Since long before the coming of Gods and mortals, the great rock of Krasnegar had stood amid the storms and ice of the Winter Ocean, resolute and eternal. Throughout long arctic nights it glimmered under the haunted dance of aurora and the rays of the cold, sad moon, while the icepack ground in useless anger around its base. In summer sun its yellow angularity stood on the shining white and blue of the sea like a slice of giants‘ cheese on fine china. Weather and season came and went and the rock endured unchanging, heeding them no more than it heeded the flitting generations of mankind.
Two sides fell sheer to the surf, pitted with narrow ledges where only the crying seabirds went, but the third face ran down less steeply, and on that long mad slope the little town adhered as grimly as a splatter of swallows‘ nests. Above the humble clutter of the houses, at the very crest of the rock, the castle pointed black and spiky turrets to the sky.
No mere human hand could have raised those stones in a land so remote or a setting so wild. The castle had been built long centuries before by the great sorcerer Inisso, to serve as palace for himself and for the dynasty he founded. His descendants ruled there still, in direct male line unbroken. . . but the present monarch, good King Holindarn, beloved of his people, had but a single child -- his daughter, Inosolan.
Summer came late to Krasnegar. When inhabitants of milder lands were counting their lambs and chicks, the brutal storms still rolled in from the Winter Ocean. While those lucky southerners gathered hay and berries, the wynds and alleyways of the north lay plugged with drifts. Even when night had been almost banished from the pallid arctic sky, the hills ashore stayed brown and sere. Every year was the same. Every year a stranger might have given up hoping and assumed that summer was not about to happen at all. The locals knew better and in patient resignation they waited for the change.
Always their faith was rewarded at last. With no warning, a cheerful wind would blunder in to sweep the ice floes from the harbor, the hills would throw off their winter plumage almost overnight, and the snowdrifts in the alleyways would shrink rapidly to sullen gray heaps sulking in shadowed corners. A few days‘ rain and the world was washed green again, fair weather following foul as fast as a blink. Spring in Krasnegar, the inhabitants said, had to be believed in to be seen.
Now it had happened. Sunlight poured through the castle windows. The fishing boats were in the water. The tide was out, the beaches were clear of ice and obviously eager to be ridden on. Inos came early down to breakfast, busily spinning plans for the day.
The great hall was almost deserted. Even before the fine weather had arrived, the king‘s servants had driven the livestock over the causeway to the mainland. Others would now be outside attending to the wagons and the harbor, cleaning up the winter‘s leavings, and preparing for the hectic work of summer. Inos‘s tutor, Master Poraganu, was conveniently indisposed with his customary springtime rheumatics; there would be no objections from him, and she could head for the stables as soon as she had grabbed a quick bite.
Aunt Kade sat at the high table in solitary splendor.
Momentarily Inos debated the wisdom of making a fast retreat and finding something to eat in the kitchens, but she had already been noticed. She continued her approach, therefore, practicing poise and trusting that a regal grace would compensate for shabby attire.
"Good morning, Aunt," she said cheerfully. "Beautiful morning?"
"Good morning, my dear."
"You‘re earlier than -- ooof!" Inos had not intended to make that last remark, but her breeches tried to bite her in half as she sat down. She smiled uneasily, and her sleeves slid quietly up her wrists.
Aunt Kade pursed her lips. Aunts could be expected to disapprove of princesses arriving at meals in dirty old riding habits. "You appear to have outgrown those clothes, my dear."
Kade herself, of course, was dressed as if for a wedding or a state function. Not one silver hair was out of place, and even for breakfast she had sprinkled jewelry around her neck and over her fingers. In honor of the arrival of summer, she had donned her pale-blue linen with the tiny pleats.
Inos restrained an unkind impulse to remark that Kade appeared to have outgrown the pale-blue linen. Kade was short, Kade was plump, and Kade was growing plumper. The wardrobe she had brought back with her two years ago was barely adequate now, and the local seamstresses were all at least two generations out of date in fashioning attire for ladies of quality.
"Oh, they‘ll do," Inos said airily. "I‘m only going along the beach, not leading a parade."
Aunt Kade dabbed at her lips with a snowy napkin. "That will be nice, my dear. Who is going with you?"
"Kel, I hope. Or Ido. . . or Fan. . . Rap, of course, had long since departed for the mainland. So had many, many others.
"Kel will be helping me." Kade frowned. "Ido? Not the chambermaid?"
Inos‘s heart sank. It would not help to mention that Ido was an excellent rider and that the two of them had been out six or eight times already recently in much worse weather than this. "There‘ll be somebody." She smiled thanks at old Nok as he brought her a dish of porridge.
"Yes, but who?" Kade‘s china-blue eyes assumed the tortured look they always did in these confrontations with her willful niece. "Everyone is very busy just now. I shall need to know who is going with you, my dear."
"I‘m a very competent horsewoman, Aunt."
"I‘m sure you are, but you must certainly not go out riding without suitable attendants. That would not be ladylike. Or safe. So you will find out who is available and let me know before you leave?"
Restraining her temper, Inos made noncommittal noises to the porridge.
Kade smiled with relief. . . and apparently with complete innocence. "You promise, Inos?"
Trapped! "Of course, Aunt."
Such babying was humiliating! Inos was older than Sila, the cook‘s daughter, who was already married and almost a mother.
"I am having a small salon this morning. Nothing formal, just some ladies from the town. . . tea and cakes. You would be very welcome to join us."
On a day like this? Tea and cakes and burgesses‘ fat wives? Inos would rather muck out stables.
Disaster! There was no one. Even the youngest and most inadequate stableboy seemed to have been assigned duties of world-shattering importance that could not be postponed. A frenzy of activity possessed everyone still remaining in the castle, and there were few of those anyway. The boys had gone to the hills or the boats. The girls were busy in the fields or the fish sheds. There was no one.
No one of her rank! That was the real problem. All of Inos‘s friends were the children of her father‘s servants, for Krasnegar possessed no nobility below its king, and no minor gentry either, unless one counted the merchants and burgesses. Her father counted them; Aunt Kade did so unwillingly. But servants and gentry alike, the boys were vanishing into trades, the girls into matrimony. There was no one around with leisure to escort a princess, and the prospect of that spirited gallop along the sands began to fade like a mirage.
The stables were almost deserted, by man and beast both. As she went in, Inos passed Ido bearing a bundle of washing on her head.
"Looking for Rap?" Ido inquired.
No, Inos was not looking for Rap. Rap had long since gone landward with the others and would not be back before winter. And why should everyone always assume that it had to be Rap she wanted?
She spent a wistful while agrooming Lightning, although he did not need it. What he needed was more exercise. She had inherited Lightning from her mother, and if her mother had still been alive, then they. . . well, no point in thinking about that.
As Inos left the stable, she passed old Hononin, the hostler, a gnarled and weatherbeaten monument whose face seemed to have been upholstered in the same leather used to make his clothes.
"Morning, miss. Looking for Rap?"
Inos snorted a denial and pranced by him, although snorting was not regal. And probably that way of departing was what the writers of romances called a "flounce," and that would not be regal either. She would not be able to go riding, and Aunt Kade would know she was still around the palace. Would she hunt down her niece to impose the tea-and-cake torture on her? With some relief, Inos decided that Aunt Kade probably wanted her at the affair no more than she wanted to attend. Unfortunately, Kade might decide that duty required her to promote Inos‘s education in the social graces.
At that point in her misery, Inos found herself out in the bailey, and there was a wagon heading for the gate.
She had promised Kade that she would not go riding alone. No one had said she could not go down to the harbor unaccompanied. . . or at least into the town itself. . . not recently, anyway.
The guard was the problem. The token sentry would not likely say anything, but nosy old Sergeant Thosolin liked to sit in the guard room and watch who came and went all day. He might consider that he had authority to question Princess Inosolan. Even if he didn‘t, he probably would.
She hurried across the cobbles to the wagon, then strolled casually beside it as it clattered and jingled through the archway. There was just room for a slim princess to walk between the high rear wheel and the greasy black stones. The noise reverberated astonishingly in that narrow space. She was shielded from the guard room; she marched past the sentry without a glance; a moment later she was in the outer court, feeling like an escaped ferret.
If a king could safely walk unaccompanied around the town, then his daughter could, yes?
Inos did not ask the question aloud, so no one answered it.
She was in no danger. Her father was a popular monarch and Krasnegar a very law-abiding place. She had heard tell of large cities where what she was doing might be foolish, but she was certain that she would come to no harm in Krasnegar. Aunt Kade might object that being unaccompanied was unladylike, but Inos could see no reason why her father‘s independent kingdom need be bound by the customs of the Impire.
A single wagon road zigzagged down the hill, but Inos preferred the narrow stairways and alleys. Some of those were open, some roofed over. Some were bright and sunny, some dark, others partly lighted by windows and skylights. They were all steep and winding, and this fine day they bustled. Inos was recognized often. She received smiles and salutes, frowns and surprised glances, all of which she acknowledged with a confident and regal little nod, as her father did. She was growing up -- they must expect to see her around often in future. And yet, hurrying down the steep little town, Inos saw no one of any interest, only thick-shouldered porters and wide-hipped matrons, tottering crones and sticky-mouthed toddlers. None but the dull remained in Krasnegar in summer.
From time to time she caught glimpses of slate roofs below her and the harbor below those. Two ships had arrived already, the first of the season; and there she was headed. The early arrivals always made Krasnegar nervous, for in some years they brought sickness that would slash through the town like a scythe -- it was less than two years since one such epidemic had carried off the queen. But the harbor was where the excitement would be, where the fishermen and whalers of Krasnegar itself mingled with visitors come to trade, stocky, urbane ships‘ captains from the Impire and the foreboding flaxen-hair jotnar of Nordland -- tall men with ice-blue eyes that could send shivers down Inos‘s arms. She might even see a few sinister goblins from the forest, each leading a party of his wives, loaded with bundles of furs.
Then Inos stumbled to a halt halfway down an open staircase. It was wide and sunny. It was deserted except for two women standing in conversation, but one of them was Mother Unonini, the palace chaplain. From the way the two were poised to move, they were just about to complete their chat. If Mother Unonini looked up and saw Inos unescorted, she would certainly have questions to ask.
A door opened beside Inos, emitting a woman with a package under her arm. Inos smiled at her, took hold of the door, and went in, closing it firmly in a tinkle of silver bell.
The small room was lined by shelves bearing rolls of fabrics. The large lady in the middle was Mistress Meolorne. She looked up, hesitated, and then curtsied.
Rather flattered by that, Inos bobbed in return. She had come shopping, she decided -- a most ladylike occupation to which no one, even Aunt Kade, could possibly object.
"Your Highness is the only lady in Krasnegar who could wear this."
"I am? I mean, why do you say so?"
Mistress Meolorne beamed and bunched rosy cheeks. "Because of the green, your Highness. It exactly matches your eyes. Your eyes are exceptional, remarkable! They are the key to your beauty, you know. I believe you have the only truly green eyes in the kingdom."
Beauty? Inos peered at the mirror. She was draped in a flowing miracle of green and gold silk. Of course she had green eyes, but now that she thought about it, who else did?
"Imps like myself have dark brown eyes," Meolorne said. "And the jotnar have blue. Everyone but you has either brown eyes or blue."
Rap had gray eyes, but Meolorne could not be expected to know a minor palace flunky. Everyone else was either jotunn or imp, one or the other. Imps were short and dark. Jotnar were tall and fair. In summer, jotnar turned red and peeled disgustingly. Imps tended to sicken in winter.
"I‘m neither, am I? Mistress, I don‘t think I‘ve ever thought of that!" Inos‘s father had brown hair and. . . brown eyes. Paler brown than most, she decided.
"You are a diplomatic compromise, your Highness, if I may say so? Your royal father rules both imps and jotnar here in Krasnegar. It would be inappropriate for him to favor either one or the other."
Inos was about to ask if that made her a halfbreed, then thought better of it. Of course the kings of Krasnegar could not be a pure strain. For generations they had played off their predatory neighbors by taking wives from first this side and then that. Normally when imp and jotunn married, the traits did not mingle, and the children took after one parent or the other, but so many royal outcrosses had eventually produced a true mixture in Inos. She must remember to ask her father about it. How curious that she had never noticed before! She was neither tall nor short. Her hair was a rich deep gold, not the flaxen of a jotunn. She did not peel in summer -- indeed she took on a splendid tan. And she certainly did not pine in the long nights, as the imps did. She was a true Krasnegarian, and the only one.
"The bronze for your complexion, the gold for your hair, and the green for your eyes," Mistress Meolorne murmured. "It was designed by the Gods especially for you."
Inos looked again at the miraculous fabric that enveloped her. She had never owned anything like this before. She had not known that such material existed. What a gown it would make! Gold dragons on green fields and fall foliage. . . Whenever she moved the dragons shimmered, as if about to fly. Aunt Kade would be ecstatic over it and delighted that Inos was taking an interest in clothes at last. And her father would certainly not object, for she must expect to start playing her part in formal functions soon, as she neared her coming of age. She would ask Kade to advise her on the design.
"It‘s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen," Inos said firmly. "I absolutely must have it. How much is it?"