked the valley. Her view of goats and snowmelt was distorted by the pale champagne-colored glass of her balcony doors.
Instead of enjoying the scene, she bustled around the keep, being a nuisance, demanding nettle soap, pretending to be lost and grilling the servants. There was little they could add to the story. Sylvanna had sent a large diplomatic party to court, allegedly to celebrate the fact that Redcap meant to pay off the backlog of horns this year. Trouble was expected.
Dinner came. Gale told off-color stories; Agate endured. The girls made eyes at Parrish.
He was distantly polite to them, but his attention was below, on the reception chamber. The barge and its dock had been cleared away from the pool, and stone spheres were placed around its circumference. Freestanding torches blazed, illuminating the back of the waterfall.
“Are they setting up for an event?” he asked.
“Each year the eldest of our pulvers retires and a new initiate gets scripped,” Agate said. “The changeover ceremony is about to start—see, there they are.”
Twenty pulvers gathered at the edge of the pool. When they were in place, six more marched in, bearing a column of stone.
A young man clad in an oversized white shift was bound to the column. They erected it in the center of the pool, so his feet dangled just above the water.
The pulvers took up the stone spheres from the edges of the pool, throwing them in a complicated, deadly game of catch. They tossed them overhand, snatched them out of thin air, whirled to give each toss more momentum. It was a friendly business at first, the participants shouting encouragement across the water, occasionally letting out a collective “Ho!” or “Ah!” on the high throws. The stones whizzed past the bound figure in the center of the pool, some coming close, none quite striking him. He bore it with no apparent sign of fear. As the players began to sweat and pant, the sense of play gave way to a deadly, businesslike mien.
With a final huff, each of the pulvers caught a sphere and flung it up, nearly straight overhead. The stones rose to the chamber roof, curling in simultaneous parabolas to the floor, plunging into the bargepool close to the bound man, obscuring him with a crash of water. The noise was loud enough to drown out any cry he might have made.
As the waves settled the man—a boy, really, and drenched now—was bleeding, his white robe marked with small trickles of crimson.
Parrish had half-risen from his chair.
“Don’t worry, Bendi’s safe.” Sapira stroked his arm. “The collision of the stones sends a few chips of rock flying. The blood is required for the inscription—”
Gale forced herself to unclench her fists.
A long cry from the eldest pulver interrupted her. He faced the soaked and bleeding form, then raised a massive curl of leather...
The inscription that bestowed his strength,Gale guessed. Scripped on...rhinoceros flesh, perhaps? Unfurling it, he whipped the leather back and forth like a flag in heavy wind, circling the pool, making a blur of its text, luminous, carefully lettered spellscrip. It snapped and whuffed at the air, rippling the pool.
With the faintest of bows to Agate, he tore it.
The effect was obvious. The man shrank within his armor, bowed under by its weight. Nobody helped him as he strained, groaning, to lift off his breastplate. He was both shaking and weeping as he dropped it at the edge of the pond, for his shivering, bound successor.
“What happens to the retiring pulver?” Gale asked.
Agate gestured at a cluster of eager-looking people waiting on the fringes. “Pensioned back to his family.”
The pulver tossed away the torn inscription. He stumbled eagerly to his family as his former fellows turned their backs on him.
A spellscribe stepped forward with a fresh sheet of rhino leather. Facing the bound figure, she washed her inscription tools in the blood-tinged pool.
Agate pointed out a female pulver. “Valette there is eldest now. She takes the new fellow under her wing.”
Parrish chose that moment to skitter sideways out of Sapira’s grasp.
“Sapira Majesta, croo vel appartri!” Agate hissed. Then, as if nothing had happened, she said: “Shall we play another round of board and bones? It’ll be hours before that inscription’s done and young Bendi breaks the chains binding him to that column.”
After the ceremony, Gale changed to a black tunic and slacks that passed for pajamas. The garments covered her from neck to toe, constituting modest wear almost everywhere in the world. Lurking jammies, Sloot called them. They were warm, convenient for sneaking about, climbing walls...even fighting, if it was called for.
But this was no court full of spies and assassins, just a small country with a knotty contractual burden. She wrapped a lurid yellow and blue bathrobe around herself and stretched, easing out the knots from her hours on horseback.
A yelp in the hallway: one of the girls.
She cracked open the door. Teale was on the floor in the corridor. Parrish bent over her, apologizing. Smiling, determined, the girl reached up, catching him by his belt, yanking herself upright by hauling him down.
That looked to be her intention, anyway. Parrish held his balance, lifting her upright with balletic grace.
Gale stepped into the hallway. “Parrish. Where’ve you been?”
“Ah. Kir Feliachild, I...apologize for the delay.” He handed Teale something, bowing hastily. The girl reddened, thwarted, as Parrish trotted into Gale’s room.
“That wasn’t what it looked like,” he said, standing at attention as she shut the door.
“The Blossom asked me to help her unfasten a bracelet. The catch is quite small and she was struggling.”
“It fell, I bent to retrieve it, and we got entangled...”
“I bet you did.”
Those full lips of his quirked: was he hiding a smile? “You don’t want an explanation.”
“I want you to get some rest. We have another full day on horseback tomorrow.”
A tiny slump. “Sapira’s in my room.”
Sloot, what am I to do with this boy?“At least Sapira’s near your age.”
“She’s...the women here, they’re...formidable.”
“Not my problem.” She settled by the fire.
“Not that the women of your homeland aren’t—”
“Relax, cub. I’m not offended.” She settled by the fire, thinking. “Sapira is impressive, isn’t she?”
“It’s like summer sunshine, when she looks at you.”
“They must be holding back a few horns, for charisma inscriptions.”
“Would they risk it? You’d be sure to find out and tell the Sylvanners.”
Oh my. Not one devious bone.She added “lack of guile” to her growing list of Parrish’s deficiencies.
She drifted off, making bets with herself as to whether she’d find the boy curled up on her floor come dawn. But when the servant came—early—to wake her, he was gone. Either he’d braved his room or gone elsewhere.
She found him in the great receiving chamber with all three Blossoms Majestic. The dock had been restored; the barge awaited. Sapira, dressed for riding, offered a frosty nod. Teale was deep in a sulk.
“Refreshment, Kir?” A servant offered a tray of breakfast dainties: maize cakes, dates, small boiled eggs studded with sliver-like maddenflur thorns that had, no doubt, been pickled out of their toxicity.
Agate twinkled at Gale over the youngsters’ heads. Amused by her girls’ failed attempts to entrap Parrish? “Morning, Kir. I heard you like to get an early start.”
“It supposed to rain or something?” One of the benefits of being an Awful Woman was you didn’t have to play coy guessing games.
“One of the Sylvanner delegates hared off from the court party. He’s been sighted on the highland switchbacks. Coming to pay his respects, I’m sure.”
“If we’re here when he arrives, we’ll have to invite him up the mountain with us?”
She had no wish to fence with her Sylvanner counterpart. “Feed yourself, Parrish, we’re going.”
Breakfast in hand—he refused the eggs, she noted—they climbed aboard the barge, riding through the waterfall to the waiting horses and trail guides.
The sky was just brightening, the Kingsilver hidden under a cushion of mist. A pack of small canines had caught one of the goats, and were at the opposite edge of the ridge, worrying at the carcass. One alternated mournful howls with gut-wrenching heaves, bringing up the meat.
“The goats’ flesh must be tainted by maddenflur,” Parrish said.
“The wolfets can sometimes keep it down,” Sapira said. “In another month they’ll be hunting greystag calves, but this late in the winter, they get desperate.”
The trail was snowy in places. Twice the pulvers had to dig out drifts that had blocked the trail. The rivers churned with mobile, glassine slush, melt from higher altitudes.
The sun was breaking over the peaks when Gale saw her first greystag.
It was the biggest deer she had ever seen: the crown of its head rose almost as high as hers, and her mount was a tall one. In the morning light, the greystag’s flanks shimmered like molten silver. Winter fluff was coming out of its shoulders in tufts.
The stag had wedged one curved horn between the branches of a tree. It wasn’t ready to come away yet, apparently, and the animal was trapped.
“Help him,” Sapira ordered. The newly initiated pulver and his mentor stepped forward. Valette, the elder, put her arms up on the beast’s chest, reaching up in a loose hug, her face against its neck, murmuring and clucking. It strained against her grip, then calmed. The new pulver, Bendi, laid his hands on the base of the horns, exploring.
“Ointment,” advised Valette. Bendi fumbled out some reddish wax, inadvertently crushing its container with his magically strengthened hand. He smeared his fingertips and rubbed the animal’s forehead, around the shedding horns. Flowery perfume crowded out the scent of their horses.
For ten minutes they worked at loosening the horns, easing them loose like a tooth from a child’s gum. The buck stepped out of Valette’s embrace. It locked eyes with Sapira, tossing its newly lightened head.
“Well?” Sapira asked.
“It’s long enough, Blossom, but he chipped it trying to take it off.”
The buck, forehead smeared red, took a wary step onto the trail. Then it startled, changing direction with liquid grace and vanishing into the woods with a leap.
“What a monster!” A dapper redheaded man rode around the curve. “Impressive, impressive beast! How’s the horns?”
“Imperfect, I’m afraid,” Bendi said, holding one out, root-first.
“And you are?” Sapira asked.
“Een Semmanor, o’Sylvanna,” he said, bowing low. “At your service. Why, Kir...no, don’t tell me, it’s a Verdanii name...is it Sturma? Sturma Feliachild?”
“Gale,” she affirmed.
“Delightful to find you here!”
They resumed the trail. Een had contrived to miss the pass into the keep, dodging the hours-long reception Agate would have planned for him. He’d pushed hard to catch Sapira’s party. His horse looked tired, but he showed no guilt over that.
“You know him?” Parrish asked. They had dropped to the rear: Een was up front, chattering at Sapira, gesturing with the found horn. Playing babbling idiot to Gale’s dotty aunt.
“We’re tentacles of opposed fighting squid,” Gale said. “Interchangeable, Parrish, but for our allegiance.”
“He seems to remember you.”
“I kicked his front teeth in, two years ago.”
“He could be a danger to you.”
“Stop looking for my assassin, cub—you’ll wear out your eyes. Worry about this: Een’s sure to notice that the Blossom’s been inscribed.”
“She doesn’t seem concerned.”
“No. Old contracts and their oddities...maybe they get to keep a horn now and then.”
“Why didn’t Agate simply show you the contract?”
“I’m here unofficially.”
“You were sent.”
“I got a note inviting me to visit Sapira; we met years ago.”
“But you’re a member of the Fleet Watch, aren’t you? Just by showing up...”
“I’m a lowly courier, Parrish, with a brief to deliver messages to a very remote place called Erstwhile. If I choose to meddle in political affairs now and then, it makes me a busybody, that’s all.”
“But Agate asked us to—”
“No. Agate mentioned the contract to Sapira’s eccentric friend, over a board game. She didn’t ask for anything. If it comes to court one day, she and I can truthfully swear to that.”
“Ah, you disapprove. Told you, I’m no better than Een.”
He said, delicately, “I prefer to believe otherwise.”
Misplaced idealism—there’s another flaw. “To answer your question, Agate would’ve arranged for me to stumble on the contract today, if we hadn’t had to rush off.”
The trail curved and widened, rising between a gap in the crags. They could see all the way to the ocean. Gale took out a spyglass and looked at the harbor, scanning for Nightjar’s sail. The sight brought a smile to her face.
“I wonder if he hit the markets for that new wheel he’s been after.” Sloot had been on a push to upgrade and repair the ship; he was finding fault with every rope, spar, and pump.
“He wants Fleet grade for the wheel,” Parrish said.
She nodded—good choice—and missed his next words. “Pardon?”
“He wants everything squared away before he retires.”
“Who says he’s retiring?”
Had her voice sharpened? The boy’s face had taken on that unreadable—that suddenly infuriating—emptiness.
“Has he said something to you, Parrish?”
“Don’t you go madaming me. What did Sloot say?”
“I’m...” He swallowed. “You’ll have to discuss it with him.”
“Will I?” She snapped the spyglass shut, urging her horse up the steep slope at a near canter. Een, of course, didn’t fail to notice.
Stop it, Gale. You’re acting like those lovesick girls.
Who does Parrish think he is? Does he expect to replace someone who’s been with me for thirty years?
She knew what Sloot would say: Thirty’s a lifetime, Gale.
She dismissed common sense, steeping in quiet rage.
The stream led up into the highland plains, stretches of hill and grassland dotted with greystag herds, bucks with pregnant does and a few yearlings, groups of five, groups of thirty. Bachelor herds, in tens and twelves, kept to the fringes.
Each hilltop was host to a peculiar work of statuary, artificial trees carved from the red stone of the mountain, dense, squarish stumps with hooked branches, thickly clad in moss. Gale opened her mouth to ask, but as she watched, a stag wedged its horn into one, working its head back and forth.
“Ah, this is your king’s innovation!” Een cried. “Clever, Sapira.”
“The bucks seek out trees when their horns begin to itch,” the Blossom said. “The shedding posts keep them from getting trapped, and the moss protects the horns.”
The pulvers fanned out, collecting horns that had dropped below the posts. Perfect horns—they found seven—were wrapped in thick, quilted blankets. There were thirty or more with flaws; those went into a single basket.
This was what Gale loved—the world’s endless feast of experience: the breathtaking ingenuity of the carved shedding trees, the greystag, thick as shoals of fish on the vast emerald expanse, the small darting packs of wolfets, red-furred against the green.
Today she felt only a gleam of interest. Sloot had sometimes mentioned going home, settling with one of his other women. Gale assumed he would wait, would see her to her prophesied violent end. That he’d take care of matters—of her.
“Camp’s carved into this ridge.” The herds flowed around them, untroubled, as the party dismounted and unsaddled, allowing the horses to finally graze. As the trail guides filed off to fetch water, the pulvers unpacked a set of pikes, and then they climbed carved stone steps to yet another raised cave entrance.
“Checking the shelter for wolfets or fugitives,” Sapira explained. “People take refuge here sometimes, in the fall.”
“What sort of bandits do you get here?” asked Een.
“Poachers. There’s illegal trade in maddenflur sap. And one-time crimes: someone kills their business partner, someone commits assault. We had a fellow two years ago who swindled three royal hunters.”
“Escaped slaves?” Een asked silkily.
Sapira favored him with a haughty glance. “Redcap is scrupulous in meeting all treaty obligations.”
“Naturally.” He stretched, turned, and offered Parrish an elaborate Sylvanner bow. “I don’t think we’ve met, Kir.”
“Garland Parrish, of the sailing vessel Nightjar.”
Een showed his teeth. “Parrish. Mmm. Wasn’t there a Corporal Parrish who disgraced himself so badly he got drummed out of the Fleet? Cousin of yours, perhaps?”
There was no visible change in Parrish, not even a tremor, and yet the air was suddenly charged with tension. “Not a cousin, Kir.”
“You’re the fellow himself? Oh, how rude of me!”
“I was, as you say, discharged from Service recently.”
Which was unheard of, Gale thought.
“But there was no disgrace,” Parrish went on. “The record, Kir, proves me out.”
“Moral high ground, mmm? I’ve heard the view’s good from up there. Must’ve been a tremendous hardship to lose your place.” Een rubbed his hands together. “Weren’t you something of a rising star?”
“Now you’re sailing privately?”
“I’m Nightjar’s first mate.”
It was an obvious insinuation. Gale was Verdanii, and of an age when her kinswomen often took young lovers. But Een’s barb snagged the wrong target: it was Sapira who reeled, as if she’d been slapped.
Parrish, to her surprise, bent toward Een with a half-smile. His tone, when he spoke, was hushed, almost intimate, though his eyes were flinty. “Are you asking if I’ve had the honor of being Kir Feliachild’s lover?”
Gale surprised herself by chuckling. This keeps up, I’ll have a duel on my hands.
But Een knew when to retreat. “None of my business, of course. Sorry, Kir Parrish.”
Nicely played, young man,Gale thought. She tipped him a bit of a salute before going in pursuit of the princess.
Sapira had not gone far. She was beside the stream, with the biggest stag Gale had seen yet. It was old, its throat and flanks marked with the white lines of many healed slashes. A dent in its skull gave it a mean, faintly cross-eyed appearance and its lip had been bitten into a permanent scowl. It had already shed its horns.
“Pal of yours?” Gale asked.
Sapira nodded. “I didn’t think he’d live through winter.”
The buck regarded Gale without fear. Even bareheaded, it could crush anyone it happened to charge. Gale wondered what it might see in her. She was a plain weathered woman, a well-used tool of the Fleet...but that meant nothing to this kind of king. She dropped her gaze...and found she’d clenched her fists. She held too tightly to things; she always had.
“Just a matter of time,” Sapira said. “One of the young bucks, maybe the one we saved on the trail...”
“He may have another season in him,” Gale said. “The young have strength, but we elders are canny.”
“Everyone’s day passes.”
“It does.” Gale fought a rush of heat through her chest, a front of threatened tears.
“I can’t bear to think of him falling to wolfets. It’s weak, I know...”
Gale unlocked her hands, shaking her fingers loose. “Nobody should witness the slaughter of something they love.”
Sapira reached out, and the buck came closer still. “I’ve trespassed on your goodwill, Gale. Garland—I mean Parrish—he refused my advances. Teale’s too. Now...I realize we shouldn’t have made any.”
“Rot. Nothing you’ve done has marred our friendship, Sapira.” Parrish hadn’t denied they were lovers; why should she? If she left the situation muddy, the boy might get to sleep tonight.
“Thank you.” By now the stag was close; it huffed steamy air onto Sapira’s fingers.
“I’m surprised he lets you so near.”
“My inscription came from one of his horns.”
Gale glanced around. There was no sign, anywhere, of Een. “Is that something we can discuss openly?”
“Sapira. The horn...it wasn’t owed to Sylvanna?”
“No, it was scratched. The inscription’s of a poorer grade. It’s why...well, you’ve seen my imperfections.”
She looked shamefaced, suddenly, like the girl she was. “My lapses of composure.”
“Composure comes with practice.”
“So says Aunt Agate.”
Gale smiled. “You’re telling me lower-grade inscriptions are permitted in the contract?”
“Oh, Blossom. You need to hire a more devious class of lawyer.”
Just before nightfall, the new pulver ran mad.
They were on the ridge, roasting trout over the fire and watching the first stars glimmer into view, when they heard the trammel of fleeing deer.
Bendi was on a young buck, riding bareback, yanking at its horn. His shouts were incomprehensible—Redcap dialect, not Fleetspeak.
The buck fought and leapt, but the grip of the pulver’s legs had crushed its rib cage: it was already staggering. Blood ran down its forehead from the horn, blinding it.
“Guard the camp,” Valette ordered. The others obediently encircled the civilians as, reaching for her pike, the pulver ran down the steps.
There was a crack as the buck’s horn snapped off in the crazed man’s hand. The animal wailed, collapsing forward onto its knees. Bellowing, the pulver swung the horn about, fighting whatever delusion had gripped him.
Parrish was down there.
“You can’t go down there, Kir,” Een cawed, drawing the guards’ attention as he seized Gale by the arm. She had moved instinctively.
Parrish stepped up to the outside range of that pointed, swinging, horn. “It’s Bendi, isn’t it?”
The pulver bared his teeth. “Ruined all, Bendi has ruined...oh dear ones, I have failed!”
“Maddenflur,” Sapira whispered. “Has he taken...”
“Maybe someone slipped it to him,” Gale said.
Parrish’s voice carried across the plains. “On the island where I grew up, Bendi, we take in those slain by magic. Such murders are doubly tragic, because nothing lasts forever. It is a given that the scrip will be destroyed in time; that the spell will revert and the murdered person will live again. So the victims must be kept safe.”
The pulver was staring at Parrish’s lips.
“There was a young monk once, whose job was to bear corpses from the sea to the monastery of the sleeping dead. But he loved a woman whose farm lay on the route from the port. He’d stopped at her cottage, once, and a grass fire caught near his wagon. The coffin and the woman lying within were burned.”
The pulver extended his hand, splaying his inhumanly strong fingers mere inches from the boy’s throat. Nobody moved. Even the deer seemed to hold their breath.
“He thought he’d committed the unforgivable,” Parrish said. “The corpse was badly burned. When the woman was restored, she would die again, in agony.”
“Unforgivable,” said Bendi. “Yesss...”
“He was in despair; he considered taking his life.”
“Get him!” Een roared, startling everyone as he drowned out Parrish’s words.
The senior pulver had been inching up behind her maddened acolyte. Now, warned, Bendi whipped around. Parrish sprang backward; the point of the horn just missed his throat.
Fast as a cat, that boy.Gale hurled herself sideways in a faked stumble, tripping Een and then flopping onto his belly, more or less sitting on him.
“Oof! Kir Feliachild!”
She ignored him. His stunt could have killed Parrish.
The pulvers wrestled over the horn, shattering it to matchsticks. Valette caught a flailing blow from Bendi as she got between him and Parrish. “Get back,” she bellowed.
Come on, get out of there. Let them fight it out.
Parrish saw sense; he retreated to the ridge.
“You almost talked him down,” Gale said, strangely proud.
Een gave Gale a shove. “Get off, woman! I think you’ve broken my rib.”
Ahh, the small victories.Gale climbed to her feet. “Sapira. Should someone go through Bendi’s supplies?”
“Yes. Start with the ointments,” Sapira ordered one of the guides. “They contain the maddenflur extract; it’d mask the smell.”
The guide vanished into the shelter, reluctantly—everyone was transfixed by the pulver fight. Then he cried out.
“What now?” Gale bustled ahead of the crush to the cave entrance. The remains of the seven perfect horns were scattered across the stone floor, pieces of bone intermingled with shredded remains of the quilted satchels, clumps of feather and torn silk.
“Poor Bendi must have begun his rampage here,” Een said to Sapira, who had gone shock-white at the sight. “My dear, it will be all right. Sylvanna will continue to extend credit, as a courtesy. Our alliance—”
“May need renegotiating,” Gale said.
Een’s head snapped ’round. “Excuse me?”
“I’ve gathered the Islanders have the right to use lesser greystag horns to inscribe charmers,” Gale said.
“Up until now—”
“—as a courtesy, you might say—” Parrish put in.
Gale smiled at him over the train guides’ heads. “Yes, a concession to your long alliance, Een, they’ve confined themselves to scripping the occasional Blossom. But there’s nothing to keep them from selling ’em. Is there, Sapira?”
The girl’s color was returning “Nothing at all.”
“Inferior inscriptions,” Een chuffed: “So?”
“Look at this girl, Een. Give her five years to build some skills and there won’t be any difference between her and a perfectly scripped legislator. How much you can charge for the spell if there’s something almost as good on offer?”
In an opera, that would have been the end of Een; he’d have crawled off, been demoted by his superiors and vanished into obscurity. But there was nowhere to slink: he sat by the fire, holding his ribs and simmering.
Gale tipped a glance at her first mate: Follow me. They picked their way down to the stream. The senior pulver had calmed Bendi and was trotting him around the plains, burning off the maddenflur dose. Wolfets were tearing at the dead stag, making good use of the unexpected feast.
Parrish spoke first. “If Een didn’t hate you before—”
“He knows it’s nothing personal. Next round, maybe he’ll win.”
“You shouldn’t insist you’re the same.”
“This is what we have, Parrish, instead of war. Maneuvering and games. Een and I play for different teams.”
“And for people’s lives.”
“High stakes,” she agreed.
“You are the good one, Gale.”
“He was right about your moral certainty. Comes of being a failed monk, I suppose?”
“I grew up on Issle Morta, but I’m no monk.”
“It wasn’t you in the story?”
He shook his head. “My father.”
“What made you think telling Bendi an instructive fairy tale when he was out of his head—”
“That you can blame on the monks. They favor parable over argument.”
“I don’t have much patience for fables,” she said, and then drew a long breath. “When Sloot does retire...”
“It won’t be right away.”
“I won’t be preached at.”
“Understood,” he said, and then: “She didn’t say happy.”
“The priestess at your birth. She said a useful life. Not a happy one—”
“You see those stags, Parrish?”
“What do you think of ’em?”
“It’s a privilege to see them.”
A flare—understanding, agreement? Connection. “Yes.”
Damn, Sloot. She did like him.
“I’ve seen a thousand wonders, cub. And I’m well past dying young. I never thought to survive this long.”
Which was the problem, maybe.
She would let Sloot go. Her place in his memories would recede. A mercy for him, one she should have offered long ago. I’ll take them to Erinth, she thought. One last vacation, and we’ll work out how to change the guard.
She looked at her friend’s chosen replacement, ran through her objections to him, and discarded them one by one.
Parrish steeled himself, as if for a blow. “About my time in the Fleet—”
“Plenty of time for that story.” She would hear it all one day: his alleged disgrace, his monkish upbringing, everything that lurked beneath those chocolate eyes. Sea voyages and their unavoidable stretches of tedium drew out all your tales.
At her feet was a clutch of gold and violet crocuses. On impulse she plucked one, holding it out.
“Another flower,” he said, with a glimmer of amusement.
“Don’t get ideas: just making sure you remember me.”
“I prefer this strategy to having my teeth busted in.”
“I’ll do that tomorrow,” she said, and his laugh was the unaffected chortle of a boy.
They turned toward camp, making for the fire as more snow broke free from the riverbed, vanishing into the night-darkened waters of the mountain.
“Among the Silvering Herd” copyright © 2011 by A.M. Dellamonica
Art copyright © 2011 by Richard Anderson