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The Riven Kingdom

The Riven Kingdom

Godspeaker - Book 2

(AUS/NZ Release)

PUBLISHER: Voyager
FORMAT: Paperback
ISBN-10: 073228452X
ISBN-13: 9780732284527

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                                Chapter One

The King of Ethrea was dying.

Rhian sat by her father’s bedside, holding his frail hand in hers and breathing lightly. Her world was a glass bubble; if she breathed too deeply it would shatter, and her with it.

This isn’t fair, this isn’t fair, this isn’t fair

Droning in the privy bedchamber corner, the Most Venerable Justin -- one of Prolate Marlan’s senior clergy, sentenced to praying for her father’s soul. His shaved head was bowed over his prayer beads, click-click-clicking through his fingers till she thought she would scream.

I wish you’d get out. I wish you’d go away. We don’t want you here. This is our time, we don’t have so much that we can share.

She had to bite her lip hard to quell fresh tears. She’d wept so often lately she felt soggy, like moss. And what was the point of weeping anyway? Weeping wouldn’t save her father. He was broken, he was slipping away.

I will be an orphan soon.

She’d been half an orphan for ten years now. Without the portraits on the castle walls she might not even remember Queen Ilda’s sweet face. A frightening thought, to lose her mother twice. Was she destined to lose her brothers twice as well? Ranald and Simon were dead only two months, she still heard their voices on the edge of sleep. She thought it was likely, and after them her father twice. All these double bereavements. Where was God in this? Was he sleeping? Indifferent?

Mama, the boys, and now dear Papa. I know I’m the youngest, nature’s law dictates I’d be the last one left … but not this soon! Do you hear me, God? It’s too soon!

As though sensing her rebellion, the venerable paused in his bead-clicking and droning. “Highness, the king will likely sleep for hours. Perhaps your time would be better spent in prayer.”

She wanted to say, I think you’re praying enough for both of us, Ven’Justin. But if she said that he’d tell her personal chaplain, Helfred, and Helfred would tell Prolate Marlan, and Marlan would be unamused.

It wasn’t wise, to stir Marlan to anger.

So she said, her heart seething, “I do pray, Ven’Justin. Every breath I take is a prayer.”

Ven’Justin nodded, not entirely convinced. “Admirable, Highness. But surely the proper place for your prayers is the castle chapel.”
He may be a Most Venerable, but still he lacked the authority to command a king’s daughter. She looked again at her father’s cadaverous face with its jaundiced skin pleated over fleshless bone, so he would not see her anger. Her voice she kept quiet, sweet and unobjectionable. Be a lady, be a lady, be always a lady.

“I will go to the chapel by and by. For now, Ven’Justin, even if he is asleep I know His Majesty takes comfort from my presence.”

Click-click-click went Ven’Justin’s prayer beads. He picked up his droning where he’d left off.

On his mountain of pillows, her father stirred. Beneath his paper-thin eyelids his eyes shifted, restless. The pulse in his throat beat harder. “Ranald,” he muttered. “Ranald, my boy … I’m coming. I’m coming.” His voice, once treacle-dark and smooth as silk, rasped like rusted wire. “Ranald, my good son …” His exhaled breath became a groan.

A basin of water and a soft cloth sat near at hand, on the bedside cabinet. Gently, Rhian moistened her father’s cheeks and lips. “It’s all right, Papa. Don’t fret. I’m here. Please try to rest.”

“Ranald!” said her father, and opened his eyes. So recently the deepest blue, clear and clean as a summer sky, now they were rheumy, their whites stained yellow with the failing of his liver. For a horrible moment they were clouded, confused. Then he remembered her, and sighed. “Rhian. I thought I heard Ranald.”

She dropped the cloth back in the basin and took his hand again. His fingers felt so brittle. Hold him too tightly and he’d break into pieces. “I know, Papa. You were dreaming.”

A single tear trailed through his grey stubble. “I never should have let Ranald go voyaging with Simon,” he whispered. “I was selfishly indulgent, I cared more for Ranald loving me than I did for what was best, and now they are dead. My heir is dead and so is his brother. I have failed the kingdom.”

It was by now a familiar refrain. Rhian kissed his cold hand. “That’s nonsense, Papa. Every great man’s sons go abroad. Your father didn’t forbid you the world, even though you were the heir. You could never have denied your sons that adventure. Ranald and Simon had bad luck, that’s all. It’s not your fault. You aren’t to blame.”

In the corner, Ven’Justin’s beads clicked louder. The Church frowned on superstitious beliefs like luck. She spared the man a warning glance. Venerable or not, she wouldn’t have him upsetting her father.

“Rhian.”

“Yes, Papa?”

His fingers tried to squeeze hers. “My good girl. What will become of you when I’m gone?”

She could answer that, but not in front of Most Venerable Justin. Not in front of anyone who would carry her words straight back to Helfred and Marlan. “Hush, Papa,” she said, and smoothed her other hand over his thinning hair. “Don’t tire yourself talking.”

But he was determined to fret. “I should have seen you betrothed, Rhian. I have failed you as I failed your brothers.”

A single name rang like a bell in her heart. Alasdair. But there was no point thinking of him. He was returned to duchy Linfoi and his own ailing father … and besides, she’d not yet come near to softening the king towards him.

“Papa, Papa, do not excite yourself,” she soothed. “You need to rest. God will take care of me.” Another glance, over her shoulder. “Isn’t that so, Ven’Justin?”

Grudgingly, he nodded. “God takes care of all his children, to the length and breadth of their deserving.”

“There,” she said. “You see? Ven’Justin agrees.” Then added, even as she felt the hot tears rise, “Anyway, you’re not going anywhere. Do you hear me, Papa? You’re going to get well.”

He smiled, a gummy business now, with all his teeth rattled loose in their sockets. “Throughout my life I have not been the most reverent of men. But even I know, Rhian, that God does as God wills. I will leave when I am called and not even you, my bossy minx, can dictate I’ll stay.”

My bossy minx. It was one of his pet phrases for her. She hadn’t heard him use it in the longest time. “Yes, Papa,” she said, and again kissed his cold fingers.

Soon after, he drifted back to sleep. Ignoring Most Venerable Justin and his pointed sighs she held her father’s fragile hand and, defiant in the face of God’s apparent decision, willed him to live, live, live.



It was a small room, made smaller still by an overabundance of powdered and perfumed ladies, plump with platefuls of sugared cakes and creamy drinking chocolate served in fine china cups. Rustling in taffeta and satin, swishing in muslin, sighing in silk, they laughed and squealed and squabbled like children over the dolls, toy bears, stuffed piglets and pussy cats, wooden archers, painted marionettes, tin whistles and whatnots the toymaker had brought for their inspection and delight.

Lady Dester, wife to council secretary Lord Dester, poked an impatient, jewel-crushed finger at the tumbled pile of toys in her lap and sighed. “Dear me, Mr Jones, I just don’t know. I mean to say, they’re all lovely, aren’t they? You make it so hard to decide. And goodness gracious, if I don’t choose exactly the right one, well, little Astaria is likely to sulk for days, bless her precious heart. My sweeting is so particular when it comes to her toys …”

Dexterity Jones, Toymaker by Royal Appointment, gritted his teeth behind his smile. What was there to say? Little Astaria would have the head off whatever doll she was given in five minutes flat and then he’d have to fix it so that the joins didn’t show, and no matter how hard he tried or how perfect the repair, little Astaria would shriek that it wasn’t the same, Mama, it wasn’t, so there, she wanted a new dolly … and Mama would kiss her and coddle her and buy her another dolly … and so it would begin again.

An aristocrat-in-training if ever there was one, God bless her and every other spoilt darling in the kingdom … for who else kept the roof over the head of a humble toymaker?

Lady Dester sighed, which set her rouged cheeks quivering, and cast a cold grey eye over the fluttering flock of lesser court wives who had gathered with her to purchase toys for their sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters and flower-children. Plucking a lace-edged kerchief from her considerable cleavage, she flapped it in their direction.

“Marja, oh Marja, dear! Do come and help me decide!”

Keeping his expression as bland as butter, Dexterity watched Lady Braben pinch her lips and roll her eyes, clearly put out, then turn full round and join Lady Dester as bidden. Her husband Lord Braben was a mere pretender to the King’s Council, so offending Lady Dester wasn’t wise. Lady Braben was many things but feather-headed wasn’t one of them. She’d chosen a painted wooden dog and a doll’s tea set in three minutes flat.
With one sly, sliding, sideways glance at him she bent solicitously at Lady Dester’s side. “Yes, Violetta, dear?”

Violetta dear thrust an armful of dolls, stuffed bears, marionettes and rattles at Lady Braben. “Choose one, Marja, do! Then if Astaria doesn’t like it I can say it was your fault and she won’t take it out on me.”

“I’m honoured,” Lady Braben murmured, clutching the toys.

“As you should be,” Lady Dester retorted. “Little Astaria is --”

“Good afternoon,” a cool, contained voice said from behind them.

Lady Dester squirmed around on her footstool, saw who it was and let out a genteel little shriek. “Your Highness! Goodness, what an honour!” The remaining dolls, stuffed bears, marionettes and rattles in her lap erupted ceilingwards as she surged to her feet.

Still smiling -- after a while, one’s face set like marzipan-- Dexterity launched himself, arms wide, to catch his precious merchandise. One booted toe caught under the edge of a hand-woven Icthian rug and he fell sprawling, clutching at teddy bears, at the feet of the king’s only daughter.

She raised an eyebrow. “Really, Mr Jones. Bodily prostration is reserved for greeting His Majesty. A simple ‘Good afternoon, Your Highness’ would’ve sufficed.”

With a grunt, Dexterity heaved himself to his knees and held out his hand. “Good afternoon, Your Highness,” he repeated obediently. “Care for a rattle?”

Princess Rhian smiled, ruefully amused. Then she extended one slim sun-browned hand, grasped rattle and fingers and pulled him smoothly to his feet. “You’re a cheeky rogue, Dexterity Jones.”

“I know, Highness,” he agreed. “I could have sworn that’s why you like me.”

She glared at him in mock outrage, releasing his hand. “And which misguided fool informed you of that?”

His smile now was genuine. “A royal one, with hair like midnight, eyes like sapphires and a laugh to put the songbirds to shame.”

“Then she was a fool indeed to encourage such a flattering knave as you,” said the princess, and turned to Lady Dester. “Violetta, you look flustered. Can I be of help?”

Lady Dester blushed and simpered. “Well, goodness, Your Highness, I mean to say, at least, it’s just that --”

Dryly, Lady Braben said, “Lady Dester is having some little difficulty choosing a gift for Astaria, Highness.”

The princess nodded. “I see. And how does my flower-daughter, Violetta? I confess I’ve neglected my honorary children these past weeks.”

She’d been nursing the king. Dexterity looked up from rearranging his goods so the damaged items were hidden at the back. “I trust His Majesty goes along better, Your Highness?”

The scented chamber fell silent. Smothering the frenetic gaiety the shades of Ranald and Simon, Ethrea’s dead princes. Its dead heirs. This young woman’s dead brothers. The court and the kingdom were out of formal mourning, determined to thrust aside grief and dismay. Gatherings like this little toy fair pretended nothing was wrong … and everyone believed it, at least for a while.

Until some fool of a toymaker spoiled the mood with awkward questions.

Nothing in the princess’s polished expression changed, but Dexterity thought he knew her well enough to see behind the royal mask. “He’s a little better, Mr Jones,” she said, her voice colourless. “Thank you for asking.”

Oh dear. So things were very bad, then. Ignoring the court ladies’ daggered glances, he said, “If you will forgive me mentioning it, Highness, I have a friend, an excellent physick and a fine woman. It would give me great pleasure to --”

Before he could finish, Lady Dester was on him. “Mr Jones, you forget yourself! Know your place and stay in it, if you please! My husband Lord Dester recommended the physick that labours day and night to ease His Majesty’s suffering! If Physick Ardell has not prescribed the cure then you can be sure it is not worth so much as this!” And she dismissed all non-Ardell remedies with a snap of her fingers.

Tight-lipped, Dexterity bowed. “Apologies, madam. I was only intent upon --”

Lady Dester turned her back on him. “Now, Your Highness, as to your most gracious enquiry after dear little Astaria, she blossoms more each day. A most beautiful child, if I do say so myself, the very picture of me at that age --”

Dexterity risked a quick exchange of looks with Lady Braben. Her lips twitched, once. An eyelid flickered. Their shared thought was clear on her face: What a future dear Astaria has before her.
Lady Dester was oblivious. On and on she prattled, Astaria said this, Astaria did that, and Your Highness wouldn’t credit what the little poppet had done just this morning …

Dexterity, with no choice but to stand alertly by and nod in all the right places, allowed his eyes to rest impertinently on the princess’s face. She looked drawn, shadows like twilight beneath her glorious eyes, hollows deeper than beauty below her high cheekbones. Her exquisite blue and gold silk brocade dress sat too loosely round her waist. She stood tall and straight as a young pine, but tension sang in the spaces between her bones and the whisper of a frown lay across her brow.

Oh dear, oh dear. For certain things are very bad.

“ -- and only last week, Your Highness, if you can believe it, the darling little thing undid the door to the dovecote and let all the birds out!” twittered Lady Dester. “Well, didn’t the cottier have a time getting them back in, knowing that the cost of any bird not accounted for would come from his stipend! Oh, how we laughed, little Astaria and I!”

“An amusing trick, dear Violetta,” the princess agreed. “And now I think I have an answer to your dilemma. Why don’t you give precious little Astaria all the toys? The ones that have yet to be spoken for, I mean.”

Lady Dester was taken aback. “All, Your Highness?”

“Think how thrilled she’ll be, knowing she has the most generous mama in the kingdom,” said the princess earnestly. “When she sees these wonderful dolls and toys and discovers every last one is for her, I’m sure you’ll see a smile wide enough to swallow the moons.”

Dexterity stepped forward. “At a generous discount, Your Ladyship, naturally, to show my gratitude for your bounty.”

Lady Dester’s eyes narrowed. “How generous?”

He swallowed. “Twenty percent?”

“Thirty.”

“Twenty-five?”
Lady Dester opened her mouth to argue, caught the princess’s observing eye, and snorted instead. “Very well. Twenty-five. Follit! To me!”

As Lady Dester’s page obeyed the summons, Princess Rhian said, “Ladies, it’s been a pleasure taking time with you but I’m afraid I must return to the king. Do continue your shopping, and give my fond affection to your families.” She accepted their curtsies with a smile, and withdrew.

Dexterity stared after her, frowning, then excused himself to Lady Dester. “A moment, your ladyship, there is something I forgot --”

Lady Dester squawked. Feigning deafness, he slipped through the jostle of perfumed women and ducked through the open door into the corridor. “Your Highness!”

The princess, about to turn a corner, hesitated. “Mr Jones? Is something wrong?”

Catching up to her in five swift strides, he sketched a quick bow. “Not with me, Highness. I just wanted to say, well, thank you.”

She shrugged. “There was no call for Lady Dester to be so rude. You were only trying to help. God knows His Majesty can use all the help he can get.”

He resisted the urge to pat her arm. “I meant what I said, Highness. Ursa is a fine physick, the best I’ve ever met. I’m sure she could help. She could ease the king’s pain at least, I’m certain.”

“If you say so, Mr Jones, then I’ve no doubt it’s true. But I’m afraid it’s not quite as simple as that.”

“Lord Dester,” he said, and grimaced. “Of course. I understand.”
Her head tilted to one side as she regarded him. “I believe you do,” she said at last. “You understand a great deal about court politics, I think, for a simple toymaker.”

“A simple toymaker who’s trotted in and out of this castle since he was big enough to hold his father’s tool bag,” he pointed out.

“I’d have to be a sight deafer, dumber and more blind than I am not to see the way things work around here, Your Highness.”

Her brief smile was sad. “Yes, I expect you would.”

She was poised to turn away from him, but he couldn’t let it go at that. The poor girl was heartsick and clearly near the end of her endurance. All alone in the world, almost, and sore in need of help.

“Truly, Highness, at least let me speak to Ursa,” he said, cajoling. “She has prodigious experience with fevers and fluxes and the like. She could make up a little posset of something then give it to me, and I could --”

"You don’t change, do you?” said the princess. “Ever since I can remember you’ve been fixing the broken things in my life. Do you recall that dappled grey rocking horse I rode to pieces? The one I inherited from Simon, who inherited it from Ranald? Three times you mended it, till we had to concede that the poor old thing had pranced into its last battle.” The affectionate amusement died out of her face, leaving it pale and older than its nineteen years. “Do you recall what you told me, a child of seven, as you held me on your lap and let me cry? You said, ‘Little princess, don’t grieve. The old horse has had a good life, and a long one, and all things in their time must turn to dust.’” Abruptly the brilliant blue eyes were full of tears, and her lips trembled.

Floating through the nearby open door, a strident, querulous cry.

“Mr Jones? Mr Jones! Come back here this instant, Mr Jones!”

The princess took a deep, shuddering breath and dashed her hand across her face. “You’re wanted, Mr Jones, and so am I. I’ll pass your good thoughts along to the king. He’ll be touched to know how his people care.” Impulsively, she clasped his wrist. “Thank you, Dexterity. You’re a dear, true friend.”

And she was gone, long swift strides hampered only slightly by her dress. Dexterity watched her out of sight, his own grief for the dead princes rewoken.

Poor girl. Such a burden she carries. People watching her wherever she goes. Whispering behind her. Whispering before she arrives. Dissecting her life even as she lives it.

Of course, things would probably turn out all right. More than likely the ailing king would rally. Physicks could do amazing things these days. The king had to rally, Ethrea wasn’t ready to lose him yet. With the untimely losses of Ranald and Simon there was no prince waiting to take the throne. There was only Princess Rhian. Not yet at her majority and a girl to boot. Ethrea had never been ruled by a woman … and there were those who thought it never should.

Prolate Marlan for one. His views on women are stringent, to say the least.

Dread chilled him. Were King Eberg to die without a male heir only misery could follow. Ethrea’s past was a tapestry of betrayal and bloodshed, the desperate doings of six duchies wrestling for the right to rule the whole. In the end duchy Fyndle had emerged triumphant, was renamed Kingseat and became the traditional duchy of the king. Peace reigned sublime and for more than three hundred years the cobbled-together edges of the five lesser principalities had rubbed along tolerably well.

But if Eberg should die what an unravelling there’ll be. All the nations with their interests invested here will swoop down on us like a murder of crows …

Dexterity felt his heart thud. If the king recovered he could find himself another wife and sire a son to replace the two who’d died so untimely. Eberg wasn’t old, just three years senior to himself. It was barely middle-aged. The king had a score of sons left in him, surely. If the worst came to the worst and he died before this hypothetical son turned eighteen, well, there’d be a regency rulership but that could be survived. A king in nappies could be survived. But what kingdom could survive without any king at all?

Stop scaring yourself, Jones. His Majesty will be fine.

Lady Dester appeared in the open doorway. “Mr Jones! What are you doing? Must I remind you who I am?”

“No, Your Ladyship!” said Dexterity. “My sincere apologies. I’m coming right now!” And he fled his dire thoughts as though they pursued him with raised hackles and bared teeth.

While the storm of Lady Dester’s displeasure raged about him he nodded and apologised and bowed and packed up her purchases, then the other court ladies’ choices. When he’d finished and was blessedly alone, he allowed himself a moment to sit and sigh and heft with pleasure his coin-filled purse.

“Even with that outrageous discount not a bad day’s work, my love,” he remarked to the air. “I’ll stop in to see Javeson on the way home and order the new parlour curtains, shall I? Midnight blue, with perhaps a touch of silver. What do you think, Hettie? Do you think blue would suit best?”

I think we’ve more to worry about than curtains, Dex.

Dexterity froze. Looked from side to side. Over his shoulder. Behind the couch. Nothing. No-one. The room was empty.
He cleared his throat. Feeling ridiculous, he said, “Ah … is anyone there?”

No reply. He sat down again, pulled his kerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow.

“You’re overworking, Jones. Time you put your feet up and relaxed with a pint of cold ale.”

You can’t be drinking ale at a time like this, Dex.

With a strangled shout he leapt to his feet, the kerchief fluttering abandoned to the floor. Beneath his best brown waistcoat and second best yellow shirt his heart was beating a wild tattoo. It was impossible, but he asked the question anyway.

“Hettie? Hettie? Is that you, Hettie?”

The kingdom’s in trouble, Dex, and you have to save it.

“God preserve me!” he muttered, even though he’d stopped believing in God twenty years ago. “I’m going mad!” He scrambled together his trunk and his knapsack, tied his purse to his belt, cast a last horrified look around the empty castle chamber and fled.



Ursa was pruning a boil-free bush when he burst into her physicking workshop. Her narrow face was grave with concentration, her thin fingers sure and steady as she snipped, snipped, snipped at the boil-free’s spiky red leaves. Her shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair was hidden beneath an unflattering old scarf; her short, spare body clothed, inevitably, in a stained baggy smock. Work benches lined the low-ceilinged room, thicketed ropes of dried and drying herbs dangled from its rafters. Trapped sunshine warmed the air which was redolent of mint and rosemary and sweet julietta.

For once the workshop’s rustic welcome failed to soothe him.

“Ursa, I’m sick!” he panted, clutching at the corners of the nearest scarred bench. “Or losing my reason!”

Still snipping, she swept him head to toe with her measured grey gaze. “You look fine to me, Jones.”

“No,” he insisted. “I’m sick. Quick, you have to do something!”
Sighing, Ursa set down her shears, folded her arms across her flat chest and regarded him in silence for a moment. Then she pulled out a rickety stool and pointed. “Sit.”

He sat, carefully, and watched as she rummaged in a handy drawer, withdrew a wooden hammer and laid it on the bench.

“Are you nauseous?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No.”

“Dizzy?”

“No.”

“Headache?”

“Not really.”

“Shooting pains? Pins and needles? Faintness?”

“No, no, and no.”

She glared at him. “You’ll be more than sick if I find out this is some kind of a joke, Jones. I’m a busy woman, I have no time for jokes.”

He clasped his hands between his knees to stop them shaking. “Ursa, trust me. This is no joke, I promise.”

Her expression was sour. “It better not be.” She crossed to the windowsill, where a neat line of potted plants drank the last of the sinking sun. With an impatient hmmph she plucked a leaf from a delicate purple vine, came back to him, spat on it and slapped it on his forehead.

“Do you have to spit?” he complained. “It’s disgusting, Ursa.”

She looked at him, unimpressed.

“It is!”

“Do I tell you how to string puppets, Jones?”

“Yes. All the time.”

“And if you paid more attention they’d last twice as long.”
With Hettie gone, she was his closest friend. Which wasn’t to say she didn’t drive him to distraction. “Huh,” he muttered, under his breath. “Well, what’s happening?”

“Hush up,” she said, frowning. “Fevertell takes a minute or two to react.”

A minute passed in toe-tapping impatience.

“No fever,” she declared, twitched the leaf from his forehead and tossed it in a compost bin. Then she struck him on the knee with the hammer.

"Ow!” he said as his leg kicked out without him asking. “That hurt!” Anxiously, he looked at her. “Was it supposed to?”

“I just hit you with a hammer, Jones, what do you think?”

He swallowed. “I think … Ursa, I think I’m losing my wits!”

That made her grin. “If you had any to lose, Jones, I’d be worried for you.”

He pounded his fist on his knee. The memory of that loved, longed-for voice in the empty castle room still had the power to raise the hair on his head. “For God’s sake, Ursa, this is no laughing matter!”

“And nor is blasphemy, Dexterity Jones. You bite your tongue before God bites it for you!”

Irate, they glared at one another. He was the first to look away.

Rubbing wet palms against his best velvet breeches he whispered, “Truly Ursa, I’m afraid.”

Her astringent voice gentled, and so did her face. “Yes, I can see that, Jones. Why? What’s happened, my friend, to scuttle you into my workshop like a frightened rabbit?”