"The first duty of a Highborn lady is obedience."
So spoke the young instructress as she swept imperiously back and forth before her even younger class. The extreme tightness of her under-skirt obliged her to walk with tiny, rapid steps, but she did this so smoothly that she might have been mounted on wheels.
"A lady's second duty is self-restraint," she said, pivoting on her toes. Her full outer skirt belled out round her, velvet pleats opening to reveal panels of rich embroidery, restraint transformed by long practice into grace.
"Her third duty is endurance."
The little girls obediently echoed the words after her, fingers busy with the knot stitch which they were currently learning, eyes downcast behind the simple veils that were appropriate to their age and rank. They had already repeated these maxims endless times, both in their home keeps and here in the Women's Halls at Gothregor—not that their teacher thought of that in terms of endurance. She herself had learned to love the simple dictums which gave shape to her life, and believed that the more often her students heard them, the better.
That had been especially true over the winter just past. Never in her short life had she seen such snows, or felt such cold, or heard such winds as had come howling down the narrow throat of the Riverland. By day, her fingers had blanched with frost even within the halls, while outside birds had plummeted frozen from the sky. At night, she had lain awake in the arms of her sister-friend, hearing the stones groan around them and the distant boom of ironwood trees shattering in the cold. Even on Spring's Eve, they had to dig into snow banks for the crocus with which to make their vows, guided by the flowers' violet glow beneath the ice crust.
Under these circumstances, the inmates of the halls hadn't been home since the previous autumn. True, the younger ones didn't expect to leave Gothregor before summer, but it made a difference, knowing they couldn't go home even if they wanted to. Still, thought the instructress, they had better get used to being homesick. Soon they would have to go wherever their lord sent them, to honor whatever contract he chose to make in their behalf. By then, of course, many of them would belong to the community of sister-kinship which would be their only true "home" as adults. At present, though, they were still the children of different, distant homes, in need of all the self-control which the Women's World could teach them.
Their young teacher had also felt that need, despite the warm arms of her Edirr sister. For her, the snow, the cold, and the wind of the past winter had been nothing compared to its strangeness. With most of the Kencyr Host wintering in Kothifir, the Riverland had been so empty. Now that the snow had finally melted, one heard first hand accounts of things only rumored before: of weirding mist and Merikit raiders, of strange noises in the earth and air, and of arboreal drift. Why, one hunter even claimed to have heard the demented howls of the Burning Ones, avengers of the slain, far south of their usual haunts—but that was nonsense. Everyone knew that they and their master, the Burnt Man, were mere Merikit superstitions.
Still, things must improve soon, now that Kencyr were beginning to return. The Jaran Heir Kirien had passed by some weeks ago accompanied by the haunt singer Ashe, bound for the Scrollsmen's College at Mount Alban. More important, only three days ago the first of the lords had returned. That it had been Caldane, Lord Caineron of Restormir, seemed an especially good omen, since she herself was a Coman with two Caineron grandmothers. The Highlord's garrison, on the other hand, had manned the walls as if expecting an attack.
Abruptly, another memory came to her, unbidden, unwelcome. Rumor said that just after the great battle at the Cataracts, Caineron had been stricken with some mysterious illness, which his randon commander had described as "not quite feeling in touch with things"—whatever that meant. The health of great lords affected everyone bound to them, even distantly, as she herself was. One more thing tottering in her world, one more thing insecure ! . . .
So she glided back and forth before her class, repeating the great truths, demonstrating by her grace that the world still made sense, here in the heart of the Women's World where nothing ever changed.
Below, hooves rang on cobble stones. The windows looked down on the Forecourt, so called because it occupied the foremost open space in the Women's Halls, which themselves occupied the back half of Gothregor. At the center of the entire fortress was the old Knorth keep, whose own rear half projected into the Forecourt. A horse was clattering in through the gate which separated the court from the fortress's inner ward. But men weren't allowed here, the instructress thought, outraged. These were the Women's Halls, where even the Kendar guards were female.
Then she saw that the rider, although properly masked, was wearing a divided skirt and, yes, boots. Lady Brenwyr of Brandan had returned to Gothregor.
At the best of times, most people found this Highborn unnerving. The Iron Matriarch, they called her behind her back for her rigid discipline. These past few months, however, that control had seemed to slip. Everyone had been aware of her restless comings and goings, as if even in the depths of winter she had been unable either to stay in or away from the Women's Halls for any length of time.
The instructress had heard scandalized whispers about the Iron Matriarch's traveling garb, but had never before seen it for herself. It was indecent, she thought, and yet ! . . and yet . . . .
She firmly believed that whatever her elders did was above criticism. The conflict between that dictum and her feelings confused and frightened her. Things should be one way or the other.
Brenwyr dismounted and disappeared into the north wing quarters of the Brandan.
"Forget what you can't help," the Women's World taught.
The instructress turned from the window, wiping what she had just seen from her mind.
"The fourth duty of a lady," she said firmly to the class, "is to be silent."
Traditionally, the response to this was mouthed rather than spoken. This time, however, a low but quite distinct voice in the rear of the classroom said:
"Who was that?" demanded the instructress sharply, but she already knew. "Now what have you done? Come here and let me see."
The dark figure in the back row rose and glided forward into the shafts of late afternoon sunlight which fell through the windows like the memory of antique gold. Once her gown must have glowed in such light. Now the little girls snickered as she passed, pointing out to each other the tarnished silver trim, the threadbare royal blue facings, and the rich plum velvet, dulled by age to the color of a bruise.
Once they had laughed less cautiously. The instructress remembered their taunt: "Seeker, seeker . . . ." because of the eyeless mask with which the Matriarchs had tried to curb the newcomer's roaming. But then that blind face had turned toward the class and they had frozen, like . . . like the instinctive cower of small animals before a hooded hawk.
That was not a suitable image, the young teacher told herself sternly.
Anyway, now the oncoming figure wore a standard half-mask and ignored the children as she passed them.
But their giggles were still nervous, and so was their teacher.
For one thing, she wasn't used to pupils older than herself, if only by a few years. Worse, this elder girl was a Knorth, the Highlord's own sister. There had been no Knorth women at Gothregor for more than thirty years, since Bashtiri assassins had given the entire family a hard shove toward extinction. To have one here now, with her incredibly old, fabulously pure bloodlines, was like trying to deal with a creature of legend.
But the Matriarchs hadn't allowed her that status. Rather, they had subordinated her to her brother's limited term consort, Kallystine, and to any teacher whose classes she was ordered to attend. This was one of them. And, really, this Knorth was so very ignorant. Why, not only had she no knowledge of needlecraft—or of any other skill which any self-respecting lady should long since have known—but she wasn't an initiate into even the lowest ring of secrecy. Therefore, the instructress spoke sharply to her, but with a strong impulse to back away as the Knorth advanced, black gloved hands extended.
Then she saw why those hands were so oddly held: the Knorth had accidentally sewn them together.
The young teacher sighed, obscurely reassured.
"Oh, Lady Jameth. Not again. If those gloves make you so clumsy, why don't you take them off?"
"I prefer not to."
The voice was level, without emphasis, but with something so unyielding in it that the instructress felt piqued. After all, this was her class, and all the pupils here were under her authority.
"Don't be silly," she said sharply. "I insist."
"So do I."
The gloved hands clenched and parted, snapping the threads, diving out of sight behind the other's back.
Like two wild things escaping, the instructress thought.
For a moment, absurdly, she had been very frightened indeed, and that in turn made her angry.
"You must obey me!" she insisted, reaffirming the shape of her world. "The first duty of a Highborn lady . . . ."
". . . is obedience," finished that expressionless voice. "But why?"
"You mustn't ask that!"
"Because . . . because it's forbidden!"
"That's circular reasoning. Why is it forbidden?"
This couldn't be happening. No one asked such things, especially in front of children. "All knowledge is the gift of our elders. They tell us what we need to know, when we need to know it. To demand an answer is . . . is sacrilegious."
"Not that, surely," said the Knorth. Her voice had lost its flatness, as if for the first time in weeks she was beginning to enjoy herself. "When the Three-Faced God drew the three people of the Kencyrath together to fight Perimal Darkling down the Chain of Creation, he (or she, or it) didn't give us any choice in the matter. I don't think that, ultimately, we could commit sacrilege against him if we tried. Anyway, he apparently abandoned us after our first defeat thirty millennia ago, so that we've been on our own, in retreat from threshold world to world, ever since. But we still have our honor, whatever god or man does to us."
"And a lady's honor is obedience!" cried the instructress, beginning to wax hysterical. Surely that must clinch the argument.
"But if she faces Honor's Paradox, ordered to do something dishonorable?"
"But it happened."
And, suddenly, she began to chant, the old dark story rolled over the room like an eclipse, the daylight dying:
"Gerridon Highlord, Master of Knorth, a proud man was he. The Three People held he in his hands—Arrin-ken, Highborn, and Kendar. Wealth and power had he and knowledge deeper than the Sea of Stars. But he feared death. 'Dread Lord,' he said to the Shadow that Crawls, even to Perimal Darkling, ancient of enemies, 'my god regards me not. If I serve thee, wilt thou preserve me, even to the end of time?' Night bowed over him. Words they spoke. Then went my lord Gerridon to his sister and consort, Jamethiel Dream-Weaver, and said, 'Dance out the souls of the faithful, that darkness may enter in.' And she danced . . . ."
"Stop it!" cried the instructress, hands over her ears.
But she knew all too well how that terrible story ended, as someday these children would too if their elders condescended to tell them. Two-thirds of the Kencyrath had fallen, soul-raped, and the shattered remnant had fled to the next threshold world, Rathillien. Three thousand years ago, that had been, but no lapse of time could dim the horror of that night or its repercussions in the Women's World, which paid daily for the Dream-Weaver's fall.
At least, so her elders had told her when, as a child, she had been so ill-bred as to question the restrictions which were to shape her life. That was when she had first heard Jame-thiel's lament with its bitter coda: "Alas for the greed of a man and the deceit of a woman, that we should come to this!"
It had never occurred to her before that the Dream-Weaver had fallen through obedience to her lord.
But a lady's honor was obedience.
Stop it, stop it. Things must be one way or the other.
"W-we don't discuss such questions here," she stammered, struggling to wipe them out of her mind. "We practice obedience, self-restraint, endurance, silence . . . ."
"And knot stitches." The Knorth sighed. "Some of us do, anyway. Just the same," she added, regarding the sampler which the younger girl held, "a raised stitch like that might be useful as part of a code . . . ."
The instructress felt herself go cold. "Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!"
And her hand lashed out, as if of its own volition, to deal that masked face the hardest slap it could.
The Knorth went rigid. Her own gloved hands were still behind her.
The nearest child, staring at them in awe, said, "Oh look, oh look!"
The teacher had fallen back a step as if shoved away by the other's sudden blaze of anger, remembering too late all she had heard about the deadly Knorth temper. She instinctively clutched the sampler to her chest as if sheltering behind it and flinched back as one of those gloved hands lashed out at her in a black and white blur.
Then the Knorth whirled about and left the room, moving with a hasty stride reduced by the tightness of her underskirt to a series of rapid jerks.
The instructress let out her breath unsteadily. She felt as if some appalling violence had just flashed past her, incredibly doing no harm.
Then the sampler fell to shreds in her grasp.
"Did you see her hands?" the little girl was babbling. "Did you see . . . ?"
"Be quiet!" snapped her teacher. "The fourth duty of a lady is . . . ."
But down the hall, another voice broke the rule of silence to exclaim, "Lady Jameth, be careful on that stair!"
That triggered a chorus of warnings, as the Knorth was hailed from the doorway of every classroom she passed: "Slow down"
"Walk like a lady"
"Watch your step"
The instructress reached her own door in time to see the singing mistress, nearest the steps, pop out of her room to wail, "Remember what happened the last t . . . ."
They all saw the Knorth hop down the first two steps—which was indeed the proper way for a lady to descend—but she was still going too fast. The next moment, she pitched forward out of sight. Her sharp cry echoed up the spiral stair as she tumbled down it.
A collective sigh rose from the instructresses in the upper hall: "Oh no. Not again."