The Language of Power, Chapter One (spoiler-free version)



It was the first break in the weather.

The cargo ship had stood off from Donner for days; no barges had been able to cross the shallows to unload her, and the seas beyond had been high, and wild with wind. Early snow obscured the distance, and Graceful Days had been a glimpse, a guess, a dancing ghost behind curtains of spray and snow, until this morning.

Fortunate that she carried so few passengers. Only three, and two were ill: a large man and a small woman, now sitting huddled together in the center of the transfer-barge, with an air of surrender and exhaustion that spoke of days of continual seasickness.

The starboardside barge-man grimaced in sympathy, and attempted to pole more smoothly. The change only confused his partner, who tootled the whistle she held clenched in her teeth, admonishing him to work in proper rhythm.

The third passenger sat by the gunwale among a handful of the ship’s crewmembers. The bargeman had thought her a sailor herself, at first; she was that easy on the water. But the captain of Graceful Days, sitting across from her, seemed to treat her as an equal, conversing in respectful tones, at one point solicitously angling himself to intercept the splashes raised by a set of small waves, so that the map the woman held in her lap would not get wet.

The barge-man spared another glance from his work, to see what so interested her. He could not read; but the spread of streets, the jut of wharves, and the curve of a broad river identified Donner itself. The woman seemed to sense his gaze, and looked up.

She was not seasick, but she had been ill, in some other way, and not long ago. Theclear gray eyes were too large in a face that showed its bones too well. Her short hair, brittle even in the damp air, was both dark and light: the color of wet sand, but tipped with remnants of sun-bleached yellow. She looked like a woman burned by years of light, paled by recent months of darkness.

He realized that he had been staring, and shied his glance away, putting his back into his work; but when he looked again, he found her studying him just as closely. “How old are you?” she asked abruptly.

The question took him aback; and another toot from his partner reminded him where his attention should be. He poled once, twice, and could see neither why the passenger would ask such a question, nor why he should answer.

But there was no reason not to. “Thirty-one,” he replied. A woman with a map — and, he now realized, a pack stowed behind her, with a map-case whose end emerged from the top: a steerswoman? She did wear a gold chain, such as the Steerswomen wore, but showed no silver ring on her left hand, only a remarkable collection of small, old scars.

Still: “Thank you,” she said, as if it were habit, as if she had the right to ask, ask any question at all. And with her question answered, she seemed to dismiss him, returning to her conversation with Gregori, the captain.

Gregori leaned over the city map, indicated. “There, about — Tilemarker’s Street. Whole row of shops, and the jeweler’s among them.”

The crew member seated behind him spoke up. “Excuse me, sir, and lady,” she put in, “but I know them; more dear than they need to be. There’s another jeweler’s, off near the tea-shop. Found a pretty pin for my sweetheart, half the price the other asked. Not fine work, but good enough.”

“Now, no one will charge Rowan — or they ought not, properly,” the captain said.

“Properly,” Rowan said, “they have every right to charge me, if they insist. The rule only states that one must answer a steerswoman’s questions; indulging a steerswoman’s personal needs is entirely optional. If I find I must pay after all, the cheaper establishment will do.” She rolled her map and leaned back to slide it in among the others in the map-case.

The barge approached Tyler’s Gully, a hidden trench in the bed of the shallows, and the barge-tenders doubled their efforts to acquire the speed needed to coast past it. The change in motion distressed one of the other passengers, who suddenly clambered wildly over crates and bales of raw silk in order to be sick over the side. Wry comments from the sailors, and in one case, applause, but she took the jibes with remarkable good humor, and sensibly remained by the portside gunwale for the rest of the trip.

When the barge slid up to the wharf, Rowan leaned back to let the others disembark first, then accepted an assist from the captain. “Hup!” His hands on her waist, he lifted her bodily from the barge onto the wharf, a move which first startled, then amused her.

“It’s been a while since last someone did that for me,” Rowan said.

“Light as a feather. And are you all right with that pack? Seems a bit large.”

“It’s what I need. I’ll get used to it again, soon enough.” By way of demonstration she swung it up, neatly and smoothly, slipping her left arm, then her right, into the straps. A familiar movement, and a familiar, welcome weight.

Gregori stood back to admire her: pack, cloak, and grin. “Well. There you go, then.” He clasped her hand. “And whichever one of us sees Zenna again first, will give the other’s love to her.”

“I believe that will be you.”

“You’re probably right. The sea’s a wide road, and you’re heading for narrow ones.” He glanced about; no one else was nearby. He leaned closer, spoke more quietly. “And I hope your work here goes well.”

He released her hand and turned away, calling instructions to the stevedores; and the steerswoman made her way down the long wharf.

Donner was built on flat land, and as soon as Rowan left the openness of the harborside, all sense of space vanished. The street before her seemed merely a corridor, the shops and homes to either side its rooms, an effect completed by the heavy white sky hanging close above like a low ceiling. Donner, despite being a city, felt today as if it existed within arm’s reach only.

But when Rowan looked up, the low tower of the harbor-master’s office was visible above, dimmed gray by the damp-laden air. Yet even that seemed two-dimensional, like a sketch of a tower, vague outline and shadow.

The office on the first floor was deserted. Rowan passed through to the back, and discovered a set of stairs leading above. She considered the steep ascent, grimaced, winced, sighed. Leaving her pack below, she climbed.

At the top: a square room, occupying the entire top floor, with broad windows open all around. Rowan leaned back against the railing of the stairwell, nursing an ache in her left leg, and studied the view.

The southeast window looked out squarely on the harbor, where the barge was now plying its way back across the water, dimming as it neared Graceful Days, the ship itself a mere shadow. Northeast, low buildings spread to the river’s edge, thinning to the north as they approached the mud-flats, where a portion of Greyriver’s broad expanse was visible, seeming to curl back around the city like a broad, protecting arm. Northwest, ornate residences crowded, then spaced themselves, and finally stood smugly solitary up against the edge of a grove of cultivated fruit trees that vanished into mist.

Southwest: the heart of the city, with a sweep of low and high rooftops, continuous, but for a sudden gap, large enough that a portion of the bare ground was visible. There, a crew of about a dozen people was at work, laying yellowish paving-stones.

Inside the room, shelves ran along the walls beneath each window. Rowan limped over to check the contents, hoping that she would not find the package she herself had sent some months ago [ …spoiler removed… ]

The package was not present, but Rowan was in no way reassured: seated in a wooden chair, its front legs tilted off the floor and his feet comfortably propped on an old crate, was the watcher on duty. He was fast asleep.

He had stirred not at all during Rowan’s investigations, and she had not been quiet. Any passing thief or vagrant could easily have wandered in and made off with any of the various items. She resisted the impulse to kick the chair legs out from under the man.

She did, however, achieve a measure of satisfaction by standing behind him when she tapped his shoulder. He came awake with a start, dropped the chair forward with a thump and an out fling of arms and legs. “Oof!”

Rowan remained patiently in place while he looked about in confusion, left and right, and finally found her. He stood and shook down his skewed clothing, then stepped forward. “Well, what’s your business?” he asked, now all brisk efficiency.

“I sent a package through here some months ago. I was wondering if it managed to get past Donner at all?”

The insult was lost on him. “From and to?” he asked, scanning the shelves as if whatever system organized them were invisible only to Rowan.

“From Rowan, Steerswoman, Alemeth. To Henra, Prime, the Steerswomen’s Archives, north of Wulfshaven.” And because his chair was now empty, and her left leg was protesting vigorously, she sat.

“A steerswoman, is it?” He studied her with new respect, which faltered when his glance reached her left hand. “You’ve got no ring…”

“No. I removed it in the course of a demonstration, and later found that it had been pilfered.”

“Stealing from a steerswoman; some people have no shame! But that package, I do remember it now. We sent that out on the Windworthy, about five months ago. They were heading to The Crags –” and he put up a hand to forestall Rowan’s protest, “– but they were planning to stop and stand off High Island on the way, and get met by a fisher-boat, I forget why. We figured they could give it to the fishers and just have them pass it up-Islands to Wulfshaven.”

Rowan’s mouth twisted. “An attractive theory. I wonder if it actually worked?” There was intercourse between the Islands, often enough. But just as often the fisherfolk found excuse for disputes and occasional furtive vendettas. But with luck, her package might now be safe at the Archives.

“Here.” Rowan removed a fat letter from inside her vest, and with a degree of reluctance, entrusted it to the watcher’s care.

He made a show of squinting at the address, then placed it grandly on a shelf all by itself. “And there.” He turned back. “Trouble with your leg?” he asked suddenly.

She had been unconsciously kneading her thigh, gently. She chose the short explanation. “An injury, last year.”

“Ah, that’s bad for a steerswoman, with all the walking you ladies do. Have a rest here, for a while, if you like. In fact,” he laid a finger aside his nose, “I think there’s a bit of wine somewhere around, if you don’t mind sharing the glass.”

“Thank you; that’s very kind.”

“Not at all.”

The watcher’s “somewhere around” would more accurately be stated as “conveniently to hand”; it was tucked under the crate on which he had rested his feet. He pulled out a clear bottle and a single fine wine-glass, and took the crate for his own seat.

The steerswoman studied him as he pulled the cork, which emerged with an encouraging pop, despite the bottle being only half-full. “How old are you?” she asked.

He put up his brows and blinked. “A week away from forty-eight.” He poured. “And that’s an odd question.”

“Not when it’s followed by the next.” She accepted the glass, sipped. “Oh, my.” The wine was fine, clear, and effervescent. It tasted, lightly, of pears. Rowan could almost forgive the watcher for drinking on duty. She sipped again.

“The next being?” he asked.

She passed the glass back. “Do you remember a wizard named Kieran?”

He blinked in thought. “I can’t say that I do. What’s his holding?”

“Actually, Donner.” His surprise was extreme; Rowan continued: “Forty-two years ago. He was the wizard Jannik’s predecessor here.”

“So, that’s why you wanted my age?” He pursed his lips. “Well, I was just a tyke then. Didn’t notice much beyond my family, my dog, and my collection of wonderfully ugly bugs. You should have seen them, they were a spectacle!” He made to drink, but then stopped himself. “But no, no, wait a bit. I heard something, not then but years later, about the wizard who was here before Jannik. Some sort of trouble with the townfolk…”

“You don’t recall the particulars?”

“Sorry.” He sipped the wine, turned the glass a gaze of respect, and, it seemed, gratitude. He drank again, deeper.

“Or perhaps you remember a steerswoman here, at about the same time?” Rowan asked.

“Ah!” Recognition, and he leaned forward. “A tall, narrow woman, dark, with curly black hair braided back from her face! She carried a bow, and caught me in an evil glare when I fingered it once. Can’t remember her name — no, wait, hold up, here it comes, something with an ‘L’…” He closed his eyes for a few moments, smiled. “Latitia.”

“That’s her,” Rowan said, although the description had not identified the woman. Latitia’s logbooks had referred more to the world than to herself; Rowan was rather pleased to at last have a mental picture of her.

“So tell me, Lady,” the watchman began, using the formal mode, “what’s your interest in two people from so long ago?” He passed the glass back.

The steerswoman considered before speaking. “There are gaps in the Steerswomen’s records from that time,” she said; and this was true. “Some of Latitia’s lost logbooks were discovered recently in Alemeth, but her information was not complete. I’m here to remedy that.” Also true. “Working in a city suits me, at the moment; I’m not quite ready to return to hard roads.” All true, as far as it went — and caution warned her to take it no further.

“Hm. If you’re looking to fill in news from forty-two years ago, you’d best be asking the old folks.”

“I’ll do that. But I’d be interested in speaking to anyone who remembers that time at all.” She drank again, and the watcher refilled the glass. “Still,” Rowan continued, “I suppose I should start at the top, and work my way down. Who is the oldest person in town, do you know?”

He considered as he poured. “I suppose that might be old Nid.”

“Where might old Nid be found?”

“I don’t know him well… I’ve seen him out at the docks up riverside, watching the eelers at their work. I think his granddaughter’s one of them. Or, there’s a mug-room where the steves dry out; I’ve noticed him there a time or two, and he did look like a fixture. Ah, wait, now that I think of it, hang about –” He closed his eyes again to search his memory; Rowan found herself wondering what sort of internal filing system he employed. “I believe…” He opened his eyes. “Yes, I once heard that he used to be mayor; maybe that could have been around that time.”

This was very good news; a person in such a position would know a great deal about the town’s doings while he was in office. “It sounds like Nid’s my man.”

“Sounds like.”

Rowan received directions to the mug-room, and the conversation continued in a more desultory fashion. At last the steerswoman rose, finding her leg grateful for the rest; but she paused, and nodded toward the southeast window. “Isn’t that where Saranna’s Inn used to be?”

He turned to look. “Yes. They’re putting down a plaza there, now. And talking about a fountain, as well. You’ve been here before, have you? You must have heard about the fire.”

“I know of it.” The steerswoman did not volunteer more. “But I thought Saranna might have rebuilt…”

“No, we lost the inn and Saranna herself that day, more’s the pity; we all miss her.” He caught the change in her expression. “Did you know her?”

The steerswoman was rather long in replying; and then she sighed. “We met, briefly,” was all she said.

“Well, it’s a shame she’s gone. Still, it could have been worse. The whole city could have gone up, if Jannik hadn’t been here to stop those dragons. Took the trouble to move their nesting-places, too, further away from the city. We’re lucky to have a wizard in Donner…”

He escorted her downstairs, carrying her pack to the street door, and held it as the steerswoman retrieved her cane, which was thong-tied at its sided. She needed it only occasionally, but she used the cover of the movements to surreptitiously scan the street.

To the left, a pair of little girls in matching red-flounced dresses strolled arm in arm; a young woman in working attire hauled a cart of kindling down the cobbled street; a group of five sailors wandered aimlessly, gawking at the decorative moldings that each house displayed on every eave and window-ledge.

And to the right —

“Hm.” The watcher had noticed her glance, and followed its direction. “Don’t recognize those two. Did they come in on the same ship you did?”

“Yes, they did” Rowan said; and by taking the watcher’s hand to shake, she managed to turn him back toward her, shifting his attention away from the couple. “Thank you for the wine,” she said, then donned her pack and departed, to the left.


First order of business: her letter, dealt with.

Her second order of business took Rowan on a very long but thankfully flat walk through the streets, northeast from the harbor. She arrived at Donner’s gracious Tea-Shop, with its wide veranda overlooking the weedy estuary. The veranda was now deserted, but for a collection of disconsolate, hunch-shouldered gulls lining the railing. It began to rain.

Nearby: a small, shabby shop. Rowan entered, brushed wetness from her hair, slipped her pack from her shoulders.

The bell on the door called from a back room a small, squat woman with a bright eye and gnarled hands. After exchanging greetings, Rowan drew a silk handkerchief from her right vest pocket and opened it. “Can you size this to my finger?”

The jeweler studied the item Rowan passed, then turned up a sharp gaze. “Now, this is a steerswoman’s ring.”

“So it is. And I am a steerswoman.”

“But this isn’t yours.”

“It is now. Its owner resigned, and I lost my own. I seem to have inherited it.”

“Hm. Can you prove you’re a steerswoman?”

“What sort of proof would suffice? I can show you my charts. You can read my logbook, if you like, or look at the soles of my boots.”

The jeweler twisted her mouth in amusement. “I could do all that. Well, I don’t suppose you’ve stolen all your gear; those boots fit you too well.” She considered the ring again. “An hour. Will you wait, or come back?”

“I’ll wait, if you don’t mind. And may I pay you?”

The woman wrinkled her nose. “No, don’t bother. Nice of you to ask, though.”

Rowan tried on a few sizing-rings, and the jeweler set to work. Finding no chair about, the steerswoman eased herself to sit on the floor by her pack, with her back against the wall, needing first to unstrap her sword. This she laid across her lap.

The jeweler glanced up. “Either you’re stronger than you look or you inherited that sword, as well.”

“As a matter of fact, I did.” It was a bit chill on the floor; Rowan adjusted her cloak around her knees. “I hope to trade it for a lighter one.” Her own sword was lost, and she missed it deeply; although plain to the eye, it had possessed subtle superiorities which she had learned exploit well. She wondered if she would ever regain the level of skill it had allowed her.

The jeweler informed her of the location of the city’s two swordsmiths, and of a pawnshop where weapons were sometimes found, and continued with her work, using incongruously heavy clippers to precisely cut a tiny section from the circle of the ring.

Outside, voices: happy exclamations, as if two long-lost friends were meeting by chance. Rowan thought the performance at least overdone, if not entirely unnecessary, and suppressed a surge of annoyance.

The jeweler noticed the turn of her head. “Someone you know?”

“They traveled on the same ship I did,” Rowan said.

The jeweler crimped the ring around a sized rod, then used a pair of tongs to hold it in the heat of the tiny furnace at the back of the room. She was making a speedy job of it. Before the opportunity was lost, Rowan asked: “Have you lived here all your life?”

“I was born right upstairs.”

She seemed the right age, barely. “Do you remember a wizard named Kieran?”

The woman suddenly straightened up from the furnace door and, to Rowan’s amazement, tilted back her head, closed her eyes, and flung out both hands. “The Lion!” she announced. “The Eagle! The Winged Horse, and the Brothers, and the Sisters!”

“The constellations,” Rowan said, bemused.

The jeweler dropped her arms, and returned to heating, her face now transformed with childlike happiness. “Oh, yes, I learned them all. What a wonder, to know the stars have names!”

“And… how does this relate to Kieran?”

“Oh, he loved the children, such a sweet old man. Once a month, just over at the tea-shop,” she pointed with her free hand, “right at midnight, he’d have a little party, with cakes and sweet tea, and only children invited. And all the lanterns made red, so you could see the stars, he said. He taught us the star-names, and told us their stories…”

Rowan was astonished. This was absolutely contrary to her understanding of the nature of wizards. “You weren’t afraid of him?”

“Some were, you know how children can be. And some of the parents, they wouldn’t let their little ones come at all. But living right here, I never missed a single party. Me and about a dozen others, more or less, showed up every month, until the old wizard passed away.”

Rowan considered this information silently. The jeweler continued her work.

“How did he die, do you know?” Rowan asked.

“Old age.” A pause. “Well, I’m assuming. He looked to me to be about a hundred years old… Collecting information, are you?”

“It’s what we do.”

The conversation lapsed; Rowan leaned her head back against the wall. Her hair was still damp, but the room was warm, and she felt herself settle into comfort, listening to the quiet creaks and clinks as the jeweler worked, the hiss of rain, the distant cries of gulls…

She did not realize that she had dozed off until a hand on her shoulder woke her. She startled violently, and found the jeweler equally startled. “Jumpy, aren’t you? But we’re done.”

Rowan rubbed her eyes, and clumsily regained her feet; her leg had stiffened while she slept. She winced. “Let’s see.” The jeweler laid it in Rowan’s palm. The steerswoman picked it up, turned it over and over.

A smooth silver circle. Its only ornamentation: a twist in the band. But it was that twist, that precise half-turn, that made all the difference.

It identified the ring, immediately, as a steerswoman’s, and altered the ring’s geometry, subtly, from a simple circle into a lovely paradox.

What seemed to possess two edges had only one. And the two apparent surfaces — the inside of the ring and the outside — were in fact the same single surface, doubled back upon itself.

The jeweler had done well: there was no sign of the alteration. It was perfect. Rowan slipped it on the middle finger of her left hand.

[ …. spoiler removed…]

[…..]  this ring did speak to her, and not of its own sad history. In pure silver it innocently declared its strange truth: smooth, hard, and bright.

Rowan’s own history was written, permanently, on the hand that bore it: a complexity of tiny scars, the price of inattention. And on her leg: the deep burn of a stranger’s ignorance. And invisibly, on her spirit: the wounds of anger, and betrayal, and desperation.

The cost of knowledge was struggle, and pain. But the reward, always, was clean, clear, bright…

“Need a hankie?”

“What?” Rowan looked up, found her vision blurred. She used her sleeve to dry her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’ve been a long time without my ring. I’m very glad to have this. Thank you.”

The jeweler studied her, nodded. “You look tired. Where are you staying?”

“I haven’t decided yet…”

“I’ve got a spare room upstairs.”

“That’s very kind. But I was hoping for something more central. I’ll be doing a lot of walking.”

“Hm.” The jeweler took herself back to her workbench. “I can think of any number of people who’d be willing to put up a steerswoman. Or you could try the Dolphin, smack in the middle of town. Ruffo’s a skinflint, but you might be able to shame him into it. Do you want this?” She turned back, a small chip of silver between thumb and forefinger.

“No…” Rowan glanced at her ring again. “You keep it. Perhaps you can find some use for it.”

“Perhaps I will.” The jeweler considered it speculatively, then laughed. “There, you see? You’ve paid me after all.”

“Someone has,” Rowan admitted.


The Dolphin was a sprawling establishment, possessing three wings of differing ages. Centrally, a large and comfortable sitting room faced the street through tall windows of real glass, behind which a number of well-dressed patrons were tended by graceful and solicitous servers, all safe from the drizzling rain.

Directly adjacent: a small entrance, announced by a life-sized model of a dolphin hung above the door. The detail on this was excellent, and Rowan surmised that the original artist had actually been privileged to observe the creatures personally. Unfortunately, later maintenance had been executed by a lesser hand, whose owner clearly shared Donner’s local love of clumsy excess decoration. The fish was painted brightly, red on top, green below, with gold-gilt eyes and an entirely spurious line of wave-like markings down its length. Rowan felt she ought to apologize to it on the city’s behalf.

Inside, Rowan found a simpler public room. The proprietor, one Ruffo, was occupied, and Rowan found a seat and listened while he conducted his business.

“Well, back again, getting to be a regular thing, isn’t it? Just off Graceful Days, I suppose? And what’s this? A lady?” Introductions were performed, at a rather high volume; around the room, heads turned to watch. Rowan tried not to do the same. “Your usual room is available, as it happens, but as you’ve got company this time, I suspect you’ll want something a little finer —”

Eventually, the arrangements were completed; Rowan waved away the server who approached her, then rose and went to introduce herself to Ruffo.

He was a small, wiry man, dressed in fine green twill trousers with bright red piping, and a yellow silk shirt that did not complement his complexion. As mark of his trade, he also wore a white apron, but even this was of good, heavy linen, and sported a small embroidered red dolphin at the lower right corner. The apron was starched, and spotless.

When Rowan identified herself as a steerswoman, Ruffo grew wary. His suspicions were confirmed when she made her request: a small room, if one could be spared. She made no mention of payment.

Ruffo looked aside, scratched his ear, and embarked on a series of rambling comments regarding a sudden excess of business due to the ship’s arrival, a caravan that would depart in two days, and more; he continued for some time. Rowan merely stood patiently, leaning on her cane.

The handful of patrons in the common room watched closely, said nothing, but visibly grew more and more outraged on the steerswoman’s behalf. Finally, Ruffo succumbed to the silent social pressure. Likely the cane had helped.

A chambermaid wearing an extremely dubious expression escorted the steerswoman: up a broad, polished staircase; through a tangle of corridors; down a narrow, dusty, staircase exactly the same length as the first; down another corridor; and eventually to a door that opened on a room merely twice the size of its bed.

A rickety table stood under the window, holding pitcher and ewer and candlestick. A less rickety but even more ancient chair was tucked under the table. The maid departed for linens, and Rowan took off her pack, set it on the floor, and discovered that there remained in the room exactly enough space for one person to stand.

She thought a moment, exited the room and continued down the corridor. Five feet, a turn to the right: and the steerswoman found herself at a door which opened directly to the outside.

A dirt yard, now hissing with rain and splashing mud; stables to the right; kitchen entrance to the left, and access to the street beyond. Excellent.

She shut the door and made her long and tedious way up and down stairs, back to the common room, where she requested a simple meal. When it arrived, its quality surprised her: eel in a tart lemon sauce; brown rice seasoned with scallions; a large mug of vegetable stew with rice noodles; and an entire bottle of the effervescent pear wine. Rowan nervously asked the price. The server, a slim, handsome lad of about fourteen, glanced about, gazed at the ceiling as if doing sums in his head, gave her a wink, and departed.

The cuisine on Graceful Days had been hearty, but artless. Rowan dined with deep pleasure, and when her plates were cleared away, gathered up her bottle and glass, and took herself to a seat at a table closer to the fire.

The room slowly emptied of diners, until all that remained were a handful of locals by the hearth, and the occupants of the table directly behind Rowan. There, over one and then a second pitcher of ale, the conversation continued: loud, enthusiastic. One could not help but listen, and Rowan resigned herself to doing so. Eventually she heard:

“Now, didn’t I tell you — finest ale to be had in Donner, and I know my ale. But, alas, even the best ale only comes to visit, never to stay. If you’ll excuse me…” And Rowan heard the scrape of a chair, and the side-door opening, then closing.

The room grew instantly quieter, and the patrons by the fire-place seemed to sigh in relief. Rowan waited a few moments; then she leaned back in her chair, and spoke quietly, without turning. “Bel, what exactly do you think you’re doing?”

From behind her, the reply, as quiet, was amused. “I’m doing exactly what we planned. I’m watching your back.”

“With Dan constantly at your side?”

“I’ve decided that he makes good cover.”

The steerswoman brought her glass to her lips, sipped twice. No one was taking note of the conversation. She said: “He is large, loud, and attracts a great deal of attention.”

“Perfect. The best place to hide something is in plain sight. And the best way to hide something in plain sight is to put it right next to something large, and loud, and distracting.”

“I’m not attempting to hide.”

“I don’t mean you, I mean me. I’m keeping a low profile.”

“By maintaining a high one?”

“That’s right. Wherever Dan and I go, everyone watches us. No one can accuse me of sneaking around.”

“You’re using him.”

“So I am. And he’s enjoying it. He thinks it’s an adventure.”

“I don’t want him to enjoy it!” Rowan glanced about; no one had noticed her sudden vehemence. She moderated her voice, and studied her wineglass as if idly. “Bel, at some point, possibly soon, this may well become dangerous. Dan isn’t a fighter or an adventurer; he’s just a cooper from Alemeth. He doesn’t have the resources to deal with real danger.”

“Yes he does; he has me. If anyone makes a move on him, I’ll kill them. Really, Rowan, it’s all very simple.”

“This was not in the plan.” Rowan found she was grinding the heel of her hand into her forehead. She stopped herself. “Bel –”

“Rowan, I’m better at this than you are. You do your job; I’ll do mine. I think it’s lucky that Dan needed to come to Donner at the same time we did. I’m going to go on taking advantage of him for as long as I can. In a couple of days, he’ll head upriver after his order of lumber, and you can stop worrying about him then.”

At this point Dan himself entered the room, deep in conversation with someone he had met outside. Rowan and Bel quickly exchanged directions to each other’s rooms, and the steerswoman addressed herself to the rest of her wine.


Much later, in her tiny room, as the steerswoman sat nodding over her notes and logbook, a soft sound startled her alert.

She sat, speculating. It repeated: a quiet knock on the door.

Rowan cautiously opened it. Bel slid inside and closed the door silently behind her.

She was smaller than Rowan, but muscular, and sturdy. Her hair was thick and brown, worn short over a wide forehead. Her nose was strong, her mouth small and mobile. But what one noticed first, and last, about Bel were her eyes: very dark, and large. On a person of her size they seemed completely to dominate her face, and whenever Rowan thought of Bel, the image she always had was of those great, dark eyes, looking up.

The dark eyes now regarded Rowan’s chamber with astonishment. “Is this a room, or a closet?”

“I suspect it’s served as both,” Rowan said. “Have you learned something?”

“Yes, good news.” Bel reached past Rowan, tested the mattress with one hand, and sat down. “I heard some locals talking. It seems that the wizard Jannik is out of town.” She attempted a bounce. The bed did not bounce with her. “Ow.”

Rowan leaned back against the door, thinking. Bel caught her expression. “Rowan, that is good news. We may get by without being noticed at all.”

Rowan crossed her arms. “I suppose it must be coincidence…”

Bel threw up her hands. “Of course it’s coincidence!”

“ — but I do find it suspiciously convenient –”

“He’s been gone for two days! If he were trying to lull you into a false sense of security, and lay a trap, he would have had to know already that you were coming here. Two days ago, you were on Graceful Days. Before that, you were in Alemeth, where no one has had contact with the rest of the world for months.”

“No one that we know of –”

“You know everyone in Alemeth. There are no wizard’s minions there!”

“And perhaps Jannik needs no minion to report my movements to him. He can watch me from the sky.”

Silence. “But he can’t tell it’s you,” Bel said at last. “Fletcher said, from so high up you can’t tell one person from another.”

“Yes. Still… magic.” The steerswoman spoke it like a curse word.

Bel studied her long. “How’s your leg?”


“So are you. That’s why you’re jumping at shadows.” She rose. “Get some rest. I have to go; Dan and I are planning on making an amazing number of very peculiar noises in our room for the next hour or so. With luck, we’ll be everyone’s favorite topic of conversation tomorrow, and no one will bother to wonder about some steerswoman.”

Rowan laughed, quietly. “Oh, very well.” She checked the corridor outside, left and right, then stood aside to let Bel through.

Something occurred to her: she said, as Bel passed, “And will any of those peculiar noises be genuine?”

The short, strong woman paused in the light from the door, tilted her head, considered. “I haven’t decided yet,” she said; then she turned and slipped silently away into the dark.


copyright 2004 by Rosemary Kirstein