Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff
The nation of Shkoder is one of the smaller countries on its continent (un-named, so far as I know), but it’s the kind of liberal monarchy that you wouldn’t mind living in, if you were forced to live in one of these quasi-medievel fantasy worlds. It’s no democracy, but it’s a decent place with some idea of human rights and the like. And, of course, like all these small, liberal kingdoms, it has a corps of special guardians. In the case of Shkoder, they are bards. More on them in a bit.
The religious philosophy of the Shkoder area holds that all things are held in a great circle (even the gods). This isn’t explored in any depth, but it is important. There is definitely a “what goes around comes around” element. And something vehemently disliked is referred to as “unenclosed” (that is, not enclosed in the Circle), though rarely seriously–one character, early in the book, refers to her children as unenclosed, while another refers to an annoying song.
Back to the Bards. They have the standard bardic skills, in that they sing and play instruments (the level of skill involved in each of these varies, of course). And they have highly trained memories, allowing them to learn and recite news as they travel around the kingdom, looping out from the capital city of Elbasan through different parts of Shkoder and back again to the Bardic Hall, which records what they saw and, if need be, informs the King, allowing him to make proper judgements about the land and its people (King or Queen; in Shkoder as in all of Huff’s worlds, men and women are legally and socially equal). Bardic voice allows them to Command people; most notably we see them Commanding people on trial to speak only the truth (Bardic recall makes them valuable witnesses to trials and contracts, too). Finally, Bards can command elemental creatures known as “the Kigh” (classic western four elements: fire, earth, water, air). Kigh are mostly invisible to normal people (except for maybe the Earth Kigh, who have solid bodies when they come up above the surface), but the effects of their actions are, of course, visible to all. Water Kigh can push or pull a boat through still water, for example, and the utility of fire Kigh in the winter would be obvious. Air Kigh are the most useful, though, because they can be used to send quick messages across long distances. Every Bard can sing at least one element (each element is referred to as a quarter of the Circle, so every Bard sings at least one quarter); a smaller number can sing two; even fewer can sing three and a tiny amount can sing all four. We meet, to my knowledge, only one in this book, and she is the hero of the story.
In Shkoder, as I noted above, everything is enclosed in the Circle. Everything includes the Kigh. But in the nearby, larger kingdom of Cemandia, the Kigh are held to not be Enclosed in the Circle, and so Bards are also unenclosed. Cemandia differs from Shkoder in another important way: they’re landlocked, and their ruler would really, really like to have a seaport. Fortunately, the two countries are separated by impenetrable mountains, the only way through being a pass through the Duchy of Ohrid, currently held by Duc Pjerin (I’m not sure exactly how that’s pronounced; I’m pretty sure the ‘j’ is either silent, or pronounced as a ‘y’, but in my head it’s a ‘j’), a stubbornstrong-willed man so smokin’ hot that a bard wrote a song about him and called it, “Darkling Lover”.
Okay, so much for background. On to the story. Annice (Ah-neess, as far as I can tell) is a Bard heading home from a long walk that has taken her as far as Ohrid (farther than that, you leave Shkoder for Cemandia–and the last Bard to do that didn’t come back). Now it’s almost winter and she’s not happy. Not only is the weather miserable, but she seems to have come down with something (throwing up is a daily occurrence before she can even get food into her system) and the wet weather seems to be shrinking her clothes and she’s just generally miserable. We also quickly learn that, like Pjerin (whom she must have met in Ohrid), Annice has a song about her. Her song is called, “The Princess Bard” because, well, she is a princess, the sister of the current king.
It seems that, as a child, Annice had demonstrated the talents of a Bard (four elements/quarters), and the Bardic Captain had even asked for her to join them. But it wasn’t until she was an adolescent that she got the chance. Her Father was old and sick, and her Brother, the heir, tried to arrange a marriage for her with a Cemandian prince. Note the word, “arrange”, not, say, “ask her if she was interested in”. Annice refused the marriage and asked a boon of their dying Father, that she be allowed to become a Bard. Her brother, angry at being out-manoeuvred, made his first decree that, while Annice could become a Bard she could not partner with a man nor have any children (so as not to create a competing dynasty (not that he thought she would, mind you, but the two of them had just finished hurting each other very much and he was too angry to remember that he started it)) on pain of treason. And, while he as King was reducing the number of crimes that carried the death penalty, treason was still the number one on the list.
Fortunately for Annice, she’s bisexual* and she settles in with another Bard, Stasya, who I think is a lesbian (Huff never actually says what Stasya’s orientation is*, but we never see or hear about her being interested in a guy, so . . . ) and the two of them seem devoted to each other, though they do have a somewhat open relationship (which makes sense if you’re both off walking over half the kingdom half the time). And the Bardic College is able to get her special teas that serve as contraceptives. But on this walk she gave the tea away to a woman who had too many children in too short a time, and, well, her clothes aren’t shrinking and she doesn’t have a bug. She’s pregnant.
She could get an abortion, but she doesn’t want to. She wants to have the kid. But being pregnant is going to shift her affiliation with the Kigh closer to earth, which means air Kigh will want less and less to do with her. And of course she’ll have to hide from her brother, and anyone who might carry news to him. It’s easy enough to hide from him, at least, since the two of them never talk any more.
Meanwhile, Duc Pjerin (remember him? Duc of Ohrid, tres sexy, about five paragraphs up?) is having troubles of his own. It seems he’s being accused of treason, specifically of selling out the pass he guards to Cemandia. Of course, it’s nonsense, but, heh, funny thing: every time he’s Commanded by a Bard to speak only the truth he ends up confessing to treason by way of selling out the pass to Cemandia. Which soon puts him in Elbasan, in the castle dungeon, waiting for a close encounter with the executioner.
When she hears about it, Annice doesn’t believe it. It’s totally out of character for him, she says, and she’s not just upset because he’s actually the father of her child. Since she grew up in the Palace, she knows all the secret passages, and uses one of them to get Pjerin out. She does have a plan; Pjerin needs to get back to Ohrid to defend the pass from the Cemandian army they are all sure is coming, and she needs to go with him, because the air Kigh will avoid her and thus cannot be used to quickly locate him and have him hauled back for his execution.
Of course, the two of them are barely away when her brother, who isn’t stupid, decides to re-evaluate Pjerin’s case because it doesn’t smell right to him, either, and if it turns out the Duc is innocent then Shkoder has a huge problem because someone has managed to subvert the “Command to tell only the truth” thing, which is a cornerstone of their legal system. Part of the King’s re-evaluation involves talking to the man again, which leads to finding out said man isn’t in his cell. Which means the pursuit is on, even if it isn’t quite what the fugitives think they’re fleeing from.
While Annice and Pjerin work their way cross-country, dodging various dangers, not all of them what they are execting, the King makes plans to go to Ohrid to help prepare the place for battle and bring the news that the Kingdom intends to pay more attention to them (that being one of Pjerin’s real and justified complaints), and the real traitors (we learn early on who they are, and Pjerin can guess easily) prepare to sell the country out, and Stasya is sent ahead to prepare the way–and into real danger of her own.
Huff quite faked me out on this one. Nothing went in exactly the direction I was expecting at any point, and I was genuinely pleasantly suprised. The strong characterization that usually marks Huff’s work is very much in evidence here, too. If you haven’t already read this one you should give it a look now (as of this writing, it’s available in an omnibus edition with its first sequel, Fifth Quarter).
*Huff is on record as saying, “All of my characters are bisexual unless I specifically tell you otherwise.”(http://awthome.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/an-interview-with-author-tanya-huff/)