Excerpt from The Golden Key (Kate Elliott's portion)
By Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott


Eleyna balanced her drawing board across her thighs and squinted into the morning sunlight as the Iluminarres Procession wound into the great zocalo fronting the Cathedral Imagos Brilliantos.  She tested her hands on the drawing paper with a few swift strokes:  the tasseled headbands of the banner bearers; the two banners signifying Mother and Son, pure white linen stitched with gold thread;  the torches, burned down to stubs, that had illuminated the nightlong prayers for rain; the white lily adorning the man and woman chosen to represent the vineyard worker and his wife, the Exalted.

She began to sketch in the woman, quickly delineating her sharp nose and with three lines suggesting the curl of her black hair, crowned by a wreath of lilies.  Her gaze caught on the man.  She clenched her hands.  How like the Grand Duke to impinge on a people's ceremony in this way, by insinuating his second son into the honored place in the procession.  Must they take every honor away from the common folk?

She left that space blank, where the vineyard worker strode, eyes caught on the banner of the Son.  Instead, she furiously sketched in the sanctos and sanctas who accompanied the procession, the white-robed Premio Sancto at their head.  They sang, the monumental hymn "Il Pluvia ei Fuega," while the weight of their ceremonial gold and silver mantles rustled like a stiff breeze across the plaza.  Eleyna bit at her lip, trying not to remember the only other time she had seen Don Rohario, the Grand Duke's second son.  But the humiliation was too fresh for her not to remember.

She sketched the outlines of the cathedral hastily and then hatched in shadows.  By concentrating on the twin bell towers and their fat shadows stretching over the long arcade of the Palasso Justissia, she managed to thrust the unwelcome memory to the back of her mind.  The banner bearers climbed the steps that led to the cathedral forecourt and stopped beside the huge doors.  The procession continued on inside, the hymn changing to the more somber cadences of the old vineworkers' song, "Give Us Mercy, Mother, Your Brillance Burns Us."

Behind the procession, townspeople flooded into the square, their hats decorated with gold and silver ribbons or with tasseled headbands in imitation of those worn by the banner bearers.  Caught up by their exhuberance, Eleyna turned to a new page in her sketchpad and concentrated on the ribbons fluttering in the breeze, lines that connected one face to the next, drawing the eye through the crowd in all its moods: the teasing laughter of young women;  the sincere tears of the devout;  the excitement of children seeing their first Iluminarres Procession;  the solemn bowed heads of elder folk seeing, perhaps, their last.

It was almost enough to drive away all thoughts of that awful meeting, Don Rohario acting as his elder brother's representative, her parents scheming and lying to her so she would have no choice but to say 'Yes'.  Eiha!  She never had been able to control her tongue when she was embarrassed and angry, everyone knew that.  But after the Don's ignoble retreat, they had accused her of being ill-tempered and ungrateful.

For a moment she forgot where she was.  She no longer saw the crowd or heard their singing and festive shouts.  The injustice of it stung.  Had she been born a male, she might have been Gifted.  Then her skill with pencil, with paints, would have been a cause for celebration instead of an impediment toward liaisons with men.

The crowd continued to swell.  Eleyna began sketching again, not really paying attention to the movements of pencil on paper.  It was her only release when she got agitated.

"I am meant to paint," she said under her breath, her words drowned by voices rising now in song.  "I will not let them stop me."

Of their own accord, her hands sketched in the stiff angles of a black hat and, beneath its brim, the scowling face of a middle-aged man.  He had the ample jowls of a prosperous guildsman.  Her hands drew in the collar with its small pin, golden scales, before she registered the symbol:  He was a goldsmith, then, or a jeweler, the two guilds having recently joined forces, following the fashion that had come to Tira Virte from Ghillas together with the new freedom of dress that had become fashionable in the last five years.  Grazzo do'Matra!  No more confining stays!

A voice rang out:  "Let the Corteis meet!"

From that cry, ten others sprang into being.

"Down with the do'Verradas!"

"Let all classes have a say!"

"No taxes without the vote of the Corteis!"

"Let us have the vote!" shouted the guildsman near Eleyna, shoving forward toward the steps of the cathedral.  Other men pushed forward.  A shrill ululating scream pierced the air.  The hymn from the cathedral was drowned in a chorus of protests.

Perched on the second tier of the great fountain that overlooked the square, Eleyna was not at first caught in the sudden forward surge of the crowd.  But she caught their fever, the shift from joyous celebration to angry protest.  I will record it all!  Her pencil flew over the paper, recording a pair of squinting eyes, the blunt set of a mouth, a little girl reaching, frightened, toward her mother.

A pack of young men swarmed up onto the fountain, carrying handprinted signs or banners sewn with three broad stripes:  blue, black, and silver.  In their excitement they jostled Eleyna.  She barely caught her sketchpad, but her drawing board plummeted, falling with a splash into the roiling waters of the fountain.  Cursing under her breath, she tucked her sketchpad under her arm, shoved her pencil into the pocket she had sewn into her skirt, and clambered down.  But the swelling crowd got in her way.  She clung to the stone steps, unable to move.

"Let me get it, Maessa."  A man several steps away shoved his way down to the base of the fountain and without minding shoes or trousers waded into the spray and fetched out her drawing board.  It dripped water on the stone, painting the granite dark gray, as he climbed back up to her.

Behind him, like an afterthought, came a press of young men, singing a coarse drinking song while waving their signs and banners enthusiastically.  They came so quickly that Eleyna had to retreat up another tier and partway around the fountain.  She no longer had a clear view of the cathedral.  Mist sprayed, winking in the sunlight.

She found a square of stone and held her ground.  There he was!  As he fought his way toward her, she studied him.  In his late twenties, he had a bland, round, ordinary face, a familiar face, but one she could not place.  His black hair was cut without flair, unlike most of the young bravos around her, who seemed as vain of their appearance as enthusiastic about their political views.  He had no grace to speak of, skinning his knee with a grunted curse as he scrambled up beside her.  But his hands . . . .

She always noticed hands, and his had long, tapering fingers and broad, strong palms, the kind of hands it was a pleasure to paint.  And -- there! -- a tell-tale smear of dried paint.

"You're a Grijalva," he said, without giving her the board.

With the crowd roaring around her, her sketchpad creased and her dress disheveled, Eleyna lost her temper.  "You'll get no access to Palasso Grijalva from me!"  She grabbed the drawing board and tugged it out of his hand.  "There is a painting academy on Avenida Shagarra.  You would have better luck applying there."

He only smiled.  His preternatural calm in the midst of a swirling protest made her apprehensive.  The crowd's murmur began to crescendo, growing agitated and ugly.

"I only wish to escort you home, Maessa."  He had to shout to be heard above the noise.  "I was watching you sketch.  You are talented, are you not?  Truly gifted."  He meant it not as flattery but as a plain fact which both he and she ought to recognize.

It stopped her dead.  She ought to go, but she could not bring herself to move.  This man, this stranger, knew something about her that no one else, not since Grandmother Leilias had died, knew or admitted.  Not Gifted -- no woman could be Gifted -- but gifted with a true talent as fine as that owned by her Gifted male cousins.

More young men leaped up onto the fountain, climbing higher and higher until a trio finally braved the spray to vault themselves to the finial.  A compatriot threw a banner up to them, and they draped it over the statue of Duke Alesso to howls of approval from the crowd below.

"Let the Corteis meet!"

"No taxes without our consent!"

More, and more yet, swarmed up onto the fountain for a better view.  A woman shrieked and a baby wailed in fear.  Eleyna was caught, pressed backward.

"Who are you?" she cried, but a great roar broke loose from the crowd as a second blue, black, and silver banner was unfurled on the roof of the Palasso Justissia.  In the crush, she was forced to stumble backward while the stranger was caught by the tide and swept away from her.  She lost sight of him.  Water misted her hair and neck.  A woman in an apron and skirt stained gray with ash stared at her, at her sketchpad and drawing board, then pointed, away, where a line of green appeared, wavering, down one of the boulevards.

"Look there, amica, down the Boulevard Benecitto.  The Duke has called out the Shagarra Regiment.  Chiros!"  The woman spat into the fountain.  She held a basket filled with dried crusts of bread.  "They say that in Ghillas there is fresh bread for all people, even the poor, taken from the nobles' kitchens."

The hymn "Novva Pluvia", The New Rain, started in one corner of the zocalo, swelling in volume as most of the crowd took up the song.  But the words sounded now more like a threat than a plea to the heavens:  "With the new rain we shall be set free!"

Mist -- or were those tears? -- stung Eleyna's eyes.  Why shouldn't the people of Meya Suerta protest?  Weren't they, like her, forced to be ruled without having any say in what they chose to do?  She was twenty-one years of age, had been a widow for two years, but her parents thought of her only as a pawn to be used to further their ambitions.

First they had used her in the Confirmattio, and when through two Confirmattios she had failed to conceive, they had married her off to Felippo Grijalva, who had already outlived two wives.  It was only after a stillbirth and Felippo's death during the Summer Fever that they had grudgingly allowed her the run of the studio, but only because Grandmother Leilias had insisted upon it.  Leilias had power within the family.

Now Leilias was dead.  Dowager Duchess Mechella was dead.  Mechella's grandson, Edoard, first son and heir to Grand Duke Renayo II, had gotten grudging permission from his father to reinstate the old tradition of a Grijalva Mistress, the Marria do'Fantome.

What better choice than a young widow who had already proven herself as good as barren?

"All I want to do is paint!" she cried, if only to that chance-met stranger who had admired her talent.  But he was lost, and the great shout that rose from the crowd as it finished the last verse drowned out her voice.

Fleeing the press of the crowd and the approaching soldiers, yet more people surged up onto the fountain.  Too many.  It was too crowded.  Eleyna fell to one knee, catching herself and skinning a palm on stone, clutching her precious sketchpad, dropping the drawing board, and scrabbled for purchase.  She could not stay here.  The Grand Duke's soldiers were coming.

Lowering her head, using her elbows, she fought her way down the basins and tiers of the fountain.  She almost lost her footing when she reached the ground.  People were caged together by others like so many chickens brought home from the market.  Their shouts blended into an unintelligible din.  She shoved and elbowed her way, stumbling over a crumpled body, was swept first to the right, then to the left, fighting against the current, but at last she managed to get out.  As she reached the fringe of the crowd, opposite the cathedral, the going became easier.  She had reached the Avenida Oriale when the first shots were fired.

Not bothering to look back, Eleyna ran.  And hated herself, for was she not running back to the safety of Palasso Grijalva?  That was not safety, but a prison!

Her parents wanted their daughter to be Don Edoard's mistress.  Mistress to the heir to the throne--that was power!  That was influence!  By that means they could control the Viehos Fratos, power which had been denied to her mother's branch of the family for two generations--her mother, who was the niece of the fabled Tazia, mistress to Arrigo III. . .the woman who had dared to try to kill Grand Duchess Mechella.

But Eleyna didn't care about that kind of power.  She wanted no part of it.  That was why they had never understood her.

She ran now, back to them, only because she was afraid.  Behind, the dull roar turned into riot as the noon sun beat down on the city of Meya Suerta and a volley of musket fire broke the peace of the Iluminarres Procession.