It seemed a long way back to the passage. After passing each patrol point, we would pause as Sandy waited an irregular amount of time before approaching the next patrol point. Each time we would catch sight of the patrols, both behind us and ahead of us, passing close by. No one except Sandy could have taken us through the overlapping rounds.
We had just reached the outer door – sidling through a side passage which avoided the guards at that doorway – when Sandy suddenly opened a cell and thrust us both inside. The door clicked shut; then the key turned in the lock.
I looked over at the Koretian. I had been driven back against his torso by the force of Sandy's shove. He held his arm lightly around my shoulders, as though I were his lover rather than his captive. His cold eyes did not look my way. They were focussed on the door, behind which we could hear Sandy conversing with one of the guards. What words they exchanged died before reaching our ears, but the Koretian's touch remained relaxed. He simply waited.
After a while, the conversation ended. The lock clicked, and Sandy opened the door. He looked at us with uncertain eyes. I could not tell whether he had been exposing the Koretian or simply was worried that the Koretian would think that the oath had been broken. All that the Koretian said was, "Take us the rest of the way."
He did so, and when we reached the end, the Koretian said quietly, "Thank you; I am in your debt. Now go, and do not forget the rest of your oath."
"Just don't forget yours," said Sandy fiercely, and with one last anxious look my way, he turned and strode back to his post, walking with stoic uprightness.
"Now it is your turn, Princess," said the Koretian. I turned – it required some effort for me to turn my back on him again – and located in the black shadows the stone that came loose to reveal the passage. The Koretian helped me to scramble into the passage; then he followed me and placed the stone back where it had been, shutting out the light.
It was completely dark in this part of the passage. We were on the bottom storey of the palace, where we could stand upright; the Koretian reached over and took my hand. It was sticky – with sweat, I thought, then realized that his left palm was still moist with blood. It occurred to me that, here in the dark, it would be easy enough for me to run away to the slave-quarters. Instead, I took firmer hold of his hand and led him to the outer wall.
Here the passage reached up to the roof, where it spread out into one of the many chimneys that dotted the roof. A shaft of light trickled down past barriers to where we stood. A little of the light fell upon the crumbling stone wall, with blocks easy to remove.
"We're on the north side," I said. The Koretian's head jerked my way at the sound of my voice, and I added, "Nobody can hear us in this section of the passage. . . . The gates in the palace wall are to the east and west."
"Believe me, Princess, I have the palace wall well memorized. Thank you for your assistance. I apologize for not being able to return your dagger, but I may be putting it to use again this night. Farewell."
He began easing the first block off. I saw his injured palm begin to bleed again as he scraped it against the rock. After a moment he turned his head and saw me still standing there, watching him.
"Princess." The voice broke far enough past its neutrality to carry a tinge of warning. "It is time for our paths to part."
"No," I said, unable to hide the trepidation in my voice. "I want to know what you really are."
He leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "I thought that I had already made that clear."
"I still don't believe you. You are like a song that has a gentle melody and gruesome words. They don't match."
His eyes were like ice; I saw his muscles clench. Then, with measured slowness, his right hand pushed back his cloak and rested lightly on the hilt of the dagger. His voice grew low like the growl of a wild dog as he said, "I suggest that you leave now, before I remember that I am released from my vow to the god."
I had not reached him; whatever secret lay behind his wintry eyes would remain locked away forever. My own gaze fell.
Without looking up at him, I pulled from my neckline the fresh face-cloth I had placed there. I reached out to take his left hand in mine. I felt him resist for a moment before he allowed me to turn the palm so that it faced me. I wiped as much dirt off of the wound as possible before tying the cloth around his hand. I looked up.
For the first time I saw on his face a strong emotion: it was the look of a man who has just received a sword thrust through the heart. For a moment more he stared down at me, his eyes glazed with pain. Then he sunk and knelt before me, his right hand cradling his left, his dark head bowed.
I sat down beside him and touched him on the shoulder. When he looked up, his eyes were still tortured, and his face was open and vulnerable. His voice, though, was tightly controlled when he spoke. "I'm sorry." For the first time, the formal pattern of his speech disappeared, and he spoke in the colloquial. "I should have known that you wouldn't be satisfied with another half-truth."
"Why did you do that?" Now that the barrier was broken, I could have allowed myself to whimper, but I did not wish to add to the anguish in the Koretian's face. "I would have pretended to be your hostage if you'd asked me."
The Koretian sighed as he rested his forehead on his fingertips. He had not moved from his kneeling position. "Your ability to read men's thoughts rivals the Jackal's, but you haven't yet learned how to hide your own thoughts from those you love. If you hadn't really been scared when Sandy entered my cell, he would have known it in an instant from your face." He paused, and then added in a low voice, "You said that you wanted to help me. I took you at your word."
"So which are you really, Koretian? The meek visionary or the murderer?"
He met my eyes. "Both. I haven't lied to you; the gruesome words are there as well as the gentle melody."
Our voices echoed through the passage. Above us, bats fluttered as they made their way into the chimney. Their shadows passed over the Koretian's face, turning it alternately light and shadowed. He said, "I don't know whether you can understand this; it made no sense to me when I first found out about myself ten years ago. I thought, when I learned that I had both the ability and the desire to kill, that I could simply put away my dagger and hide that part of me. Eventually, though, the god called upon me to take up my dagger once more and render my service to him through both mercy and vengeance."
"How can the gods ask for vengeance?" I asked. "Your Koretian gods must be different from the Song Spirit, who brings love and peace, not murder and war."
"I don't yet know the Spirit well, but I've found that the Unknowable God shows his twin faces in every land. In Emor, the royal emblem is the Balance of Judgment weighing the Heart of Mercy against the Sword of Vengeance. It's the other side of knowing that the god turns suffering to good; he turns even men's evil desires to good."
I said after a minute, "I can see that. I can see that men go to war to fight for a good cause, though it requires them to kill other men. But the only thing that keeps men from turning evil is for them to stay with the truth. And you lied to me by letting me think that you were my enemy."
"I had to; I explained that."
"You had to do so back in the dungeon. I can't hide my thoughts from Sandy well enough, so I don't blame you for what you did there. But you lied to me here, when there was no longer any need."
The Koretian searched my angry face, his eyes darting from side to side. He said gently, "I did it to spare you the pain of knowing that someone you cared about would hurt you in such a way."
"No!" My voice was drowned out by the flutter of the bats as they rose at the sound of my cry. I waited until they had settled down again before lowering my voice to say, "Don't you see? It is the truth that matters to me, not whether I suffer in the course of finding that truth. I would rather that you'd slit my throat and whispered the truth to me in my last moments of life than that you should leave me free to believe a falsehood."
The Koretian sucked in his breath suddenly. He held it there, and then said, "Serva . . ." His voice cracked on the word, as though he were a boy acquiring a man's voice.
"What?" I asked.
He was silent. The high whistle of a wind echoed down the passage, joining with an equally high-toned but more powerful wind from the other end of the passage. Finally he said, his voice once more tightly controlled, "My true name is Andrew son of Gideon. I entrust you with that; if anyone in the palace knows that I have been here, I may lose my life. And I promise you that, if ever our paths cross again, I will give you nothing but the whole truth."
"Thank you," I whispered.
He smiled then, rising to his feet. For a moment I thought he would touch me. Then he stepped back and said, "Would you like to come to Koretia with me?"
My heart thumped hard at his words, but I already had an answer ready, from speaking with the Prince: "I can't. My father needs me here." As he remained silent, I added, "I don't think that I'd be happy for long in a land without the Song Spirit."
He bent his head, as before a queen, and said, "Then one more piece of information I entrust to you. If ever you need help of any sort, go to the Watchful Traveller, an inn in this city. Ask there for Durand or Waldron; they are two Koretians who visit there regularly. If they're at the inn, speak to them privately and tell them I've placed you under my care. They'll help in any way they can."
I nodded. A mute Daxion is as rare as a harp without strings, but I seemed to have lost my ability to speak as I watched the Koretian remove the wall stones. As he finished he ducked down to wriggle through them, and I realized suddenly that this was the last time I would ever see him. The thought chilled me more than the winter wind blowing through the gap in the wall.
He rose unexpectedly and placed his lips against my ear so that no sound should escape from the passage. "I'm sure that we will meet again, if not in this land, then in the Land Beyond the boundary marker of life. I'll look forward to speaking to you then."
He left through the gap. I looked out the hole, but already he was gone from sight, so I slowly replaced the blocks to my prison cell.