The first morning, the air had been so sweet in the rose hills that Tirene was glad, glad nearly unto weeping, to be out of the city and safely on her mission, out where the brambles grew fresh, and when it was hard to find a way to situate her bedroll without lying upon thorns, she doubled it over and didn’t mind too very much.
By the third day, the taste of roses in the morning made her want to weep or possibly vomit, and it seemed as though the rose hills would go on forever.
Yelen gave her a hard look. “It’s the same distance forward and back,” he said.
“Is that supposed to be philosophical?”
“No. Just fact.”
“Well, I thank you for your fact.” She went off to the stream to splash her face. The water tasted of roses and faintly of salt, not table salt but some other kind, and she wondered if it was quite safe to drink.
Yelen was loading their packs onto the horses when she returned to camp. “You’re sure.”
“Quite sure,” she said.
“No way out but through.”
Tirene wanted to make herself laugh derisively, but she was afraid she would throw up the rose-and-bitter water if she did. “That is the way of life, I hear.”
Yelen cocked an eyebrow, not impressed with her bravado. He mounted up and waited for her to do the same, then waited further to see which direction she would lead them.
Onwards. At least if they rode onwards they would have an unknown fate, which was several notches better than the one awaiting them at home if they returned there empty-handed. The stories of the rose hills didn’t have endings, or they did, but none of them could agree with each other, which did not settle Tirene in the least. Yelen silently handed her some jerky made of poultry and spices, which did not taste well with the roses but eased her stomach all the same.
For the three days preceding they had ridden in silence, but finally she thought it would take her mind off the increasingly oppressive sweetness of the air of roses if they talked a little. She looked around at the yellow rose hedges, the tiny pink tea rose bushes no taller than her knee, the dark burgundy tangles off in the distance. She remembered why they had not talked: she couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“Why did you come with me, Yelen?” she said, finally speaking the unsayable.
He cracked a smile. She had known him since she was eight years old and her father had brought him home along with the other Balferen troops sworn to the household; she had only seen his smile a handful of times, festival times, nothing like this. “I drew you.”
“You... drew me? On paper?”
The smile deepened the cracks in his weathered brown skin, no lighter than hers but redder than her own golden tones. “Straws. When you came forth with this scatterbrained plan, one of us had to come with you. I got the short straw.”
“Only Tenzel and I drew.”
After that Tirene could think of nothing else to say for many miles. She had long suspected, however, that Tenzel and Yelen were the Balferen soldiers who had long held her as favorites. They were certainly her favorites. The others had always been kind, too, inasmuch as troops quartered in a family compound in the middle of... what her mother always insisted on calling “these troubles”... could find ways to be kind.
It turned out there were several of those ways, once things came around to that.
But in the rose hills, there was nothing much but roses, more roses, red dirt, red dust, shadows, roses. Long, angry-looking jackrabbits, and more roses. Tirene shot a rabbit with her slingshot, not wanting to waste an arrow on it, and Yelen beamed at her as though she was still nine, as though she had just demonstrated that she’d been paying attention after all, which of course she had.
The next morning, Tirene woke up to the sound and smell of Yelen vomiting. She was almost able to keep her own stomach in check, but the sour smell of bile and lightly used jackrabbit proved too much on top of the sweetness of endless roses. She joined him, heaving until she wept.
“We’re closer to out than we were,” he said. “We’re closer than we were yesterday.”
“Right,” she said, letting her cheek rest in the red dirt, though she knew she would have to wash it in the salt-smelling water. “Closer than yesterday. That’s true.”
She could hear Yelen stirring around camp, so she made herself get up and do her share. The horses seemed only marginally happier with their surroundings than their riders did. Tirene carefully did not ask what would happen if the horses fell ill also.
“Do you think my mother and father are...?”
“I think your parents are doing all they can,” said Yelen. “And we will do all we can for them.”
On the sixth day, they saw the end of the roses, the path weaving out to an elaborate arch, carved and painted. They could see the city beyond it. Tirene straightened her collar and rebraided her thick black hair as they rode. “How do I look?”
“Like your mother’s daughter,” said Yelen. “Even, yes, like your father’s son.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m sorry, to your people something very different. Say, like your father’s daughter, then.”
“What a strange people the Balferen are,” said Tirene, mostly to herself, “if they think it comes out different.”
“I would have succeeded as my mother’s daughter,” said Yelen. “As my father’s son, I failed, and so I left Balfer, and here I am to succeed with you. Ride first through the arch. Here come the people of the city.”
The arch, as she rode through it, tingled and rang, and Tirene felt very strange. The city folk stared at them—weary and thinner than they wanted to be and stinking of roses, their horses tossing their heads. Finally one of the city folk spoke, his accent thinner and flatter than Tirene was used to hearing.
“Are you the princess?”
“What?” said Tirene.
“My old nan always said there was a prophecy that a princess would ride forth from out the rose hills. Are you it?”
“Oh. Um.” Tirene looked over her shoulder at Yelen and felt an awful rush like she had never felt before, a whirling in the pit of her stomach. There was still a little vomit on her tunic, she saw with chagrin, and despite her best efforts her braid was coming undone. If ever in her life someone was going to mistake her for a princess, today should not be the day. And yet she had the sudden urge to lie, to tell them yes, absolutely, she was the princess, she was the princess foretold, anything, as long as they would come back with her through the rose hills and help.
“No,” she said. “I’m just a merchant’s daughter, I’m here to hire some assistance in—”
“She is the princess, of course,” said an unfamiliar female voice behind her.
Tirene whirled, her horse dancing a few steps. Behind her? When had anyone but Yelen had time to get behind her?
But there was, next to Yelen’s perfectly ordinary horse, a horse made of shadows, decked with roses, and on it was a woman made of shadows, also decked with roses. A cloak of shadows swirled around the woman onto the horse’s back.
The city people did not seem to see anything the matter with this.
“I’m really not a princess.”
“She lives in the castle your nan told you about, at the center of the roses,” said the shadow woman.
“Look, it’s perfectly simple,” said Tirene, “it’s just that—”
“It’s terribly complicated,” said the shadow lady.
“I’m her bodyguard,” said Yelen. “And we don’t live in any castle.”
The shadow woman’s face was also made of shadows, so it was not visible as a face. But the shadows moved in a way that suggested an indulgent smile. “He would have to say that,” she explained. “Security. Someone has just kissed the princes, and so they have awakened.”
And the city people all gave a sort of sigh, and their clothes rustled like the wind out of the rose hills. All was well; the strangers’ contradictions had been explained. It was security.
“What are you doing? Who are you?” said Tirene.
“I—” For the first time, the shadow woman hesitated.
“She contradicts whatever you say,” said Yelen in undertones.
“Naturally I wouldn’t contradict whatever you said,” said the shadow woman. “That would be ridiculous. Juvenile. I merely...”
“I don’t believe this,” muttered Tirene. She nudged her horse forward. “Look, I need a place to stay, and I need to hire some mercenaries. Anyone want to help me with either of those? Anyone? We’ll need two rooms.”
“Three rooms,” said the shadow lady.
“Done. Three rooms. As long as you don’t mind us having any rooms at all, Madam Shadow.”
“My cousin has an inn on Breakmoor Street,” said one of the women in the second rank of gawkers. “Three streets down and to the left. Are you going to give us your prophecy of—”
“I am going to get a bath and a meal,” said Tirene. “Everything else can happen after supper at your cousin’s inn on Breakmoor.”
The crowd parted to let them pass, the shadow horse and lady riding along beside as though she was part of their retinue. “Perfect,” muttered Tirene. “Just grand. What is this?”
“There’s a reason no one rides through the rose hills,” Yelen said. “There are... things in them. Things that come out of them.”
“I thought the everlasting sweet stench was quite enough!” said Tirene.
The shadowed head of the lady riding next to them tilted towards them. Tirene marveled at how clearly the lady could convey emotion without any of her features being clearly visible, but then she supposed she could have seen these things in her mother or someone else she knew, in the shadows of the corridors of her family compound at night by the angle of their head, their gesture or stance.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked the shadow lady directly.
“I act according to my nature.”
“Are you in the pay of my family’s enemies?”
“None of your coin could buy me.”
Tirene chewed her lip. The shadow lady didn’t look or sound like any of the enemies her family had in the fighting back home, but she had no idea how she would tell the first thing about a being made of roses, lies, and tricks of the light.
“I suppose you expect us to pay for your room,” said Yelen, as they reined their horses in at the inn.
“I think you’ll find that no one ever expects me to pay for my accommodation,” said the shadow lady.
“Why are you following me, though?” asked Tirene. “Can’t you leave us alone? I just want to get help for my family and go home.” The last thing she wanted was to ride back through the rose hills again, but she knew that she must—at least, as long as she could find mercenaries who were willing to come with her.
She wasn’t willing to think about what would happen to her parents if she failed. She had spent much of the ride trying not to think that it might have happened to them already.
“Princess,” said the shadow lady.
“You know I’m not that.
“Princess,” the shadow lady repeated, dismounting from her shadow steed. “You knew that there would be a price to pay for this journey. You just thought that it would be in gold.”
“No,” said Yelen, giving Tirene a hand down. “No, give her more credit than that. She knew it might well be in her own blood.”
“And yours,” said the shadow lady.
Yelen stepped up so close to the shadow lady’s shadows that Tirene had to squint to keep making out the familiar flat planes of his face. “My choice is mine,” he said, “and you tell enough lies to be able to recognize the truth when it enters your ears.”
He stalked into the inn with the stiffness of pride augmented by six days on horseback, and Tirene followed him. She didn’t bother to see whether the shadow lady would join them; by then she knew that she would.
The bath rooms were like something from home: simple, tan tiles, nothing ornamented, bottles of scent arrayed to the side. Tirene ignored those, focusing on pumping herself tub after tub of steam-heated water until the scent of roses was a suggestion upon her skin rather than an assault. The first three tubs had gone away tinged pink with the dust of the hills; the rest, though as rose-scented as any attar sold on the trade ships, ran clear.
Yelen and the shadow lady were waiting for her down in the common room. By the look of it, so was half the city. Tirene nodded to the room at large and motioned to the barman to bring her dinner: not rabbit, she was pleased to see, not jerky, not anything made with rosewater, just a chicken pie with a gravy that oozed a satisfying blend of spices when she bit into it.
The shadow lady waited for her to speak first. Tirene noticed that, and refused. In the years Tirene had known Yelen, he was the champion at not speaking when he didn’t want to, so they had a very quiet supper until the city folk could stand it no longer.
“Which of you has the truth of your tale?” said the innkeeper.
“Which of us gave you coin, that you can recall?” said Tirene.
The innkeeper bowed. “Welcome, merchant’s daughter! How can we be of assistance in helping you to find mercenaries?”
The shadow lady tossed her head.
“No offense meant, lady,” said the innkeeper. “It’s just... I have her coin right here in my pocket.”
“Spread the word, will you?” said Tirene. “I will be here tomorrow, and can negotiate contracts then and tonight. The next day we ride back.”
“Are you sure?” Yelen asked softly.
Tirene nodded, not taking her eyes from the innkeeper until he left the table. “We’ll buy supplies and pomades to get us through it,” she said. “We know what it takes now.”
“And then there’s—” Yelen jerked his head toward the shadow lady.
“Perhaps she’ll go away. Will you go away?” Tirene asked her. “When we go back into the rose hills?”
“Now, what could I answer that you would trust?” she replied.
Yelen let out a brief yip of involuntary laughter. “She has us there.”
Tirene pushed aside the plate that had contained her pie and now had only a swipe of gravy across its tin surface. She let her head sag down on the table. “Will you leave us so we can negotiate for troops, at least?”
“I’ll help you,” said the shadow lady, blending into the shadows cast by the firelight until only her wreath of roses made her clear. “Wouldn’t you rather have followed a princess of legend to glory than taken the coin of a merchant’s daughter?”
Yelen gave her a flat look. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Tirene did not raise her head, but hysterical giggles bubbled up from her throat.
“Perhaps a princess was not on offer,” said the shadow lady.
“That’s princesses for you. Never around when you need them.”
“Excuse me,” said one of the women from the city, and Tirene did raise her head at that. “You are the princess who is hiring?”
“No princess,” said Tirene, “but yes, I am hiring. We are having a civil war, in the city on the tip of the peninsula, past the rose hills, but my family’s merchant fleet left on its trading voyages before the war began, taking most of our people with it. If we don’t hire mercenaries to ride back with us, I fear that our compound will be overrun before our guards and other staff return. Is that work that interests you?”
“So the princess, then—”
“It’s only, the magical lady there said... and you smell of the roses...”
“I promise you, after a day in the rose hills, you will smell of roses as well. As for this person—” Tirene found that she had no explanation for the shadow lady but turned to that maddening personage anyway. “Won’t you please accompany Yelen to examine the stables?”
“No,” said the shadow lady.
“I wonder if shadow horses wander off when loosed from their stalls, as flesh horses do,” said Yelen pensively. “I wonder whether city folk would be so calm about having a shadow horse among them if it was wandering around without a rider.”
The shadow lady got up with great deliberation and accompanied Yelen outside. Tirene sat in the taproom and talked to scores of city folk, most of whom were only curious about the princess. She managed to sign up a dozen, some of whom promised to bring their friends back the next day.
She was just about to turn in for the night when Yelen tapped on her door. “I don’t even know what that creature is, really,” he said.
“Got nothing out of her?”
“Oh, I got a lot out of her. I’m just not sure any of it will be useful.” He slumped with his back against the door.
“I signed up a dozen of them.”
“Good. Good.” Yelen sighed. “She just... eludes, and eludes, and eludes. She is nothing but evasion.”
“That makes sense, doesn’t it? If she’s made of shadows.” Tirene realized that she was looming over her faithful retainer for no reason and flopped on her bed, hanging her feet over the edge. It was a dense goosedown mattress, harder than she expected but more yielding once she had landed. “How do you fight with shadows?”
“Obviously, you don’t.”
“Well, what do you do with them, then?” Tirene answered her own question before Yelen could. “You illuminate them. But that makes more shadows. But it gets rid of the ones you already have.”
Yelen closed his eyes. Tirene wondered if he was going to fall asleep right there, leaning against her door, and never make it to his own room. After a long moment, when she was thinking about taking off her boots and crawling into bed, Yelen muttered, “The sun didn’t work. It’s got to be some magic light. Or a metaphor for something.”
“We don’t know any magic,” Tirene said. “We’d better hope it’s a metaphor.”
“Light of truth?”
“We kept facing her down with that,” said Yelen. “She did not care. Serene indifferrrnn...”
“Are you awake?”
His head jerked up. “I’m awake.”
“You should stand up and go sleep in the bed we paid for.”
He got to his feet sheepishly. “A metaphor. We will hope for a metaphor in the morning.”
Tirene was so relieved not to smell roses upon waking that she almost found it difficult to care whether they would be able to find magic or metaphor to get rid of the shadow lady. This pleasant sensation was dispelled halfway through her breakfast of oat cakes, maple syrup, and berries, when the shadow lady swept into the sunny taproom.
“Oh good,” she muttered.
“Good morning to you, too,” said the shadow lady, sliding into the seat next to her.
“What do you eat?” said Tirene. “Shall we order you up a breakfast? These are lovely oat cakes. Infinitely better than rose-scented jackrabbits. Is that your usual diet?”
“I eat truth,” said the shadow lady.
“No,” said Tirene. “You don’t. The truth sticks around regardless of you. You saw how it did. So what are we to do with you? Must we resort to further threats to the shadow horse? I don’t like threatening horses, even insubstantial ones.”
The shadow lady just sat there. “When your father tried to get a rose for you, and you had to go to the castle of the Beast—”
“That is not my father,” said Tirene.
“But it is.”
“Stop, or you will not enjoy the result.”
The shadow lady stopped but did not seem daunted.
Tirene finished her breakfast and went to the marketplace to buy pomanders. They were not, apparently, in great fashion for the fine ladies of the city to carry—she was not sure, upon reflection, that the city had fine ladies at all—and so she had to work with the perfumers to make approximations, after she had bought out their stock.
The shadow lady waited outside, lying to passersby about what the round, scent-bearing objects on their chains would do, what diseases they would cure and what magic they would bear, why Tirene needed them and who had sent her for them.
When Tirene stomped out of the shop and shouted, “They are to dispel the stench of the rose hills!”, everyone stared at her and moved away in the street.
The shadow lady smiled. “I eat truth.”
“Why do you want to eat mine? Go eat someone else’s truth,” said Tirene, making her way back towards the inn with set, determined shoulders, as if there was a head wind. There was not.
“You were the one who set out into the rose hills.”
“And I will again,” said Tirene.
The shadow lady drew close to her, giving her a face full of shadows, drowning out the city around them, noise and smells and all, until there was nothing but shadows and roses. “And what will you give them, on the other side of the hills?”
Tirene tried to reach out for something to hold onto, but there was nothing. The world shook and spun. “What will I—?”
“Will you tell them that you vomited and faltered, in the hills? That you didn’t know what to do in the city? Will you tell them that you had no magic to face down simple, direct lies? That the truth and sunlight were not enough?”
“Yes,” said Tirene, and then louder, “Yes! Of course, what else should I tell them? That I was a hero, that I fought off an army of manticores, that I won the regard of a duke and a prince and a grand vizier but I alone managed to escape a swarm of mist dragons to tell the tale? Yes. I will take the clove pomanders and this handful of mercenaries back to the house of my father, and I will give them the truth.”
The shadow lady stepped back, and Tirene could see the city again. “See, you can do it if you like,” said the shadow lady. “It might have been nicer. It would have been more fun. But I’ll come with you anyway.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” growled Tirene. She thrust the pomander full of cloves into the shadows, but though her hand disappeared, the shadow lady did not react.
Yelen had not spent all their coin on mercenaries, and the shadow lady did not interfere with the contracts, merely watched as though they were a curious foreign custom. “I don’t know what we’re to do with her,” Tirene said, speaking freely. “Even cloves in her belly did nothing.”
“You clove her belly?”
“Cloves. The scent balls. They—”
“Why should you do anything with me?” the shadow lady said.
Yelen regarded her wearily. “Why indeed. She might bring us dash. She might annoy our enemies.”
Tirene remembered an old story her father had told. “The horse might fly.”
So Tirene and Yelen’s mercenary troop rode forth with a shadow at its side and pomanders around each neck, not proof against the stench of the rose hills but armed as best they could be.
Tirene did not feel victorious as they approached home, though her mission was as complete as it could be. She felt only tired, and glancing over at the shadow lady as they rode did nothing to rest her.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Yelen. “What if it’s not only her?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if—” He looked around the rose hills. “What if it’s the place? What if it generates them? What if there’ll be more of them trailing behind us when we reach home? What if we’re bringing a whole army of them into the city? Each mercenary side by side with a shadow?”
Tirene squared her shoulders. “I went out to find something to change the balance for Mother and Father, Yelen.”
“A shadow army is not what you meant.”
“They’re not organized enough to be an army.”
“Is that going to be enough?”
Tirene gave him a long, weary look over her pomander. “The first day we set out, I had a question for you. If your answer has changed, we can turn back, just as we could have turned back then: have you got any better ideas?”
Yelen nodded curtly. “Maybe.”
Tirene gestured sarcastically in backhanded circles for him to continue.
“A troop of shadows loosed on the city would certainly bring chaos to our enemies, if the shadows behave anything like her.”
Tirene looked at their unwanted companion riding beside them, looked back at Yelen, and began to laugh as loud as her exhaustion would allow. “Oh, my lands!” she choked. “Shadow soldiers in the midst of enemy troops. They’ll be trying to scale a wall, and they’ll find a shadow offering them the power of flight in exchange for—in exchange for what? I don’t even know. Or offering that they can become the Long-Lost Prince with the Seven-League Boots, if they betray their sergeant, or— Earth and sky, it’s too much! The stories they will tell, the choices they’ll offer—”
Yelen nodded. “It’s worse than sabotage—or better—because we couldn’t control it if we tried. There’s no way the houses besieging your parents will be able to retain control if we show up with the likes of her, in force. And at least some of the enemy are likely to say yes where we said no, and who can even guess where that will lead—”
“Ghosts,” Tirene finished for him. “Nearly every soldier tale is a haunting. The shadows will be offering them the reality of their familiar ghosts. Some of them will take that reality and run with it, or run away with it. Or the Land of Plenty, every private a king out beyond the hills. There’ll be no keeping ranks if anyone catches wind of a shadow with that tale. And shadows know all the tales, don’t they, lady?”
The shadow lady looked at them blandly. “Would I do something like that? I, your faithful companion? I, who have ridden with you through these hills? Would I cause such trouble in the streets of your home?” There was the hint of wry fluttering of eyelashes in the shadows of her face, something about it that suggested a sardonic quirk of mouth.
Tirene giggled, coughed, tried to get control of herself. She hiccuped and relapsed into laughter, clinging to her bewildered horse’s mane for support. The long light of the end of the day cast shadows all around them, and she fancied she could feel them coalescing into a more maddening tale of victory than she had ever heard told, as their horses’ feet left the rose hills.
Return to Issue #173