Banner of the Damned
Princess Lasva is about to be named heir to her childless sister, the queen. But, when the queen finally bears an heir, Lasva's future is shattered. Grief-stricken, she leaves her country of Colend and falls into the arms of Prince Ivandred of Marloven Hesea. His people are utterly different-with their expertise in riding, weaponry, and magic- and the two soon marry.
When the sensational news makes its way to Lasva's sister, the queen worries for Lasva at the hands of the Marlovens, whose king's mage is in league with the magical land of Norsunder-considered by Colendi to be their enemy. The queen orders Emras, a scribe, to guard Lasva.
But it may be too late-Lasva is already deeply involved with the Marlovens and their magic. War wages on, and all are forced to redefine love, loyalty, and power...
Of the Scribes’ First Rule
The scribes have three rules.
First Rule: Do not interfere.
Second Rule: Keep The Peace.
Third Rule: Tell the truth as we see it.
I can see your ironic faces, those of my judges who know that I began life as a scribe. This, my defense testimony, shall show how I tried not to interfere, that I meant to keep The Peace; and I will reveal the means that enables me to tell the absolute truth.
I will begin with the first important day of my life, just before the Hour of Daybreak, the spring I turned fourteen.
While Princess Lasthavais Lirendi—known to everyone in Colend from queen to shepherd as Princess Lasva— danced happily off to bed after her triumphant introduction to court in the grand ballroom, I awoke in a different part of the royal palace: the attic chamber for kitchen servants.
It was still dark when the hand touched my arm. I lunged up, shocked awake, then remembered that I was not on bread duty. So who was this silhouette barely outlined against the high window?
“Emras. If you wish to be examined for your Fundamentals, present yourself at the Hour of the Sun at Golden Gate.” She was a scribe teacher!
Fundamentals! The test we scribe students called The Fifteen, as that was the customary age a student took it. But then I was the youngest in our class. Or had been before my exile to the kitchens half a year before.
I must not say the wrong thing. “Am I permitted a question?”
“Do I wear my kitchen garb?”
“Do you test as a scribe or as a baker?”
The silhouette did not wait for my answer, but moved away in a rustle of fabric. One girl at the end of the row of beds mumbled in her sleep, turned over, and her breath slowed once again into slumber. The other girls slept on.
My hands trembled as I crouched at the foot of my bed and lifted the lid to my trunk. Quietly I set aside my books and writing implements, then lifted out the plain undyed linen robe we scribe students wear, which I had nearly burned half a year ago.
If I’d burned it, I would have had to wear my kitchen smock, and that would have been the first mark against me. The thought made me sick with anxiety as I raced down to the bath. There was so much they did not tell you, that you were supposed to know by reason or calculation or observation.
I splashed in and out of the bath and, still damp, flung the robe over my head, breathing deeply of linen and of the cedar wood trunk where my robe had lain for half a year. It no longer brushed the tops of my feet. I tugged, but it hadn’t caught anywhere on my scrawny body. I stared down in dismay at my bare ankles and my exposed feet like a pair of fans at partial unfurl. Not only was my robe too short, but the hem—the entire robe—was puckered in wrinkles. No help for it.
I dunked my servant’s tunic in the barrel. Magic flashed over it, making it clean. I wrung it hard once or twice, then put it in the air-chamber next to our bath for it to dry, my longing never to touch it again so strong that I shivered. I had done good work in the kitchens—I’d even made friends—but oh, to feel paper and pen in my hands again instead of dough, to read instead of knead, to listen and talk about history and the world today instead of enduring long anecdotes about past banquets!
So hurry, I scolded myself.
My old slippers no longer fit. I put my feet in my kitchen shoes. I’d cut off my hair on a hot autumn day. It was still too short to braid, so I tied it back with my crumpled old scribe ribbon, and paused. For the first time in six months, I was a scribe again. That meant I could carry a scribe’s tools. I had not been instructed to, but the prospect of slipping my travel pen, screwed into its inkwell, and a small roll of paper into my tool pockets was too overwhelming a joy to resist. No one had to know they were there.
Then I ran.
Twice in the year, spring and autumn, the Hour of Daybreak actually coincides with the sun’s appearance. The spring morning was already warm, the sky blue in the east as I gave wide berth to the royal residence portion of the palace and cut through the annexes and across the public gardens between wings. Why must we meet at Golden Gate? It had to be the farthest of the palace gates. Only the city gates were farther, I thought irritably as I pounded past the herb garden the courtiers were currently calling Isqua’s Assent for some typically obscure reason. I breathed in the fragrances as I leaped the low, vine-covered wall without bruising a single blossom. That would have angered the gardeners, who were beginning to appear in order to whisk away any withered flowers before the courtiers woke.
Down I ran the entire length of the Rose Walk, alongside the princess’s wing of the royal residence. I slowed when I spied the polished copper of the former palace’s twin bud domes glinting with ochre shading on the eastern curves, above the wild tangle of the old park.
There was the point of the inflexed arch of Golden Gate. I’d been given plenty of time, but I wanted to arrive early, to see who might be there and to discover what would happen when they saw me for the first time in half a year.
The others pressed in a cluster directly under the Golden Gate. Its wall was long gone, but no one wanted to be marked for error. The only thing scribe students knew about the Fifteen Test was that each year it was different.
Someone must have spoken for they turned as a group, their faces lit by the sun just rising behind me. Waves of shyness made my skin prickle and my mouth dry. My parents had taught my brother and me that scribes were unobtrusive. From the time I was four I’d earned a treat if I entered and left a room without sound, and a bigger treat if I managed to enter a room without being noticed.
Being stared at made me feel I had erred. But I had been ordered to be here, so I stared right back.
There was the oldest boy, tall Nashande, and a girl who must have been promoted to the royal scribe school while I’d been exiled to the kitchen. Already testing? She had to be smart. The urge to compete, to find a place above her, made me anxious again as they glanced at me with indifference. Scrawny Thumb, who for once was not blotched with drawing ink, didn’t even look. He was studying the mossy lily carvings on the gate.
Not indifferent was my cousin Tiflis, until six months ago my best friend and study partner. Secret sisters, we’d called one another. She, Sheris, and Faura stared at me with interest but no welcome.
I shifted my gaze before my burning eyes could disgrace me with tears, and movement distracted me. There was the boy we called Birdy, juggling again. I glanced at him in scorn and annoyance as he lurched and bobbled those ever-present little silken bags of sand, dropping one every couple of throws. In four years he’d not gotten much better. Birdy’s crescent eyes were set close on either side of his beaky nose. But the nickname came when he was ten from the way his rust brown curls stuck up in shocks and his ears stuck out like little wings, making him look like a startled bird. His hair was longer now, pulled back into a neat braid that swung as he twitched and sidled in a desperate attempt to keep the sandbags in the air. He looked more awkward then ever, bony and clumsy—he had to be every day of sixteen, I thought in disgust. Why did he still make such a fool of himself?
Birdy had been my toughest competitor in classes, calling me The Baby and smirking when I was wrong. I’d smirked right back at him, gloating when he was given deportment marks for that ridiculous juggling. Scribes were supposed to be quiet and unobtrusive. He then made remarks to his silken bags about nose-lifted ‘shadow-kissers’—our slang for fawning and flattery.
Old habit made me turn to my cousin for safety.
Tiflis met my eyes, looked away, cut a glance back, and our eyes met again. “You’re here, Em.”
For six months I hadn’t seen her. When my Name Day came and went unobserved by anyone except messages from my parents in Ranflar and from my older brother on another continent, I’d cried so hard that the senior cook took me aside and asked why I grieved.
So I told her. Her answer was, “Would you not have done the same, if your positions had been reversed?”
It took me a week to admit that Yes, I would have done the same, for fear that Tiflis’s disgrace would somehow pull me into disgrace.
I said to Tiflis, “I’m here.”
Then I took my place on the other side of Nashande, because I knew that even had I avoided Tiflis if she’d been sent away, when I saw her coming to rejoin the scribe world I would have run to meet her.
But she only said, You’re here.
The whispers ceased, and Birdy straightened up, his silk bags vanishing into his robe pocket. Just as the city bells pealed out the sweet cascade of chords signifying Daybreak, toward us strode . . . none other than Scribe Halimas, the senior scribe, his pace vigorous enough to make his thin gray queue swing against his bony back, his bony knees poke the white linen robe, his cloud blue overrobe billow. He taught the elite, those who would become royal scribes, or maybe even herald scribes—the ones who decide what writings are kept in the archives.
We all straightened up, wondering why he was bothering with us.
“Let us not waste time.” He marched around the gate without slowing. “Now. Who will give me a concise history of the old palace? Three to five hundred words.”
I find I can still recite every question he asked, so full of portent and importance they seemed to me. Mostly about Sartoran history. Oh, the joy of questions whose answers you know!
But that, we discovered, was just the preliminary. Then came the questions no one could have studied for.
The first was when Scribe Halimas led us to the massive carved doors to the shell of the old palace and asked, “What do you see?” indicating the intricate carvings.
Four voices said, “The Treaty of Sovereignty.” Sheris, who shadow-kissed the adults (Tif and I had called her the Empress), declared with that self-important lilt that had always made my insides tighten, “They finished carving them in 3615.”
Faura, who shadow-kissed Sheris, put in, “Almost eight hundred years ago.” Then she flushed, when everyone but Sheris looked at her. What? Faura was always at Sheris’s side.
The class looked away as quickly. We were on our best behavior, the Second Rule of the Scribe Guild having been repeated by tutors, and by us, since we were very small: Scribes keep The Peace.
Scribe Halimas was famed for sarcasm, but he only flicked a glance at Faura, eyebrows slanting steep enough to furrow his forehead. Safely behind him, the young girl I didn’t know rounded her eyes in the Too Obvious to Be Interesting gesture.
“Anyone?” the senior scribe had paused.
That meant he was waiting for something else. I studied the door, which was enormous—you could drive a coach and six through it. The wood shone with rich golden highlights in the clear light of morning. It had been carved from a great goldenwood tree, brought all the way from the middle of the continent, the entire tree used in cleverly fitted pieces.
That much I knew, and I had seen the deep relief carving once before, when we first arrived at the palace school and were given our tour. I stepped around tall Nashande, who frowned at the figures in their old-fashioned clothes, elaborate cloak-jackets over tight vests and trousers, pointed shoes, their hair braided over and under the broad diadems with the dangling decorations either side of their faces.
Central was King Martande I, our favorite because he was that rarity, a scribe-herald become king.
I stared at his handsome figure, trying to come up with an observation that wouldn’t get me the Too Obvious eye-roll. “Everyone is bowing except the king,” I said under my breath, because if anything seemed Too Obvious, it was that.
But Faura didn’t think so, for she took my comment as her own, saying loudly, “It depicts the very first sovereign bow.”
The senior scribe raised both brows. “I have ears.”
Faura shook her golden curls back with a pretence of nonchalance, as others stifled laughs.
Scribe Halimas did not address me—since I had addressed the ground. He put his hands to the lily-stalk door handle. It took only medium effort to open those beautifully hung and balanced doors. We entered the cavernous hall, a slice of morning sun shooting inside past our elongated silhouettes on the mosaic floor of patterned lilies and lighting up the three-story mural on the opposite wall. Now that we were inside, everyone shifted or even hopped so that no one committed the rudeness of stepping on anyone else’s shadow. Then we turned our gazes to the lit square on the opposite wall.
Diadems and elaborate arm bracelets and golden belts gleamed. Then gloom shrouded the figures to vague shapes as the doors swung shut again, closing with a boom more felt than heard.
Ah-yedi! I thought, but managed not to exclaim what had begun as a Sartoran epithet, Rue the day. All three syllables were considered inelegant, and the tutors did their best to smooth that high “di!” from our diction; the soft, sighed “ah-ye” was permissible.
Ah-yedi, I think now, as I pen this defense, for the next question is one of those coincidences that aren’t, when you reflect.
I do not claim that the following conversation caused my subsequent actions, but did it shape them? I’ve had occasion to think back over every one of the following words.
“Before I bespell the light,” the senior scribe said, “I require each of you to tell me what greatness is.”
Sheris quoted confidently, “‘Greatness is service to the kingdom.’”
Scribe Halimas did not respond.
Birdy gave another quote that we’d often written when practicing our handwriting, “‘Greatness is the term we give to those whose virtue earns them a position of outstanding eminence.’”
“Verbose,” Scribe Halimas observed. “But good practice for your hands when you are ten. Come, come, I said everyone, and we have much more to do.”
He turned to Tiflis, who said, “It’s the quality of . . . of influence.” We could not use any form of a word in a definition, so she’d avoided saying ‘great influence’ but at the cost of making sense.
“I’m not entirely certain,” the oldest boy said in his ponderous manner. “When we were young, it seemed clear. Greatness is implied in the doing of a mighty deed that, as one might say, alters events. For the better, as it were. But . . .”
Scribe Halimas prompted, “But?”
He wasn’t sarcastic, yet Nashande hurried his words together into almost normal speech. “I . . . wonder sometimes, is it great from everyone’s view?”
“I am quite certain that the Chwahir whose remains so sanguinely decorate the mural we are about to scrutinize would not—had they lived—have considered Martande Lirendi great. But they do not have my sympathy, as they ought not to have invaded our land in the first place. Emras.”
Nashande’s words hadn’t made me think of the Chwahir, but of the senior cook. Startled by hearing my name, I said, “Could it be that greatness is a lot of little deeds? That add up, I mean.”
No one scoffed in words, but I heard it in the tiny scrape of a foot on the cold inlaid marble floor and in a soft breath, not quite a snort, from someone directly behind me.
Scribe Halimas said mildly, “It’s a fine idea, but the truth is rather more pragmatic. Most of us will live exemplary lives, doing good work every day, and no one will call us great. Few will even know our names. Yet our civilization will, perhaps, be called great. Faura. Since you appear to find little wit in Emras’s answer, you may now stun us with your great wit.”
Faura wriggled her shoulders. Her chin lifted as she enunciated, “Greatness can be a state, a quality, a condition, or a virtue. Of eminence.”
“A virtue of eminence. I am almost afraid to ask what that means.”
Faura made a little business of flinging her hair back, obviously struggling for a response. But the senior scribe gestured to the rest, who’d by now had time to think. They offered familiar quotations in well modulated voices.
He listened, gazed on the mural, until they were done. “Next question. It’s probably unfair to ask, and no doubt the lower school tutors will tell me so. I usually put this question to the journey-scribes, and so it would have been for you. But Queen Hatahra has recently decreed that this building be pulled down, once the mural here behind the dais is recorded by the herald-mages for the archive. As you all know very well, archive portraits and paintings are intended to fit against the archive display wall.” He flung out his arms, fingers perpendicular. “Reducing a work so mighty and awe-inspiring to a wall five paces in length is . . . a necessary disservice. Never again will people experience this hall as King Martande intended. You should regard yourselves as privileged. So tell me what you see.”
He whispered the light spell. The glow globes set in entwined lily sconces lit, and there was the mural of King Martande and his allies fighting against the Chwahir. At least a hundred paces long, it towered above our heads, so that the central figure of the king must have been the size of a ten-year-old oak. Age-spotted mirrors on the other side threw back the color, intensifying the fiery reds in flaring cloaks, the rich glint of gilt, the twilight blues and summer greens and daffodil yellows and stately violets of the outlandish clothing worn so proudly aback those dashing chargers. Even the horses looked proud, eyes fiery, manes tossing in winds that seem to come from all directions at once, the better to stream tails and capes like gonfalons.
“It’s very barbaric,” Sheris the Empress pronounced.
I sneaked a look Tiflis’s way. We used to share private grins if we didn’t dare signal our disgust at the way Sheris always pushed to be first. But Tif just looked up solemnly as Sheris elaborated into the silence: “What makes it barbaric are those swords and blood. And those dead people lying on the ground.”
“‘War is the failure of civilized negotiation,’” quoted Birdy. His beaky nose pointed up at the mural. “According to Queen Alian II.”
“Look at them wearing metal all over themselves, along with swords, like outland brigands,” said the new girl.
“The patterns on the metal are old knots, from the Venn,” began the quiet boy we called Thumb, on account of his inky fingers. “Those patterns came out of the west, from—”
“The figures are way too large,” Tiflis interrupted Thumb while looking Sheris’s way. For approval? From Sheris the Empress? “The king must be twenty paces high. That style is very outmoded.” Tif was repeating what Sheris had said—she did want her approval!
“So say our artists, and the queen concurs. What is the effect of the painting?” Scribe Halimas asked. “Nashande?”
Nashande blushed, his slow voice rumbling as he measured out his words. “Its being larger than life gives emphasis to, I will say, a sense of power. The swords add to the impression.”
The tutorial gaze flicked my way. “Emras? Do you see power?”
“Yes, Senior Scribe Halimas,” I said, hoping that I showed no sign of the wild mix of disgust, anger, and perplexity that assailed me. Tif and Sheris? Friends?
“How is it powerful? Besides the presence of steel weapons.”
The back of my neck tingled as I struggled for sense. I would not sound like the Empress, no matter who admired her. “Like Nashande said, it’s larger than real life. And, ah-ye! It’s the way they wave those swords, and the bright contrasts of colors, and everything flying in the air. Their clothes and hair. Not the horses. They are galloping. Though actually horses stretch their necks out when they gallop. They don’t arch like that. And . . .” I was acutely aware of babbling.
Everyone stared at me, Sheris with a curled lip. Faura flicked looks between Sheris and Tiflis and me, then curled her lip. Tif had turned Sheris’s way. Oh yes. Things had changed not only between Tiflis and me, but between all the girls in our class.
Birdy bobbed his head in tiny motions, as if urging me on, but I did not know if he was teasing or encouraging me. The tingles of warning worsened.
“And the jewelry. I didn’t think they wore all that golden jewelry in battle. I thought they had armor,” I finished uncertainly.
Senior Scribe Halimas addressed the group. “They did embellish their armor with the intention of impressing the enemy. Warriors traditionally will bedeck themselves to appear larger or fiercer or more imposing. I believe what we are seeing here, and perhaps it is too soon for you to understand it, is a calculated augmentation of personal beauty. Martande Lirendi, as you all know, was not just presented as handsome by heralds bent on enhancing his prestige, he really was. He used that as well as prowess to knit the kingdom into a single state, and then to beguile the Sartorans into accepting us as a separate entity.”
The senior scribe stepped back and swept his gaze over the enormous figures with their flowing braids and the golden diadems with winking gems framing their faces, the tight clothing emphasized by flaring jackets, the men turned so that their broad shoulders were their widest point.
“Now.” Scribe Halimas smiled at us. “You are to take yourselves into the antechamber, and you have a quarter glass to write out your impression of this mural, in Old Sartoran. You may use what I told you, providing your own examples of how the mural illustrates—or disproves—my conjecture.”
For a heartbeat we stared as the senior scribe perched on the edge of the empty dais where queens and kings had once presided, turned his glass over, then clasped his hands around his bony knee as he surveyed the riotous colors of the mural.
Then we filed out at our hastiest walk, taking care not to make noise.
A quarter glass later Scribe Halimas took us outside to the garden, where he indicated the silver blue junipers so large their pointed tops were level with the palace roof. They soughed deeply, stirring in the breeze.
“We used to study here,” the senior scribe said in a reflective tone that I would not understand for a long time.
He turned our way and raised his brows. “Sit. Wait. Nashande, you are a year overdue and then some, so let us begin with you.”
They settled under a king willow so old that its foliage hung down in a solid curtain. The rest of us sat where he had left us.
Though the willow curtain warded sun and sight, it did not ward sound, but the senior scribe pitched his voice so that we could not hear the words. None of us had that control of modulation. We certainly heard Nashande’s slow recitation of the different forms of written diplomatic discourse, ending with his answer to the easy question, When are scribes permitted to use blue ink? Nashande was not even roundabout and ponderous when he said, Only when directed by the royal family.
The new girl was called next. It was unsettling for me to see someone younger, and I didn’t understand until that moment how proud I’d been of that distinction.
“There goes the brat,” Sheris whispered. “Always pushing herself first.”
“She only has to see a page, and she can remember it in its entirety,” Birdy whispered to me.
Birdy, not Tiflis.
The girl’s voice was so light that we heard nothing of her interview.
The senior scribe called me next and took my rolled paper. “Emras, I will ask a question, then you may ask me a question,” he said when I sat on the waiting mat.
The willow formed a green curtain all around, but I was aware of the others all listening a few paces away. I braced for close examination in dates or the minutiae of court protocol—anything but, “Why were you sent to the kitchens half a year ago?”
I clipped my lips tight on the response, But you sent me there!
He waited, his face blank.
The emotions stirred by that memory were so immediate that I forgot about modulating my voice. “Kaleri the day servant asked me to get the tray of dishes after Tiflis’s Name Day fête. Kaleri was in a hurry. I told her to do it herself, because I am a scribe. We don’t—didn’t—don’t do kitchen work.” My face burned. “And so you sent me to the kitchen to work. You said, being a scribe is not a rank but a vocation. If I was—am—was truly a scribe, I would find a way to stay with my studies on my own time. I would find the time to visit Scribe Aulumbe for instruction and assignments, and bring work back to her when finished.”
I could not look up but waited miserably for a repeat of the lecture on arrogance, and how I obviously did not understand the Second Rule, every word of which I could have repeated.
“Your turn for a question,” the senior scribe prompted.
I still could not look up. “Does my question have to be about that?”
“You may ask me anything. My second question. What did you learn during your sojourn in the kitchen?”
Instinct prompted me to say, Never be arrogant to servants, or I could say Never break the Second Rule, but that sounded Too Obvious—and I heard it inside my head in Sheris’s voice. Smug.
I could repeat the angry conclusion I’d reached during my first few weeks in the kitchen, which was, “Never be overheard breaking a Rule.” Except that as my anger faded I’d come to wonder if that wasn’t breaking the Rule after all. You’re not keeping The Peace if you only heed Rules when others are watching.
So what did I learn in the kitchens?
“Since I was too ignorant to help with pastry or cooking, I learned all the different kinds of bread. I learned that bread can be an art, and that messages are conveyed in bread, from the measure to the knead to the shape. I learned who loves making bread and wants to spend a life making bread, and who . . . who . . . who . . . wants to be famed for their bread. That’s what I meant by lots of little deeds. Ah-ye, some think pastry the true art, and . . . ” I’d talked myself into a tangle.
But when I halted abruptly, he did not comment on my lack of reasoned, elegant diction. “We spend all these years instilling the first two Rules into you students,” he said. “The First Rule—do not interfere—is seldom an issue when you are young. The hardest to live by is the Second.”
His fingers lifted, inviting my question, so I asked it, though my stomach knotted with dread. “Am I to return to the kitchen?” I could bear it—the work was important and some loved it above everything—but I had never lost my desire to be a scribe. Even after half a year’s exile.
“You will recommence classes today. Who among your class was the most helpful, while you were striving to keep up?”
Now I was truly caught. Tattling was scorned, diplomacy was prized—those came under the Second Rule. And yet, there was the painful awareness of six months of avoidance. Of being forgotten on my Name Day, except by my family. “I worked alone,” I said, trying hard to sound neutral. But my voice shook.
“Your last question?” he asked.
My mind careened wildly, trying to think up some historically significant question—something to show off the studies that had kept me up until midnight so frequently, even when I had to rise before dawn for duty—but need was too strong. “When will we know how we did on this test?”
He smiled. “You will all find out when you are assigned your new classes, at the Hour of the Quill.” He made The Peace, palms together, the signal that my interview was over.
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