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Long Live the Righ

he smell of magic woke me. Immediately my heart was hammering, my throat tight; the terrible delight of raw arcane power washed over me like frankincense on mountain air. Scents and colors I hadn’t tasted in a decade teased open parts of me long held closed, telling me things mundane senses never could. Death rode on tones of crystal from secret velvet darkness between the stars, wrapped in the purple-gold caress of spidersilk and aromas of peach and shocking blue. The magic hadn’t originated with the ard-righ’s wizard Athramail, whose signatures and workings regularly peppered the air of Ilnemedon; it wasn’t the doing of any of the small-time charms dealers who haunt the back rooms of Ilnemedon’s taverns and the ships that ride the winds up and down the Ruillin. This was a power blacker than any of those men could imagine and a thousand times more seductive; I struggled to wrench my awareness closed, to wrap a thick blanket around my senses, above all not to let my mind stray to the place where that intoxicating song originated. Just before I retreated into my mental cocoon, I felt the arcane circuit complete and felt the ard-righ die. Intoxication fled; revulsion and guilt raced through me in its wake. My own harsh breathing echoed against the dark ceiling and unlit walls. The memory of a sunlit glade threatened to breach the surface of my mind; my palms itched. The place in which I’d slept for the past five years shrank into a prison cell. I threw myself out of bed and dressed, then sat before the dying

Chapter 1


fire and waited for the cannonade that would mark the ard-righ’s death. Poor Athramail. Not even the Prince of the Aballo Order of wizards could have warded off that attack. But that wouldn’t stop the old man from flaying himself half to death with guilt, nor would it necessarily spare his life. And poor Coran: for the next three minutes, or maybe five, a son—and then, forever, an orphan and righ. It is the gravest of cruelties that for a man to ascend the throne, his father must die.

Frigid wind beat against my back as I rode up the mountain to Mourne Palace: making outrageous lies of the Ardan-eve garlands that lay trampled all over the road, sending the tail of my hair forward to flutter like crows’ wings in my peripheral vision. Spring never comes kindly to Ilnemedon; the cold wet wind off the Ruillin persists well into summer, seemingly until the moment when the city turns into a sauna. In ten years I’d grown accustomed to this, but this afternoon the lowering clouds and biting air felt like a portent. Who would choose this holiday for an arcane assault? The first light of spring is a time that favors growth and the seeding of great beginnings, a time so steeped in women’s energy that only emergent need would persuade most wizards to draw power. The death of the ard-righ and the chaos that would ensue couldn’t serve the beginning of anything. Even did one of the other righthe delude himself that he could win the ard-righ’s throne, no Aballo wizard would wield that black power. Even if they would, none of them could master it. A flock of ragged crows haunted the palace as I rode up the final, steep ascent to the gate: perching on the lichen-spotted bastions, wheeling between the parapets and the steel-grey sky. Men on the bastions threw stones at the crows, trying to drive off the ill omen. It was too late for that, of course; and the crows were far from the only thing out of sorts here this afternoon. I didn’t recognize either of the men standing guard at the gate—which I should have expected, as palace security is the responsibility of the tanist, and yesterday’s tanist had become today’s righ. But this afternoon the usual swordsmen at the gate were augmented by flashmen on the wall. Strange days indeed when a royal will stoop to using flash-weapons, even if it’s not his own hand wielding them. Worry for Athramail raced through me again; but a second look at the wall showed me the emerald sparkle of Athramail’s power between the stones, occluded by shadow and invisible to the uninitiated eye. Usually I did my best to ignore the wards, but this afternoon they were a minor comfort: Athramail yet lived, yet held the post of House Healer to Ilesia, despite his failure last night. The new guards challenged me, skittish as a pair of two-year-old racers on their first track. “Good afternoon,” I said, showing them two empty hands but not dismounting. I refused to acknowledge the flashmen on the wall. “I’m Ellion Tellan.” The guards at the gate exchanged nervous glances. Ilnemedon is not a city 16

in which it is wise to offend a stranger, particularly not an armed stranger who is a head taller and several handsbreadths broader in the shoulder than most men of the warrior class. But today, their first day on duty outside an unfamiliar gate, the guards were more afraid of letting the wrong man pass. I could guess at the tallies being conducted behind those nervous eyes: a warrior knows another at a glance, and in this case the problem was complicated by sufficient evidence of wealth that there might be unpleasant consequences for them if they refused me entry in error. The one on the right had the look of a horse about to spook: I kept my hands still, my eyes steady, my attention on the men at the gate rather than the ones on the wall. If one of these two startled, it might well be the flash discharge that reached me first, and in this wind the telltale smell of ozone might not hit me before the bolt did. And I didn’t want to find out whether I’d violate my vow and draw the power necessary to raise an arcane shield, not with the memory of the working that had killed the ard-righ so damnably fresh. “Er—your name’s not on the list. . .” ventured the guard on the left. “Truly?” I retorted. “A list? Where is this thing? The names of all the people who come and go from this place every day would make too long a list for anyone but a bard or a harpist to memorize. So it must be in your pocket. Look again.” Spooked Horse twitched in a way that bespoke a hand about to reach for a sword; reflex sent mine to my own hilt. Immediately Spooked Horse’s partner, a redhead whose nose had suffered more than one encounter with someone’s fist or the pommel of a sword, rushed forward to grasp my horse’s headstall. The beast reared, nervous as usual. Ire flared in me; a senseless hope that one of the flashmen above us would fire came on its heels. “Back away!” I snapped. “I am Ellion Tellan. I am on my way to visit the righ. If you can’t remember your list, go get someone who can.” “What is your business in Ilnemedon?” Spooked Horse rejoined. “My business?” “Tellan’s clear on the other side o’ the world.” I cast him a withering glance. “I live here. For five years now. Unless I miss my guess, you’ve been standing on a wall in Carrickfergus until quite recently. At this rate you’ll be on your way back by nightfall. Open the fouzhir gate!” Spooked Horse half-drew his sword, striding towards me; the redhead reached for my horse’s headstall again. I smelled ozone. Terrible anticipation crackled through me. “Fools!” I glanced towards the voice, through the bars of the gate. Den Donard, who had gone to bed last night as leader of a royal son’s personal contingent and been awakened as First Armsmaster to Ilesia, stood there now, scowling at the guards. I knew I should be relieved, but need tingled in waves across my skin. I willed myself to a semblance of calm. “Damn your empty heads!” Den snapped.“I don’t know how you did things out at Carrickfergus, but if you’re to stand guard duty in Ilnemedon you’ve got to learn to recognize people! That’s the ard-harpist!” The redhead blanched, withdrawing his hand; Spooked Horse flushed and unlocked the gate. 17

“Your pardon, Lord Ellion,” Den said. “The—the righ will be pleased to see you.” I nodded and rode through. “Even Lugh Lámfhada had difficulties getting inside the gate on at least one occasion. But those men are a waste of perfectly good arms.” Den shot them another dark look. “Congratulations, by the way,” I said. Den grinned. “Thanks.” “This doesn’t mean I’ve seen the last of you on the sparring grounds, does it?” “Tell me when you’ll be there, and I’ll strap on my ugliest armor, just for you.”

The seneschal showed me to a sitting room in the royal residence, a space as grey and black as the city outside. No lamps were lit, despite the gloom. Coran Mourne, new righ of Ilesia, ard-righ-apparent, stalked along the curve of the room’s outer wall, crushing a visible path in the intricately woven rug and chewing on a thumbnail. He was already dressed in white, his usually luxurious fall of blond hair cut short in mourning and the righ’s torc with its gleaming eagle-head finials looking uncomfortably tight around his bull neck. He glanced up as I ducked into the doorway, fixing me with eyes that spoke of strategic wheels turning behind them and a need for blood. After a second the tension and grief in his broad face eased. “Ellion!” Coran said, crossing the room to embrace me. “Great Lord Ilesan—” He touched his fingertips rapidly to his lips and heart: an atypically prayerful gesture.“It was good of you to come!” “I’m so sorry,” I said. I clasped Coran tightly. A man’s transition from tanist to righ seems to be even more confusing for the people around him, as if that could be possible. Everyone else would be tentative and withdrawn with Coran for the better part of a twelvenight; I would not be a part of that sudden emptiness. “What happened?” “Cuill—wine. The ard-harpist and I will have wine,” Coran said to the seneschal. The man bowed and withdrew. Coran stepped away and resumed his course around the edge of the room, periodically glancing through the slits at the crows wheeling outside. “The kharr,” he growled. “Naturally, the fouzhir kharr. Athramail thinks it was the Bard’s Wizard who opened the breach.” I nodded. The man called the Bard of Arcadia, the leader of the rebel kharr, had recruited a renegade wizard to his cause. No one knew who the renegade was: the appellation Bard’s Wizard had been inevitable. “It wasn’t—the breach wasn’t in the outer wall,” Coran said, still pacing. “Where, then?” “Here. The residence.” “Fouzh,” I said. The arcane part of the job had been very subtle, unless the Bard’s Wizard were here himself. To work inside another man’s arcane 18

defenses without disrupting them is next to impossible. “Was he captured?” “The assassin? The spy?” Coran shook his head. “The gods granted me no such pleasure. For all I know, the man still walks within these walls.” Coran turned and retraced his steps to the far end of the chamber, his face a map of the methods he would have used to extract every possible scrap of information from his father’s murderer. Suddenly he stopped, looking at me. “Damn it all, where is my head? Ellion, will you sit?” “It’s not necessary—” “Yes.” Coran stared as if his enemy’s name might be written on my forehead. Some decision manifested in his eyes. “I have need of you today, my friend. Let’s sit.” Coran’s footman brought wine: a Vellabori red, unwatered as the new righ preferred it. Its familiar woodsmoke-and-cherries aroma wafted past me as he poured. Coran settled, with exquisite gentleness born of countless broken articles of furniture, into a chair that would have swallowed most men whole; his immense muscular frame made the chair look in perfect proportion to the room. I took up the seat opposite. One of the pleasures of our friendship was time spent in the company of a man with whom it was easy to feel the world was too small, rather than my own size that was amiss: a small moment of rightness in a day that seemed in danger of spinning out of control. I offered the righ a little salute with the glass. “Abu al-righ,” I said, Hail forever. Pain twisted Coran’s face. He drained his glass quickly and refilled it. “I’m sorry,” Coran said, voice gravelly. “The day came far too fast. Let’s not—How about a game of chess?” “Chess?” I echoed. I was tempted to break my long-standing moratorium against looking into other people’s minds. I knew Coran as well as any man; what horrors could I possibly find in there that would outweigh what I carried inside myself? But I’d learned the hard way that knowing too much about what goes on inside other men’s heads makes it difficult to like them. And Coran was the only real friend I’d had in ten years. “If you like,” I said finally. We set up the board in silence. Once we began to play, Coran stopped glancing outside at the crows, and the conversation turned to calmer topics: the arrivals of Coran’s tiarna and other vassals for tonight’s pyre; the expected improvement in the weather in time for the ceremony; the feast being prepared for afterward. Coran was an excellent chess player, but I had seen all his strategies before, and the one he was developing could only be characterized as tired. In five moves, he would land his king’s admiral to the queen’s side, and that would be the beginning of my checkmate. “Of all enemies, a bard,” Coran said. “How does a man defeat a bard? He shouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing at all.” I made a sympathetic noise and moved my king’s knight into position. “Who musters for him?” Coran continued. “Who commands the companies in the field?” He sighed. “Of course it’s not like that.” Out came his queen’s wizard, right on schedule. “No, it isn’t.” The kharr didn’t have a proper army: just spies, and pirates, 19

and farmers and tradesmen who suddenly took up makeshift arms. I saw no honor in any of it, just madness in the name of a false god. I sidestepped the trap awaiting my queen three moves hence and moved a pawn instead. Coran sat back in his chair, surveying the board with a look of disgust, then turned that same look on me. “You already know. Damn you.” He sighed and looked down at the board again, plotting a new strategy. “I shall be grateful to have your sharp eye beside mine, when the time comes to order the strategy at Teamair,” Coran said without looking up. I flinched. Coran was right to be thinking beyond the election of the next ard-righ to the battles the ard-righ must lead, and to expect that he would be the one the righthe chose. But the high throne of the ard-righ of all the nations should have been mine, and it would bypass me through no one’s fault but my own. Finally, realization hit me, with all the force of a charging destrier. I knew what would happen this spring: a Grand Moot. I had known since the ardrigh died. But now I really grasped what a Moot would mean. It would take place on Bealtan Day; my old teacher Amien would summon all the righthe, and probably a number of tiarna, to the Moot grounds outside Teamair. They would all be there, every man I had spent the last ten years avoiding: Amien and Uncle Pariccan; Sanglin and Dandem and every other wizard I knew. I would be summoned, too; and to refuse the summons of the Prince of the Aballo Order means absolute exile. Every man of Tellan would know all the details of my disgrace, and everyone else would soon hear the tale: the untimely death of my parents, the way Uncle Pariccan raised the Tellan tiarna against me and wrested the righ’s torc from my neck. As long as Pariccan failed to produce a male heir, I was, arguably, once again next in line for the Tellan throne; but that would never happen. Tellan memory is longer than that. It would be as if ten years of selfimposed exile had never been. I slumped back and leaned my head against the top of the chair, staring at the shadows on the arched ceiling. “I need you beside me now, Ellion,” Coran said. “You’re the only man in Ilnemedon who can keep me honest.” I laughed. It sounded empty in my own ears. I felt Coran’s gaze on me again: I sat up and met the righ’s eyes. “Listen, I know—Look, there’s no point in discussing ancient history,” Coran continued. “But you and I both know you’re absolutely wasted as a harpist.” “Ah, Coran,” I began, pushing the chair back from the table. “No, really, listen. You are one of the great military minds of our time. You should be ordering the field, not singing about it afterward.” There was no arguing with this truth. I could have ordered both the military and the arcane aspects of the war creeping eastward across the human lands, from the ard-righ’s throne. It was what I had been born to do. “I have decided to grant you the Tiarnate of Louth and the title of ArdTiarn,” Coran said, grey hawk-eyes steady on mine. “And I’d like you to stay on here in Ilnemedon as War-Lord.” Not merely tiarn, but ard-tiarn: Lord Most High. My hand itched for my 20

sword and someone to turn it on; but of course I had surrendered my blade at the palace door. Coran’s affection for me had always been unqualified; he was the one man to whom my undefined status didn’t seem to matter. But the new righ was a proud man. If I didn’t accept the title, the insult might be more than our friendship could bear. And there was no way I could accept. “Hell, you could marry that woman none of us ever meet—What’s her name?” “Laverna,” I said, before I could control the impulse. Shock flashed in Coran’s face: Laverna is a goddess of the old religion, the patroness of whores. I shook my head, rising. “There’s no woman, Coran. It’s kind of you to offer, but you of all men should understand I can’t—” “Can’t what?” Coran’s fair face flushed. “It’s not as if I’m asking you to lay aside a title! That ship has long since sailed!” With a gale-force wind in the tail. But to accept Coran’s offer would remove me irrevocably from the rank of royalty, however dark and ill-explored a corner of that rank I might now occupy. I bowed, throat tight. “I thank you, my lord. Your offer is beyond generous. But what I need you cannot give me, and my presence among your peerage would be nothing but a source of strife.” Coran’s grip on the glass tightened visibly. I wondered remotely whether it would snap. “Hardly more than your presence among my vassals’ wives!” I bowed again. “My military mind remains ever at your disposal—” “If you truly think a deposed righ of an upstart backwater commands more honor than the ard-tiarn of Ilesia, you’re a greater fool than anyone imagined!” An upstart backwater. Only the righ of Ilesia could hold such a view of Tellan, the nation chartered by the goddess Tella Herself. But Coran was angry, and with good reason: I inclined my head. “I’m sorry. I will miss your father—but I have absolute faith in you. I’ll see you this evening.” “Get the hell out.”

The interior of my apartment in the Harpist Gorsedd Hall had grown impossibly dark and confining. I could barely breathe for the staleness of the air. How was it possible I had thought this place comfortable? I stalked through the outer rooms, fighting down the temptation to sweep the stacks of memoranda and correspondence and the half-completed score from my desks, smudged the heel of my hand through the note one of the lords of the gorsedd had scrawled on the slate beside the door, and strode into the private chambers. What insanity had I been pursuing for the past ten years? Where had I gotten the idea that the Harpist Gorsedd was in any way relevant? You should be ordering the field, not singing about it afterward. Even that was only a halfmeasure of approach to the truth. But all the bridges between me and the things that mattered had long since collapsed in fire, and I’d been the one applying the torch. All that was left to me now was to play the role I’d spent these 21

wasted years building. Tradition rather than fashion dictated what I put on for the ceremony: formal mourning white, an uncomfortable color relieved only by the doublehandbreadth of gold that is my right by virtue of royal birth. When I was fully dressed, my hair brushed into a proper fall, I went and stood in front of the wardrobe to stare at the speckle-feathered cloak, the ard-harpist’s mark of office, and work my mind around to accepting the inevitable. There was no question that I must wear the cloak tonight: it was a necessary part of the protocol for representing the Harpist Gorsedd at a state funeral of its host nation. I had spent years earning the right to wear it, and every other man in the gorsedd would mortgage his firstborn for the privilege. But tonight the speckle-feathered cloak felt like a mummer’s costume, not something befitting royalty. How could it embarrass me to wear something other men sacrificed their personal and social lives trying to win? The gods seemed more perverse than usual. At sunset I joined the procession up the mountain, the feathered cloak heavier on my shoulders than a full harness of armor, to witness the dead righ’s cremation and pay my respects to the living one. Coran barely glanced at me: a behavior that, on such a day, wouldn’t have merited a moment’s thought if I hadn’t just turned down the most generous gift a righ could offer a foreign-born man. My heart felt as if it had been replaced by an anvil. The dead righ already lay atop the pyre, surrounded by knights from his personal contingent, when the procession arrived. Airships bobbed in the skies around the summit, the silks of their canopies rippling with the colors of houses whose ranks were insufficient to merit places at the pyre and the fires in their braziers winking against the darkening sky. The competing breezes raised by their windcallers pushed the air of the summit into strange swirls that whispered seduction against the back of my neck. Coran stepped into his proper place at his father’s feet, pale face reflecting exhaustion whose like he’d never shown; his brother Niall, now also his tanist, stood at his right hand, facing south. The tanist’s torc, which until yesterday had graced Coran’s neck, hung loosely about Niall’s slender sinewy throat. I stood well back among the tiarna and other dignitaries of Ilesia, allowing them precedence at the pyre. I could see over the tops of most of their heads, anyway. Athramail stepped into the customary spot for a wizard, facing east, and began calling the fires to the pyre’s compass points. “All glory to Lord Ilesan, by Whose Will the Waters of Chaos quickened into Life,” Athramail sang, wind rippling in his ceremonial robe. He cast fire from his knob-knuckled hand to the wood piled near the ard-righ’s head, igniting the pyre. My palms and fingers tingled. But I must not open myself to power, not ever. “All glory to Lady Tella, by Whose Will the Air of Thought condensed into Form,” Athramail sang. Fire sprang up in the wood at the ard-righ’s feet. Had the goddess been watching me, that last time? Shame erupted inside me. Before my parents’ deaths, before my entire life collapsed, She’d always been watching over me. There was no reason to believe She hadn’t seen everything. She’d certainly had no use for me since. “All glory to Par, Lord of Warriors, Whose glory Conary Mourne served 22

and Whose favor will yet set Conary among the heroes at the Feast Hereafter,” Athramail intoned. Fire sparked at Athramail’s gesture, and for half a second I found myself in Tellan again, standing at the foot of my father’s pyre wishing I were the one who had died. I wrenched myself back into the present. “All glory to Lady Ara, Whose bounty nourishes all Her children.” The pyre blazed yellow and orange, billowing white smoke towards the darkening sky. A short distance away, as deeply buried in the crowd as I, pale-haired round-hipped Findabhair, wife of an important Ilesian tiarn, caught my eye with a significant look. Fatigue washed over me; I closed my eyes. Historically speaking, this wouldn’t have been the most indecorous moment at which I slipped out of a gathering with a wife not my own; but tonight, it just seemed too banal. “A warrior comes to the Great Feast, bedecked with the badges of his battles,” Athramail intoned. I chanted the expected response with the rest of the crowd: “Lords and Ladies, welcome him!” “A lover returns to the One he has missed, bringing stories and songs of glory!” “Lords and Ladies, welcome him!” “May he sit at the Great Feast, ride with the Great Hunt, enjoy the accolades of a true warrior. And may he greet us when we arrive at the Gate!” “Lords and Ladies, welcome him!” Athramail stilled. A silence broken only by the crackling of the fire settled over the crowd. The fire climbed steadily across the well-seasoned wood and engulfed the bier. Within a minute, the ard-righ’s body was no longer visible, and only the fire remained, brilliant yellows and oranges sliding through deep reds and elusive hints of cobalt and green, blazing against indigo sky. Arcane consciousness wrapped stealthy tendrils around my mind, and for a moment I relaxed into it. Then I realized what I was doing and wrenched myself into the ordinary moment, clenching my teeth around profanity. Coran glanced at me, meeting my eyes across the tops of a hundred heads, then returned his attention to the pyre. On the procession back down the mountain, men were already talking about the war in the west and the upcoming Moot. They traded all the same stories my own sources had brought me a twelvenight or more ago, as if they were fresh. My mind slipped forward to the Moot again. It was too easy to imagine what it would be to ride into Teamair for the festival as ard-righ-apparent, to perform the triple sacrifice on Bealtan Eve, to step up to the high throne in the Star Chamber, to order the battle strategies. I would have been the first ard-righ who the wizards of the Aballo Order couldn’t lead by the nose; I would have deployed my resources to consolidate my power, rather than yielding it all up to the Order as ard-righthe always do. But that long-expected future wasn’t coming. Instead, I would be present in the Star Chamber as ard-harpist on Bealtan Day, swearing fealty to Amien with the rest of them, enduring all the cheek-cuts and left-handed comments of wizard and righ alike. How proud my father had been, showing me around Teamair during the Moot at which Conary was elected ard-righ! The stars in my birth chart were 23

clear, and my father had reveled in what they portended, even though the man knew he would already be dead when the day of my election came. How crushed he would have been by the current circumstances, if he were alive. There wasn’t even any comfort in the fact that death had spared my father the humiliation. His death was my fault, too. I couldn’t face the Moot, or the summons that was coming. I couldn’t look any of those people in the face again. There was no possibility of defying the Aballo Prince’s summons—and only one alternative. When Amien’s herald arrived in Ilnemedon after the feast of Estra, the man would find me gone.