Kendra rose from the table along with everyone else, as the servants started to clear the plates and serving platters away. The dinner had been full of memories for her. She recalled when she had sat at the high table with the duke, presiding over dinners and entertainments, parties and ceremonies. The celebrations among the Siizhayip were seldom as elegant as a formal dinner in Plethiss, but those formal dinners were seldom as wildly exuberant as even the smallest Siizhayip gathering.
The tables were cleared away, except for the one holding the desserts, everything from syllabub to delicate pastries, from cakes to marzipan molded in fanciful shapes. The musicians in the gallery on the second floor, overlooking the hall, began to play dance tunes, and a section of the hall cleared as couples and sets gathered. And, when the music came around to the beginning, the dancing started.
Kendra watched the revelry from a spot by the wall. She noticed Nikorah leave the hall, and she saw her son Bralidan leave a while later. She watched the dancers, she watched the musicians, she watched the nobles talking to each other in constantly shifting groups. But most of all, she continued to delay making her decision.
Eventually, Duke Bralevant would reappear, and the delegation from the Siizhayip would be summoned to the formal audience chamber again. And once he made his decision known — once he denied the petition to grant access to the Rihelbak Plains to the Siizhayip — then she would be too late. The mission she had been set by the Elder Speakers to ensure, by whatever means required, that the Treaty of Rihelbak was canceled, would be over. Unless she acted first.
Finally, Kendra left the room. Too much noise, too much revelry — whatever the reason, she couldn’t think in there. Her feet instinctively traced a path to a location that was almost guaranteed to be isolated, and she found herself atop the outer wall of the mansion’s defenses, looking out across a landscape brightly lit by the light of both moons to the village which rested at the foot of the hill that Plethiss stood on.
She pulled a small phial out of her belt pouch and stared at it. It had been secreted inside a puzzle box that morning, awaiting her assessment of the need for its use. Duke Bralevant had to die, and she had to kill him. And she still didn’t know if she could do it.
If it had meant only killing a man, she would have had no qualms, even if that man was someone she had loved once. Even if that man was the father of her only child. Death was a natural part of life on the steppes. The herds had to be thinned for the good of all life on the steppes. Sometimes, even the grasses had to die, had to be burned, in order for new life to continue.
But killing Duke Bralevant wasn’t a sure solution. The Elder Speakers believed that the duke’s successor would grant access to the Rihelbak Plains. But that successor was her son, Bralidan. Who was in love with, and loved by, Nikorah. If Bralidan had to become duke, then the love between Nikorah and him was doomed, just as the love between her and Bralevant had been doomed. The Siizhayip couldn’t live for long within the stone walls that the Kuizhack, the People of the Stone, seemed to require. Bralidan, as duke, would never be able to leave Grahk, and Nikorah could never leave the steppes.
Beyond that, of course, was the question of whether Bralidan would really rescind the Treaty of Rihelbak. Being in love with a Siizhayip didn’t necessarily mean understanding the Siizhayip. And even though he had Siizhayip blood in him, Bralidan had been raised to be his father’s heir.
There was the essence of her dilemma. Was killing Bralevant really the only means of gaining the extra territory that the Siizhayip needed to sustain their growing numbers? Would the duke’s death actually grant them the Rihelbak Plains?
Kendra held the phial of poison in her clasped hands and raised her eyes to the sky. She called out into the darkness, “Oh Great Anhilizharnoh, speak to me. Give me guidance, grant me wisdom. Tell me, am I doing your will?”
She waited, her heart and mind open, knowing she wasn’t a shaman, knowing she wasn’t a Speaker either. Two heartbeats of silence passed, and then the sky changed.
Something was different. She looked around, and saw that Wykuza’s Attendant, the smaller of the two moons, was on fire.
The Siizhayip believed that Wykuza was one of the Sky Lords, the Anhilizharnoh. She was embodied by the larger moon. Her Attendant, the smaller moon, was a lesser Sky Lord, a servant to the rest. When the long spear of flame shot from one side of the Attendant, the Siizhayip believed that the servant was entertaining its master.
But in this case, it meant something more, at least to Kendra it did. Even though she wasn’t a shaman or a Speaker, she knew that Wykuza’s Attendant was telling her that she was doing the right thing. She couldn’t have asked for a clearer sign.
She bowed her head over her still-clasped hands, and said a prayer of thanks to the Anhilizharnoh. Then she turned away from the spectacle in the sky and set herself to completing her mission.
Kendra’s first destination was the great hall. When she reentered it, she was surprised to find it almost totally quiet. No music, no dancing, no chattering nobles. Everyone was clustered around two people in the center of the room.
She moved closer, and saw that those people were her son, Bralidan, and his brother Biralvid. The room was quiet enough that she could hear what was being said.
Biralvid said, “What?” His face, that looked so much like Bralevant’s, wore a look of utter disbelief.
Bralidan said, slowly and clearly, “I want to abdicate my position as heir to you.”
Biralvid shook his head. “You can’t be serious. Why would you want to do something stupid like that?”
Bralidan just smiled. He said, “Because I have finally admitted what I have known all along: I don’t want to be duke. I might make a passable ruler of Grahk, with hordes of counselors and advisers surrounding me and essentially making my decisions for me. But you, brother, you have the makings of an excellent duke. We took the same classes, learned the same things. But beyond that learning, there is an instinct in you that is not in me. I want to correct the accident of the order of our birth. That’s all.”
Biralvid looked around at the assembled nobles and visitors, somewhat nervously. Kendra thought she saw a change come over him as he stood there and surveyed his listeners. He straightened up, and the general air of party attendee he displayed evaporated into a more serious expression, one of studiousness and concentration.
He said, “Bralidan, you can’t just do this on a whim. There have to be reasons. Good reasons –”
“Yes, I know. And aside from the very good reason, to me at least, of my incompetence for the position, there is also the reason that I am leaving Grahk to go live on the steppes with my intended mate, Nikorah.” Bralidan glanced over his shoulder at the blond Siizhayip and smiled.
Biralvid shook his head. “Those aren’t acceptable reasons, brother. As happy as I am for you and our pretty visitor, these are still whims. The law doesn’t allow for whims, and you know it.”
“You are beginning to sound like father,” Bralidan said, a hint of disdain in his voice. “Tradition reserves this law for only the most serious of circumstances, like a crippling accident, or a mortal wound on the battlefield. However, if you recall the letter of the law, no such stipulations exist. The means for transfer are set down, but no restrictions on the reason. I suppose that our ancestors felt no one would simply wish to give up their position voluntarily.”
Biralvid was silent for a moment, and then a smile spread across his face. “You are correct, brother. So much of our heritage is tradition, based on how it was always done, that I let those traditions color my memory of that law. It seems that the only way I could get you to remain heir would be by refusing to participate in the ceremony.” Biralvid paused, then continued with a laugh, “Which I won’t do. I accept your reasoning, and will accept your role. Begin the ceremony. We have plenty of witnesses.”
Kendra watched the ceremony of transfer begin with elation. She had trusted to the Anhilizharnoh, and they had been right. Her son, who had found love with Nikorah, would not be trapped by her actions. And Bralidan felt his younger brother would make a good duke. She only hoped that Biralvid would be the kind of duke who was sympathetic to the Siizhayip’s problems. But that was for the future that she was on her way to create.
Kendra quietly walked over to the dessert table and grabbed a bottle of wine and two stone cups. She left the great hall and started walking toward the ducal quarters. Halfway there, she stopped for a moment in order to empty the phial into the wine. She continued on her way, taking another moment to drop the empty phial down a garderobe. Finally, she arrived at her destination and knocked on the door.
Osirek opened it as usual. He said, “Oh, ah … greetings, Lady Kendra. I don’t believe the duke was expecting you. He is just about ready to return to the great hall for the formal announcement …”
“Yes, yes, I know,” she said, pushing her way into the antechamber. It was normally Osirek’s job to keep unwanted people out of that antechamber, so Kendra could only assume that either he was still more used to her being a resident, as she had been twenty-five years ago, than a visitor, or she was not an unwanted guest. She continued, “I have some business with the duke that has a bearing on the announcement. Why don’t you go on down to the party? I’m sure that any last moment preparations Bralevant requires won’t be beyond my skills.”
Osirek protested, but it didn’t take much to persuade him to take his leave. Once the personal aide had left, Kendra took a deep breath and walked through the reception room and once again into the duke’s quarters.
Duke Bralevant stood in front of a silver-backed mirror that stood on the floor in an ornately carved wooden frame. He was carefully inspecting his clothing and how it fit. Kendra said, just slightly dryly, “Your tailor continues to outdo himself, Alev. Your new clothes look quite nice.”
Bralevant turned and smiled, still posing as if for the mirror. He said, “Ah, welcome, Kendra. You’ve left your decision quite late, haven’t you? I must admit that I had almost given up on you. What made you change your mind?”
Kendra wasn’t surprised that the duke assumed she was here to give in to his demands. What other reason could he expect her to have for visiting him in his quarters like this? She played on his expectations, and said, “You left me no choice, did you? I waited until after dinner, just in case, but finally I had to surrender to the inevitable.”
Bralevant walked over to her, smiling in a smug way. He took the wine bottle and cups out of her hands and said, “I suppose that your status as my soon-to-be mate excuses the rudeness of your lack of enthusiasm. At least you brought something to celebrate with. Shall we drink a toast to our joining before I go downstairs to cancel my planned announcement?”
Kendra forced a smile, and said, “Of course, Alev. But why cancel your announcement? I thought that if I agreed to your terms, you would cancel the treaty.”
Bralevant had taken the bottle over to a small table set beneath one of the windows in the bedroom. He opened and poured the tainted wine, then carried the cups back to where Kendra was standing before replying. “Of course I will cancel the treaty now … but not before we are joined. It will have to be a temporary joining at first, of course. We can’t hold the proper krovelathan ceremony until the summer solstice, and that’s still a month away. Once your capitulation is official, I will honor my side of the bargain. But not before.
“So, drink up! Drink to tomorrow, when your delegation will get what it came for. Drink to tonight, when I get what I want. Drink to the future, and may our future together fare better than our past together.”
Bralevant grinned a self-satisfied grin and drained his cup in one gulp. Kendra could see the triumph in his eyes. She knew that he thought he had completely fooled her. He had always underestimated her. Like when he had been carrying on with Omelli, thinking that he could keep it from her. Kendra might have been raised in a way that he considered barbarian, but she was no fool and she had come to know him very well.
She pretended to drink to his toasts, but didn’t let even a drop pass her lips. The poison was powerful, and she wanted to be there when her son and Nikorah were paired. Bralevant walked back to the table and poured another cup of wine, and downed it in three long swallows.
He said over his shoulder, while pouring a third cup of wine, “I should get downstairs now, Kendra. They’re holding back the best of the evening’s entertainment until I’ve made my speech. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable on the bed and … uhn!” Bralevant grimaced in pain, and staggered slightly against the table.
Continuing to play her part, Kendra said, with as much false concern as she could muster, “Are you all right, Alev?”
The duke set the bottle and cup back on the table and turned around, a look of confusion on his face. He said, “I … uh, I don’t … ah!” Another grimace was followed by him doubling over, clutching at his stomach. He knocked into the table in the process, and the wine bottle teetered, and then fell over. Wine spilled out as the bottle rolled to the edge of the table, and fell to the floor with a crash of shattered glass.
Bralevant’s confusion was short lived. Kendra saw his head lift, pain still in his eyes as they stared into hers. “You!” he hissed between clenched teeth. “Poison! How could you?!”
“It’s only one life, Alev,” she said calmly. She didn’t actually feel as calm as she sounded, though. Death she could accept, but this was almost like torture. But she wasn’t doing this for revenge, or for any personal reasons. She was acting for the Elder Speakers, and she wanted to carry herself in a suitable manner.
Bralidan straightened up and started toward her. His feet splashed through the spilled wine, and Kendra stared at the puddle around his feet with an odd fascination. She wasn’t worried; judging from his reaction at the table, the poison was even stronger than she had guessed and he would surely succumb to it any moment.
He was on her before she realized that he wasn’t falling down. His hands closed about her neck and began strangling her with startling alacrity. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She wasn’t supposed to be part of the sacrifice. She had things to live for. Her son was getting paired!
Kendra looked into Bralidan’s mismatched eyes, blue and brown, staring with a murderous intent into her own eyes. She saw his struggle with the pain of the poison, and his fight to stay alive long enough to take her with him.
She drew her knife and thrust it into his chest as her vision began to narrow. She struggled to breathe, but the duke’s hands were clutched tight around her neck. She started to kick and scratch him when it was obvious that the knife in his chest wasn’t hampering his efforts to strangle her, but nothing had any effect.
Finally, the light went out in Bralevant’s eyes, but it happened too late. The duke was dead, but Kendra found that she was too weak to pry his hands from her throat. She tried — it wasn’t in her to give up — but it was so hard to lift her arms. And then once her hands were hooked over his wrists, she couldn’t manage to pull. Too little, too late.
Her last thought was that she had been wrong: it hadn’t been only one life, it had taken two.
Bralidan thought that Biralvid looked good sitting on the throne in the main audience chamber, wearing the ducal coronet. Bralidan stood just behind the rank of Siizhayip, who stood before the Duke of Grahk, awaiting the resolution of their petition.
Bralidan reflected that he had done the perfect thing in abdicating his position as heir to his brother that night. The night his father, and the mother he never knew he had, had killed each other.
He remembered how Osirek had come running into the great hall, crying “He’s dead, he’s dead!” Bralidan had known who Osirek meant even before the personal aide had been calmed down enough to speak rationally. Both Bralidan and his brother had raced to their father’s quarters to find two dead bodies: the duke and Kendra. For some reason, Bralevant had strangled Kendra, and it looked as if her futile struggles to free herself had resulted in the duke’s death in turn.
Bralidan had been grief-stricken at the death of his father. Biralvid, despite his own grief, had taken up his duties as heir quickly and competently. The investigation that followed was brief, but as thorough as possible. The evidence was clear, even more so when Osirek revealed that Kendra had once been the duke’s wife and was the mother of Bralidan. Their history, in addition to the tenseness of the situation with the Siizhayip delegation, led to obvious conclusions about the motives involved. Biralvid could have summoned a diviner to determine the actual facts of the case, but he didn’t see the need to send a rider all the way to the next duchy and wait for their diviner to make the return trip. No one objected when Biralvid closed the matter.
The duke’s funeral had been carried out in full Fretheod ceremony. Bralevant had been interred with all of the other rulers of Grahk, in the section of the catacombs beneath Plethiss that were still fulfilling their original purpose instead of housing the archives. Bralidan had said farewell to his father in proper Fretheod fashion and had felt better afterwards.
Kendra’s funeral had been held outside the walls of Plethiss, in proper Siizhayip fashion. Her wrapped body had been placed on a raised platform, where it had lain for three days while mourners draped embroidered or painted farewell cloths over the edges of the frame. Then a fire was built under the platform, and Kendra’s body and all of the farewell cloths were burned amid invocations of and offerings to the Sky Lords.
The ceremony was unfamiliar to Bralidan, but moving anyway. He had never known his real mother, and hadn’t had much opportunity to get to know Kendra, but the manner of Siizhayip mourning still managed to help him deal with her loss.
Biralvid had been confirmed as duke soon after the funerals. There had been no opposition; everyone had seen the abdication ceremony at the dinner. Two days had passed while the new duke sorted out the affairs of Grahk: appointing a castellan, confirming counselors, affirming fealty among the nobles. And just as soon as he was able to, Duke Biralvid made an appointment with the Siizhayip delegation.
Bralidan listened while Nikorah restated the petition of the Siizhayip delegation. Her words were well-rehearsed, and had been refined over the last week and more through practice and his help. But the essence of them remained simple: return the Rihelbak Plains to the Siizhayip.
Duke Biralvid stood when Nikorah had finished, and stepped down from the small dais the throne rested on. He strode toward the delegation, and stopped in front of them. He placed one foot on the white-banded orange rug, which had been explained to Bralidan, and thence to his brother, as a symbol of petition. The foot placement was the proper gesture in response to a petition.
Biralvid said, “I wish to apologize to this delegation for the actions of my father, both in keeping you all here much longer than should have been necessary, and for taking the life of one of your number.
“My apology, though, has no bearing on my decision on your request. If I thought that granting your petition was not in the best interest of the duchy, all of the regrets in the world would not suffice to sway my response.
“However, this is not the case. The Rihelbak Plains add nothing except territory to Grahk, and it is territory that we do not need. So, I hereby revoke and renounce the Treaty of Rihelbak.”
An aide walked up to Biralvid then, carrying a scroll box carved with the seal of Grahk. The duke opened the box and removed the scroll within. As the aide walked away again, Biralvid slipped the metal seal off of the scroll and unrolled it. He displayed it to the delegation, and to the assembled nobles behind them: it was the genuine treaty.
Biralvid then tore the parchment in half. Another aide came up to him on the other side, carrying a smoldering brazier. The duke dropped the halves of the scroll into the brazier, where it caught fire and was reduced to ashes.
That aide left as well, and the duke said, “The Rihelbak Plains are once again free to the Siizhayip. Your petition is granted.”
Bralidan joined in the cheering that began. Nikorah turned around and leapt into his arms, and her kiss silenced him. They were soon separated by people offering congratulations on the delegation’s victory, and Bralidan began to contemplate what his life was going to be like out on the Great Steppes with this wonderful woman. He didn’t know, but he couldn’t wait to find out.