Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith

  The Prime Mentitioner spread her fingers in front of her shoulders. “Us. That is to say, a Regnant Council.” And another automatic glance to see if her scribe had gotten her words—to be reminded that no scribe sat there.

  The Harbormistress finished. “They booted out the old king, who was, as we all know from many ancient jokes, a conniving, trouble-making, lying fool. But from all reports his daughter wasn’t.”

  “So it seems. Yet it’s also true that, after her father was deposed, Princess Beditha walked straight onto the first ship she saw, signed on as crew, and that was the last anyone saw of her,” the Prime Mentitioner stated.

  “Correction. That’s the last anyone saw of her in Official Records,” the Harbormistress murmured. “As it happens, a Beditha, born the same year, was listed on crew of a returning vessel some years later, and that name didn’t depart again. But you’d have to check your own records to track her farther.” The Harbormistress nodded at the Prime Mentitioner.

  Who pursed her lips. “I don’t know. Beditha is a common enough name over the islands. We’d have to match up family names, and not all use them, and birth-years.”

  “An excellent masters project, one might say, for one o’your young scribes,” the Chief Secretary put in.

  “Yes.” The Prime Mentitioner permitted a small smile of pride. “If anyone can find her descendants—should there be same—it would be my little band. But.” She looked around, her instincts alive to the possibility that their years of laughable mediocrity were over, and sensed that History hovered, celestial pen poised to write.

  The Grand Guildmaster had been thinking with regret of tax-paid dinners, now to be given up. But the threat of becoming an island joke was a real one, and further, he also sensed that History was In the Making. “But what if the descendant turns out to be a worse fool than the old king?”

  “Then the people boot him, or her, out again, and call us back—with cries of relief and appreciation,” the Harbormistress said.

  “And if he, or she, refuses the honor?”

  “He can’t,” the Grand Guildmaster said, smiling. “If we vote him in.”

  “Or her.” The Prime Mentitioner was already envisioning a grateful young protégé, brought up humbly, seeking the wisdom and experience of someone such as herself.

  “Or her,” the Chief Secretary said impatiently. “Why quibble at mere pronoun? We shall word our decision suitably when we call the scribe in.”

  Only the Harbormistress said nothing.

  The land up behind Landes Harbor on Delfin Island might serve as the Islands’ living metaphor: the complicated set of overlapping treaties, agreements, traditions, and claims that compromised the government of the Islands could be said to exist in the patchwork of plots, strips, and patches that covered the meager hills.

  In actuality the custom observed in the farming of that row of hills constituted what was probably the most perfectly balanced commune in the world, successful because memory was so long on the Islands. So very long. People still discussed the terms of a controversial pact made four hundred years before, and references to personal interactions of ancestors who had lived three centuries previously might be obscure to outsiders, but they still afforded Islanders quite a bit of amusement. Gossip belonging to the last millennium was just as entertaining now as it had been then. And old feuds still caused wry glances and obscure remarks, usually in Dock Talk, the universal language used by sailors—not known for its delicacy.

  But lengthy memory of all those interlocking treaties and agreements translated out to the fact that everyone on Delfin performed carefully-agreed on chores up on ‘the farm’ (as the hills were generally known), and the harvest was always divided up according to that very same complex of agreements.


  The weather was fine—a rarity there—which made the work pleasant, if a bit warm.

  The warmth of course increased as the sun rose in the sky, making everyone glad for the excuse to pause, straighten stiff backs, and stare at the amazing sight plodding up the road. The glittering colors resolved into five individuals (“At least we can take a coach.” “Oh no we can’t, for you can hardly take a coach when your potential ruler doesn’t own one.”) in formal robes (“Do we have to wear our Garments of Office?” “Of course! Do YOU want to go down in history dressed in scrubbing rags after over two hundred kingless years?” “Queenless.” “Oh, stow it.”) of amazing hues and even more amazing styles.

  The Grand Guildmaster—mindful of established precedence—set the pace. Unfortunately, the others all thought silently, poking behind at his snail’s gait. His girth was neither flattered nor rendered comfortable by the gem-encrusted, heavily embroidered long robe he wore, with a stiff lace ruff round his neck. That ruff was already limp, resembling drooping petals around a cherry-colored seed pod, but still, it would have been impossible—unthinkable!—to appear without it. Why, the Guilds were the very first organization on the Islands, and the robes and ruff were reminders of that fact, relicts of the fashions of those days.

  Behind him the Prime Mentitioner minced, her spare form cocooned in a peculiar tunic, stiff with artful folds that testified to Colend’s fashions of six hundred years ago, when Lenzik the Master Scribe came and reorganized all the writing vocations of the island. It was Lenzik who had created his title, a transliteration of Old Sartoran that had impressed everyone, the more because no one could quite figure out what a ‘mentitioner’ was. But of course they all knew those mighty Old Sartorans had all kinds of powers and customs that normal people couldn’t hope to comprehend.

  At least, though, her Official Robes included a parasol, equally stiff in folds, that functioned in both rain and hot weather. She used it now, warding the sun, whose rays cast a greenish glow over her long face.

  Behind her trudged the Chief Secretary, whose function had altered the most over the years. Past Chief Secretaries had had great powers and few; currently, despite his claims, his only real power was to use the Great Seal on documents, thereby making them Official. His midnight blue robe dated back to the fashions of 4500, the year the king was deposed.

  Fourth was the Harbormistress, whose lined, weather-beaten face showed only the faintest amusement, and a glow of red from the walk uphill in the sun. But it wasn’t an unhealthy glow, for the truth was she made this walk often enough, though seldom during a working day. She wore the blue and white of Harbormasters and Mistresses the world over, ordinary tunic-and-trousers cut from fine cloth, with the sigil of the sun ship stitched in gold over her meager bosom.

  And last was the scribe who’d been selected, after vigorous in-house competition—nay, infighting—looking like her mistress, the Prime Mentitioner, except her robes were very plain and a uniform plum color.

  The five reached the very top, where waited a row of island denizens, many leaning on their hoes.

  “Fetch some water, Twelvie,” said the oldest, a woman ten years older even than the Prime Mentitioner—same age as the Harbormistress.

  A sturdy urchin laid down her hoe and flitted over to a little tent, which shaded a jug of water and a number of little cups.

  The four Officials were grateful for the water, and for the opportunity to collect themselves before speaking. No one wanted to go down in the records described as puffing like a blowfish while speaking Important Words.

  The urchin, meanwhile, had returned to her spot in a row of kids, all of them sun browned, boys and girls pretty much alike in thin cotton smocks and loose knee breeches, those with long hair had it plaited into braids.

  Three of the four Regnant Council members glanced at the row of children, and mentally dismissed them just as fast. The Grand Guildmaster fidgeted, frowning at the Chief Secretary. He’d insisted he was the one to speak first, so what was the holdup? Was he waiting for some sign of respect, or some acknowledgement of a true Portentous Moment?

  If so, he ought to have known better.

  The oldest woman spoke again. “Well? We got
planting to get done.”

  The Chief Secretary cleared his throat, set the plain ceramic cup down rather hastily (aware of that scribe in the plum robe of office, her quill sharp and her ink at hand, now taking in every detail for the Records). Straightened up, and said, “We seek Beditha Parleb the Twelfth.”

  “That’ll be me.” The same child who’d fetched the water stepped forward, her dusty toes wriggling.

  “Your majesty.” The Chief Secretary bowed.

  The grand Guildmaster opened his mouth, saw the bow, closed his mouth, and also bowed.

  The Prime Mentitioner bowed, as did the Harbormistress. Only the scribe did not bow, because she was on duty, which meant she was invisible. (The plum-colored garment was to remind people of her invisibility, for who would ever wear that color for choice?)

  “She’s a child,” the Guildmaster observed, sending an accusing look at the Prime Mentitioner.

  The latter looked a little helpless, her three chins quivering slightly. “We did send, I must observe, a runner to the address in the records—” She looked over at the Chief Secretary, her turn to be accusing.

  “The runner reported to us that the woman there, as it were, stated that Beditha was up on the hill, supervising the planting,” the Chief Secretary stated. “That did not sound, I must point out, like any child to me. And it is in your records, I am forced to admit, that the birth date would be listed.”

  “Yes,” the Prime Mentitioner said, tapping a nail against the fine wood of her parasol’s handle. “Birthdays and even some death days we have aplenty, for lots of Bedithas, all listed only as ‘daughter of Beditha’.”

  “That’s because we stopped usin’ the family name way back in ’500,” said the old woman.

  “And you are?” the Chief Secretary asked, having not missed that ‘we’.

  “Beditha Ten,” was the prompt and triumphant reply.

  “Well, at all events, then it appears she would be the queen,” said the Guildmaster, looking relieved.

  And, mindful of the Scribe, the Chief Secretary swept an even more imposing bow. “Your majesty.”

  “Watch yer language,” replied the old woman.

  A chuckle riffed through the watching islanders. This was better than any show down the hill in any city, and free, too!

  “Now, Di,” the Harbormistress chided in an undervoice.

  Beditha Ten cast her an apologetic glance, but the face she turned on the Regnant Council was still mirthful. She said, “You can’t make me no queen. There’s a law, right there on the books, says no one can inherit over the age of eighty, 3411, Prince Imbol agin his cousin Vorn Parleb.”

  “It’s true,” the Prime Mentitioner said, looking aghast.

  “And I,” Beditha Ten went on, cackling in delight, “am turned eighty-seven last fall.”

  “Is there a Beditha... in-between?” the Chief Secretary asked.

  Nobody in long naming lines liked to use ‘eleven’, it having bad connotations, and so different customs had arisen to get around it.

  “Me daughter, Beditha Ten-Plus-One. But she’s wind-touched.”

  Everyone nodded, including the Regnant Councilors, for they all knew what that meant: drawn forever to the sea, unable to live long on land. There was no use in waiting for Beditha Ten-Plus-One to reach harbor. She would only sail away after a month, a week, a tide.

  Beditha Ten leaned on her hoe, the mirth going out of her face. “Now, lookie here,” she said. “You came here a-lookin’ for us. Now, maybe Twelvie wouldn’t be no bargain in Great Sartor, or Yanavaer this-a-way or Teledenor that-a-way” (pointing east and then west) but I raised her right, and she knows island business, plus I hired a scribe to her for readin’ and writin’. And she ain’t got no notions about place,” Beditha Ten added, sending a keen-eyed glance at the four Regnant Councilors. “And she’s got me to advise her.”

  “She will also have our expertise, of course,” the Chief Secretary stated, already thinking ahead. A child? Well, really, what could be better? A child could hardly impose its will on them! Everyone knew that the only ‘will’ children had was to steal food, and scamp work.

  “She’s got me,” Beditha repeated.

  Silence. Was this it, then? Is this how power transferred? The Regnant Councilors stood there, three of them feeling their grasp on the Island affairs slipping away. How could it be?

  “For the records,” Beditha went on. “The family name is now changed. We’ll keep the Beditha, for Beditha One gave over the Parleb when the Island gave over the ol’ king. We’ll let you know what Twelvie’s Official Name will be by and bye. First.” She set aside her hoe. “I think we ought to march down the hill and take a look at the housekeeping down city-way.”

  Another pause. So... was this a First Decree?

  Only it wasn’t from the putative queen, but from her gran, who was legally ineligible.

  Legal and political ramifications started spinning webs through three brains (each one spinning around him or herself) to be forestalled by Beditha Twelve, who said, “Sounds good, Granny. I like having Beditha be our family name.”

  First Decree.

  The row of watchers nodded, some pursing lips, some making mild comments like, “Good sense, Twelvie.”

  The People Had Spoken.

  And the scribe, crouched down in the dust there with her plum robes gathered round her, wrote busily on her lap desk, recording the words.

  Now, not quite all The People had Spoken, but each of the Regnant Councilors had done some private scouting out of opinion during the time it had taken to search the records, and as usual had heard an prodigious variety of opinions about what to do, some of these weird in the extreme, but there had been only one factor in common: no one wanted the Regnant Council to keep its powers. Change? The sooner the better, and why didn’t we think of it before?

  It had been a sobering experience for three of the Councilors, none of whom were stupid. Pompous, yes. Interfering, yes. Conniving, yes, or they would not have coveted, worked, and then attained their present positions.

  Beditha Ten, looking at them now, wondered if the urge to keep power worked in inverse proportion to how much a person really had, for her childhood friend Lenzy, forty years Harbormistress, actually had more power than anyone in the Islands, but she alone seemed unperturbed.

  Of course it helped that she and Beditha had been in contact ever since that first Council Meeting.

  Later for reflection. Now there was business. As the Regnant Councilors started back down the hill, Beditha turned her attention to the stout woman of sixty who stood next to her.

  “Will ye cover me, Hremma?” Beditha asked, pointing to her hoe.

  “I will,” Hremma said, nodding.

  And so power shifted again, leadership of the commune passing from Beditha to Hremma, noted in approving silence by all those people still standing on the hill.

  Four: In Which a Palace Is Inspected

  “Do I have to pick a new name?” Beditha Twelve asked as they slipped down the back trail, unseen by the Councilors on the main road.

  “Ye can’t go on records as Twelvie. People won’t respect you, not outsiders, and it’s outsiders ye’re going to be doin’ with, really, not us.”

  “How d’ya see that, Gran?”

  “It’s like this.” Beditha Ten paused, staring out over the great curve of the harbor. “Lookit below. See it like a furriner would see.”

  The city began just below them with a semicircle of houses built into the sides of the hills sheltering the harbor. Most of these houses were made of stone. All afforded that same spectacular view, but otherwise they were built in an amazing variety of styles, emblematic, Beditha Ten had realized, of the independent attitudes of her fellow islanders.

  Down below, where the ground began the long slope toward the sea, was city center, all the more wealthy businesses built along several streets wound round the Town Square. Bordering the Square were the Meeting Hall, the Shipping Office, the Guildhal
l, and the old palace, which had been used mostly for storage over the past several hundred years, it being political poison to want to use a house once considered royal. That smacked of pretension.

  And then, beyond the Shipping Office (which served as a kind of individual border) was Sailors’ Haven, the name for the rows and rows of raffish pothouses, flophouses, pleasure-palaces, and subsidiary businesses that dealt with ships: sail and rope makers, dockyard warehouses, and the like, many of them build into beached hulks that had once plied the seas, but whose timbers could no longer be trusted to keep the water out. Beyond Sailors’ Haven was the water with its thousands of tiny craft in close, many of them embayed houseboats, and out beyond them the forest of masts comprising the bigger ships from all over the world.

  And beyond that—the sea, ever changing, right out to the horizon where the sun rose each day.

  Beditha Twelve stared hard, then said, “People here, they already know what to do. But to furriners, well, they gotta get our rules, is that it?”

  “Close enough. Close enough. So for us, you won’t be doing much of anything except making the occasional decision, and stamping things with the Official Seal, and you won’t even have to do that if you keep the Chief Secretary.”

  “Ought I?”

  “First things first.”

  “Coo.” It was a corroborative noise.

  “Councilors won’t be a council no more, if you don’t want ’em, but they still have their jobs. Things’ll run mostly fine island-side. What you will be doin’ in the main is dealing with them outsiders. And that means if there’s trouble.”

  “I thought Auntie Lenzy took care o’ Harbor Patrol.”

  “We’re talkin’ trouble even Patrol couldn’t fend off. Your job will be to figger ways around it, whether that’s by talkin’ and treaty-makin’, or hirin’ a mage, or learning magic yourself, or makin’ people up and do defense practice.”

  “Like King Bannoc, back in the Empire Years.”

  “Good girl. And why did that system fail?”

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