Ascendance by R. A. Salvatore


PROLOGUE: GODS YEAR 839

 

  SPRING CAME EARLYto the city of Palmaris, the northernmost great city of the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear. Meriwinkles and prinnycut tulips bloomed in brilliant purples and blues all along the banks of the great Masur Delaval, and the wind seemed constant and gentle from the southwest, hardly ever shifting around to bring a chill from the gloomy Gulf of Corona.

  The city itself was quite lively, with folk out of doors in droves nearly every day, soaking in the sunshine. In truth, the world had shaken off the tragedies of the rosy plague of 827 to 834 ,a plague cured by a miracle at a shrine atop a faraway mountain, a miracle revealed to the world by the woman who now ruled as Baroness of Palmaris. Since Jilseponie Wyndon accepted the title, each year had seemed a bit brighter than the one before, as if all the world, natural and man-made, was reacting positively to her rule.

  Palmaris had never known such prosperity and peace. The city's numbers had swelled during the last years of the plague, for Palmaris had served as the gateway to the northland and the miracle at Mount Aida, and many pilgrims stayed on in the city after their long return journey. Farmers had replaced those families decimated by the plague, cultivating new fields about the city for several miles to the north and west. Craftsmen, seeing an opportunity for a new and large market, had set up shops all along the well-ordered avenues, serving the needs of the thriving communities of both farmers and sailors. And under the guidance and tolerant example of Baroness Jilseponie and Abbot Braumin Herde of St. Precious Abbey, the population of dark-skinned southerners, the Behrenese, had thrived. That particular group had been hit especially hard by the plague, and then hit hard again by the hatred of the Brothers Repentant, a rebellious Abellican Church faction that blamed the heathen Behrenese for the rosy plague and incited the folk of Palmaris to retributive violence against them.

  That had all changed under the leadership of Baroness Jilseponie, and dramatically. Many of those Behrenese who had come north - from their homeland or from the southernmost cities of Honce-the-Bear - to partake of the curative miracle known as the covenant of Avelyn, had found opportunities in Palmaris that they never would have dreamed possible in Honce-the-Bear. Now nearly a third of the dockworkers and the crewmen of the many ships that called Palmaris their home port were Behrenese. A few even owned their own boats now or served as officers, even captains, on the Palmaris garrison ships. And while the attitudes of those native to Honce-the-Bear hadn't fundamentally changed concerning the Behrenese - with the subtleties of racism deeply ingrained - there were enough Behrenese now to afford their community a measure of security. Even more than that, there were enough of them to begin to show the native Bearmen that underneath the skin color and the cultural differences, the Behrenese were not so different at all.

  Throughout this healthy city of peace and prosperity, where the future seemed so bright, Baroness Jilseponie often wandered, though without her baronial raiments and guards. She was in her mid-thirties now, but neither the years nor the long and difficult road she had traveled - a road full of pain and trial and grievous losses - had done anything to diminish her inner glow of vitality. For she knew the truth now. All of it. She had seen the miracle at Avelyn's arm, on the flat top of Mount Aida. She had spoken with the ghost of Brother Romeo Mullahy and learned of the covenant. And she knew.

  Jilseponie had lost her parents, and then her adoptive parents. She had lost her Elbryan, her dear, beloved husband. She had lost her child, torn from her womb, she believed, by the demon-inspired Dalebert Markwart. But now she had come to understand what those sacrifices had gained: the betterment of the world and of her little corner of the world.

  And now she knew the truth of God, of spirituality, of living beyond this mortal coil. From that truth came a serenity and a comfort that Jilseponie had not known since her innocent days as a child running in the fields and pine valleys of Dundalis in the wild Timberlands, her days before she had come to know such pain and death.

  She was out one warm spring night, wandering under a canopy of countless stars, absorbing the sights, the smells, the noises of Palmaris. A fish vendor called out a list of his fresh stock, his voice thick with the accent of Behren. Jilseponie couldn't help but smile at the sound, for only a couple of years before, no Behrenese vendor would have ventured into this part of Palmaris with any hopes of selling his wares. Indeed, back in those days that seemed so far removed now, many of the Palmaris Bearmen wouldn't think of eating anything touched by Behrenese hands!

  Jilseponie made her way across town; a few curious stares followed her, but she was fairly certain that she was not recognized. With the three- quarter moon, Sheila, shining silver overhead, the Baroness came in sight of a structure that sent waves of emotions through her. The Giant's Bones, it was called, though in a previous incarnation, before it had been burned to its foundation by Father Abbot Markwart's lackeys, the establishment had been known as Fellowship Way and it had garnered a reputation as one of the most hospitable taverns in Palmaris or in any other city.

  She paused before the place, her full lips pursed, and brushed her shoulder-length blond hair back from her face. In Fellowship Way, Jilseponie had gone from a scared little girl to a woman, under the loving tutelage of her adoptive parents, Graevis and Pettibwa Chilichunk. She walked along this avenue often now, and never without pausing before the doors and staring, remembering the good times spent within, forcing away the terrible memories of Graevis' and Pettibwa's last dark days. She remembered Pettibwa most vividly, the woman dancing among the tables, a huge tray full of foaming flagons balanced on one strong arm, her smile brighter than the light from the generous hearth.

  Jilseponie could hear Pettibwa's boisterous laughter again, truly the most joyous sound she had ever known.

  After a few moments, and now with a wide smile on her face, Jilseponie moved around the side of the Giant's Bones and down a narrow alley, coming to a very climbable gutter pipe.

  Up she went, moving with the grace of a warrior, of one who had perfected bi'nelle dasada, the elven sword dance. She came to the roof and shifted along, then leaned back against the warm bricks of the chimney and stared out to the east, to the tall masts standing above the foggy shroud like great skeletal trees on the distant Masur Delaval. Even those masts evoked memories in her, for she had spent her first dozen years in the Timberlands, the source of the great trees used for constructing the ships' masts. How many times had she watched a caravan roll out of Dundalis down the south road, the ox team straining with every step, dragging a huge log behind? How many times had she and Elbryan sneaked out of the brush along the side of the road and climbed atop one of those timber sleds, after betting on how many yards they could get before the driver noticed them and shooed them away?

  "Elbryan," she said with a wistful smile, and she felt the moistness creeping into her eyes. He had given her the nickname, Pony, when they were young, a name that had stuck through almost all of her years. Hardly anyone called her that now - no one but Roger Lockless, actually, and he only sparingly. She preferred it that way, she supposed. Somehow, with Elbryan gone, the name Pony just didn't seem to fit her anymore.

  Barely two decades had passed since those innocent and wonderful days, and yet Jilseponie could hardly believe that she had ever known such a carefree existence. All her adult life - even before her adult life - had been filled with tumult and momentous events!

  She sat on that flat rooftop now, smelling the smoke from the fire below and the salt from the Masur Delaval and the Gulf of Corona beyond it. She let the memories of her life, and the lessons, play out of their own accord, no doubt coloring, albeit unconsciously, her feelings about present surroundings. Minutes drifted by, becoming an hour, and a chill breeze came in off the water. T
he Baroness hardly cared, hardly even noticed, just sat and reflected, falling within herself to a place of calm and quiet, a place untouched by evil memories or thoughts of the bustle of her present-day, seemingly endless, duties.

  She didn't notice the glow of a lantern moving along the alleyway below her nor the creak of the gutter pipe under the weight of a climbing man.

  "There you are," came a familiar voice, startling Jilseponie and drawing her from her reverie. She turned to see the smiling face, sharp dimples, and ever-present beard shadow of Abbot Braumin Herde as the monk pulled himself onto the roof. He reached back and took a lantern from someone below, then set it on the roof. Braumin was into his mid-forties now, nearly ten years Jilseponie's senior, his hair was as much silver as its former dark brown, and he had many lines running out from the sides of his gray eyes. Smiling creases, he called them. He had always been a large man, a gentle giant, barrel-chested and barrel-waisted; but of late, the waist had been outdoing the chest!

  Behind him came his reliable second, a dear old friend who had been with Braumin for more than two decades. Master Marlboro Viscenti was a nervous little man with far too many twitches but his competent mind seemed to see many things just slightly differently from others, often offering a helpful viewpoint.

  Though she always preferred to be alone in this, her special place, and though she felt as if the lantern was a bit of an intrusion, Jilseponie could not help but be happy at the sight of her two dear friends. Both these monks had stood behind Jilseponie and Elbryan in the dark last days of Father Abbot Dalebert Markwart, though their lives would have been forfeit, and horribly so, had Markwart won, as it had seemed he would. In the years since, Jilseponie's relationship with the pair had gone through many stages, including when Jilseponie was angry with them, and with all the Abellican monks who had hidden in their abbeys, afraid to try and help heal the plague victims. All her bad feelings about that time had been long washed away, though, for in the last few years, Braumin and Viscenti had proven of immeasurable help to Jilseponie as she had settled into ruling the great city. As baroness, the secular concerns of Palmaris were her domain; and as abbot of St. Precious, the spiritual concerns of Palmaris lay in the domain of Braumin Herde. Never before had Palmaris known such harmony between Church and State, not even when good Baron Bildeborough sat on the secular throne at Chasewind Manor and kindhearted Abbot Dobrinion presided over St. Precious.

  "Did it ever occur to you that my reason for leaving Chasewind Manor without an escort was so that I could find some time alone?" Jilseponie asked, but her accusatory question was delivered with a smile.

  "And so we are!" Abbot Braumin replied, huffing and puffing and sliding up to sit next to her. "Just us three. "

  Jilseponie only sighed and closed her eyes.

  "Now, you will never see the sail from that position," Braumin teased her good-naturedly.

  She opened one eye, staring hard at the monk. "The sail?"

  "Why, yes, that is the spring moon, is it not, Master Viscenti?" Braumin asked dramatically.

  Viscenti looked up and scratched his chin. "I do believe that it is, yes, father," he answered.

  Jilseponie knew when she was being teased, and, given that, she understood then to what sail Braumin was referring. She wouldn't make it easy for him, though.

  "I see many sails - or at least, masts," she answered. "Though with Captain Al'u'met's Saudi Jacintha sailing along the Mantis Arm, none of these are of any interest to me. "

  "Indeed," said Braumin. "It would not interest the Baroness of Palmaris if her King sailed to her city?"

  "Alas for the kingdom, with such disrespect!" Viscenti chimed in, dramatically slapping his skinny forearm across his brow.

  Jilseponie's lips grew very tight, but in truth, it was a fa├žade for her companions' benefit, for she didn't mind the needling. It was common knowledge that King Danube Brock Ursal did intend to spend this summer in Palmaris, as he had the last two, and the two before that - though on those first couple of occasions, he had arrived only to learn that the Baroness of the city had left her domain, traveling north to the Timberlands to summer with old friends. This year, like the last two, Danube had taken care to send advance warning of his arrival and to request that Jilseponie be present for his lengthy visit. As it was no secret to all the people that King Danube would grace their city once more this summer of God's Year 839 ,so it was no secret to anybody in Palmaris - and in Ursal and in all the towns in between - that their King was not coming for any urgent state business nor even to ensure that Palmaris was running well under the leadership of the young Baroness. No, he was coming out of a personal motivation, one that went by the name of Jilseponie Wyndon.

  "Do you suppose, dear brother, that this will be the summer when aloof Jilseponie at last allows King Danube to kiss her?" Braumin asked Viscenti.

  "On the hand," the skinny man replied.

  "Then the side of your face will be wet when I slap you," Jilseponie put in with a chuckle.

  Both monks had a good laugh at that, but then Braumin's expression grew serious. "You do understand that he will likely be more forward toward you with his intentions?" he asked.

  Jilseponie looked away, back over the distant river. "I do," she admitted.

  "And how will you respond?" Braumin asked.

  How indeed?she wondered. She liked Danube Brock Ursal well enough - who would not? - for the King had always been polite and fair and generous to her. Though he was several years older than she, near Braumin's age, he was certainly not unpleasant to look at, with his dark hair and strong build. Yes, Jilseponie liked him, and would have had no second thoughts about agreeing to serve as his escort while he stayed in Palmaris, no second thoughts about allowing their relationship to develop, to see if love might blossom, except . . .

  There was ever that one problem, Jilseponie knew, and clearly recognized. She had given her heart to another, to Elbryan Wyndon, her best friend, her husband, her lover, the man against whom she would ever measure all others and against whom, she knew, no others would ever measure up. She liked Danube sincerely, but she knew in her heart that she would never love him, would never love any man, the way she had loved Elbryan. Given that inescapable truth, would she be acting fairly if she accepted his proposal?

  Jilseponie honestly didn't know.

  "Even Roger Lockless has come to see the union as a favorable event," Brother Viscenti remarked, and this time Jilseponie's scowl at him was not feigned.

  "I - I did not mean . . . " the monk stammered, but his words withered, as did his heart, under her terrible gaze.

  And Jilseponie did not relent for a long while. She understood the implications of all this, and, indeed, she knew that Roger Lockless, her best friend and closest adviser at Chasewind Manor, had changed his opinion of King Danube's advances to her. So much so, in fact, that Roger and his wife, Dainsey, had left Palmaris before the first winter snows, bound for Dundalis, far to the north. Roger, a friend of dead Elbryan, had been adamant against Jilseponie's having anything to do with the King or any other man - out of loyalty to Elbryan, Pony knew. But that position had softened gradually, over the course of the previous summer. Still, Jilseponie did not like Viscenti, or anyone else, using that sort of external pressure over what had to be, in the end, a decision based on her feelings. Yes, it might be a good thing for the common folk for her to wed King Danube and thus become queen of Honce-the-Bear. Certainly in that capacity she could act as mediator in the still-common squabbling between Church and State.

  "Forgive my friend," Abbot Braumin begged her a moment later. "We of the Church would certainly welcome your union with King Danube, should it come to pass," he explained. "Of course, I would welcome it all the more if it was what was truly in Pony's heart," he quickly added as she scowled all the more fiercely.

  Jilseponie had just begun to argue when Braumin had added the last sentence, and one word, "Pony," surely stopped he
r short. That was her nickname, her most common name of many years ago, the one that, for a brief period, almost all of her friends and Elbryan's used. After the onset of the plague, when Jilseponie had come to realize that she could not simply hide in Dundalis mired in her grief, she had purposefully abandoned the nickname, had taken on the more formal mantle of Jilseponie Wyndon. Now, to hear Braumin say it so plainly and so unexpectedly, it brought with it a host of images and memories.

  "The King is not in Pony's heart," she said softly, all traces of her anger flown. "Never in Pony's heart. "

  Neither Braumin nor Marlboro seemed to catch her deeper meaning.

  "And it seems that I must remind you, my friends, that I am officially of the State, not your Church," Jilseponie added.

  "We know the truth of that," Brother Viscenti remarked with a wry grin.

  "You are of both Church and State, it would seem," Braumin quickly added, before Marlboro's uncalled-for sarcasm could set her back on the defensive again. "You chose the position of State, of baroness, over any that the Church might have bestowed upon you, 'tis true; but in that capacity, you have worked to bring us together, in spirit and in practice. "

  "Your Church would never have accepted me in any position of power without a tremendous fight," Jilseponie said.

  "I do not agree," said Braumin. "Not after the second miracle of Mount Aida and the covenant of Avelyn. Even Fio Bou-raiy left that sacred place a changed man, left understanding the power and goodness of Jilseponie Wyndon. He would not have opposed your appointment to a post as great as abbess of St. Precious, even. "

  Jilseponie didn't respond; for in truth, she had heard the hollowness of her own proclamation that she was more of the State the moment she had spoken the words.

  "Yet you chose to be baroness because in that capacity and with me, your friend, serving as abbot of St. Precious, you knew that you could do the most good," Braumin went on. "And you chose wisely, as every person in Palmaris will attest. So again it will be for you to choose, weighing your heart against your desire to do great things for all the world. Doubt not that any ascension of Jilseponie Wyndon to the position of queen of Honce-the-Bear would be welcomed throughout the Abellican Church as a great blessing, a time of hope indeed for a brighter future!"

  "The future of the Church looks bright already," she reasoned.

  "Indeed!" Braumin agreed. "For the covenant of Avelyn has brought many of our previously battling brothers together in spirit. For the time being, at least. "

  There was a measure of ominousness in his last statement that perceptive Jilseponie did not miss.

  "Father Abbot Agronguerre's health is failing," Braumin admitted. "He is an old man, growing tired, by all accounts. He may remain in power and in this world for another year, perhaps two, but doubtfully more than that. "

  "And there is no clear successor," Viscenti added. "Fio Bou-raiy will likely try for the position. "

  "And I will back him," Abbot Braumin quickly, and surprisingly, added.

  "Will you not seek the nomination?" Jilseponie asked.

  "I am still too young to win, I fear," said Braumin. "And if I opted to try, I would be taking votes away from Bou-raiy, no doubt. "

  "A man of whom you were never fond," Jilseponie reminded him.

  "But a far better choice than the alternative," Braumin replied. "For if it is not Master Bou-raiy, then surely it will be Abbot Olin of St. Bondabruce of Entel, a man who did not partake of the covenant of Avelyn. "

  "Entel is a long way from the Barbacan," Jilseponie said dryly.

  "A man who quietly supported Marcalo De'Unnero and his Brothers Repentant during the dark days of the plague," Braumin went on, referring to the band of renegade monks led by the fierce De'Unnero - who was Jilseponie's most-hated enemy. Never officially sanctioned by the Church, the Brothers Repentant spread trouble and grief throughout much of the kingdom, inciting riots and claiming that the plague was punishment from God for the irreverence of many people, particularly those followers of Avelyn in the Church and the heathen Behrenese.

  Braumin's startling claim gave Jilseponie pause.

  "And so it will likely be that Master Fio Bou-raiy - or perhaps Abbot Olin, no fool and no stranger to the games of politics - will win. In either case, the smooth voyage of the Abellican Church might soon encounter an unexpected storm. Better it would be for us, for all, if Jilseponie Wyndon had assumed a position of even greater authority. "

  Jilseponie stared at her two friends long and hard, recognizing that responsibility had indeed come a-calling once again. She spent a long moment considering King Danube again, for he was a good and decent man, a handsome man.

  But she knew that she would never love him as she had loved Elbryan.

  PART ONE

  GRAY DAWN

  Ten times my life span! Ten times! And for them, there is a promise of another life after this, while I'll rot in the ground in blackness, not even knowing.

  How could I not have been born Touel'alfar? Why this feeble human parentage, this curse, this sentence to a brief and fast-fading life, this invitation to nothingness? What unfairness to me! And doubly unfair that I have been raised among the Touel'alfar, these immortal beings, where the shortcomings of my heritage are so painfully obvious every moment of every day!

  Lady Dasslerond told me the truth, told me that, unless some enemy or ill-timed disease fells me, I can expect to live six decades, perhaps seven or even eight, and that ten decades of life are not unknown among my kind. But no more than that. Dasslerond has seen the birth and death of six centuries, I have been told, and yet if I see one to completion, I will be rare and extremely fortunate among my kind. Likely she will still be around to witness my death.

  Even worse, after six centuries, the lady of Caer'alfar seems as youthful and alive as the Touel'alfar much younger than she. She does not groan when she labors physically, but I have been told that I can expect to - and far sooner than my last days. I have lived for fourteen years and am barely an adult by human standards, though I am strong of limb and sharp of mind. I will flourish physically in my later teens and throughout my twenties, but after that, the decline will begin, slowly at first, throughout my fourth decade of life, then more rapidly.

  What curse this?

  How am I to experience all the wonders of the world? How am I to garner the memories of my companions, even those memories so trivial in the life span of a Touel'alfar but that would seem momentous to a short-lived human? How am I to unravel the mysteries of this reasoning existence, to sort out any kind of perspective, when my end will arrive so quickly?

  It is the cruelest of jokes, to be born human. Would that I were of the people! That I were Touel'alfar! That I could find the wisdom of the ages by finding the increasing experiences of one such as Lady Dasslerond! I love my life, every moment of every day, and to think that I will be cold and dead in the ground while those around me are still young and vital tears at my heart and brings red anger to my eyes. Curse my human parentage, I say!

  My guardians speak highly of my father, the great and noble Nightbird.

  The dead Nightbird, cold and unknowing in the ground. For those few Touel'alfar who died in Nightbird's lifetime, for Tuntun who fell in the attack against the demon dactyl in Mount Aida, there is another existence beyond this worldly life. They are in a place of beauty that overshadows even beautiful Andur'Blough Inninness, a place of wonderment and the purest joy. But for humans, so Dasslerond told me, there is only cold death and emptiness.

  For, among the races of Corona, only the Touel'alfar, the demons, and the angels are immortal. Only these three can transcend their physical bodies.

  Curse my human parents! I wish that I had never been born - for better that, better never knowing any of this, than to understand the cruel fate that awaits me!

  Curse my parents.

 
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