Authors: Lois McMaster Bujold
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction
AN IMPRINT OF HARPER COLLINS PUBLISHERS
paladin of souls. Copyright ® 2003 by Lois McMaster Bujold.
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Designed by Adrian Leichter
Printed on acid-free paper
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been
03 04 05 06 07 JTC
RRD 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Sylvia Kelso,
syntax wrangler and
Ista partisan first class
ISTA LEANED FORWARD BETWEEN THE CRENELLATIONS ATOP THE gate tower, the stone gritty beneath her pale hands, and watched in numb exhaustion as the final mourning party cleared the castle gate below. Their horses' hooves scraped on the old cobblestones, and their good-byes echoed in the portal's vaulting. Her earnest brother, the provincar of Baocia, and his family and retinue were last of the many to leave, two full weeks after the divines had completed the funeral rites and ceremonies of the interment.
Dy Baocia was still talking soberly to the castle warder, Ser dy Ferrej, who walked at his stirrup, grave face upturned, listening to the stream, no doubt, of final instructions. Faithful dy Ferrej, who had served the late Dowager Provincara for all the last two decades of her long residence here in Valenda. The keys of the castle and keep glinted from the belt at his stout waist. Her mother's keys, which Ista had collected and held, then turned over to her older brother along with all the other papers and inventories and instructions that a great lady's death entailed. And that he had handed back for permanent safekeeping not to his sister, but to good, old, honest dy Ferrej. Keys to lock out all danger . . . and, if necessary, Ista in.
It's only habit, you know. I'm not mad anymore, really.
It wasn't as though she wanted her mother's keys, nor her mother's life that went with them. She scarcely knew what she wanted. She knew what she feared—to be locked up in some dark, narrow place by people who loved her. An enemy might drop his guard, weary of his task, turn his back; love would never falter. Her fingers rubbed restlessly on the stone.
Dy Baocia's cavalcade filed off down the hill through the town and was soon lost from her view among the crowded red-tiled roofs. Dy Ferrej, turning back, walked wearily in through the gate and out of sight.
The chill spring wind lifted a strand of Ista's dun hair and blew it across her face, catching on her lip; she grimaced and tucked it back into the careful braiding wreathing her head. Its tightness pinched her scalp.
The weather had warmed these last two weeks, too late to ease an old woman bound to her bed by injury and illness. If her mother had not been so old, the broken bones would have healed more swiftly, and the inflammation of the lungs might not have anchored itself so deeply in her chest. If she had not been so fragile, perhaps the fall from the horse would not have broken her bones in the first place. If she had not been so fiercely willful, perhaps she would not have been on that horse at all at her age . . . Ista looked down to find her fingers bleeding, and hid them hastily in her skirt.
In the funeral ceremonies, the gods had signed that the old lady's soul had been taken up by the Mother of Summer, as was expected and proper. Even the gods would not dare violate her views on protocol. Ista imagined the old Provincara ordering heaven, and smiled a little grimly.
And so I am alone at last.
Ista considered the empty spaces of that solitude, its fearful cost. Husband, father, son, and mother had all filed down to the grave ahead of her in their turn. Her daughter was claimed by the royacy of Chalion in as tight an embrace as any grave, and as little likely to return from her high place, five gods willing, as the others from their low ones.
Surely I am done.
The duties that had defined her, all accomplished. Once, she had been her parents' daughter. Then great, unlucky Ias's wife. Her children's mother. At the last, her mother's keeper.
Well, I am none of these things now.
Who am I, when I am not surrounded by the walls of my life? When they have all fallen into dust and rubble?
Well, she was still Lord dy Lutez's murderer. The last of that little, secret company left alive, now.
she had made of herself, and that she remained.
She leaned between the crenellations again, the stone abrading the lavender sleeves of her court mourning dress, catching at its silk threads. Her eye followed the road in the morning light, starting from the stones below and flowing downhill, through the town, past the river . . . and where? All roads were one road, they said. A great net across the land, parting and rejoining. All roads ran two ways. They said.
I want a road that does not come back.
A frightened gasp behind her jerked her head around. One of her lady attendants stood on the battlement with her hand to her lips, eyes wide, breathing heavily from her climb. She smiled with false cheer "My lady. I've been seeking you everywhere. Do ... do come away from that edge, now ..."
Ista's lips curled in irony. "Content you. I do not yearn to meet the gods face-to-face this day."
Or on any other. Never again.
"The gods and I are not on speaking terms."
She suffered the woman to take her arm and stroll with her as if casually along the battlement toward the inner stairs, careful, Ista noted, to take the outside place, between Ista and the drop.
Content you, woman. I do not desire the stones.
I desire the road.
The realization startled, almost shocked her. It was a new thought.
A new thought, me?
All her old thoughts seemed as thin and ragged as a piece of knitting made and ripped out and made and ripped out again until all the threads were frayed, growing ever more worn, but never larger. But how could
gain the road? Roads were made for young men, not middle-aged women. The poor orphan boy packed his sack and started off down the road to seek his heart's hope ... a thousand tales began that way. She was not poor, she was not a boy, and her heart was surely as stripped of all hope as life and death could render it.
I am an orphan now, though. Is that not enough to qualify me?
They turned the corner of the battlement, making toward the round tower containing the narrow, winding staircase that gave onto the inner garden. Ista cast one last glance out across the scraggly shrubs and stunted trees that crept up to the curtain wall of the castle. Up the path from the shallow ravine, a servant towed a donkey loaded with firewood, heading for the postern gate.
In her late mother's flower garden, Ista slowed, resisting her attendant's urgent hand upon her arm, and mulishly took to a bench in the still-bare rose arbor. "I am weary," she announced. "I would rest here for a time. You may fetch me tea."
She could watch her lady attendant turning over the risks in her mind, regarding her high charge untrustingly. Ista frowned coldly. The woman dropped a curtsey. "Yes, my lady. I'll tell one of the maids. And I'll be
I expect you will.
Ista waited only till the woman had rounded the corner of the keep before she sprang to her feet and ran for the postern gate.
The guard was just letting the servant and his donkey through. Ista, head high, sailed out past them without turning round. Pretending not to hear the guard's uncertain, "My lady . . .?" she walked briskly down the steepening path. Her trailing skirts and billowing black velvet vest
cloak snagged on weeds and brambles as she passed, like clutching hands trying to hold her back. Once out of sight among the first trees, her steps quickened to something close to a run. She had used to run down this path to the river, when she was a girl. Before she was anybody's anything.
She was no girl now, she had to concede. She was winded and trembling by the time the river's gleam shone through the vegetation. She turned and strode along the bank. The path still held its remembered course to the old footbridge, across the water, and up again to one of the main roads winding around the hill to—or from—the town of Valenda.
The road was muddy and pocked with hoof prints; perhaps her brother's party had just passed on its way to his provincial seat of Taryoon. He had spent much of the past two weeks attempting to persuade her to accompany him there, promising her rooms and attendants in his palace, under his benign and protective eye, as though she had not rooms and attendants and prying eyes enough here. She turned in the opposite direction.
Court mourning and silk slippers were no garb for a country road. Her skirts swished around her legs as though she were trying to wade through high water. The mud sucked at her light shoes. The sun, climbing the sky, heated her velvet-clad back, and she broke into an unladylike sweat. She walked on, feeling increasingly uncomfortable and foolish. This was madness. This was just the sort of thing that got women locked up in towers with lack-witted attendants, and hadn't she had enough of that for one lifetime? She hadn't a change of clothes, a plan, any money, not so much as a copper vaida. She touched the jewels around her neck.
Yes, too much value—what country-town moneylender could match for them? They were not a resource; they were merely a target, bait for bandits.
The rumble of a cart drew her eyes upward from picking her way along the puddles. A farmer drove a stout cob, hauling a load of ripe manure for spreading on his fields. He turned his head to stare dumfounded at the apparition of her on his road. She returned him a regal nod—after all, what other kind could she offer? She nearly laughed out loud, but choked back the unseemly noise and walked on. Not looking back. Not daring to.
She walked for over an hour before her tiring legs, dragging the weight of her dress, stumbled at last to a halt. She was close to weeping from the frustration of it all.
This isn't working. I don't know how to do this. I never had a chance to learn, and now I am too old.
Horses again, galloping, and a shout. It flashed across her mind that among the other things she had failed to provision herself with was a weapon, even so much as a belt knife, to defend herself from assault. She pictured herself matched against a swordsman, any swordsman, with any weapon she could possibly pick up and swing, and snorted. It made a short scene, hardly likely to be worth the bother.
She glanced back over her shoulder and sighed. Ser dy Ferrej and a groom pounded down the road in her wake, the mud splashing from their horses' hooves. She was not, she thought, quite fool enough or mad enough to wish for bandits instead. Maybe that was the trouble; maybe she just wasn't crazed
True derangement stopped at no boundaries. Mad enough to wish for what she was not mad enough to grasp—now there was a singularly useless lunacy.
Guilt twinged in her heart at the sight of dy Ferrej's red, terrified, perspiring face as he drew up by her side. "Royina!" he cried. "My lady, what are you doing out here?" He almost tumbled from his saddle, to grasp her hands and stare into her face.
"I grew weary of the sorrows of the castle. I decided to take a walk in the spring sunshine to solace myself."
"My lady, you have come over five miles! This road is quite unfit for you—"
Yes, and I am quite unfit for it.
"No attendants, no guards—five gods, consider your station and your safety! Consider my gray hairs! You have stood them on end with this start."
"I do apologize to your gray hairs," said Ista, with a little real contrition. "They do not deserve the toil of me, nor does the remainder of you either, good dy Ferrej. I just. . . wanted to take a walk."
"Tell me next time, and I will arrange—"
"You are the dowager royina of all Chalion," stated dy Ferrej firmly. "You are Royina Iselle's own
for the five gods' sake. You cannot go skipping off down the road like a country wench."
Ista sighed at the thought of being a skipping country wench, and not tragic Ista anymore. Though she did not doubt country wenches had their tragedies, too, and much less poetic sympathy for them than did royinas. But there was nothing to be gained by arguing with him in the middle of the road. He made the groom give up his horse, and she acquiesced to being loaded aboard it. The skirts of this dress were not split for riding, and they bunched uncomfortably around her legs as she felt for the stirrups. Ista frowned again as the groom took the reins from her and made to lead her mount.