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Rosemary Kirstein - Steerswoman 04

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The Language Of Power

Steerswoman, Book 4

Rosemary Kirstein

2004

 

ISBN 0-345-46835-X

 

OCR from PDF on #bookz

 

ROSEMARY KIRSTEIN’S ACCLAIMED EPIC CONTINUES, AS A SERVANT
OF TRUTH JOURNEYS THROUGH A WORLD WHERE THE POWERFUL RULE BY LIES.

The steerswomen were seekers, collectors of knowledge, and
whatever ey learned was free for the asking. The wizards also had knowledge—e to
command nature itself—but they jealously guarded their dark wisdom. The two
groups have been at odds for centuries: They do not agree, they do not
converse, they do not associate.

Now the steerswoman Rowan has uncovered evidence that the
master
.
wizard, Slado, is conjuring dangerous spells in shadow,
devastating the distant lands called the Outskirts and changing the course of
the world. Rowan has no choice: Slado must be stopped … if he can even be
found.

Following a dubious clue, Rowan and her friend Bel, an Outskirter,
have come to the city of Donner, seeking answers from the past for a danger in
the present. But the secrets go deeper than Rowan had ever imagined, compelling
her to wonder: What if all this time she has been asking
the wrong
questions?

 

“Kirstein’s striking portrait of an innovative woman who is
scientist, judge, historian, and adventurer makes for a good, thought-provoking
read.”

—Publishers Weekly
(starred review), about
The
Lost Steersman

 

BY ROSEMARY KIRSTEIN

The Steerswoman’s Road

The Lost Steersman

The Language of Power

 

FOR

SHELLY SHAPIRO

who opened the road for the steerswoman, and

LISA BASSI

Warrior, Poet

Acknowledgments

The author is grateful to many people, but most especially
the following: Laurie Marks, Delia Sherman, and Didi Stewart (“The Fabulous
Genrettes”), for knowing when to encourage and when to admonish; Shelly
Shapiro, for indispensable editing; Brian Bambrough, for catching the dropped
ball; Mary Ann Eldred, for approval on technical details; Ann Tonsor Zeddies
(“Toni Anzetti”), for reports from the trenches; Geary Gravel, for tolerance of
enthusiasms; and my sister, Sabine, for everything.

 

Chapter One

It was the first break in the weather.

The cargo ship had stood off from Donner for days; no barges
had been able to cross the shallows to unload her, and the seas beyond had been
high, and wild with wind. Early snow obscured the distance, and
Graceful
Days
had been a glimpse, a guess, a dancing ghost behind curtains of spray
and snow, until this morning.

Fortunate that she carried so few passengers. Only three,
and two were ill: a large man and a small woman, now sitting huddled together
in the center of the transfer barge, with an air of surrender and exhaustion
that spoke of days of continual seasickness.

The starboardside bargeman grimaced in sympathy, and attempted
to pole more smoothly. The change only confused his partner, who tootled the whistle
she held clenched in her teeth, admonishing him to work in proper rhythm.

The third passenger sat by the gunwale among a handful of
the ship’s crew members. The bargeman had thought her a sailor herself, at
first; she was that easy on the water. But the captain of
Graceful Days,
sitting
across from her, seemed to treat her as an equal, conversing in respectful
tones, at one point angling himself to block the splashes raised by a set of
small waves so that the map the woman held in her lap would not get wet.

The bargeman spared another glance from his work, to see
what so interested her. He could not read; but the spread of streets, the jut
of wharves, and the curve of a broad river identified Donner itself. The woman
seemed to sense his gaze, and looked up.

She was not seasick, but she had been ill, in some other
way, and not long ago. The clear gray eyes were too large in a face that showed
its bones too well. Her short hair, brittle even in the damp air, was both dark
and light: the color of wet sand, but tipped with remnants of sun-bleached
yellow. She looked like a woman burned by years of light, paled by recent
months of darkness.

He realized that he had been staring, and shied his glance
away, putting his back into his work; but when he looked again, he found her
studying him just as closely. “How old are you?” she asked abruptly.

The question took him aback; another toot from his partner reminded
him where his attention should be. He poled once, twice, and could see neither
why the passenger would ask such a question, nor why he should answer.

But there was no reason not to. “Thirty-one,” he replied. A
woman with a map—and, he now saw, a pack stowed behind her, with a map case
whose end jutted from the top: a steerswoman? She did wear a thin gold chain,
such as the Steerswomen wore, but showed no silver ring on her left hand, only
a remarkable collection of small, old scars.

Still: “Thank you,” she said, as if it were habit, as if she
had the right to ask, ask any question at all. And with her question answered,
she seemed to dismiss him, returning to her conversation with Gregori, the
captain.

Gregori leaned over the city map, indicated. “There, aboutTilemaker’s
Street. Whole row of shops, and the jeweler’s among them.”

The crew member seated behind him spoke up. “Excuse me, sir,
and lady,” she put in, “but I’ve dealt with them; more dear than they need to
be. There’s another jeweler’s, off near the tea shop. Found a pretty pin for my
sweetheart, not so fancy, maybe, but half the price the other asked.”

“Now, no one will charge Rowan—or they ought not, properly,”
the captain said.

“Properly,” Rowan put in, “they have every right to charge
me, if they insist. The rule only states that one must answer a steerswoman’s
questions; indulging a steerswoman’s personal needs is entirely optional. If I
find I must pay after all, the cheaper establishment will do.” She rolled her
map and leaned back to slide it in among the others in the map case.

The barge approached Tyler’s Gully, a hidden trench in the
bed of the shallows, and the barge tenders doubled their efforts to acquire the
speed needed to coast past it. The change in motion distressed one of the other
passengers, who suddenly clambered wildly over crates and bales of raw silk in
order to be sick over the side. Wry comments from the sailors, and in one case,
applause, but she took the jibes with remarkable good humor, and sensibly
remained by the portside gunwale for the rest of the trip.

When the barge slid up to the wharf, Rowan leaned back to
let the others disembark first, then accepted an assist from the captain.
“Hup!” His hands on her waist, he lifted her bodily from the barge onto the
wharf, a move that first startled, then amused her.

“It’s been a while since last someone did that for me,” Rowan
said.

“Light as a feather. And are you all right with that pack?
Seems a bit large.”

“It’s what I need. I’ll get used to it again, soon enough.”
By way of demonstration she swung it up, neatly and smoothly, slipping her left
arm, then her right, into the straps. A familiar movement, and a familiar,
welcome weight.

Gregori stood back to admire her: pack, cloak, and grin.
“Well. There you go, then.” He clasped her hand. “And whichever one of us sees
Zenna again first, will give the other’s love to her.”

“I believe that will be you.”

“You’re probably right. The sea’s a wide road, and you’re
heading for narrow ones.” He glanced about; no one else was nearby. He leaned
closer, spoke more quietly. “And I hope your work here goes well.”

He released her hand and turned away, calling instructions
to the stevedores; and the steerswoman made her way down the long wharf.

Donner was built on flat land, and as soon as Rowan left the
openness of the harborside, all sense of space vanished. The street before her
seemed merely a corridor, the shops and homes to either side its rooms, an
effect completed by the heavy white sky hanging close above like a low ceiling.
Donner, despite being a city, felt today as if it existed within arm’s reach
only.

But when Rowan looked up, the low tower of the harbormaster’s
office was visible above, dimmed gray by the damp-laden air. Yet even that
seemed two-dimensional, like a sketch of a tower, vague outline and shadow.

The office on the first floor was deserted. Rowan passed
through to the back, and discovered a set of stairs leading above. She
considered the steep ascent, winced, sighed. Leaving her pack below, she
climbed.

At the top: a square room, occupying the entire top floor,
with broad windows open all around. Rowan leaned back against the railing of
the stairwell, nursing an ache in her left leg, and studied the view.

The southeast window looked out squarely on the harbor, where
the barge was now plying its way back across the water, dimming as it neared
Graceful
Days,
the ship itself a mere shadow. Northeast, low buildings spread to the
river’s edge, thinning to the north as they approached the mud flats, where a
portion of Greyriver’s broad expanse was visible, seeming to curl back around
the city like a broad, protecting arm. Northwest, ornate residences crowded,
then spaced themselves, and finally stood smugly solitary up against the edge
of a grove of cultivated fruit trees that vanished into mist.

Southwest: the heart of the city, with a sweep of low and
high rooftops, continuous, but for a sudden gap, large enough that a portion of
the bare ground was visible. There, a crew of about a dozen people was at work,
laying yellowish paving stones.

Inside the room, shelves ran along the walls beneath each window.
Rowan limped over to check the contents, hoping that she would not find the
package she herself had sent some months ago. Quite possibly it had never made
its way past Donner at all, and the Prime still remained entirely unaware of
Rowan’s discoveries in the Demon Lands.

The package was not present, but Rowan was in no way reassured:
seated in a wooden chair, its front legs tilted off the floor and his feet
comfortably propped on an old crate, was the watcher on duty. He was fast
asleep.

He had stirred not at all during Rowan’s investigations, and
she had not been quiet. Any passing thief or vagrant could easily have wandered
in and made off with any of the various items. She resisted the impulse to kick
the chair legs out from under the man.

She did, however, achieve a measure of satisfaction by standing
behind him when she tapped his shoulder. He came awake with a start, dropped
the chair forward with a thump and an outfling of arms and legs. “Oof!”

Rowan remained patiently in place while he looked about in
confusion, left and right, and finally found her. He stood and shook down his
skewed clothing, then stepped forward. “Well, what’s your business?” he asked,
now all brisk efficiency.

BOOK: Rosemary Kirstein - Steerswoman 04
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