Reading Passages from Sailing to Sarantium (Book 1 of The Sarantine Mosaic)

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Passage from Chapter One of Sailing to Sarantium

He came to, slowly, and gradually became aware of painful, flickering light and the scent of perfume. Not lavender. His head hurt, not altogether unexpectedly. The flour sack had been removed-obviously: he could see blurred candles, shapes behind them and around, vague as yet. His hands appeared to be free. He reached up and very gingerly felt around the egg-shaped lump at the back of his skull.

At the edge of his vision, which was not, under the circumstances, especially acute, someone moved then, rising from a couch or a chair. He had an impression of gold, of a lapis hue.

The awareness of scent-more than one, in fact, he now realized- intensified. He turned his head. The movement made him gasp. He closed his eyes. He felt extremely ill.

Someone-a woman-said,’They were instructed to be solicitous. It appears you resisted.’

‘Very . . . sorry,’ Crispin managed. ‘Tedious of me.’

He heard her laughter. Opened his eyes again. He had no idea where he was.

‘Welcome to the palace, Caius Crispus,’ she said.’We are alone, as it happens. Ought I to fear you and summon guards?’
Fighting a particularly determined wave of nausea, Crispin propelled himself to a sitting position. An instant later he staggered upright, his heart pounding. He tried, much too quickly, to bow. He had to clutch urgently at a table top to keep himself from toppling. His vision swirled and his stomach did the same.

‘You are excused the more extreme rituals of ceremony,’ said the only living child of the late King Hildric.

Gisel, queen of the Antae and of Batiara and his own most holy ruler under Jad, who paid a symbolic allegiance to the Sarantine Emperor and offered spiritual devotion to the High Patriarch and to no one else alive, looked gravely at him with wide-set eyes.
‘Very . . . extremely . . . kind of you. Your Majesty,’ Crispin mumbled. He was trying, with limited success, to make his eyes stop blurring and become useful in the candlelight. There seemed to be random objects swimming in the air. He was also having some difficulty breathing. He was alone in a room with the queen. He had never even seen her, except at a distance. Artisans, however successful or celebrated, did not hold nocturnal, private converse with their sovereign. Not in the world as Crispin knew it.

His head felt as if a small but insistent hammer inside it were trying to pound its way out. His confusion was extreme, disorientating. Had she captured him or rescued him? And why, in either case? He didn’t dare ask. Amid the perfumes he smelled flour again suddenly. That would be himself. From the sack. He looked down at his dinner tunic and made a sour face. The blue was streaked and smeared a greyish-white. Which meant that his hair and beard . . .

‘You were attended to, somewhat, while you slept,’ said the queen, graciously enough.’I had my own physician summoned. He said bleeding was not immediately necessary. Would a glass of wine be of help?’

Crispin made a sound that he trusted to convey restrained, well-bred assent. She did not laugh again, or smile. It occurred to him that this was a woman not unused to observing the effects of violence upon men. A number of well-known incidents, unbidden, came into his head. Some were quite recent. The thought of them did nothing to ease him at all.

The queen made no movement, and a moment later Crispin realized that she had meant what she said quite literally. They were alone in this room. No servants, not even slaves. Which was simply astonishing. And he could hardly expect her to serve him wine. He looked around and, more by luck than any effective process of observation, encountered a flask and cups on the table by his elbow. He poured, carefully, and watered two cups, unsure whether that was a presumption. He was not conversant with the Antae court. Martinian had taken all their commissions from King Hildric and then his daughter, and had delivered the reports.

Crispin looked up. His eyesight seemed to be improving as the hammer subsided a little and the room elected to stabilize. He saw her shake her head at the cup he had poured for her. He set it down. Waited. Looked at her again.

The queen of Batiara was tall for a woman and unsettlingly young. Seen this closely, she had the straight Antae nose and her father’s strong cheekbones. The wide-set eyes were a much-celebrated blue, he knew, though he couldn’t see that clearly in the candlelight. Her hair was golden, bound up, of course, held by a golden circlet studded with rubies.

The Antae had worn bear grease in their hair when they’d first come to settle in the peninsula. This woman was not, manifestly, an exponent of such traditions. He imagined those rubies-he couldn’t help himself- set in his mosaic torch on the sanctuary dome. He imagined them gleaming by candlelight there.

The queen wore a golden sun disk about her throat, an image of Heladikos upon it. Her robe was blue silk,threaded with fine gold wire, and there was a purple band running down the left side, from high collar to ankle. Only royalty wore purple, in keeping with a tradition going back to the Rhodian Empire at its own beginnings six hundred years ago.

He was alone in a palace room at night with the headache of his life and a queen-his queen-regarding him with a mild, steady appraisal.

It was common opinion, all through the Batiaran peninsula, that the queen was unlikely to live through the winter. Crispin had heard wagers offered and taken, at odds.

The Antae might have moved beyond bear grease and pagan rituals in a hundred years but they were most emphatically not accustomed to being ruled by a woman, and any choice of a mate and king-for Gisel was fraught with an almost inconceivable complexity of tribal hierarchies and feuds. In a way, it was only due to these that she was still alive and reigning a year and more after her father’s death and the savage, inconclusive civil war that had followed. Martinian had put it that way one night over dinner. The factions of the Antae were locked in balance around her; if she died,that balance spiralled away and war came. Again.

Crispin had shrugged. Whoever reigned would commission sanctuaries to their own glory in the god’s name. Mosaicists would work. He and Martinian were extremely well known, with a reputation among the upper classes and reliable employees and apprentices. Did it matter so much, he’d asked the older man, what happened in the palace in Varena? Did any such things signify greatly after the plague?

The queen was still gazing at him beneath level brows, waiting. Crispin, belatedly realizing what was expected, saluted her with his cup and drank.

It was magnificent wine. The very best Sarnican. He’d never tasted anything so complex. Under any normal circumstances, he would . . .

He put it down, quickly. After the blow to his head, this drink could undo him completely.

‘A careful man, I see,’ she murmured.

Crispin shook his head. ‘Not really, Majesty.’ He had no idea what was expected of him here, or what to expect. It occurred to him that he ought to feel outraged . . . he’d been assaulted and abducted outside his own home. Instead, he felt curious, intrigued, and he was sufficiently self-aware to recognize that these feelings had been absent from his life for some time.

‘May I assume,’ he said,’that the footpads who clapped a flour sack on my head and dented my braincase were from the palace? Or did your loyal guards rescue me from common thieves?’

She smiled at that. She couldn’t be older than her early twenties, Crispin thought, remembering a royal betrothal and a husband-to-be dying of some mischance a few years ago.

‘They were my guards. I told you, their orders were to be courteous, while ensuring you came with them. Apparently you did

some injuries to them.’ ‘I am delighted to hear it. They did some to me.’

‘In loyalty to their queen and in her cause. Do you have the same loyalties?’

Direct, very direct.

Crispin watched as she moved to an ivory and rosewood bench and sat down, her back very straight. He saw that there were three doors to the room and imagined guards poised on the other side of each of them. He pushed his hands through his hair-a characteristic motion, leaving it randomly scattered-and said quietly, ‘I am engaged, to the best of my skill, and using deficient materials, in decorating a sanctuary to honour your father. Is that answer enough, Majesty?’

‘Not at all, Rhodian. That is self-interest. You are extremely well paid, and the materials are the best we can offer right now. We’ve had a plague and a war, Caius Crispus.’

‘Oh, really,’ he said. Couldn’t help himself.

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Insolence?’

Her voice and expression made him abruptly aware that whatever the proper court manners might be, he was not displaying them, and the Antae had never been known for patience.

He shook his head.’I lived through both,’ he murmured.’I need no reminders.’

She regarded him in silence another long moment. Crispin felt an unexplained prickling along his back up to the hairs of his neck. The silence stretched. Then the queen drew a breath and said without preamble:’I need an extremely private message carried to the Emperor in Sarantium. No man-or woman- may know the contents of this, or that it is even being carried. That is why you are here alone, and were brought by night.’

Crispin’s mouth went dry. He felt his heart begin to hammer again.’I am an artisan, Majesty. No more than that. I have no place in the intrigues of courts.’ He wished he hadn’t put down the wine glass.’And,’ he added, too tardily, ‘I am not going to Sarantium.’

‘Of course you are,’ she said dismissively. ‘What man would not accept that invitation.’ She knew about it. Of course she did. His mother knew about it.

‘It is not my invitation,’ he said pointedly. ‘And Martinian, my partner, has indicated he will not go.’

‘He is an old man. You aren’t. And you have nothing to keep you in Varena at all.’

He had nothing to keep him. At all.

‘He isn’t old,’ he said.

She ignored that. ‘I have made inquiries into your family, your circumstances, your disposition. I am told you are choleric and of dark humour, and not inclined to be properly respectful. Also that you are skilled at your craft and have attained a measure of renown and some wealth thereby. None of this concerns me. But no one has reported you to be cowardly or without ambition. Of course you will go to Sarantium. Will you carry my message for me?’

Crispin said, before he had really thought about the implications at all, ‘What message? ‘

Which meant-he realized much later, thinking about it, reliving this dialogue again and again on the long road east-that the moment she told him he had no real choice, unless he did decide to die and seek Ilandra and the girls with Jad behind the sun.

The young queen of the Antae and of Batiara, surrounded by mortal danger and fighting it with whatever tools came to hand, however unexpectedly, said softly,’You will tell the Emperor Valerius II and no one else that should he wish to regain this country and Rhodias within it,and not merely have a meaningless claim to them, there is an unmarried queen here who has heard of his prowess and his glory and honours them.’ Crispin’s jaw dropped. The queen did not flush, nor did her gaze flicker at all. His reaction was being closely watched,he realized. He said, stammering,’ The Emperor is married. Has been for years. He changed the laws to wed the Empress Alixana.’

Calm and very still on her ivory seat,she said,’Alas, husbands or wives may be put aside. Or die, Caius Crispus.’

He knew this.

‘Empires,’ she murmured,’live after us. So does a name. For good or ill. Valerius II, who was once Petrus of Trakesia, has wanted to regain Rhodias and this peninsula since he brought his uncle to the Golden Throne twelve summers ago. He purchased his truce with the King of Kings in Bassania for that reason alone. King Shirvan is bribed so Valerius may assemble an army for the west when the time ripens. There are no mysteries here. But if he tries to take this land in war, he will not hold it. This peninsula is too far away from him, and we Antae know how to make war. And his enemies east and north-the Bassanids and the northern barbarians-will never sit quiet and watch,no matter how much he pays them. There will be men around Valerius who know this,and they may even tell him as much.There is another way to achieve his . . . desire. I am offering it to him.’ She paused.’You may tell him, too, that you have seen the queen of Batiara very near, in blue and gold and porphyry, and may . . . give him an honest description, should he ask for one.’

This time, though she continued to hold his gaze and even lifted her chin a little, she did flush. Crispin became aware that his hands were perspiring at his sides. He pressed them against his tunic. He felt the stirrings, astonishingly, of a long-dormant desire. A kind of madness, that, though desire often was. The queen of Batiara was not, in any possible sense, someone who could be thought of in this way. She was offering her face and exquisitely garbed body to his recording gaze, only that he might tell an Emperor about her, halfway around the world. He had never dreamed of moving-never wanted to move-in this world of royal shadows and intrigue, but his puzzle-solving mind was racing now, with his pulse, and he could begin to see the pieces of this picture.

No man-or woman-may know.

No woman. Clear as it could be. He was being asked to carry an overture of marriage to the Emperor, who was very much married, and to the most powerful and dangerous woman in the known world.

‘The Emperor and his low-born actress-wife have no children, alas,’ said Gisel softly. Crispin realized his thoughts must have been in his face. He was not good at this.’A sad legacy, one might imagine, of her . . . profession. And she is no longer young.’
I am, was the message beneath the message he was to bring. Save my life, my throne, and I offer you the homeland of the

Rhodian Empire that you yearn for. I give you back the west to your east, and the sons to your need. I am fair, and young . . . ask the man who carries my words to you. He will say as much. Only ask.

‘You believe . . .’ he began. Stopped. Composed himself with an effort. ‘You believe this can be kept secret? Majesty, if I am even known to have been brought to you . . . ‘

‘Trust me in this. You can do me no service if you are killed on the way or when you arrive.’

‘You reassure me greatly,’ he murmured.

Surprisingly, she laughed again. He wondered what those on the other side of the doors would think, hearing that. He wondered what else they might have heard.

‘You could send no formal envoy with this?’

He knew the answer before she gave it.’No such messenger from me would have a chance to bespeak the Emperor in . . . privacy.’

‘And I will? ‘

‘You might. You have pure Rhodian blood on both sides. They acknowledge that, still, in Sarantium, though they complain about you. Valerius is said to be interested in ivory, frescoes . . . such things as you do with stones and glass. He is known to hold conversation with his artisans.’

‘How commendable of him. And when he finds that I am not Martinian of Varena? What sort of conversation will then ensue?’
The queen smiled. ‘That will depend on your wits, will it not?’

Crispin drew another breath. Before he could speak, she added,’You have not asked what return a grateful, newly-crowned Empress might make to the man who conveyed this message for her and had success follow upon it. You can read?’ He nodded. She reached into
a sleeve of her robe and withdrew a parchment scroll. She extended it a little towards him. He walked nearer, inhaled her scent, saw that her eyelashes were accented and extended subtly. He took the parchment from her hand.

She nodded permission. He broke the seal. Uncurled the scroll. Read. He felt the colour leave his face as he did so. And hard upon astonishment came bitterness, the core of pain that walked with him in the world. He said,’It is wasted on me, Majesty. I have no children to inherit any of this.’

‘You are a young man,’ the queen said mildly.

Anger flared.’Indeed? So why no offer here of a comely Antae woman of your court, or an aristocrat of Rhodian blood for my prize? The brood mare to fill these promised houses and spend this wealth?’

She had been a princess and was a queen and had spent her life in palaces where judging people was a tool of survival. She said, ‘I would not insult you with such a proposal. I am told yours was a love-match. A rare thing. I count you lucky in it, though the allotted time was brief. You are a well-formed man, and would have resources to commend you, as the parchment shows. I imagine you could buy your own brood mare of high lineage, if other methods of choosing a second wife did not present themselves.’

Much later, in his own bed, awake, with the moons long set and the dawn not far off, Crispin was to conclude that it was this answer, the gravity of it with the bite of irony at the end,that had decided him. Had she offered him a mate on paper or in word, he told himself, he would have refused outright and let her kill him if she wanted.

She would have, he was almost certain of it.

And that thought had come in the last of the darkness, even before he learned from the apprentices as they met at the sanctuary for the sunrise prayers that six of the Palace Guard in Varena had been found dead in the night, their throats slit.

Crispin would walk away from the babble of noise and speculation to stand in the sanctuary alone under his charioteer and torch on the dome. The light was just entering through the dome’s ring of windows, striking the angled glass. The mosaic torch seemed to flicker as he watched, a soft but unmistakable rippling, as of a muted flame. In his mind’s eye he could see it above burning lanterns and candles . . . given enough of them it would work.

He understood something. The queen of the Antae, battling for her life, had made something else as clear as it could be: she would not let the secrecy of his message be endangered in any way, even by her own most trusted guards. Six men dead. Nothing muted there at all.

He didn’t know how he felt. Or no, he realized that he did know:he felt like a too-small ship setting out from harbour far too late in the year, undermanned, with winter winds swirling all around it.

But he was going to Sarantium. After all.

© Guy Gavriel Kay


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