The Hero And The Crown Part One Chapter 5
AERIN WAS GOING to have to take part in Galanna’s wedding after all. The surka was indisputably wearing off – “It’s lasted this long, why couldn’t it have hung on just a little longer?” Aerin said irritably to Tor.
“It tried, I’m sure,” said Tor. “It just wasn’t expecting Galanna.”
Galanna had contrived to have the great event put off an extra half-year because, she said coyly, she wanted everything to be perfect, and in the time remaining it was not possible to drag a sufficient number of things up to meet that standard. Meanwhile Aerin had resignedly begun to take her old place in her father’s court; her presence was not a very necessary one, but her continued absence was noted, and the surka hadn’t killed her after all. “I wonder if I could at least convince her that I’m too woozy to carry a rod and a veil or throw flowers and sing. I could maybe get away with just standing with my father and looking pale and invalid. Probably. She can’t possibly want me around any more than I want to be around.”
“She should have thought more exactingly of the timing involved when she goaded you into eating the surka in the first place.”
Tor said ruefully, “I almost wish I’d had the forethought to eat a tree myself.” Perlith had asked Tor to stand behind him at the ceremony. The first companion was supposed to hold a sola’s badge of rank during his wedding; but in this particular case there were some interesting politics going on. Perlith was required by tradition to ask the king and the first sola to stand by him for the ceremony, and the king and the first sola by tradition were required to accept the invitation. The first companion’s place was, as attendants go, the most important, but it was also the most attentive; the slang for the first companion’s position was rude, and referred to the companion’s location near his sola’s backside. Asking Tor to stand first companion was a token of Perlith’s unrivaled esteem for his first sola, as the first companion’s place should go to Perlith’s dearest friend. It would also be Perlith’s only chance ever to have the first sola waiting on him.
“You should drop the badge with a clatter just as the chant gets to the bit about family loyalty and the unending bliss of being a member of a family. Ugh,” said Aerin.
“Don’t tempt me,” Tor said.
Fortunately Galanna did not have her future husband’s sense of humor, and she was glad to excuse Aerin from participation on the grounds of the continuing unreliability of the first sol’s health. Galanna was incapable of plotting much of anything over a year in advance, and the surka incident had had nothing to do with the predictable approach of her wedding day. It had had to do with the loss of her eyelashes just when she knew Perlith had decided to offer for her – which offer had then had to be put off till they were long enough again for her to look up at him through them. (She had actually been weak enough to wonder if Aerin was Gifted after all, her timing in this case being no less than diabolical.) But it had occurred to her lately that it would be a boon to find a way to keep Aerin out of the ceremony itself, without giving visible public offense (and since the surka hadn’t killed her off, which, to give Galanna what little credit she deserves, she had not been attempting). Galanna understood as well as Perlith did why Tor had been asked, and would stand as first companion; but Tor was reliable, for all his disgusting sympathy for his youngest cousin. He believed in his first sola’s place as Aerin had no reason to believe in her place as first sol; and Aerin, if dragooned into performing some ceremonial role, would by fair means or foul mess things up. Nothing was going to spoil Galanna’s wedding day. She and Aerin understood each other very well when Aerin, formal and smiling, offered her apologies and regrets, and Galanna, formal and smiling, accepted them.
Galanna and Perlith’s wedding was the first great state event since the celebration of Tor’s coming to manhood, and thus his taking his full place at his uncle’s right hand, less than two years after his own father died. Aerin had been a part of that ceremony, and she had been determined to perform her role with both dignity and accuracy, that Tor would not be embarrassed in front of all the people who had told him not to ask her to be in it. The result was that she remembered very little of the day-long rites. She did remember frantically running her responses through her mind (which she had so firmly committed to memory that she remembered them all her life). When the priests finished naming the three hundred and ten sovereigns before Arlbeth (not that all of them had ruled quite the same country, but the sonorous recitation of all the then-who-came-afters had an impressive ring to it), she had to rename the last seven of them, seven being the perfect number because of the Seven Perfect Gods, and name their Honored Wives or queens (there hadn’t been a ruling queen in a very long time) and any full brothers or sisters. The finish was: And then who came after was Tor, son of Thomar, own brother to Arlbeth; Tor came next. And she had to not squeak, and she had to not squeak three times, for they went through it all once at dawn, once at midday, and once at sunset. She also had to hold his swordbelt, and by the evening she had blisters across both palms from gripping it too hard. But she had done everything right.
Tor had been busier since then, often away from the City, showing himself to the Hillfolk who came rarely or never to the City, that they might one and all know the face and voice of the man who would be their king someday; and it had also been soon after Tor’s coming of age that Aerin had eaten the surka. While it lay heavily on her she had not wished to see much of him even when he was at home, though he had come often to sit by her when she was too sick to protest and even, without her knowledge, put off one or two trips that he might stay near her. But as she got enough better to be surly about not being well, and as his absences of necessity increased, a barrier began to grow up between them, and they were no longer quite the friends they had once been. She missed him, for she had been accustomed to talking to him nearly every day, but she never said she missed him, and she told herself that it was as well, since the surka had proved Galanna three-quarters right about her, that the first sola not contaminate himself with her company too often. When she did see him, she was painstakingly bright and offhand.
A few days after Talat had trotted halfway round his pasture with Aerin on his back, she asked Hornmar what had become of Talat’s tack. She knew that each of the court horses had its own, and Kethtaz would never be insulted by wearing bits of his predecessor’s gear; but she was afraid that Talat’s might have been destroyed when his leg had doomed him. Hornmar, who had seen Talat jogging around his field with Aerin at attention on his back, brought out saddle and girth and bridle, for while he had thought they would never be used again, he had not had the heart to get rid of them. If Aerin noticed that they appeared to have been freshly cleaned and oiled, she said nothing but “Thank you.” The same day that she carried Talat’s gear up to her room and hid it in her wardrobe (where Teka, finding it later, also found that it had left oil spots on Aerin’s best court dress), she saw from her window Tor riding in from one of his rounds of political visits; and she decided it was time to waylay him.
“Aerin,” he said, and hugged her gladly. “I have not seen you in weeks. Have you your dress made yet for the wedding of the century? Who won, you or Teka?”
She pulled a face. “Teka has won more ground than I, but I refused to wear it in yellow at all, so at least it’s going to be a sort of leaf green, and there’s less lace. It’s still quite awful.”
Tor looked amused. When he looked amused she almost forgot she had decided that it was better that they weren’t such good friends any more. “Have supper with me,” he said. “I must have dinner in the hall – I suppose you are still pleading ill health and dining peacefully with Teka? But supper I may have alone in my rooms. Will you come?”
“Pleading ill health indeed,” she said. “Do you really want me to have a dizzy moment and drop a full goblet of wine in the lap of the esteemed guest at my right – or left? I’m less likely to cause civil war if I stay away.”
“A very convenient excuse. I sometimes think if I have to look at Galanna purring over the latest detail of the upcoming event I shall throw an entire cask at her. You’d think we were declaring bloody independence from a genocidal tyrant, the way she goes on about the significance of the seating of the barons’ third cousins twice removed. Did you know that Katah doesn’t want to come at all? Her husband says he may have to put a bag over her head and tie her to her horse. Katah says that she knows Galanna and he doesn’t. Will you come to supper?”
“Of course, if you’ll shut up long enough for me to accept.” She grinned at him.
He looked at her, feeling a twitch of surprise; in her smile for the first time he saw that which was going to trouble his sleep very soon; something very unlike the friendship they’d enjoyed all their lives thus far; something that would raise the barrier between them much faster than anything else could; the barrier that thus far Aerin alone saw growing.
“What’s wrong?” she said; some of the old familiarity still worked, and she saw the shadow pass over his face, although she had no clue to what caused it.
“Nothing. I’ll see you tonight, then.”
She laughed when she saw the place settings for their supper: gold. The golden goblets were fishes standing on their tails, their open mouths waiting for the wine to be poured; the plates were encircled by leaping golden deer, the head of each bowed over the quarters of the one before, and their flying tails made a scalloped edge; the spoons and knives were golden birds, their long tails forming handles. “Highly unbreakable. I can still spill the wine.”
“We’ll have to make do.”
“Where in Damar did you get these?”
Something like a flush crept up his face. “Four settings of the stuff was one of my coming-of-age gifts; it’s from a town in the west known for its metalwork. I only just brought it back, this trip.” It had been given him for his bride, the town’s chief had told him.
Aerin looked at him, trying to decide about the flush; he was brown to begin with, and copper-colored from sunburn, and it was hard to tell. “It must have been a long and gaudy ceremony, and they covered you with glory you don’t feel you’ve earned.”
Tor smiled. “Near enough.”
She didn’t spill anything that evening, and she and Tor reminded each other of the most embarrassing childhood moments they could think of, and laughed. Galanna and Perlith’s wedding was not mentioned once.
“Do you remember,” she said, “when I was very young, almost a baby still, and you were first learning to handle a sword, how you used to show me what you’d learned – “
“I remember,” he said, smiling, “that you followed me around and wheedled and wept till I was forced to show you.”
“Wheedled, yes,” she said. “Wept, never. And you started it; I didn’t ask to get put in a baby-sack while you leaped your horse over hurdles.”
“My own fault, I admit it.” He also remembered, though he said nothing of it, how their friendship had begun. He had felt sorry for his young cousin, and had sought her first out of dislike for those who wished to ostracize her, especially Galanna, but soon for her own sake: for she was wry and funny even when she could barely speak, and loved best to find things to be enthusiastic about; and did not remind him that he was to grow up to be king. He had never quite learned to believe that she was always shy in company, nor that the shyness was her best attempt at a tactful acknowledgement of her precarious place in her father’s court; nor that her defensive obstinacy was quite necessary.
It was to watch her take fire with enthusiasm that he had made a small wooden sword for her, and shown her how to hold it; and later he taught her to ride a horse, and let her ride his own tall mare when the first of her pretty, spoiled ponies had made her wish to give up riding altogether. He had shown her how to hold a bow, and to send an arrow or a spear where she wished it to go; how to skin a rabbit or an oozog, and how best to fish in running streams and quiet pools. The complete older brother, he thought now, and for the first time with a trace of bitterness.
“I can still hunt and fish and ride,” she said. “But I miss the swordplay. I know you haven’t much spare time these days – ” She hesitated, calculating which approach would be likeliest to provoke the response she desired. “And I know there’s no reason for it, but – I’m big enough now I could carry one of the boys’ training swords. Would you – “
“Train you?” he said. He was afraid he knew where her thoughts were tending, although he tried to tell himself that this was no worse than teaching her to fish. He knew that even if he did grant her this it would do her no good; it didn’t matter that she was already a good rider, that she was, for whatever inbred or circumstantial reasons, less silly than any of the other court women; that he knew from teaching her other things that he could probably teach her to be a fair swordswoman. He knew that for her own sake he should not encourage her now.
The gods prevent her from asking me anything I must not give, he thought, and said aloud, “Very well.”
Their eyes met, and Aerin’s dropped first.
The lessons had to be at infrequent intervals because of Tor’s ever increasing round of duties as first sola; but lessons still Aerin had, as she wished, and after several months’ time and practice she could make her teacher pant and sweat as they danced around each other. Her lessons were only a foot soldier’s lessons; horses were not mentioned, and she was wise enough, having gained so much, not to protest.
She took pride, in a grim sort of way, in learning what Tor taught her; and he need not know the hours of drill she put in, chopping at leaves and dust motes, when he was not around. She made what she considered to be obligatory protests about the regular hiatuses in her progress when Tor was sent off somewhere, but in truth she was glad of them, for then she had the time to put in, grinding the lessons into her slow, stupid, Giftless muscles. But she was always eager for her next meeting with the first sola, and what he guessed about her private practice sessions was not discussed, any more than the fact that he had not fought unhorsed since he was a little boy and learning his first lessons in swordplay. A sola always led cavalry. Aerin knew pretty well when the time came that if she had been in real training she would have been put on a horse; but this moment too passed in silence.
But there was one good thing that also passed in silence, for Aerin was too proud, for different reasons, to mention it: the specific muscular control and coordination of learning to wield a sword finally sweated the last of the surka out of her system. It had been two years since her meeting with Galanna in the royal garden.
Tor and Aerin’s meetings on the farthest edge of the least used of the practice fields also gave them an excuse to be together, as they had always been together, without having to acknowledge the new restraint between them, without discovering that conversation between them was growing awkward.
Aerin knew that Tor was careful not to use his real strength when he forced her back; but at least, as she learned, he had to be quick to keep her off; and strength, she hoped, would come. She was growing like a weed; her seventeenth birthday had come and gone, with the tiresome pomp necessary to a king’s daughter, and the stiff courtesy inspired by an unsatisfactory king’s daughter, and she was far too old to be suddenly growing taller. Not that she minded towering over Galanna; Galanna’s perfect profile, when seen from above, seemed to beetle slightly at the brows and narrow slightly around the eyes. Aerin also had hopes that she would outgrow the revolting Kisha and be given a real horse.
A real horse. She began to have to close her lips tighter over her determination not to mention horses to Tor. A mounted man’s strength was his horse – or a mounted woman’s. But if she asked Tor to teach her to fight from horseback he would have to admit to knowing how much it meant to her, that it was not only an amusing private game she was playing; and she knew he was troubled about what they were doing already. His curious silence on the cause of her eagerness to learn told her that; and he could still read as many of her thoughts as she could of his.