by Leigh Kimmel
The book opens with Herm Aldaran on Terra as Darkover's representative in the Federation Senate. He has a brief clairaudient experience in which he hears his greatest rival, Premier Nagy of the Expansionist Party, making nasty plans. He is overwhelmed with a sense that he had best get off Terra and back home to Darkover without delay. He summons up a falsified recall message on his computer and puts it through, booking immediate passage for himself and his family back to Darkover. When he is finished, he has a strange sense that something really is amiss on Darkover, and that it may well have to do with Regis Hastur, who has long been Darkover's de facto ruler.
On Darkover, Marguerida Alton is in Comyn Castle in Thendara, contemplating her situation, when she is suddenly stricken with a terrible headache. This is followed by an intense sense of certainty that something terrible has happened to Regis.
Herm's family arrive on Darkover, and his wife Katherine is astonished to discover just how cold this world is. She is still somewhat disturbed by the way he ordered her to pack and leave without consulting her, and his explanation of the danger of spy devices only slightly mollifies her. She comes from a matriarchial world called Renny, and Herm's habits of pre-emptively making decisions on her behalf is a source of discord between them.
At the spaceport they are greeted by Rafael Lanart-Hastur, Mikhail's older brother, who brings them up to date on the situation while they ride a carriage to Comyn Castle. There they are assigned the old Storn apartments, since the Aldaran apartments are already occupied. Katherine then discovers for the first time that her husband is a telepath (he had concealed the fact for policy reasons while on Terra, lest the Terrans seek to bend Darkovan talents to their own purposes), which she finds extremely distressing. Her first concern is for the privacy of her thoughts, and it is not easy to communicate to her the idea that an ethical Darkovan telepath would consider it a grave wrong to spy upon her private thoughts.
Mikhail is sitting by the bedside of Regis Hastur, who has had a massive stroke and is not expected to recover. All the same, Mikhail refuses to abandon hope and speaks to him, encouraging him to try to respond. Regis' son Danilo arrives and tries to rouse his father, but even as he speaks, Regis breathes his last. The Comyn are plunged into mourning and must now face the problems of an orderly succession as a new and untried ruler takes over from one who has long held power.
This domestic crisis is made worse by the external problems. Mikhail's first action as Regis' successor is to have a discussion with Lew Alton about the changing situation in the Terran Federation. Lew explains the aims and policies of the Expansionist Party, which believes that the wealth of the outer planets should be taken for the use of Terra, and in particular the members of the power structure. If Darkover is to survive, it must avoid being stripmined of its resources in this manner.
The Terran representative on Darkover is one unpleasant individual by the name of Lyle Belfontaine. He comes from a family of industrial magnates and robber barons who represent the worst extremes of unbridled corporatism. However, his father considered him a failure and refused to give him a position in the family corporation, instead suggesting that he should enter the civil service. Belfontaine is still bitter over that, as well as having a serious Napoleon complex because of his small stature, and has made one mess on a planet called Lein III where he tried to forcibly overthrow the native government and bring the planet into the Federation. He is determined to redeem his reputation by delivering Darkover, which he regards with contempt, to the Federation.
In Comyn Castle, the jealous and catty Gisela Aldaran has deliberately set up Katherine and the children for embarassment by having them dress in grossly inappropriate Terran attire rather than decent Darkovan clothes for dinner. However, Mikhail and Marguerida refuse to be scandalized or blame the victims for this nasty little piece of work. When they discover that Katherine is a painter, they immediately set to arranging for her to have supplies and an easel made available, as well as indespensible introductions to members of the Painters' Guild in Thendara.
Mikhail and Marguerida's eldest son Domenic is on duty as a cadet in the Guards. He is thinking of how constrained his life has become, hemmed in on all sides with duties as his father's heir. He has a chance encounter with some Travellers (itinerant entertainers) who have come into Thendara out of season in order to fix a wheel and want to take a proscribed shortcut. There is something about a girl in one of the wagons that sparks his interest, and he takes note of her red hair, so often a sign of laran. He then returns to Comyn Castle, where his mother is deeply involved in the funeral preparations for Regis Hastur.
The next day Gisela escorts her sister-in-law to the head of the Painters' Guild. Although Gisela has not apologized, she has shown Katherine all the differnet kinds of garb that are appropriate for a woman of the Comyn to wear on varios occasions. Katherine resolves to forgive Gisela, and they open a discussion that leads to Gisela revealing that she had once wanted to be a sculptor, until a governess forbade it to her as being "unladylike" and inappropriate to her rank and station. Katherine encourges Gisela to rediscover her dream and thus help herself be the sort of person she wants herself to be instead of a person who does nasty things and then hates herself for doing.
When Katherine returns to Comyn Castle, she has a heated discussion with her husband about the way he is making decisions without consulting her. This makes Herm consider just what a mess he's made by concealing his telepathy from his wife, and how it could have seriously endangered their daughter Therese if she were to have had a difficult threshold sickness when her laran awakened in adolescence.
Domenic, tired of being a good boy, is busy plotting his escape from Comyn Castle in order to have an Adventure. He feigns sickness to avoid a banquet, then puts together a crude dummy in his bed and slips out, dressed in his most ragged and disreputable clothes so he will not stand out as a Comyn and thus a target for thieves and other opportunists. He gets a meal at a street vendor's stand, then sees two Terrans in black leather wandering in an area well outside the Trade City. Curious as to what they may be up to, he follows them to the Travellers' encampment outside the city gates. There he spies upon the Terrans as they connect with their agent among the Terrans and plot an attack on the Comyn funeral procession for Regis. Domenic then contacts his grandfather, Lew Alton, as the only adult he trusts to listen without taking over and relegating him to the background.
Lew considers what his grandson has just told him, and hatches a daring plan. Since the Terrans now have an arrest warrant out for Herm Aldaran for fleeing Terra and the roundup after the legislature was dissolved, he will join Domenic in an undercover operation to observe the Travellers and find out just what they are planning.
Meanwhile, Belfontaine has received word from his agents that Regis Hastur is dead, and has been for several days. He is infuriated and all the more determined to destroy the Comyn before the Terran recall order takes him and his followers off the planet. He authorizes the plan to ambush the funeral procession, and adds to it a plan to storm Comyn Castle and arrest Herm Aldaran by force.
Having established their cover identities, Herm and Domenic connect with the Travellers. As an added measure of security, they are travelling with a group of Renunciates led by Marguerida's old friend Rafaella n'ha Liriel. They travel the Old North Road to a town known as Carcossa, where they stay at an inn called the Crowing Cock. Domenic finally meets the girl who caught his attention. Her name is Illona Rider and she is an orphan, living with her Aunt Loret.
Back at Comyn Castle, Marguerida is helping Katherine settle in. They talk about laran, and Marguerida suggests that Katherine may have a touch of empathy that enables her to choose just the right elements to make a portrait particularly satisfying to its sitter. Katherine is immediately horrified, thinking this may mean that she was spying upon the privacy of those who sat for her. Meanwhile, Lew and Mikhail hold a conference to consider the problems they face, in particular the Terrans.
In Carcossa, Domenic tries to find out as much as he can by striking up conversations with various people among the Travellers. That evening, the Travellers put on a show. This turns disastrous when they put on a puppet play that viciously attacks the Towers and slanders the late Regis Hastur. The crowd suddenly turns violent and attacks the Travellers' wagons. Domenic barely saves Illona's life by getting her away from two men who were about to tear her limb from limb for having done the puppet show. Rafaella, infuriated at the disrespect to Regis Hastur, gets Illona to finger Mathias as the author of the seditious play.
Because Illona's Aunt Loret was killed in the riot, Rafaella takes charge of the girl. Domenic goes to help the men clean up after the riot and discovers that one of the Terran agents has been murdered. He then reports to his grandfather with the latest information, reassuring the older man that neither he nor Herm Aldaran were injured in the fracas.
Herm interrogates Mathias and discovers that the man is a member of a tightly celled secret organization called the Sons of Darkover. However, it appears that he is little more than a malcontent. The real danger is Vancof, who is working for the Terrans. Now they have to figure out just how the Terrans plan to attack the funeral procession, and how to counter it.
Domenic tries to talk to Illona about the possibility of being tested for laran, but she has been fed so much negative propaganda about the Towers that she is unwilling to even consider it. No matter how hard he tries to explain the realities of the situation, she will not hear them. He is able to teach her the basics of literacy, and sends his mother a letter requesting a copy of a book of folk ballads and tales which she is likely to enjoy reading.
Back at Comyn Castle, the political games are on in full force. Javanne wants to undo the compromise that made Mikhail heir to Regis, while Regis' own son would become wed one of the Elhalyn girls and become king. Amidst the brangle in the Crystal Chamber, Regis' vengeful ghost suddenly manifests and reprimands them. The discussion then continues on a more reasonable level, although it is more difficult now that the trap-matrices that suppressed telepathy have been destroyed.
Finally it is time for the funeral, at which many people from Thendara pay their final respects. The next morning Regis' body is taken to Hali for burial in an unmarked grave among the strange red grass near the rhu fead The bulk of the Comyn form up for the procession, while Lew Alton remains behind in Comyn Castle to lead the defenders against Belfontaine's planned assault.
The procession stops briefly at Carcossa, and Domenic introduces his mother to Illona. Marguerida immediately realizes that the girl must be tested for laran and properly trained. However, she dreads the thought of having to foster the girl herself at her age.
At Comyn Castle, Lew anxiously awaits the assault and wonders if everything is prepared. Belfontaine leads the assault personally, and is humiliated by the failure of all his equipment in the middle of the assault. He wakes up a prisoner in Comyn Castle, and tries to salvage the situation by claiming success for the ambush of the funeral procession.
However, advance warning has enabled the Comyn to defend themselves against the ambush. Numerous Guardsmen were hiding in the carriages, while Mikhail and Marguerida used their own special laran to strike many of the Terran attackers dead. Domenic saved Herm Aldaran's life from one attacker who slipped into their carriage. Afterward, Lew and Marguerida use the Alton Gift to manipulate the surviving Terrans' minds, erasing all memory of any preturnatural elements in the battle. Domenic continues to the burying ground at Hali and sees Regis Hastur being interred.
Some months later, one final Big Ship arrives at the Terran spaceport and collects the remainder of the Terran garrison. Marguerida watches from Comyn Castle as it takes off and wonders how long it will be before Terrans come back to Darkover once again.
source file (Last modification: Wed Apr 21 17:21:45 1999)