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CHAPTER THREE

The ninth day of August in the 942nd year a.g.l.

Two seasons have passed, with very little changed in my life and very little opportunity in which to record my daily life. However, there is breathing space now for me to write.

Carle and I arrived back from Koretia today and found two letters awaiting Carle. One wasn't sealed and in fact appeared to be written on some sort of skin; it was rolled into a scroll and tied with leather knots. The second letter was attached to a parcel. Carle took one look at the seal on the second letter and went off into the corner of our tent. I announced that I had business in the city, and then I left and went in search of a way to occupy myself. When I arrived back an hour later, Carle was still sitting in the corner, staring at the letters.

He waved me inside, though. "Odd to receive these two letters on the same day. I suppose that the lieutenant would say it was fate at work."

"Who are they from?" I asked, crouching down beside him.

"The one on the cat-skin is from Erlina. She wrote it last year, but it has taken this long to make its slow way down from the mainland. She wanted to let me know that she is safe and happy."

"Alaric married her, then?" I said, reaching over to pour myself some wine.

Carle stopped me and handed me his half-finished drink. "Yes, in a barbarian ceremony that defies description. She is now Princess Erlina of the Whitenosed Tribe, a very important woman in the ten square miles of territory that Alaric helps defend. She tells me – Erlina is very practical in these matters – that even if Alaric should one day grow tired of her and set her aside, wives of the prince have great standing in the tribe, and she'll still be able to have a comfortable life there. She says that the winters aren't as bad as everyone claims, and that the baby is due – was due – this past December, and that, in summary, I should forget all about her because she doesn't plan to write me again, and the Chara's fortunes couldn't tempt her back to Emor. And just in case I should disagree with her assessment of her situation, she has conveniently failed to tell me where she is or how I may contact her."

I looked at Carle, who was staring with reddened eyes at the smooth underside of the skin. I said, "At least she's happy."

"Oh, yes, there's that. But I know perfectly well that the only reason she won't tell me where she lives is because she's afraid our father will find out. I just wish I had some way to tell her that she has nothing to fear on that score."

"She should know that you wouldn't tell him," I said.

"I couldn't tell him if I wanted to." Carle picked up the second letter, and I caught a glimpse of the seal: it depicted a sword holding a balance on its tip. "This letter is from my mother. My father died while we were in Koretia."

I noticed then that Carle was wearing the seal-ring I had seen on his father's hand two winters before. I said, "Oh."

Carle gave me a rueful smile. "Exactly. What can you say when a man like that dies? I won't say that I'm sorry. It is a blessed release for my mother, though she is too loyal to even hint this in her letter. He wore her out, and I'll be surprised if she lives many years more. I also expect that my father's servants have been holding secret celebrations."

I took my dagger from my sheath and began drawing pictures of the Chara's seal on the earthen floor beneath us. "How did he die?"

"He was bitten by a viper – an appropriate death, since he was certain that his enemies would murder him through a sneak attack. The physician was called, but he couldn't do anything except try to make my father drink some drugged wine to ease his pain. My father threw the wine in his face. And then . . ." Carle voice grew softer, and his hand stretched out to touch the Heart of Mercy I had just drawn. "He told my mother to send me this. He said that he wanted me to wear it to the Chara's palace one day, as a way to show how much I honored the Chara."

He pulled from the parcel a brooch: it was made of rose-gold, and it depicted the emblem I had just been drawing.

"That's not your family's seal," I said with surprise.

"No, my grandfather Carle created our family emblem based on the royal emblem. But this brooch once belonged to my grandfather – I remember my father showing it to me when I was small. It belonged to the Chara Purvis originally, so my father always kept it safely locked away. Now it belongs to me."

I looked over at Carle, whose eyes were carefully lowered to look at the emblem. Then I reached over and unpinned the cheap brooch he was wearing, replacing it with the royal emblem brooch.

Carle looked down and touched the brooch briefly before unpinning it and placing it back in the parcel box. "I can't wear this now; I'm supposed to be a man in disgrace. I'll have to hide it with my honor brooch. But some day . . . I'm glad that my father forgave me in the end. I would hate to think that he went to his death still hating me."

"What about his will?" I asked. "I suppose he didn't have time to change that back?"

"No, but my mother tells me that he wasn't able to change it in the first place." Carle leaned back on his pallet, his feet scuffing the drawings on the floor as he stretched his legs. "We have strict inheritance laws in Emor. A man who wants to disinherit his first-born son must receive permission from his baron to do so. I'd figured that Gervais would give that permission once the news arrived at Peaktop of my supposed army dismissal. But from what my mother tells me, Gervais apparently was wary enough of my father's intentions that he took the trouble to write to Captain Wystan, asking him for the full details of the dismissal. Wystan wrote back, telling him that the details of the case could not be disclosed but that my crime was not severe enough to warrant my disinheritance. So Gervais refused to allow my father to change his will."

"Wystan never told you this?" I said.

"I suppose he didn't want me to know what my father had tried to do. In any case, the house and the land are now mine. My mother is begging me to quit the army and come run the estate."

"And will you?" I asked hesitantly.

"Don't be ridiculous. The free-servants will be perfectly capable of running the house and orchard, as long as I pick the right ones to do so; the ones my father selected would never do. I'll have to ask for leave to go home and put things in order, not to mention visit my father's grave and show the proper respect – which is easy for me to do, considering his last act." There was a smile on Carle's face now as he added, "When I was a child, I told Fenton that my father had been taken over by a demon. I'm pleased that he was able to exorcise it from himself in the end, just as you exorcised mine."

"Yours?" I said, startled.

"Mine," he said firmly, then changed the subject to his journey plans. I was left wondering what he had meant.

o—o—o

The twenty-first day of August in the 942nd year a.g.l.

Carle and I underwent a great shock early this morning, soon after Carle arrived back from Peaktop: we learned that Captain Wystan is no longer our high official.

"The Chara has been making changes to the ordering of the army," Sewell said, helping me to scramble into my tunic, since Carle had ducked out of our tent to use the latrine. "He has decided that three divisions are too many for one official to command, so he has placed the Division of Disclosure under the care of Subcaptain Radley – Captain Radley he is now."

"What sort of official is this Radley?" I asked, checking hastily that my thigh-dagger was secure in its pocket and had not come loose during the night. I sleep with it on, of course.

Sewell raised his eyebrows. "You'll soon see. I can tell you, though, that he is hard on matters of punctuality. You and Carle had better get over to his tent with the speed of the vanguard."

The vanguard, I think, would have been forced to follow in the wake of two former patrol guards wakened to the sound of a Probable Danger whistle, yet the first thing Radley said when we walked into his tent was, "You took your time arriving." Then he looked down at the papers in front of him.

I drew in my breath to speak, but quickly closed my mouth again as Carle's elbow speared me in the ribs. After two minutes, Radley raised his gaze from his paperwork and said, "You are Lieutenant Carle."

His voice was so loud that I felt Carle move edgily beside me. Wystan always addressed us in low voices, lest our ranks in the army be surmised by foreign spies.

"No, sir," I said. "I'm Sublieutenant Adrian."

"I see." Radley leaned back in his chair and narrowed his gaze upon me. "In that case, sublieutenant, I would like to know why you entered the tent first."

It took me far too long to understand what he was saying. I could almost breathe Carle's anxiety besides me, but I dared not look toward him for a clue. Finally the answer clutched at me, and I said, "I'm sorry, sir. I won't forget Lieutenant Carle's rank again."

"Your lieutenant's seniority to you in years of service should have been reason enough for you to have remembered the order of entrance." Dismissing me from his view, he turned his attention to Carle. "Well, lieutenant, you have quite an . . . interesting record."

Carle said nothing. He was standing in sentry position, his gaze travelling over Radley's head to fasten upon the seal of the Chara's armies, which was hanging on the tent pole behind the captain.

Radley stared down at Carle's record books. "Reprimanded on several occasions for disobedience to orders. . . . Very nearly given a dismissal of high dishonor. . . . This is not the sort of record I am accustomed to seeing from one of my soldiers."

Carle remained silent. Radley drummed his fingers on the table. Finally he added, "At the risk of pointing out the obvious, lieutenant, I need to make one thing quite clear: I will not stand for insubordination. You will obey my orders. You will not question my orders. You will do as you are told, and you will do nothing that you are not told to do. You will keep your mouth shut unless I address you with a question, and when I question you, I expect a direct answer, limited to the matters about which I have enquired. Understand?"

"Yes, sir." Carle was clipped short.

"Now, then. You."

It took me a moment to realize that Radley's attention had turned back to me. "Yes, sir?" I said.

"You are Koretian." The captain's voice was flat.

"Yes, sir, I was born in Koretia. I gave my oath of loyalty to the Chara in—"

"Are you deaf, or did you not listen to what I just told Lieutenant Carle?"

I felt myself stiffen. "Yes, sir, I listened."

"Did I ask you when you had given your oath of loyalty to the Chara?"

This time, I kept my response as short as Carle's had been. "No, sir."

"Can you think of any possible reason why I should desire to know information that is plainly set out in your army records?"

"No, sir."

"Does it even matter whether you think I should know that information?"

A spell of silence. There was no breeze in the closed tent; the banner behind the captain hung lifeless. Outside, Radley's orderly denied entrance to someone who wished to see the captain.

"I'm sorry, sir." This seemed a safer answer than responding directly to Radley's question.

Radley's fingers drummed again; then he looked down at my records. "You are Koretian. Well, no doubt that gives you certain advantages in your work."

I heard Carle's breath travel swiftly in. As for myself, I was struggling not to form my hands into fists. From the tone of his voice, Radley could not have made clearer that he thought I was a traitor, working for the Koretians.

Perhaps fortunately, our new captain didn't hear Carle. He closed my record book and pulled toward him an army map of Koretia. "You come from . . ." He paused to consult the map. ". . . a village to the east of Backpass. Mountset."

"Mountside, sir," I corrected politely. "And it's located to the west of Blackpass."

Radley looked up at me and gave a thin smile. He said, in a voice just as polite as mine, "Mountset, east of Backpass."

I said hesitantly, "Sir, the map . . ."

Radley stood up and leaned on his fists. The wicker table, not designed for such weight, creaked ominously. "Koretian spy," he said in a voice as thin as his smile, "this map was prepared by the surveyors of the Emorian army. Are you saying that your expertise in cartography exceeds theirs?"

From where I stood, I could see that the largest town in northern Koretia was marked clearly on the map as Blackpass, not Backpass. But it was true enough that Mountside was misspelled and misplaced on the map.

"Sir," I said somewhat desperately, "I lived in Mountside for sixteen years. Whichever surveyor made this map—"

I stopped. Radley, acting as though he had not heard me, sat down, opened my record book, and picked up his pen. As I watched, he wrote a dated entry that said, "Reprimanded by his captain for insolence. Recommendation sent to the Chara that the sublieutenant be dismissed from the Division of Disclosure."

Without even leaving time for the ink to dry, Radley closed the book. He looked up at me and waited expectantly.

This time I had sense enough not to speak. I stared over his head at the army seal, my throat closed.

"I can see," said Radley after a while, "that if I am forced to work with you, you will be even more difficult to handle than Lieutenant Carle. Well, I have no time to deal with you at the moment. You and your lieutenant will receive my orders for your next assignment in due time. Dismissed."

I saluted him with my blade, as stiffly as I had ever saluted any official in the Chara's armies; beside me, Carle did the same. Radley had already lost interest in us. He was writing down some notes to himself concerning our assignments in "Backpass."

I waited until Carle and I were back in our own tent, with the flap safely closed. Then I asked, "How did a man like that become a captain?"

Carle raised his eyebrows. "You need to ask? Didn't you recognize his name?"

I stared. "He's that Radley? The Chara's brother-in-marriage?"

"I heard he made a mess of his last command. The Chara must have thought that even Radley could handle soldiers of such high caliber as the men in our division." Carle's voice was dry as he pulled off his blade and rummaged in his back-sling.

"But Carle . . . for the Chara to assign as poor an official as that to be captain of one of his most valuable divisions . . ." I floundered, searching for words.

Carle shrugged as he pulled his wine flask out of the back-sling. "Bloodlines are the highest law, as they say in Koretia. The Chara could hardly have given his own brother-in-marriage the type of post he deserves."

Carle's words slapped me into silence. I don't know what my face revealed, but Carle, sighing, handed me the wine flask. "Oh, dear. You've been thinking of the Chara as perfect? As a god above all human frailties?"

"I thought . . ." Tears stung my eyes; I turned away under the pretense of opening the wine flask under a shaft of light that travelled down from the small hole at the top of our tent, where the pole stuck through.

Carle's hand wrapped over my shoulder, warm and strong. "My mistake. I'm so enamored with the Chara that you've probably heard me babble on about him as though he were a god. I forgot that, coming from Koretia, you'd be likely to take my words the wrong way."

"You've talked about the Chara's high honor in court—"

"And I was telling the truth." Carle squeezed my shoulder before removing his hand. "There is something . . . uncanny about the way in which the Charas have maintained integrity over the centuries in court matters. But outside the court . . ." Carle took the flask back from me as I turned and wiped the back of my hand over the wine that had spilled on my lips. "Well, I don't want to paint too bleak a picture. Radley has a reputation for being brilliant on the battlefield. Maybe the Chara thought his brother-in-marriage could acquire similar brilliance in a command position. Who's to say that he's wrong? Perhaps Radley will wake up one of these days and realize that accurate information from his subordinates is more important than feeding his own sense of self-importance."

"You don't believe that." I sat down on my pallet cross-legged and stared up at him.

Carle shrugged. "After my father's death-bed reformation, who's to say? But at my best guess . . . no. Some men aren't willing to reform themselves. Still, the Chara's mistake is likely an honest one, even if tinged somewhat by considerations of family loyalty. No doubt the Chara will realize in time that he needs to assign another captain to our division."

"But until then . . ." I looked down at the earthen floor of the tent, trailing my finger across it. "What will you do if Radley gives you an order that would bring harm?"

"Bring grave harm to Emor? I'd go over his head to the Chara." Carle's response was without hesitation.

"But what if . . ." I couldn't seem to bring myself to look up. "What if the harm were only to you?"

This time, Carle's response was longer in coming. He had turned away to place his empty flask in his back-sling, and he took quite a while rummaging around in its small number of contents. Finally he said, "Any order that Radley gave me which would bring harm to me would most likely bring harm to you as well. It's my duty, as your official, to protect you from unnecessary harm. So the same would follow: I'd appeal to the Chara for the overturning of those orders."

"And if the orders weren't repealed?" I looked up finally.

Carle flicked a glance at me. "I won't let you come to harm, Adrian. Don't worry yourself about that. Look, I need to see Sewell and tell him about the mistake on the army map. He can pass on the information to the army surveyors, who will no doubt prostrate themselves with gratitude; they're forever frustrated by the fact that they're dependent on spies' reports to try to reconstruct foreign territory. Do you want to come?"

I shook my head, and Carle, after a moment's pause to scrutinize me, left the tent.

Where I was left to my thoughts. I understood – more clearly, perhaps, than Carle had intended – what Carle's response meant. If he was given an order that would endanger me, without benefit to Emor, he would disobey the order, risking a dismissal of high dishonor or perhaps even death.

But if he was given an order that would unnecessarily endanger himself . . . I felt a chill cover me, as though I were sitting in a snowbound cave. I hugged my legs, thinking that, in a certain sense, I had learned nothing today that I had not already known for months. It had simply not occurred to me before that Carle would be willing to sacrifice his life, not simply to obey the orders of the Chara, but to obey the orders of an ignorant, vile official such as Radley.

I think there has been no moment, since I first left Siward alive, when I have been more tempted to commit murder. But remembering that the Chara's law regards the discussion of murderous plans as being of equal gravity as actually committing murder, I cleared my mind of all thoughts of how I could exploit Radley's self-chosen ignorance of Koretian ways. Sheathing the dagger of my imagination, I set myself to work preparing for my next assignment in the Chara's service.