Our first three days’ sail were slow, agonizingly so, as the craft tacked far south, out of sight of land, to pick up the Paivai Current. At midsummer, the Captain explained, the winds along that part of the coast are contrary, blowing eastward from the mouth of the Twolight Gulf. The southern swing into the Khorden Sea would save us days’ sailing, as the Paivai would carry us westward far more quickly than weary days tacking against the winds, along the coast.
Guildfolk are sometimes criticized for their unwillingness to share the intricacies of their craft with outsiders, but I found Captain Matyas pleasantly forthcoming. Perhaps, as the Lady’s escort, I received a higher degree of courtesy. But the Captain impressed me as one justly proud of his skill and his ship, and welcoming the opportunity to display them.
His awe of the Lady tied his tongue at first, but within a few days her warmth and quiet humor restored a natural camaraderie among the crew. It was only sometimes in the fading light of day’s end, that she would walk restlessly along from quarterdeck to forecastle, face stony with inward worries, eyes traveling to the painted western sky with something like mingled hope and dread.
On the sixth day out from Port Aravas, I was standing on the quarterdeck, watching ungainly-looking greenfins cavort in the ship’s wake, bemused with their sudden leaps and rolls. Captain Matyas had explained that the ship’s passage churned the surface area in a way that took microlife from the immediate subsurface layer, and brought it to the surface. The greenfins were enjoying the bounty, passing as much mingled water and air as possible through the membranes along the insides of their lower jaws and feasting on the foamy mixture that resulted. Greenfins would follow a ship many kilometers if it crossed their path. He pointed out two whose movements seemed curiously synchronized—a newly-mated pair—and was explaining their breeding cycle to me when he glanced up.
A white flash in the sky: Small, distant. “Aahhh…” he turned, and stepped away from the rail, watching the bird’s approach. “I believe I know this one…”
Soon the sun was glinting clearly on white wings. Its approach seemed slow, for all the swiftness of its flight, for we were moving fast. Captain Matyas had tried to explain just how fast, earlier, but I still failed to grasp the conversion between sea measures and land ones. For all our speed, the bird was steadily overtaking us, flying purposefully. Finally it seemed to descend, and Matyas lifted an arm. With a final descent and a flapping flutter of broad, powerful wings, it grasped his sleeve.
The Lady was beside us, then, with Leifara, looking at the bird as Matyas gently stroked its breast with the back of a finger, murmuring something to it in the Allar dialect. After a moment, it extended one of the broad, vane-edged wings, and attached to the wing-claw was a small band. Gently, the Captain detached it, and turned his head, calling to one of the crew to bring a frame and fresh water. When the bird’s needs were attended to, he pulled the reader from his pouch, and slipped the band into it. Wordlessly, then, he handed it to the Lady.
She took the reader from him, and studied the brief message. Although the wind of our passage stirred her hair and fluttered the edge of the scarf about her throat just as ever, she seemed to grow very still, carved like stone. She read the message several times, and finally she passed the reader back to the Captain. For some moments, she watched the sea curl and heave behind us, then she turned to Matyas.
“I will be in your debt, Captain, if you will find a way for me to contact the Lyrin Chancel before we proceed up the Penryl Seas.”
Matyas frowned, thoughtfully. “Veran’s need is my compass, Lady. But the Lyrin Chancel… The Lyoris marshes are set behind dangerous shoals—the Grinders. It will need standing off beyond those and sending the longboat in, perhaps half a day’s rowing. I can signal, possibly the marsh folk will send a punt to meet you, but it may entail a wait of up to a day or more. And the only signal that will reach them would be a firecandle—and they are easily seen from a great distance, possibly even from Gemarin Citadel, if the barbarians are there.”
Her brows drew together as she weighed this assessment.
“No signal, then. The kibri will be in seed, we may be able to flash-signal a harvesting party from further in.”
“Lady, why the Chancel? Surely it is a risk to take the time to go in person. The Captain’s bird-relays could take your message through Firemouth, and have a response by the time we pass there.” I glanced at Matyas for confirmation, and he nodded. “That is true.”
She shook her head. “It is not information I need from Lyrin.”
The color had suddenly drained from Leifara’s face. I did not understand, looking from her to the Lady.
“There is a scion of the Great Tree growing in the central courtyard at Lyrin.” All expression was leached from Leifara’s voice. She did not sound like a Herald at all. She sounded like a very old woman.
The Lady nodded. “Leirranayhafara, will you bear Veran Banner?”
I could see the Herald’s shoulders brace even as I heard the Captain’s intake of breath.
“I am Veran Banner,” Leifara responded, “until you bid me lay down, or release me upon the Starlit Road.” Expression returned to her voice, a kind of grim exultation.
Unlike the banner of the Royal House, or the banners of the Charter Cities and Great Houses and all who hold seisin of the Royal House, Veran Banner is almost never raised. Thrice in her life, a Lady of Veran will ride or walk under her banner: At her Intelument, at the Presentation of the Heirs, and at the Intelument of her own Heir. At those times, the banner is raised, designating her supreme authority to all the karils and Houses of Veran, even the Royal House itself. But they are ceremonial occasions, important but of fixed duration and significance under the Great Law.
Not in my lifetime or the lifetime of my mother has Veran Banner risen, apart from such occasions. The last time had been the opening of the Snowmarch. We’ve been dealing with the aftermath of the generations-long wars that had caught up the old Icemarch and split apart Whitewater and Bevan’s Gift in the wake of that opening for the better part of a century. But Veran Banner was not raised for any of that, wrenching as it was. There was something of the bleak ice of those far northern karils in the Lady’s face as she nodded to Leifara, and turned away to make for the ladder-steps that led to the waist deck.
Matyas looked at me, uneasily. “Does it mean what I think it means?”
I nodded. “The King is dead. The Lady will not present an Heir to the Royal House until the Banner is laid down. Until then, she speaks with the full authority of Veran, with all the Voices.”
I glanced up to the forecastle, where she had sought refuge in intermittent spray that washed the rail. Her hands were on the rail, before her chest, her shoulders bowed. She looked, not outward into the sea, but down, at her hands. I have never seen such naked terror and vulnerability in a human form. Leifara was behind her, still and silent as a statue.