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The Children of Kings

A Darkover Novel

Darkover

Marion Zimmer Bradley - Author

Deborah J. Ross - Author

ePub eBook | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781101625828 | 464 pages | 05 Mar 2013 | DAW | 18 - AND UP
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Although the Terran Federation has departed Darkover due to a nasty interstellar civil war, the planet’s location in the galactic arm makes it a prime hideout for smugglers, rebels, and other refugees. When smugglers start arming the warlike Dry Towners with forbidden weapons, Gareth Elhalyn, grandson of Regis Hastur and heir to the throne, takes off on a secret mission to stop them...


Chapter 1

The disk of Darkover’s Bloody Sun had barely risen beyond the walls and towers of Thendara, and icy chill still haunted the shadows. A brisk wind swept the sky clear of clouds. The branches of the trees in the gardens of the Old Town trembled. Lavender and white blossoms unfurled amid the new leaves. The air no longer smelled of old layered ice and sodden wool, but of fresh growing things.

The roads had been open for a tenday, even as far as the Kilghard Hills. Traders reached the city, bringing goods and gossip. The open-air markets offered spring onions and an array of early fruits, a welcome change from boiled roots and porridge.

The rising sun lit the ancient castle of the Comyn where it stood like a city unto itself, with its walls and spires, domes and courtyards, the barracks and training yards of the City Guard, and ballrooms and living quarters for the ruling families when they were in town. A crowd gathered outside the main gates. Their mood was festive, the dark hues of winter garb brightened by garlands of early-blooming ice lilies.

The gates swung open, and a contingent of City Guards came out, clearing an open path. Then came more armed men, mounted on sturdy horses. People waved and someone played a lilting air on a wooden flute. The leader of the Guards smiled and nodded, although his gaze never stopped moving across the assembly, and one hand remained on the hilt of his sword.

Just inside the gates, a second, much smaller group gathered, household servants and a scattering of richly dressed Comyn lords and ladies. In the center of the courtyard, a party of riders mounted up. The horses stamped and snorted, their breath turning into plumes of white vapor. Servants and baggage handlers finished securing the coverings on a laden wagon.

From the shelter of an arched, deep-set Castle doorway, Gareth Marius-Danvan Elhalyn y Hastur watched the preparations for leave-taking. The slanting morning light touched his hair, which had darkened from childhood flaxen to red-gold, and the fine planes of his face, reflecting the compelling masculine beauty of his lineage. His cloak, although of soft lambswool, bore no badge or identifying mark, neither the blue-and-silver fir tree of his Hastur father nor the tree and crown of his royal Elhalyn mother. Neither of his parents was present, having passed the winter at Elhalyn Castle with his younger brother and sister. He was not alone, for he was rarely unattended, either by Castle Guards, personal servants, or the courtiers who lived in Thendara or had journeyed here as soon as the roads were open. Ordinarily, he was so well guarded that he had never yet had occasion to use the sword hanging at his belt except in daily practice. Today, however, no one attempted to draw him into conversation. Perhaps the early hour caused his presence to go unnoticed.

The foremost rider was a man of middle years, the gold of his hair laced lightly with frost. Like the woman beside him, he wore warm, brightly colored travel clothing. His fur-lined cloak draped over the rump of his horse, one of the fabled Armida blacks. He smiled and lifted one hand in greeting to the crowd beyond the gates. They shouted and clapped.

Dom Mikhail! The Regent!”

The woman colored a little. Her horse, a gray of the same fine breeding as her husband’s, pranced and pulled at the bit. She quieted the horse with a touch, and as she did so, the hood of her cloak slipped from her head, revealing a crown of feather-soft, coppery hair.

A sigh swept the crowd outside. The cheers diminished into whispers of awe.

“Lady Marguerida . . .”

Mikhail Lanart-Hastur gave his wife a crooked smile. “They cheer me, but you they offer greater honor. I don’t know whether to be relieved or proud.”

A trick of the acoustics in the courtyard carried their voices to where Gareth stood. He felt as if he were eavesdropping on a private family conversation and wished he hadn’t come. He pressed his back against the stone doorway.

“I wish they wouldn’t,” Marguerida Alton replied in a low voice. “I’d much rather be respected for what I’ve achieved than for the color of my hair. We can’t take a simple vacation without all this fuss.”

“It’s gratitude, preciosa.”

“Mik, the Trailmen’s Fever was two years ago!”

“Darkovans have long memories. Ah, Nico!” Mikhail smiled broadly as his eldest son and heir approached.

At twenty-two, Domenic Alton-Hastur was just a few years older than Gareth. By Comyn standards, he was simply dressed, a jacket crossed by the Alton tartan, and trousers tucked into swordsman’s boots. He laid one hand on the black’s glossy shoulder, looked up at his father, and said with a perfectly serious expression, “It’s not too late to change your minds and turn back from this insanity.”

“Nico!” Marguerida exclaimed, then laughed. “Not us leaving, but you staying to run this place—that’s the real insanity!”

“The Castle is in good hands.” One corner of Mikhail’s mouth twitched. “I have no concerns on that score. We’re in your debt for making it possible for your mother and me to get away at the same time. It’s been far too long since all of us—most of us, anyway—were together at Armida.”

A peculiar sensation, part ache, part something else, tightened Gareth’s chest. He had never doubted the love his own parents had for him, but neither they nor anyone else in a position of power had ever trusted him as much as Mikhail trusted Domenic. It did no good to reiterate that Domenic was older, that he had been trained since childhood to assume the Regency, in addition to the discipline of his season in a Tower.

He has real work, work that matters. Nobody thinks of him as a useless ceremonial appendage.

Yet Gareth could not summon even a shred of resentment against his cousin. Neither of them could help their birth.

He will be Regent and I, the uncrownable King. As Grandfather Regis used to say, if we had wanted another destiny, we should have chosen different parents.

Meanwhile, Mikhail had nudged his horse forward and addressed the throng outside the gates. Pitching his voice to reach to the edges of the crowd, he thanked them and wished them a joyful spring and a bountiful early crop.

“I leave you in the care of my son and heir, Domenic Lanart-Hastur, and his equally capable advisors. I warn you, however, that he is a far sterner taskmaster than I.” At this, everyone laughed. “I bid you farewell until the summer Festival season!”

Mikhail signaled to the Guard captain to proceed. The crowd pulled back as they approached, heading for the road to the Alton family estate at Armida. Marguerida glanced back toward the castle.

“He’ll be fine,” Mikhail said. “Danilo will send word at the least hint of trouble.”

Lifting her chin, she nudged the gray forward until she was even with her husband. The party clattered over the paved street to renewed cheers, and the gates swung shut behind them. The onlookers began to disperse, servants hurrying back to their duties. The nobles milled around, exchanging comments and making sure they were seen as people of importance.

Gareth’s stomach rumbled, reminding him that he had not taken more than a cup of water since arising. Perhaps Domenic, now talking with one of the Castle Guards, might be persuaded to breakfast with him.

One of the minor lords brushed against Gareth’s cloak and drew back, clearly startled. “Your pardon, vai dom! How clumsy of me. I did not notice you standing there!”

Gareth schooled his features into a blandly pleasant smile. There was no point in telling the man to think nothing of it. Even though the Castle was echoingly empty, gossip spread like a Hellers wildfire.

“Gareth Elhalyn went to see the Regent and Domna Marguerida off, can you believe it?”

“Oh, yes, I bumped into him. He was looking very pale indeed.”

“Well, what do you expect—he’s an Elhalyn! He’s probably terrified of his own shadow. They’re all feebleminded when they aren’t insane, the whole nest of them. Remember Prince Derik, a generation ago? As simpleminded as they come. And that business with Gareth after Regis died! You don’t suppose he’s losing what little sanity he ever possessed . . .”

No, his best hope was to avoid a conversation entirely. He inclined his head and murmured, “Excuse me.”

Gareth reached Domenic just as the Guardsman bowed and took his leave.

“Good morning, cousin!” Domenic said with a friendly nod.

Gareth’s grandfather, the legendary Regis Hastur, had been brother to Domenic’s Grandmother Javanne. In his youth, Regis had formally adopted her son, Mikhail, as his heir, trained him for leadership, and kept his promise even when his own son, Gareth’s father, was born. Dani Hastur had chosen a private life over one of public display, so the Regency now passed from Mikhail to Domenic.

“A good morning for everyone, I hope.” Then, feeling he ought to explain his presence, Gareth added, “I came to wish your parents a safe and speedy journey.” The words sounded pretentious, as if the difficulties of the road were subject to his amendment. They had no need of my wishes. Half of Thendara came to cheer them. Why would they pay any attention to me, who did not even speak to them?

Before Gareth could untangle his thoughts, they were joined by an older man who carried himself with the unconscious vigilance of a longtime paxman. Danilo Syrtis-Ardais was the namesake of Gareth’s father and had been his grandfather’s bredu, a term that meant “sworn brother,” but in this case carried more intimate connotations as well, and to this day remained his grandmother’s close friend. Danilo acted as Domenic’s mentor and advisor when he was not traveling about the Domains in search of latent telepaths.

Tío Danilo!” Gareth came, somewhat shyly, into Danilo’s fatherly embrace. They hadn’t seen each other since the last performance of Marguerida’s opera. Danilo lived in his quarters in the Castle when he wasn’t traveling, while Gareth occupied the townhouse that had belonged to Regis.

Danilo thumped Gareth on the shoulder. “You’ve been regular in your sword practice.”

Gareth never knew how to respond to such comments. Did Danilo really think him such a sluggard? Even the most indolent prince must be seen to uphold the tradition of military training. He sparred, he rode, and he racked his brains trying to master both Darkovan and Federation languages. Danilo had encouraged him, as did Grandmother Linnea.

“Good lad.” Danilo turned to Domenic, and Gareth caught the edge of a telepathic question.

Is there more, Nico . . . you sensed . . . ?

Domenic’s eyes narrowed, the movement so subtle that if Gareth had not sensed Danilo’s inquiry, he would not have noticed it.

. . . earth tremors . . .

Gareth’s surprise almost betrayed him. Until recent times, each Domain possessed a characteristic psychic Gift. Now the Gifts no longer bred true, and new ones arose unexpectedly. Domenic’s was one such, the ability to sense geological conditions, although not even Domenic knew whether what he felt arose from the crustal layers or deep within the planet. Perhaps the Gift was genetically linked to his dark hair, unusual for the offspring of a blond and a redhead.

Earth tremors, Gareth repeated to himself. He had studied a little planetology but could not remember any references to seismic activity in the Domains.

As if in answer to Gareth’s thought, Domenic pitched his voice low and bent toward Danilo. Gareth caught a few phrases: “Superficial . . . could be impact . . . if I didn’t know otherwise . . .”

“. . . not the Federation . . . no signals . . . Jeram’s radio project . . .”

Gareth knew of the Terranan renegade, Jeremiah Reed, who had remained on Darkover when the Federation departed and had taken the name Jeram. Their paths had not crossed, except for public events like the Midsummer Festival ball. Jeram had set up a radio listening post, using the abandoned equipment at the old Federation Headquarters.

“Let me know . . . happens again.” Danilo turned and nodded to Gareth in much the same way Gareth might dismiss a child. The two men headed for the city gate, heads inclined together, voices low.

Gareth schooled his features to reflect nothing of what he felt. He should be used to such treatment. If he ever expected to be taken seriously, to be treated with respect, then he himself must behave in a responsible manner.

“Your Highness? Is anything amiss?”

Gareth’s attention snapped to his immediate surroundings. Two courtiers peered at him from a respectful distance. One of them, a Vistarin of Temora, was newly arrived in Thendara and had not yet built a reputation. The man had a little money from his family’s salt trade and not a trace of laran. His companion, on the other hand, had been a minor fixture in Comyn society for as long as Gareth could remember. Stout and dressed unflatteringly in fur-trimmed yellow satin, Octavien MacEwain was always trying to insinuate himself into Gareth’s confidence.

“I was merely contemplating the vastly reduced evening amusements without Domna Marguerida’s musical compositions,” Gareth said with deliberately affected blandness. “Lady Bruna was the jewel of the season.”

“Her absence leaves us all poorer,” the Vistarin lord said.

“And yet . . .” Octavien cut in smoothly, “within every disappointment lies opportunity.”

Octavien’s features betrayed nothing of his purpose, but Gareth had grown up in the treacherous and convoluted world of Comyn politics. What Octavien meant was that the absence of the Regent would be an excellent time for Gareth to assert his claim to the throne. Next, he would suggest that although no one had anything to say against young Domenic, the Council would surely support a legitimate king over a mere Regent’s son. The Regency, begun two generations ago by Danvan Hastur, was never intended as a permanent transfer of power.

He thinks I’m sane enough to be crowned and weak enough to be controlled.

“Oh,” Gareth said airily, “I’m sure we can all find something with which to amuse ourselves.” With a suitably arrogant lift of his chin, he turned and headed for the nearest exit, which happened to be the gate leading to the city.

Not ten paces beyond the Castle walls, Gareth realized he was shaking. The back of his throat tasted of stomach acid, and his temples throbbed. The thought of food nauseated him, but he ought to eat something. Grandmother Linnea would know the moment he arrived for his lesson if he neglected the most basic self-care.

Gareth paused at a corner food stall where a red-cheeked woman stood over a small copper pot set on a portable brazier. The pot gave off the tantalizing aromas of sweet oil and fried dough. The clawing sensation at the back of Gareth’s throat eased. His mouth watered, and his spirits lifted.

The woman used a long wooden skewer to fish out braided, palm-wide pastries, which she rolled in crystallized honey before placing them, steaming and fragrant, on a cooling rack.

“Apple buns, fine sir?”

Gareth bought two, wrapped in paper. Beneath the crisp shell, the buns were moist with bits of fruit and lightly seasoned with spicebark. The taste reminded him of Midwinter Festival treats. The apples had probably been stored since last fall, and the resourceful baker had carved out every useful bit.

From the dregs comes treasure.

“Vai dom,” came a man’s voice, heavy with long-suffering forbearance. “If you please, you should not be here alone.”

Here meant out in the open, mingling with the populace. Alone meant without his bodyguard.

Nursemaid would be more like it.

Irritation flared, fueled by smoldering resentment. Gareth immediately regretted both. Narsin had served the Elhalyn family since before Domna Miralys, Gareth’s mother, was born. The old man would have given his life for any one of them and did not deserve to be the target of Gareth’s foul temper.

“I am sorry if my impulsiveness caused you distress,” Gareth said. “As you see, I am in no danger. Truly, it was not necessary for you to leave the house at such an hour simply because I wished to stretch my legs on this fine morning.”

Cragged brows tensed. The old man set his lips together, but Gareth understood his meaning.

It is neither safe nor seemly for the heir to the crown of the Seven Domains to be wandering around without an escort. Don’t tell me you can defend yourself as well as the next man. Even a swordmaster can be taken unawares.

So Narsin had said a hundred times. Even as a boy, Gareth understood that an ordinary man had more freedom than a prince. And a prince who had once made a fool of himself in front of the Comyn Council must accept the consequences of his actions: suspicion and constant surveillance.

“Very well, then,” Gareth said, “but don’t hover at my elbow, glaring at every passer-by. There are no World Wreckers abroad this morning.”

Without waiting for a response, Gareth headed back toward Comyn Castle, but slowly enough so that the old man could easily keep pace. It was early for his lesson with Grandmother Linnea, but he badly wanted to be off the streets. At the moment, he felt he’d had all he could tolerate of being watched over and whispered about.

There were no longer any World Wreckers, or any saboteurs, undercover agents, or Federation forces of any sort remaining on Darkover. Except, of course, the very few, like Jeram, who had stayed behind out of loyalty to Darkover when the Terrans withdrew their forces.

Gareth lifted his face to the sky, trying to imagine what it must be like out there, in the vast reaches of space. Darkover was an insignificant planet, considered irredeemably primitive by the Federation. Only its strategic location on the galactic arm, and then later its potential for exploitation, had granted it any status. Even that could not justify the Terranan presence once the Federation erupted into interstellar war.

What was going on up there? Who was winning, who losing? Darkover had had few enough allies in the Senate, even before the war. And will they ever come back?

When they do, we will be ready for them. So Gareth had sworn more times than he could count. Now the words sounded hollow. If the Federation returned, with its advanced technological weapons, determined to seize whatever it wanted, who could stop them? And how?

Since childhood, Gareth had been drilled in the importance of the Compact, the ancient code of honor that forbade the use of any weapon that did not bring the wielder within equal risk. In many ways, the Compact was the soul of Darkover, of the Domains, anyway. The Dry Towns had never sworn to it, but their inhabitants did not possess laran.

Laran. As the rambling complex of walls and towers of Comyn Castle came into view, Gareth tried to imagine a world without laran. Darkover was unique in the strength and prevalence of psychic powers, powers that, when amplified by the psychoactive matrices called starstones, were capable of everything from sensing the emotions of another, to healing mind and body, to charging batteries that could light a castle or power an airship . . . or bring one crashing down.

The Terranan had thought the Compact the superstition of a primitive race. They had not realized it was aimed not at their own technology but at the far more devastating weaponry of the mind.

Once, Gareth had been taught, laran warfare had raged unchecked across the face of Darkover. Many of the techniques had been lost, and most people thought it better that way.

But if the Federation comes back, our laran may be the best defense we have.


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