for Sanj, in the Yuletide
Baerd saw his second riselka on an ember night in Certando, in a quiet place by the banks of a river. He was twenty-four.
One man saw a riselka.
Baerd di Tigana bar Saevar was fourteen when the Emperor Brandin of Ygrath ripped the name <I>Tigana</I> from the fabric of the world. When the towers of the city Avalle in Tigana fell, Avalle that was not Avalle but Stevanien, in a country not called Tigana - because Tigana never existed - but Lower Corte. Avalle-that-never-was, his city, of the white stone and the sparkling sea and the poet's songs, where the god Adaon rose from sea to lie with Micaela at the dawn of the world's turning.
There is no name for the grief of a land unnamed. No word for a city lost, for songs unsung and memory unmade and love misformed.
There were names in plenty for Baerd on the streets of Stevanien. Too young to fight and die on the banks of the Deisa where Valentin of Tigana stood against the Emperor himself and lost, he was too old not to drink to the full the bitter dregs of a conqueror's draught. "You," though, was the name Baerd answered to most often in the dark days of Tigana's fall, the days of loss scrabbled from the rubble of a broken land, where the children screamed dying on the death-wheels of Ygrath and comfort came only in the darkest part of the night.
There were no words for that comfort, either, that can be spoken aloud.
He was fifteen and it was summer when he left for Asoli, which is a hard land in damp or rain but not unwelcoming to strangers. Sixteen and a man when he took the Duke's Highway, through the foothills of Ferrault and across the plains of Certando. Seventeen when he came, following whispers in the dark and living on hope, to Quilea south of the mountains.
Quilea, where the year-king fights and dies hobbled in the sacred grove: where the priestesses are whore and wife and crone all at once: where there is a stage on every street corner and every child learns artifice at their mother's knee. He was poor, and young, and handsome.
Bathed and robed in white he stood before the court and swore his oath not to the year-king on his antlered throne but to the queen on hers. They ask no more than a year, in Quilea. He spent it in the courts of the High Priestess' Guard.
After the first bout they struck his name from the training lists and gave him to Marius in the inner yards. He learned, that a sword wielded with thought is more effective than a sword wielded with force, and that a blade is not the only weapon a man can possess.
It took six months, but the day Baerd won on the practice field was the day Marius said, 'I know only one other man who can do that.'
It is forbidden, the sacred grove. But Baerd had learned by then that a priestess is a woman under her robes and that a man never tells everything he knows, and when the blue moon Ilarion rose he was standing under the twenty-seventh tree of the grove listening to the sound of Tregean pipes playing cold and high a tune he learnt in his cradle.
It was a long road and a hard one from the sacred grove to Tregea, to Astibar, to Senzio: to Ferrault and to Asoli and down the coast to Corte and back, following not a prince's revenge but a memory of freedom. This man; a tune whistled in a wood at night; the turn of a woman's vowels; a farmer's planted fields aligned to the course of the moons; a knack in carving the head of a staff. A redheaded guardsman; a noble; a shepherd in the foothills of Parravi with the sword-galls still on his fingers; a woman in Certo who told her children stories of princes, not kings. The rags and shreds, not of a country, but of a desire for nothing less than liberty. Thoughts and memories shared, each woven into the pattern, each with their own gifts and skills. People with dreams, shaped as fine as a stone under the last touch of the chisel, poised as carefully as a sculptor's first blow. Alessan's army gathered and held in the palm of his hand.
A hard lesson for Baerd to learn, that killing was not enough for this prince of Tigana.
Swordplay, yes. Valentin's youngest son, this prince: they'd told tales of him in the inns of Avalle when there had been time for wine and tales and men to tell them. He'd expected that .
He had not expected the music. There had been no music in Tigana since Valentin fell at Deisa, but Alessan played as if the god Morian guided his fingers: the lute, the pipes he'd had in Quilea. In Corte, once, a ladies' clavichord with the owner hanging over his shoulder and turning the pages of the music with pretty ringed fingers.
The women, of course. Valentin's son. A soap merchant's daughter in Astibar, a player in Ortiz, a maid in Ardin with a sweet smile and a rare hand with spicecake.
There were many who would not forget Alessan of Tigana from these years, the years of gathering. Minstrels, merchants, beggars: Baerd and he were friend to all and more, crossing and re-crossing the roads of the peninsula of the Palm. They made an army, and they looked for a wizard. How could they not? For it was magic that felled Valentin at the river and tore his name and that of their country from the words of the world. Brandin's magic, cast in grief and rage at the death of his son and held more tightly even than he held Ygrath, his empire over the sea.
For Alessan, always, on what was a very long road, there was music.
For Baerd? Some nights Baerd dreamed. Some he walked, alone.
Some nights he killed.
One night, by the banks of a river, he saw a riselka.
Baerd's second riselka. The first time, he left his family, his sister Dianora, his city, his country, his father's statues, the white stones of his heartland. The second time he found something he did not know he sought.
The third time - No. A man's third riselka is a different story altogether.
This was his second, on an ember night, in Certando. He was twenty four.
He would never recall how he came back to the castle. Alienor's castle, Castle Bora. There must have been a path, a postern gate, keys, none of them remembered. What he could remember was the feel of the bronze door ring under his hand, the fall of a footstep, the quiet closing of a door, over the sound of a man's breath drawn in sharp through his teeth.
In the window, a man's shape blocked out the stars. For a moment, Baerd saw a stranger, no one he knew, as unfamiliar as a new language. And then the man turned his head and was Alessan.
Who should have been as familiar as his own right hand, and was not.
Tonight, he had seen a riselka. It changed everything.
It was not the first time Baerd had come into a room at night, late at night, and found his prince waiting for him. But tonight was different. The taste of memories was fresh in his mouth and the words he could not say were knotted in his stomach. He crossed the room in silence, and did not stand shoulder-to-shoulder to stare down the stars but leaned against the wall, looking down.
Tigana's prince. Not beautiful. Not crowned. They shared a common tongue, perhaps, and some moments of swordplay. Sometimes they might be friends. Little enough, for ten years.
Alessan had never asked him where he walked at night.
Baerd thought his life as fragmented as the Palm itself. Sometimes he thought the only thing that held it together was this man and tonight, he might lose him too. In the seeing of his first riselka he had lost his mother, his sister, his lover, his home: people and places strangers to him now.
He could smell starlight, and the lavender laid among the bed linen, and the scent of a woman. Alienor's scent.
Then Alessan turned his head again to the window and he could see, almost black in the pale light, the mark of Alienor's teeth on his neck. A fresh bite, and not gentle.
It has been like this before, but it had never hurt like this before, a sudden bright pain as if it was Baerd himself so marked.
"This is not comfort," Baerd said. The words were slow, and his mouth tasted the shape of them.
"Of a kind, it is still love," Alessan said.
He forgot, sometimes, that for Alessan there had been no Dianora to hold the night at bay, to offer comfort with the scent of her skin and the warmth of her hair. A broken, twisted love, but love all the same.
There had been a letter from the sanctuary. From the old Queen: written in blood, speaking only of revenge and passion. On nights like these, Alessan burned bright and dangerous as marsh-fire, sharp as the point of a blade, and Baerd who had discovered years ago that in all the lands of the Palm this one man alone still carried the weight of his joy and could thus wound as no other man, had pled fatigue and left to walk the night. It was not the first time he had left Alessan and Alienor to the last glass of blue wine, alone.
Baerd had always known the lady and his lord shared more than a guest-platter. He could walk away. Tonight, he chose not.
Tonight, the pain was too sharp, and his own memories bright and new, combed out of the night and laid bare under the eyes of a single riselka.
"Oh my dear," Baerd said, and reached out.
He had learned over the years to offer comfort with his own body and to take it where offered from strangers. He meant perhaps nothing more than the solace of touch, but under his hands Alessan's body shivered and his breath caught, as if Alienor had roused and left unsatisfied a hunger the man seldom let go unreined.
And so it was in the ashes of an ember night, in the gray before dawn, that Baerd di Tigana bar Saevar and Alessan di Tigana bar Valentin first shared more than a bed. Ten years in coming, that moment, although neither of them had guessed it.
Does it need to be explained, the touch of skin on skin, the rewriting of memory? The astonishment of pleasure torn from pain, slow and gentle as the summer sea lapping at the steps of Adaon's temple?
Does it need to be said, that in Alessan's body spread under his Baerd found a homecoming he had neither expected nor asked for? That in Baerd's voice Alessan found the lost syllables of his own tongue, that between them lay a passion, a country, that neither would ever forget?
When he was thirty-four, and older, and wiser, Baerd won a war for his prince. More than one war, although the battle he fought in the cornfields of Certando was not quite the same war as the one he fought on the crest of a hill in Senzio, any more than the battle he fought over the freedom of Erlain di Senzio was the same as the battle he fought with himself over the love of a man he could never have and a woman he could.
But if something is remembered it can never be truly lost.