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CHAPTER FIVE

The twenty-ninth day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.

We finally gave up our watch when the moon set, about three hours before dawn.

"If we don't get back now, the lieutenant will notice that we're gone, and then he'll have us up for a reprimand for being absent without his leave," said Carle with a lazy grin. "I haven't even figured out yet how we're going to break the news to him about how we spent our night."

That turned out to be the least of our worries. We were delayed reaching the border because we kept meeting clusters of soldiers on the streets, and we had to find ways to bypass them because we didn't want to draw attention to ourselves at such a late hour. Then we had to figure out a way to get past the locked town gates. Then we had to stumble our way down a moonless forest path. By the time we finally made it to the border, it was an hour before dawn. As we peered cautiously around the rock shielding us from view, the first man we sighted was Quentin, talking to the Koretian subcaptain.

Carle swore a few phrases I had best not record, then followed it up with the more conventional curse: "May the high doom fall upon us. We'll never get past Quentin, and he must know that we're gone anyway."

"What do we do?" I asked. "Wait until he returns to the hut?"

"No, he's probably worried since we've been gone all night. He may even have told the Koretians of our prank. We had better brazen this out."

I could hear Quentin's voice from where we crouched. The words were unclear, but his voice was raised above its normal level. The voice stopped with the abruptness of a horse rearing to a halt as we emerged from behind the rock. The other border guards, who had been talking amidst themselves, fell silent as well as we walked forward. Finally we reached the ridge marking the border between Koretia and the no-man's-land of the mountains. Carle said, with forced jocularity, "Good day to you, lieutenant! We have come to surrender to you for our crime of being pranksters."

His joke plopped like a dull stone into the pool of silence around us. Quentin gazed upon us expressionlessly. After a moment, though, a grin appeared on the face of the subcaptain, who said in an easy voice, "There you are, lieutenant. I told you they would return home in the end."

"So you did." Quentin's voice was even softer than usual. "Will you allow my men over the border, sir?"

"Certainly." The subcaptain looked over at his own men, whose smiles now matched his own. "We have no reason for wanting to keep patrol guards in our land, do we?" He stepped back and waved the two of us through.

"Thank you, sir." Quentin's voice was still very soft. "As you can imagine, I will have much to say to you shortly, but for now, will you allow me a few minutes to talk with my men?"

"Take as much time as you wish, lieutenant." The subcaptain leaned idly against the mountain wall. "I'm sure that you have plenty to say to them."

Quentin made no reply, but turned and started walking toward the hut. Carle and I exchanged glances before following him. Already I was rehearsing in my mind a more elaborate excuse than the one Carle and I had originally composed. Seemingly, the same thought was in Carle's mind, for as Quentin closed the hut door behind us, Carle said rapidly, "Lieutenant, we would have been back sooner, but we happened across some important information that we thought the Chara might—"

"Stand at alert!"

I've been a patrol guard for a year now; not since my first meeting with him had I heard Quentin shout. I saw Carle's mouth sag open, and then, like me, he was scrambling to place himself rigid against the hut wall.

For a moment, Quentin did nothing more than pace rapidly up and down in front of us, like a mountain cat guarding her territory. Then he stopped, scanned us with his cold blue eyes, and said softly, "I have been in the patrol for nearly ten years, and during that time I have served with dozens of other patrol guards. With the exception of one man who had his name struck from the records of the patrol, I have never met a patrol guard with whom I would say that I was ashamed to serve. But now I may have met two."

In the silence that followed, there was a knock on the door, and Levander's head poked in. Quentin glanced his way and said, "Ride back as swiftly as you can to the headquarters. If you arrive in time, tell Captain Wystan that the guards have been found. Tell him that the guards are unharmed and that they crossed the border of their own volition. Ask Captain Wystan what I should say to the Koretians; tell him I urgently require an answer."

"And if I am not in time, sir?" Levander's voice was taut.

"You will know if you are not in time; you will see them coming toward you, faster than storm clouds from the north. In that case, you will have to try to give your message directly to the Chara. Do your best to gain access to his ear, soldier."

Levander swallowed hard, but nodded. He closed the door, so that the room remained lit only with the slivers of pre-dawn light passing through the shutters. After another long pause, during which the hoofbeats of Levander's horse disappeared into the distance, Quentin began pacing again. He said, "It might interest you to know what has been happening during your . . . prank. After the subcaptain decided that I should invite the two of you to join him and me for dinner at the local inn, I returned to the hut and discovered your absence. I immediately knew that both of you were in grave trouble. I knew this partly because I found your uniforms in the chest here, and I knew that you would not take off your uniforms while on duty. The other reason I knew that you were in danger was that I was sure that no man who served under me would ever break the Mountain Patrol Law and leave the mountains before the snows came, except under orders."

I scarcely dared breath, so frightened was I of attracting Quentin's attention. He stopped in front of Carle, stared levelly into his eyes and said, "Or did you forget that law, sublieutenant?"

"No, sir." Carle's voice was clipped so short I could barely make out what he was saying.

"Are you familiar with that law, soldier?" Quentin asked me.

This was sarcasm, as every patrol guard memorizes the Law of the Border Mountain Patrol before giving his oath. I ventured to say, "I thought it meant that we couldn't go into Emor."

"Is that what the law says?"

"No, sir," I replied in a subdued voice.

Quentin's pacing began again. His footsteps were the only sounds we could hear, aside from laughter from the Koretian guards. Presently, Quentin said, "I could only think of two circumstances that might have happened: either the Koretians had kidnapped both of you in order to question you about the secrets of the patrol, or someone had recognized you, Soldier Adrian, and had taken you by force into Koretia, and the sublieutenant was tracking your kidnapper. In either case, you were both in immediate danger, so I had Soldier Levander nearly kill his horse in delivering a message to Captain Wystan, telling him what had happened. This was not, of course, the first time that a patrol guard had been kidnapped. With your knowledge of the law, sublieutenant, I am sure that you can tell me what happened last time."

He paused again before Carle. I could see bright against Quentin's uniform his gold honor brooch, which the subcommander gave him last winter in reward for his attempted sacrifice for the patrol.

Carle said in a stiff voice, "Yes, sir. Five days passed before the patrol was able to locate the missing guard, and by that time he had been tortured to death by the Koretians, who wished to discover the secrets of the patrol."

"And what did the Chara promise as a result?" coaxed Quentin softly.

I heard the sound of Carle swallowing before he replied, "To declare war on the Koretians if a patrol guard ever went missing again."

"To declare war . . ." said Quentin slowly. "Well, I am sure that you both will be glad to know that the Chara does not forget his promises. When Captain Wystan informed him yesterday evening of your disappearance, the Chara ordered the army put on high alert. I was to send word at dawn as to whether the missing guards had been found. If you were still absent at that time, the Empire of Emor would go to war against the Land of Koretia."

There was a muffled sound that I identified as Carle trying to hold back a choke. It was a cool morning, from my perspective, but I could feel the sweat biting at the back of my neck.

"The Koretians, in addition to immediately placing their borderland divisions on high alert, were courteous enough to send out search units to try to locate you," said Quentin. "Some time this morning, I will have to appear before the Baron of Blackpass to convey, not only my own apology, but that of the Chara for what has happened. And all this occurs at a time when relations between Koretia and Emor are particularly delicate, due to the war here."

The Koretians' laughter had gradually died away. Quentin looked slowly from Carle to me, his cerulean eyes dark in the shadows, like an evening sky. "Now," he said, "you were about to explain what urgent business delayed your return. Report!"

I was glad that Carle was the one who had to make the report; I could not have found the words to do so. Even to my ears, our carefully prepared explanation sounded mournfully weak. When Carle had finished giving his report in a stilted voice, Quentin said, "Let me be sure that I understand you correctly. You knew that the Chara had sent out his spies to learn how the Koretian civil war began. You therefore decided to abandon your own duties and take on duties for which you had no training and whose failure could result, not only in your deaths, but in the Koretians' everlasting distrust of the mountain patrol. Have I understood you rightly?"

This time Carle made no reply. Quentin's eyes narrowed, and when his voice came again, it was brisk.

"You are both under arrest," he said. "You will return to uniform and will arm yourselves with your swords, only because you may need your blades to fight off the dozens of breachers who have undoubtedly crossed the border while the Koretians were dealing with this crisis. If Levander remains as swift a messenger as he has already shown himself to be, you may escape being trampled to death by the vanguard crushing every obstacle in its path as it charges down the pass. If you manage to overcome such obstacles, you will return to the army headquarters and surrender yourself to the custody of Captain Wystan, who will judge you for your crimes. And by the law-structure itself . . ." Quentin's voice grew soft again. "I hope with all my spirit that the captain has enough mercy in him that he does not turn you over to the wrath of the Chara."

And he gazed upon us with eyes full of pity.

o—o—o

The thirty-first day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.

Carle and I have spent the last two days debating whether to ask for a trial in the subcommander's court, as is our right when faced with serious discipline. We finally decided that an army judge was even less likely than Captain Wystan to show us mercy.

"Besides," said Carle grimly, "strictly speaking, since we're under the immediate care of the Chara, the Chara could decide to try us himself. And I'd rather face the executioner's sword than endure the wrath of the Chara."

Carle, drawing upon all his knowledge of army law, says that we're unlikely to be sentenced to any great physical punishment for what we've done. The only question, he says, is whether our army dismissal will be for dishonor or for high dishonor.

I asked him to explain the difference, and then felt myself grow colder and colder as Carle described the ceremony that accompanies a Dismissal of High Dishonor from the Chara's armies. Nor does the punishment end there. A soldier dismissed from the armies in High Dishonor becomes like one of the Living Dead, exiled from all honorable Emorian society, just as though he had committed one of the Great Three crimes against the Chara. It helped me to understand why, when Levander returned south on his horse the first day, he didn't pause, and why, when we passed the patrol points today, nobody from the patrol came down to greet us.

"I hope that we're spared that sentence, if not for our sake, then for the lieutenant's," Carle concluded. I looked enquiringly at him and he added, "The ceremony usually takes place in front of your unit. Quentin is the man who would carry it out – and one of the few times I've seen Quentin's reserve break was when he had to carry out that ceremony on Sublieutenant Shepley. I think it was harder for him than carrying out an execution."

"The ceremony sounds worse than an execution," I murmured.

This conversation took place as we were eating supper in the corner of a borderland village hall. The village's baron, who happens to be Devin's baron, has cheerfully allowed us to stay at his home overnight before our final trip to the army headquarters tomorrow morning. Thankfully, he didn't ask us the purpose of our journey.

This is my first visit to the Emorian borderland, and ordinarily I would be fascinated by my discovery that the borderland here is not very different from the one in Koretia: the houses look the same, the customs are a mixture of north and south, and everyone speaks Border Koretian.

But tonight my mind is entirely on one fear that I have been unwilling to confess to Carle: Will I be sent back to Koretia?

Tomorrow is my seventeenth birthday; tomorrow I find out.

o—o—o

The first day of September in the 941st year a.g.l.

I finally broke down and told Carle my fear late last night while both of us were lying sleepless on the floor of the village hall. His response was a reassuring laugh.

"The sentence of exile hasn't been used for centuries," he said, "and when it was used, it was for worse crimes than ours. You're Emorian now; no one will ever force you to return to Koretia."

I have no time to write more. The borderlander who is giving us a ride to the city in his cart is ready to leave.

o—o—o

I've decided that the reason condemned army prisoners are punished quickly is because they're already half-dead from receiving their reprimands.

Ours lasted two hours. Just the pain of having to stand at alert all that time was worse than a beating. Wystan strode up and down in front of us, disappearing in and out of our view.

"So much for the implications of your breaking Koretian law," Wystan said toward the end. "Let me remind you that you also broke Emorian law, not only by leaving the mountains while on duty, but also by crossing into Koretia from the Emorian border without permission from the patrol. The spectacle of two patrol guards becoming common border-breachers would be laughable if it were not for the fact that you have brought dishonor upon the patrol by your actions."

He paused before us. We were standing in his tent, which was cool with the first frosts of autumn. It is still summer in the mountains, so I hadn't brought my cloak with me. I hoped Wystan realized that my shivering was due to the weather rather than cowardice.

"It makes no difference that one of you is an official and the other is bottom-ranked." He glowered at Carle, who had attempted to make such a defense on my behalf when we first arrived. "You both know the law, and you are both equally condemned under it. There is no question of your guilt. The only question is what sentence is appropriate for two men who nearly caused Emor to go to war with Koretia."

It was dark inside the tent. Wystan had secured the tent flap after Sewell ushered us in, so that the only light in the tent came from the gap around the central pole. Standing at alert, I couldn't look at Carle, but his arm was brushing mine, and I could feel the tightening of his muscles.

"Half a dozen captains have visited me during the past three days, all asking me to punish you in the strongest possible manner. 'A Free-man's Death is too good for them' is how one captain put it." Wystan paused to allow us to take this in. I felt myself begin to sweat in the chill morning air. Wystan turned away finally, walked over to his table, and picked up a piece of paper whose seal was broken. "Against that, I have this letter you gave me from your lieutenant, asking that I show mercy toward you, if not for your own sakes, then because the patrol sorely needs your services."

Wystan tossed the letter back down. The soft sound of its landing was obscured by the sound of the Chara's trumpeters proclaiming the noonday hour: the time when prisoners condemned in the Court of Judgment receive their punishments. Beside me, I could hear Carle's breath, rapid and shallow.

"I am prepared to follow neither piece of advice," declared Wystan. "To show mercy toward you would create a scandal; your crime is too widely known. On the other hand, to condemn you to death would make your crime appear nobler than it is. For the most scandalous aspect to this whole affair is that you two endangered Emor, not in order to carry out some bold though lawless deed, but simply as the result of a childish prank. You do not deserve a public condemnation, because your deed is too trivially mean to merit such attention. You will therefore undergo your punishment in private, but your public records will reveal to the world how the Chara regards men who serve him in such a manner."

Wystan walked out of sight. When he returned, he was holding a sealed document in his hand.

"You are to take this to Lieutenant Sewell, who will arrange for the appropriate entries in your records, and then you will surrender to him your swords and return to me for the final part of your punishment. Carry out your orders, sublieutenant, soldier." Wystan handed Carle the document, then turned away and began busying himself with the work on his desk.

At Carle's lead, I drew my sword and saluted Wystan's back; then I followed Carle outside. We were halfway to Sewell's tent before I found the strength to comment, "He didn't say whether it was with dishonor or with high dishonor."

"He didn't have to, did he?" Carle gave a humorless smile. "Well, at least the lieutenant won't have to perform the ceremony. Now the only nightmare left for me is imagining what my father will say when he finds out."

Carle was staring straight ahead, not looking my way, and I wondered whether he would notice if I disappeared from his side. I swallowed the aching lump in my throat. It wasn't Wystan's words that pained me, as much as my new worry about how I would endure being parted from Carle. Carle, I supposed, would go home and ask his father's forgiveness, and Verne, having seen Carle sufficiently humiliated, would help his son. I wondered whether I would be allowed to see Carle again, or whether I would be exiled from Carle's company forever because I had caused him all this trouble.

I was staring at the ground as I thought all this; I looked up as I felt an arm curl round my shoulders. Carle had a faint though genuine smile on his face. "Don't worry," he said. "I know men who are so desperate for labor that they would be willing to hire dishonorable men such as ourselves. Even the most menial worker in this land serves the Chara in his own way. We'll find some sort of work to do together."

I had no time to express my thoughts at this speech, for we had reached Sewell's tent. Carle stopped, drew in a deep breath, and marched rigidly into the tent, handing Sewell the document without a word. For Carle's sake, I checked to make sure that the tent flap was secure behind us before I came forward. As I reached Carle's side, Sewell was breaking the seal. He read the document without changing his expression in any way, then looked up at us, standing with our hands on our sheaths, ready to hand over our swords.

"Congratulations, lieutenant, sublieutenant." Sewell's gaze went from Carle to me. "This means an elevation in pay as well, you realize."

For a moment, Carle and I remained frozen in our poses; then Carle snatched the document from Sewell's unresisting hands. His gaze darted across the page as the blood drained from his face.

"Heart of Mercy!" he gasped. "The captain hasn't dismissed us – he has transferred us into the espionage division."

"What?"

Both of us were incoherent for the next few moments, until we looked over and saw Wystan standing at the tent entrance, leaning against a post with his arms folded, and grinning as he watched us.

"May the high doom fall upon you and your sense of humor, captain," said Carle weakly. "You are fortunate that Adrian and I failed to fall on our swords between your tent and here."

"And you are fortunate that the Chara has a sense of humor as well," replied Wystan, pulling the tent flap closed again. "When I told him that the Emorian army had been placed on high alert because two patrol guards had decided to breach the border as a prank, I had to wait quite a while before he could stop laughing. The Chara told me that I could act as I wished in this matter, but that he would hate to see such fine spying talents go to waste. . . . I am sure that he will also be pleased to receive the information you gave me this morning – not about the cause of the civil war, which of course the Chara has already ascertained, but about the exact nature of Mountside's feud with Cold Run."

"But our punishment . . ." Carle protested.

"Well, you are removed from the patrol, which is the worst punishment I can think of that you deserve. Moreover, as I hinted, your public records will differ from the Chara's private records, at least until you leave the Emorian army. Anyone who is curious – such as those busybody captains who tried to teach me my job – will be told that you both received a Dismissal of High Dishonor. However, the army is in need of manual laborers at the moment – to clean latrines and the like – and in an act of mercy that neither of you in any way deserve, I will be hiring you for such work. I will even allow you to live in the army headquarters – solely to keep my eye on you, of course."

Chewing on the end of his pen, Sewell said, "I am so shocked by your appalling behavior that I will be assigning you to backbreaking projects in the countryside. You will probably be away for weeks at a time."

"Weeks that we'll spend in Koretia," I said with sudden understanding.

"Once you have been trained for the work," Wystan replied. "There is no such thing, you know, as being officially assigned to the espionage division. In the eyes of the world, you are two ignominious lawbreakers, and your future connection with the Chara's armies will be a minor one."

"Sir," said Carle in a helpless splutter, "we do not deserve such mercy—"

Wystan turned a cold eye upon him. "Are you trying to teach me my job as well, lieutenant?"

"But you elevated us, sir!"

"I fear there is no way around that," said Wystan with an apologetic smile. "All of the Chara's spies automatically receive the rank of lieutenant. The best I can do is make Adrian your student, so that he does not receive a double elevation. I would prefer to have the two of you working together in any case; you make a good team. But for love of the Chara, men, do not let me down again! I am likely to be lynched by my fellow captains if you break the law a second time – not to mention what the Chara would do to me."

o—o—o

So now we are the Chara's spies. Wystan was right that leaving the patrol would be punishment enough for us; I had to bite back tears when it came time for me to strip off my patrol uniform. But Carle and I will be able to continue in the Chara's service, and we'll be able to work together. And though I'll be spending much time in Koretia for the next few years, I will always be able to return to my real home. I feel as though I've been given a series of unexpected birthday gifts.