THE PHOENIX UNCHAINED
It was Festival Sennight in Armethalieh, and even though spring was sennights away, the entire city was garlanded in flowers of every kind. The City's greenhouses were always kept busy for moonturns in anticipation of the demand, for what was the anniversary of the Great Flowering without flowers?
Though the City streets were still crusted with the remains of a late snow—it was barely Kindling, and the only flowers to be seen in the natural world were snowdrops and a few hardy early daffodils—every house on the street was garlanded in evergreen swags and bright glass and metal flowers. Even the lampposts had been decorated. Indoors, where it was warmer, every home's Light-shrine was filled with flowers dedicated to the Blessed Saint Idalia and her brother Kellen the Poor Orphan Boy, who had broken the power of the Endarkened over ten centuries before.
When he'd been a baby, Harrier Gillain had been sure that all this celebration was entirely for him. After all, he'd been born during Festival Sennight, and his Naming Day was the first day of Festival. His three older brothers had been happy to contribute to his confusion for as long as possible, assuring him that yes, indeed, the City-wide celebration was entirely for him, and certainly it all meant that he would grow up to be a great Wildmage, perhaps even a Knight-Mage like Kellen the Poor Orphan Boy.
Even as a baby, Harrier had found that hard to believe. Everyone knew that Knight-Mages belonged to the Time of Legend. You might as well hope to see a dragon or an Elf. And while everyone knew that they were both as real as Wildmages, it was also true that they'd withdrawn to the lands far to the East only a century or two after the Great Flowering. Harrier had more chance of meeting a Wildmage, and he had about as much chance of that as he had of . . . well, of becoming the Chief Magistrate of Armethalieh, Highest of the Nine.
But that was something he'd actually stopped thinking about a very long time ago. These days, Harrier knew exactly how his future would go. Once he'd finished his schooling, he would do exactly as his father had done, and his father, and his father, for more generations than Harrier could count. He would do just as his brothers had already done, and go to work for their father, Antarans Gillain, the Harbormaster of Armethalieh.
His eldest brother Eugens worked in the Customs House. His second-eldest brother Carault was apprenticed to a captain who plied a packet (one in which Antarans Gillain owned shares) between the Harbor and the Out Islands; some day, Carault vowed, he would earn his Sea Mastery and captain a Deep Voyager to the Selken Lands at the far side of Great Ocean.
And then there was Brelt.
Brelt was twenty—three years older than Harrier—and the Gillains had thought that he would be their last child. Everything would have worked out very well if he had been, for that would have meant one for the sea, one for the land—in this case, the Customs House—and the youngest child to follow in his father's footsteps and be trained up to assume his position, as was the tradition in the Gillain family. Brelt Gillain absolutely loved everything to do with the work of being Harbormaster: the details, the diplomacy, the need to have the customs and rules not only of Armethalieh the Golden, but of every land she traded with, constantly at the forefront of his mind.
But then Harrier had been born. And later this year, when Harrier graduated Armethalieh Normal School, he would come to work as Apprentice Harbormaster, and Brelt would move over to the Customs House to begin an apprenticeship under Eugens. It really didn't seem fair. But as Brelt had told Harrier cheerfully, Harrier was even less suited to the Customs House than he was to being Apprentice Harbormaster. Brelt assured him he would be happy enough in the Customs House. Much of the work was similar, after all.
Harrier knew that Brelt was right. And both of them loved the Port and the Docks—they'd grown up there, having been brought to work by their father from the time either of them could walk. It was just that Harrier knew, deep down inside, that Brelt had the potential to be a far better Harbormaster than he would ever be. Brelt was glib and diplomatic, and always knew the right thing to say.
Harrier? Well, even Harrier's best friends called him stubborn.
But Da is a good man, and a smart man. He'll do what's best for the City. If I am a hopeless apprentice, why, he'll see that. He'll have Brelt back out of the Customs House so fast it'll steal the wind from the sails of every ship from here to the Out Islands. And then . . .
What then? Harrier certainly couldn't take Brelt's place in the Customs House.
Well, Da will think of something. And today's too fine a day to worry about something that's moonturns and moonturns away. Not with a whole sennight of holiday from lessons, and me with a day of liberty from chores.
In fact, Harrier not only had a day of liberty, he had a day of exile, since he'd been strictly banished from his own home, forbidden to return before Evensong Bells. His mother had assured him that the preparations for his Naming Day party would proceed much more smoothly in his absence. And so, as he often did, Harrier went seeking his best friend to share his rare day of freedom with.
Harrier's household rose at First Dawn Bells—even though his father, as Portmaster, was one of the most important men in the City, Antarans Gillain's family still kept Tradesmen's hours. Harrier knew that in contrast to his family's habits, most of the rest of the City—especially the Nobility—preferred to lie abed and miss the best part of the day. But even though the Rolforts were members of the Nobility—minor nobility, Tiercel always corrected him, whenever he mentioned it—the Rolfort household stirred to wakefulness only a bell after Harrier's did, for even during Festival Sennight, when the Port was quiet, and many of the shops were closed, the administration of the City must go on. As he headed in the direction of the Rolfort townhouse, only two Bells after his own awakening, Harrier was confident he would not only find them all awake, but that Lord Rolfort would already have departed for the day to his duties in Chief Magistrate Vaunnel's office.
When Harrier reached his destination, he took a moment to admire the Festival Sennight decorations that bedecked the front of the Rolfort townhouse before entering the small neat courtyard. The great stone unicorns at the gates had been garlanded with evergreen wreaths studded with the traditional glass flowers. His nurse used to tell him wondertales about the Time of Mages, when all the statues in Armethalieh were alive, and could walk and talk. It was a pretty story, though he'd long since outgrown wondertales. He didn't believe it, anyway. Not even a Wildmage could bring stone to life. But the stone unicorns with their garlands were pretty enough.
In the little courtyard between the unicorns and the front door, tall evergreens in pots had been brought from the back garden and arranged in front of the pillars. Each one had been carefully garlanded with brilliant glittering swags of tinsel—Harrier recognized Hevnade's work; the eldest of Tiercel's four sisters was always the one who took charge of the Festival Sennight decorations. Under her direction, the little courtyard of the Rolfort townhouse had been turned into a spring forest in full magical bloom.
Over the door of the house itself, a representation of the Eternal Light had been hung, its golden rays sparkling in the early morning sun. More garlands of green framed the door itself and, as a final touch, an enormous wreath was attached to the door, the evergreen interwoven with sweet-scented herbs and bright berries. With only a little difficulty, Harrier located the door knocker in the midst of it—a large brass object in the shape of a cheerful, fat-bellied Faun—and knocked loudly.
"I knew it would be you!" Doreses said, opening the door. She was the second-youngest of Tiercel's sisters, claiming the door-duty today because, like most of the noble households of the City, the Rolforts had given their servants the day off. "You spend more time here than in your own home."
Harrier didn't bother to dignify the gibe with a response. Instead, he focused his attention on the squirming bundle in her arms. "And how is the man of the house today?" he teased.
"You hold him," Doreses said promptly, depositing baby Priadan unceremoniously into Harrier's arms and walking off.
There was a moment of chaos while Harrier juggled his giggling kicking burden—fortunately he was already an uncle several times over, and not in the least afraid of babies—before settling his unexpected charge securely in the crook of his arm and kicking the door shut with a backward jab of his boot.
Priadan's birth, just a bit over a year ago, had come as a great surprise to the Rolforts, for after Brodana's birth, the Healers had told Lady Rolfort that there would be no more children, and that had been eight years ago. With five children—and four of them girls—the Rolfort family had seemed entirely complete. Priadan had come as a complete surprise to everyone.
But a good surprise, as Tiercel—the eldest—insisted. It gave his younger sisters something to fuss over. And—as he told Harrier—he no longer had to worry about being the only one to carry on the Rolfort family name. Though as Priadan was only a little over a year old, it would be quite some time before they could expect much from him. With the baby in his arm, Harrier followed the familiar path to the breakfast room.
The family was still gathered around the table: Lady Rolfort, her four daughters—ranging in age from fourteen to eight, and all completely beneath Harrier's notice—and their elder brother, Tiercel.
Theirs might have seemed an unlikely friendship. Harrier was the sturdy bluff son of the Harbormaster of Armethalieh. Tiercel was the son of a member of the minor Nobility, destined, as generations of his family before him had been, for a secretaryship on an administrative council as soon as he had completed his schooling. But the boys had been inseparable since the day they had met. It was one of Harrier's first vivid memories. He'd been three years old.
The day was bright and warm. Harrier Gillain sat outside his Da's office, watching the sun sparkle on the water of Armethalieh Harbor. He was filled with pride that his Da trusted him to play out here all by himself and not go wandering off. But he knew perfectly well that the Docks were a dangerous place for little boys, and Da had told him exactly where to stay. He concentrated on his wooden ships, racing them against each other over the wooden planks. Suddenly his eye was caught by a flash of movement. A little boy had come running out the back door of the Harbormaster's Office, and he was running down the wharf toward the water just as fast as he could go.
The little boy didn't stop. He ran all the way to the end of the wharf, and Harrier was sure a grownup would appear, but no one did. That was wrong. He wasn't allowed out on the wharf at all unless Carault or Eugens or a grownup was with him.
"Hey!" he yelled again, setting down his wooden ship and getting to his feet. What should he do? There didn't seem to be any grownups around, and the little boy with the white hair was teetering on the edge of the wharf. In another minute he'd fall into the water, and while Harrier didn't quite believe his older brothers' tales of boy-eating sea monsters lurking in the water, he certainly believed his Da's stern warnings that little boys must not, on any account, go down to the edge of the wharf.
He got to his feet and ran toward the other boy.
He reached the end of the planks just about the time the stranger had decided to lie down on his stomach and squirm out as far as he could in order to see what he could see. And then wriggle out just a little farther. And then a little farther still. And just as he was slipping into the water, Harrier managed to grab his ankle.
And hold on, just long enough, for his Da and the boy's nurse to get there.
And that was how Harrier Gillain met Tiercel Rolfort.
It was the first time he saved the younger boy from trouble, but not the last, for Tiercel possessed an abiding curiosity about, well, everything, as well as a conviction that nothing could possibly go wrong during his explorations—a conviction that Harrier had disproven more than once down through the intervening years.
"Harrier." Tiercel looked up as he entered the room, blue eyes glinting with amusement. "Is it Evensong Bells already? Come to escort us to your Naming Day party?"
"Cast out of my own home so they can prepare for it in peace, as you know perfectly well," Harrier answered cheerfully. "So I thought I'd come and bother you instead."
"You know you're always welcome here," Lady Rolfort said kindly from her place at the head of the table. "Especially as you're so good as to take over those duties that Doreses seems to feel are too much for her."
"Mama!" Doreses protested. "He asked to hold the baby!"
Lady Rolfort simply held out her arms, and Harrier crossed the room and deposited Priadan into them. The toddler promptly squirmed to get down from his mother's lap, taking an unsteady step before sitting down with a thump on the gently-worn carpet.
"Thank you, Gentle'dy," Harrier said politely.
"Have some tea, Har," Tiercel said. "And I'm sure you wouldn't mind another breakfast."
Harrier grinned. There were some advantages to visiting a Noble household. Breakfast in his own home had been almost two bells ago, and he had no objection at all to another one. He collected a clean plate and cup from the sideboard, helping himself from the wide variety of dishes laid out upon the sideboard before seating himself beside Tiercel.
As he ate, he made polite conversation with Lady Rolfort, assuring her that his mother looked forward to seeing them all this evening at the party (which was certainly true) and telling her anything he knew of the Port gossip that he thought might interest her.
"You begin your Apprenticeship this summer, don't you?" Lady Rolfort asked.
"Yes, Gentle'dy. As soon as I graduate from the Normal. Of course, Tyr has a much grander future before him."
Tiercel kicked him under the table.
Lady Rolfort smiled. "University. You really must choose a course of study, Tiercel. You shouldn't leave it till the last instant."
Tiercel ducked his head. "No, Mama. I promise. I'll choose something soon."
Lady Rolfort laughed. "He has been saying that for the past year, of course! But I am certain that whatever you choose, it will be perfectly suitable. And now, since I am also certain that Harrier did not come here to spend the day indoors with you, why don't the two of you run along? Just be certain to be back here no later than Second Afternoon Bells, so you have plenty of time to wash and dress for the evening."
"Are you sure, Mama?" Tiercel said, gesturing at his sisters. "I mean—"
"I am quite certain that I can keep four girls occupied for the day," Lady Rolfort said firmly. "And if I don't decide to sell them to the Selken Traders, I might even take them to see the Festival Fair later."
The squeals of "Oh Mama" and "Yes, please" were quite loud and shrill enough to make Harrier want to cover his ears—and to be grateful that his nieces were not old enough to be quite so—enthusiastic.
The two boys stood in the courtyard of the Rolfort townhouse. But despite a pocket jingling with silver unicorns and copper demi-suns—more money than most boys his age saw in a moonturn—Tiercel's mood was somber.
"I don't see why Mama is so convinced I will somehow figure out what it is I want to study at Armethalieh University between now and Harvest moonturn," Tiercel said, sounding uncharacteristically glum.
"Well, it hardly matters what you study, does it?" Harrier answered bluntly. "It's not as if they teach anything practical at University."
"Why does everything have to be practical with you?" his friend retorted.
"See how far you get when things aren't. I like things I can see, hear, feel, and touch," Harrier said firmly.
"You always have," Tiercel responded with a smile. "So, we have time and money. Where shall we go?"
"The harbor?" Harrier suggested, as the two friends walked off down the street.
If the City was grandly decorated for Festival, then the Port was even more grandly decorated, for it was there, according to legend, that the unicorns had run across the water to save the City. Every ship in Port flew a unicorn pennant at Festival time, and competed to see which ship could produce the most elaborate unicorn decoration upon its bow.
"We always go to the harbor," Tiercel said dismissively. "We could go to Temple Square."
"The Great Library? Bor-ring," Harrier sing-songed. "And you always go to the Library."
"The University? The grounds are decorated for the Festival," Tiercel suggested.
Harrier took a deep breath and huffed it out in a snort of exasperation. "You'll see enough of it come autumn, won't you?"
"I suppose," Tiercel agreed.
It had been three years since the two boys had attended the same school. Those bound for University transferred to the Preparatory School at thirteen, to spend three years there before entering University at sixteen. Those who were going into Apprenticeships stayed at the Normal School until the end of the school year in their seventeenth year, and then signed Articles with a Master in their field.
As they argued amiably over all the places they could go, their steps took them from the streets of the Noble Quarter and into the Tradesman's District, which bordered it. Here the streets were busier, even on the first day of Festival.
Suddenly a shower of snow rained down on them from above. Harrier—who had gotten most of it down his collar, hopped and swore, looking around for his attacker. Tiercel danced out of reach of his frantic thrashings, laughing and pointing upward. Harrier looked in the indicated direction. On a second floor ledge, an industrious Brownie housewife was sweeping away at the snow with a tiny broom. Tiercel waved up at her, and the little creature paused in her labors to wave back before continuing to sweep the ledge free of snow.
Brownies were one of the few Otherfolk races who had elected to remain among humans when most of the Otherfolk—at least the ones that people could see—had gone Eastward with the Elves. Their lives and ways were a mirror of the humans they so closely resembled, and it was said that to have a Brownie family living in the walls of one's house brought luck. Both the Rolforts and the Gillains had had Brownie families—perhaps even the same set of Brownies—living with them for as far back as their family records stretched.
"She could have picked a better time," Harrier grumbled, still shaking himself free of snow, and skipping back to dodge a fresh shower of it. "It's Festival. Nobody works on Festival."
"Brownies do," Tiercel said inarguably. He stepped out into the street, motioning for Harrier to follow. "Did you know that there didn't used to be Brownies in Armethalieh?"
Harrier snorted. "I suppose that next you'll be telling me that there didn't used to be Centaurs in Armethalieh," he said, grabbing the collar of Tiercel's cloak and hauling him back onto the walkway, out of the path of a troop of Centaurs who were trotting up the street in the other direction. This particular troop had undoubtedly come for Festival Fair; by the end of the sennight the City would be jammed with visitors from all the Nine Cities, and there wouldn't be a bed to be had in a hostel from here to Nerendale. While every city had its own Festival, the one in Armethalieh was the oldest and best.
By unspoken consent, the boys were heading toward the main Garden Park at the center of the City. The Festival Fair would already be underway there—singers and dancers and storytellers, games of skill and chance, and—later in the day—a dozen different retellings of the events that Festival celebrated, enacted by live actors, carved puppets, and even trained dogs. Festival Fair had something for every taste.
"Do you suppose it all happened the way they say it did in the wondertales?" Tiercel asked idly as they walked. "With the dragons and the unicorns and the Elves?"
It was the same question Tiercel had asked—in one form or another—every Festival Fair for as long as Harrier had known him, and every year Harrier gave him pretty much the same answer. "Well," Harrier said, "the Wildmages say that it did. The Elves came and rescued us and helped us destroy the Endarkened forever. And then they all went away to live far, far away—oh, not the Wildmages, of course. Just the rest of them." He was never quite sure whether Tiercel forgot the answer from year to year or it just didn't satisfy him.
"Well, yes. I saw a Wildmage once. At least, Mama did. She took me to Sentarshadeen when I was a baby, and so sick that the Healers couldn't do anything for me, and there was a Wildmage there, and he did actual magic and healed me—"
"Tyr, you never get tired of telling that story."
"Well, it happened."
"And your point?"
"Just that I'm wondering if all the rest of it is just as true? About Jermayan Dragon-rider and Kellen the Poor Orphan Boy who became a Knight-Mage, and the Silver Eagle that got turned into a woman and became the Blessed Saint Idalia and killed the Queen of the Endarkened. That stuff."
"How should I know? You're the one who's always got his head stuck in a musty old book. Anyway, it happened about a million years ago."
"Well, if the priests in the Temple are right, it happened one thousand and eight years ago this sennight."
"Too much information, Tyr."
Maybe Tiercel ought to become the next Harbormaster, Harrier mused. Because anybody who could remember all the things that Tyr was always telling him about could certainly remember the catalogue of Ships In Port and all the Customs regulations, too.
Of course, that didn't mean that Harrier wanted to spend the rest of his life doing what Tiercel was going to be doing when he graduated University in four years, even if he'd been smart enough to get into University in the first place. No, he liked his life just the way it was.
More or less.
Tiercel Rolfort regarded his friend with an indulgent expression, doing his best not to grin.
He loved teasing Harrier.
He just wished, sometimes, that Harrier would stop pretending he was dumb. Because Tiercel knew perfectly well that Harrier wasn't. He was going to be Harbormaster some day, and the Harbormaster was the second most important person in Armethalieh. Tiercel's father had said, over and over, "stupid men might gain power, but they never hold it." Harrier's family had been Harbormasters in Armethalieh for centuries—and not only had the post passed down in the family in an unbroken line, but the City had prospered.
In a way—though he'd never say something like that to Harrier of course—Tiercel envied his friend. Harrier had always known exactly what his future would hold, and he'd always seemed happy with it. He loved the Port and the Docks. He was prepared for his future.
Tiercel had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He knew what he was going to do with his life, of course. He was going to University.
Harrier was right about one thing. It really didn't matter what Tiercel studied there. It wasn't like an Apprenticeship, preparing him for his future trade. It was to lend him polish and sophistication and culture, so that when he joined the ranks of the other minor nobles and high-ranking Tradeborn who served in the secretaryships and clerkships and consular posts that did the work that kept the City running, he would be among friends.
Friends who shared his interests.
Only he didn't think that was going to happen.
Purchase The Phoenix Unchained, book one of the Enduring Flame trilogy, at your local independent bookstore.
Copyright © 2007 by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. All rights reserved.