A Shandorian Journey, Part Eight

“I think you were perfectly sensible,” Anna said. She sat cross-legged beside Tam on thick blankets. A fire burned merrily at the center of the chieftain’s tent, and emblems of the sixty clans decorated the perimeter. None of the chieftains were here yet for the afternoon’s ceremony, so Tam didn’t think anyone would mind if he had a quiet chat with Anna by the fire. He’d told her about the whole mess with Hashta. “And I’m sure the Queen and the Amryn think so, too,” she said. “You’ve told the Queen everything, haven’t you?”

“Course I have.” He’d told her the very first night, when the Healer finally made him take a rest from digging for survivors. She hadn’t blamed him for anything. No one blamed him, but he still felt far from right about it in his own mind. Even here at Council of Chieftains, where everyone else was caught up in the excitement, he couldn’t enjoy the festival atmosphere. He missed Jon.

Anna reached over and squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry, Tam. I’m sure it will all end up right. It’s not like you to fret.” She gave him an encouraging smile.

The worried notes running all through her gave the lie to the smile on her face. She often did that sort of thing, Tam had noticed—smile when she didn’t feel it, to cheer others up. Well, he didn’t want to be the one to dampen her mood. She’d been so happy before, with the news of her design proposal being accepted for the Shandorian pavilion at that big fair they were having in Levour next year. “So, tell me more about them plans of yours,” he said, returning her smile.

She was off, then, with descriptions of garden installations and art, and all the worry melted away. Tam listened with more than half an ear, but he kept getting distracted by the way the stray beams of sunlight from the smoke-hole lit the colors of her festival gown and the embroidery on her tabard. She and her family were from clan Standing Rocks, one of the big northern clans that had given birth to many famous heroes, warriors, and battle chieftains. Perhaps because of all that martial heritage, Anna was wearing her knife openly at her belt now, instead of hidden in her boot like usual. Unlike the ceremonial sword Tam had been given to wear, she knew how to use her knife. Tam had seen her practicing with her Ma.

Anna’s cheerful descriptions broke off suddenly, and she scrambled to her feet. Tam rose, too. The rush of music told him who had entered the council tent before he turned to greet them.

The Queen, in her blue festival cloak with its long hood and tassel, looked smaller than usual next to her tall, broad, bearded Amryn. Bren’s cloak was the traditional deep red that only Amryns wore, and even at midsummer it was trimmed with fur. He wore many gold bands on his arms and neck. The Amryn’s sword, gleaming with bronze and polished horn, hung at his belt, with a golden pocket watch beside it. People were always giving the Amryn gifts, and it was polite of him to wear as many of them as possible. The pocket watch was new this festival, and he seemed especially delighted with it.

Anna curtsied to the Amryn and the Queen, and Tam shook hands with the one and was hugged by the other. The Queen beamed and congratulated Anna on her design plans, and asked after her parents and the Blackfeathers. Anna didn’t have even a moment to be nervous in the presence of the rulers of Shandor, because the Queen launched into her favorite story about her newest grandchild and the latest batch of castle kittens. Tam had heard this story many times already. Evidently, so had the Amryn. Bren pulled out his pocket watch, checked it, and held it out for Tam to see. “Look at that, eh. A quarter till one. I would have put it at noon, by the sun. Wonderful, what they come up with these days. You ought to get one, lad.”

Tam agreed that the pocket watch was fine. The tent began to bustle with warriors, attendants, and the first of the chieftains and their entourages. Anna made more curtsies, squeezed Tam’s hand again, and took her leave. Neither she nor her parents were in the entourage of the Standing Rocks chieftain, so they wouldn’t be part of this official business.

The Queen and the Amryn sat down in their places of honor, with their backs to the fire, and their warriors and attendants arranged themselves around. The Queen fussed with Tam’s vest, arranging it to lay right over his striped festival shirt. “What am I supposed to be doing, again, Ma’am?” he asked her.

“Just watching and listening, dear. I want you to get used to how these sorts of ceremonies work. But don’t worry about a thing.”

Tam took up a spot, standing to the Queen’s left, as the first of the chieftains began to present themselves.

Standing Rocks came first. Their chieftain had half a dozen warriors with him, all with layered leather armor on their right shoulders and arms. Anna’s Da had a half-armor piece like that, which he only wore at festivals. These ones were fancier, though, with elaborate tooling around the edges. The chieftain carried an old-fashioned round shield set with many different colors of stones, and he wore nearly as many armbands as the Amryn.

He and his men bowed. “Amryn, Standing Rocks joins you in council this day. Our clan is two thousand strong, and our swords are ready at your call. We will stand beside you and protect the K’shay tanna, whatever the need. Command us.”

In the old days, Council of Chieftains had also served as a count of the warriors the Amryn could call upon in time of battle. It was still a census of sorts—one of the Queen’s secretaries took down the numbers in a book—but the Amryn no longer had to lead his people to war, and since the people were united now, there wouldn’t be any clans going off on their own like in the stories.

The Amryn gestured the chieftain of Standing Rocks to take his spot in the council circle, not without a glance at his pocket watch and a joke about him being late, even though he was the first one here. The chieftain took the jibe in good grace, dismissed most of his men, and found a place to sit.

Chieftain followed chieftain, all in their traditional garb, all renewing, in their own particular fashion, their oaths to obey the Amryn and support the K’shay tanna. The chieftain of Copper’s Dawn, Lady Hellin’s clan, had hair down to her knees, full of little braids and copper ornaments. Her warriors carried bows as well as swords, and had their hair in single side braids, tied with arrow-fletching rings, like Djaren had done in the Tembelakan islands. They wore half-capes that left their bow arms bare. “Copper’s Dawn joins you in council, Amryn,” the chieftain said. “Our clan numbers six hundred souls, and our arts and songs are ready at your call.”

Then came the stern young chieftain of Blade Ridges, and the cheery chieftain of Chenaiatown all in bright colored shawls and beads, and the Healer and other Elders from Stone Guardians and clan Starfire, and the oldest blacksmith Tam had ever seen from clan Earthfire, and more besides. The tent began to fill, and even though most conversations were stilled out of respect for the Queen and the Amryn, it became hard to heard the older and more reedy-voiced chieftains’ pledges.

Hural of Color Finders entered, then, with two men of his clan. They wore their festival scarves, but otherwise did not look in a festive mood. The Amryn frowned, and the Queen made a little clucking noise of disapproval. Despite all the trouble Hural’s rash deal with the Germhacht men had made, Tam felt sorry for him. It must be terrifying to have to face the anger of the Queen and the Amryn together.

He leaned down toward the Queen’s ear. “I’m sure, Ma’am, that Hural’s very sorry for what he did, and that he won’t never do anything of the sort again.”

“Hush, dear,” she whispered back. “I know just how sorry he is.” Of course, Tam realized, she would—she could hear the tremors in his notes as well as Tam could. “And the opening pledges aren’t the time for judgment. That will come later.”

Tam nodded and was about to straighten, but then the Queen started and her mouth formed a little oh. Tam looked around and saw nothing, then listened, and heard the wild skirl of flutes as Hashta threw open the tent flap and came striding in. He had left behind his hunting spears, but he still had his sword, and today he was wearing a long cloak in the Amryn’s red. The conversations going on in the tent behind them stilled at his entrance.

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