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Law Links 6
THE BALANCE
 

CHAPTER ONE

The second day of June in the 943rd year a.g.l.

It's dawn now; I can hear Quentin whistling the night patrol home. The day patrol has already gone outside the hut to break its fast. I will have to start for the army camp soon, though I still haven't decided what I will tell Captain Radley about my meeting with the Jackal.

I did have sense enough to wait a week before slipping over the border. I knew that Radley would never forgive me unless I followed standard procedure for losing a hunt that is after me. I know better than Radley that, if Emlyn chose to hunt me after he released me, the best of the Chara's spies couldn't have prevented him. But I can't explain that to Radley.

I arrived here yesterday afternoon to find Quentin awake early. He wounded his dagger arm last month, in a daring rescue that I only heard about from the others, and the pain has been keeping him awake during the day. After I had enquired after him and the patrol, and had ascertained that Carle was returned to Emor from his latest mission, I hesitantly told Quentin what the Jackal had told me – not about his identity, but about the war he is waging.

Crouching down to stir the dinner pot with his unwounded hand, Quentin was silent a while after I finished. Then he said, "And is he?"

I smiled at Quentin's ability to cut through to the heart of matters. "Does it matter to you? You don't worship the gods."

Quentin added a stick to the fire. "It wasn't part of my grandfather's training. But still . . . I'd be interested to hear your opinion."

I took the ladle from his hand and continued the stirring. "Yes, he is. You could tell from his eyes." I took a sip from the stew, wincing as it bit at my tongue. "I'm not sure how to tell Carle. I'm afraid that he'll think less of me if I say that I believe the Jackal is really a god."

"Among the many worries of a spy," Quentin said, "one that you need not concern yourself with is that Carle will ever think less of you. His debt to you is too great."

I sat back on my heels, staring. "Whatever do you mean? The debt is mine; if he hadn't taken me under his care—"

"The stew is boiling over," Quentin said.

For the next minute, we were preoccupied in tossing dirt on the fire to extinguish it. As I wiped my hands clean on the grass afterwards, Quentin said, "You've met Carle's father."

I nodded. "Have you?"

"Briefly. He accompanied Carle to the borderland when I was fourteen and Carle was eight—"

"When you and Carle helped Fenton to escape. Yes."

"Carle was mainly responsible for that; I wouldn't have had the courage." Quentin leaned forward to stir the stew carefully, then sat back again on the grass, saying, "When Carle first entered the patrol, I greatly feared that he would become like his father."

"But—" I stopped suddenly. The sun was beginning to dip behind the peaks. Nearby I could hear the day patrol exchanging weary signals with each other.

"The day Carle and I met," I said slowly. "What he did to me then . . . Had he done that before?"

Quentin nodded, leaning back onto his hands and then shifting his position so that his weight was upon his unwounded arm. "He had never before disobeyed my orders, but on several occasions he disciplined prisoners or guards under his care in a manner stricter than necessary. To say that of a patrol guard is to say a great deal, of course. With most guards, the problem I have is teaching them to show appropriate sternness, but with Carle the problem was the opposite. He knew only his father's discipline, and even a gentle version of that was beyond what was necessary. And aside from that . . ."

"Yes." My voice was firm; all was clear to me now. "I've seen that too. He has the seed of his father's cruelty in him. He keeps it deeply buried, though."

Quentin shook his head. "Not during his first three years in the patrol; then he was like a man riding a wild horse. He was barely able to keep control of himself. If he'd been any less talented than he was, I would have dismissed him from the patrol, for I could see the shadow of disaster whenever I looked at him."

"But he's not like that now," I said, bewildered.

"No," Quentin replied. "He met you."

The sun slid behind the peaks, and Quentin rose with a whistle, beckoning the patrol to supper. Nearby, Devin joyfully whistled the day patrol home. The night patrol emerged from the hut, some of the guards heading for the food, while other guards started for the latrine and waterfall. Fowler caught sight of me and called out his greeting, so I had no opportunity to talk with Quentin after that.

It is just as well. I could not have found any words to reply.

o—o—o

The fourth day of June in the 943rd year a.g.l.

In the end, Carle gave me the answer to my dilemma.

"Let me be sure I understand you correctly," he said after I had told my tale on the evening of my arrival back at our tent. "You spoke with the Jackal – you ought to receive a gold honor brooch for that tracking, by the way – and he offered you information. Some of it is information on his goals; we've been under orders to obtain that information, and so you'll report your findings to Captain Radley. But one piece of information that you learned could place a kinsman of yours at risk of losing his life if you told anyone, and you're not sure whether your duty requires you to report that information as well." Carle drew off his undertunic. Many months have passed since he was last ashamed for me to see his whip-torn back. "This information that relates to your kinsman – did Captain Radley order you to obtain it?"

I shook my head, and Carle smiled as he dipped a rag in the bucket of cold water next to his feet. "That's an easy conclusion to your quandary, then," he said. "Tell him."

The evening was chill, as all Emorian evenings seem to be. I hugged my naked chest with my arms. "You believe that it's my duty to tell him?" I said in a low voice.

Carle's smile broadened, and he tossed me the rag so that I could take my turn with the water. "What I ought to have said is, 'Try to tell him.'"

I understood what he meant the next day. After listening to Captain Radley explain at length how I was a sly Koretian liar for pretending that I had met the Jackal, and then hearing him upbraid me for not giving my report from the moment I entered his tent, I told him about the Jackal's plans, the plans that I had been under orders for several months to obtain. Then I tried to tell him who the Jackal is. And tried again. After six attempts, and after hearing Radley tell me six times that he had no interest in any speculation on my part concerning matters that lay outside my orders, I finally left, but only because Radley had his orderly drag me out of his tent. The last I heard was Radley shouting that he would have me up on charges for my insubordination.

Carle was lying on the floor of our tent, rolling with laughter, by the time I finished telling the tale, which eased my heart greatly. When he had sobered himself, I said, "But oughtn't I to tell somebody else? Should I write a letter to the Chara?"

"Any letter from you would be sent straight back to your official, to see whether it was important enough to occupy the time of the Chara." Carle passed me a flask of cider from last year's pickings at his orchard.

I sipped from it before saying, "I could try to go see the Chara. Strictly speaking, we're under the Chara's immediate care. If I said that it was an emergency, the guards might let me see him."

"And end up dead because the Chara judged it not to be an emergency?" Carle took the cider back from me. After the silence had stretched far enough to break, he added, "Yes, I'd advise that you risk yourself if the matter is important enough. But is it? Do you believe that Emor is in danger from the Jackal, and that the information you know might help the Chara to defend our land?"

I shook my head. "No, I'm quite sure that the Jackal was telling the truth when he said that he had no quarrel with the Chara." I eased my dagger out of its sheath, gave it a perfunctory wipe with our all-purpose rag, then slid it back into its casing. "I could be wrong, though. I think that the Chara is the only one who could truly judge this matter."

"If the time comes when you discover you're wrong," said Carle between sips of cider, "then you can go to the Chara and give him the information he needs to break the power of the Jackal."

"But if I should be killed before then . . ."

"You'll write about this in your journal, I suppose? Well, then . . ." Carle leaned back on his elbows. There were dark circles under his eyes, and I wondered whether his latest mission had brought him more weariness than usual.

"Adrian," he said, "do you remember our conversation in the cave three winters ago?"

I smiled at him, not needing to reply. He said, "So what do your instincts tell you?"

After a moment, I said slowly, "That this isn't the right moment at which to offer up my sacrifice."

Carle tossed me the empty cider flask to put aside. "You know," he said, "great as my loyalty is to the Chara, I'm not sure that you're right when you say that the Chara is the best person to judge the intentions of the Jackal. I think that a Koretian-born Emorian is likely to be a better judge in these matters than the Chara."

Which is not at all true, of course, but it is typical of Carle to end our conversation with such warm thoughts.

o—o—o

The fifth day of June in the 943rd year a.g.l.

I received very little sleep last night; Carle woke me thrice.

After the third time, neither of us found it easy to return to sleep. When I turned my head, I could see the glitter of Carle's eyes from starlight that had made its way through the smoke-hole at the top of the tent.

I said, "Has this been happening recently?"

Carle was a long time replying, and when he spoke, I had to roll over to his side to hear him. "It happens sometimes when I'm on long missions," he said. A pause meandered while the palace trumpets proclaimed the midnight, and then he added in a lower voice, "When I'm away from you."

I placed my hand over his. "Carle, he's dead," I said quietly.

Carle carefully pulled his hand out from mine and turned his face toward the tent cloth. "Sometimes I think he's only sleeping," he said in a muffled voice.

If I hadn't spoken with Quentin three days ago, I would not have understood what Carle meant. I moved onto the blanket Carle had pushed aside – what is a chilly night for me is a warm summer's eve for Carle – and asked, "Would you like for us to leave the army and find other work?"

He rolled over, and in the moment before he rid himself of his expression, I saw the spark of hope in his eyes. "We couldn't do that," he said firmly. "You've been a lieutenant for less than a year—"

"I don't enjoy my work," I said, almost truthfully. "I was only ever half a spy, and without you to help me, I feel as though I'm doing half-finished tasks. I want to keep serving the Chara, but I'm beginning to believe that I'd serve him better doing work elsewhere in this land."

Carle sighed as he placed his hand down onto the small space between us. "I know what you mean. I feel the same way, as though the work I'm doing is unworthy of one of the Chara's soldiers. And I must admit that I've been toying in my mind with that old idea we had of seeking work with a town council. Neville has been hanging over my shoulders since last year, urging me to allow him to do us a favor, in order to make up for how he treated us before. Palace officials hear about open positions in the councils of this land before the rest of us do. He'd be able to tell us when any council is seeking two men at the same time."

So it was settled, but of course Carle and I were so excited that we stayed up until dawn discussing our future, and then spent the early morning composing a letter to Neville about our hopes.

Neither of us mentioned that the real reason we're leaving the army is that we can't do decent work under the care of Captain Radley.

o—o—o

The twenty-fourth day of August in the 943rd year a.g.l.

It has been very hot this month, especially for Emor. Captain Radley has been in a foul mood, trying to sort through all the reports on the Jackal's increasing activities. He can't make anything of the reports, of course, since he doesn't understand Koretian religion. Periodically, he has been calling me into his tent to ask me about various small matters, but I think it galls him to be forced to seek the advice of his inferior. I've tried on a few occasions to volunteer information that would allow him to see the larger picture of what the Jackal is and thus be able to figure out for himself the small matters, but this only infuriates him more.

Since Carle and I are presently awaiting orders on our next missions, we have mainly been keeping to our tent, seeking to fight the heat with shade and cool wine. The latter comes from the lieutenant, who is in the cooler mountains, and who sends flasks to us periodically by way of one of the royal messengers who can make it here quickly enough that the liquid is still cool by the time it arrives. (The messengers are happy enough to do this in exchange for a share of the wine.)

Carle has been worst affected by the heat, of course, and I advised him to keep his movements slow, lest he overexert himself in the heat. He has taken my advice, saying that I am the expert in these matters of southern weather. Thus I was surprised when he rushed into the tent this afternoon, waving a letter in and dancing about the place.

It took me some time to make sense of what he was saying; when I found out, I was ready to dance myself. It was a pass from the Chara's summoners, allowing Carle to attend tomorrow's court.

It was a gift from Neville, of course. "The fool, the low-brained, muddle-minded fool," Carle said happily. "He must have had to crawl on his hands and knees to the summoners to get this pass for us."

"Us?" I said, certain that I must have misheard him.

"Us! I can bring a guest, the pass says. I suppose that means I can bring my brother or son, but the pass doesn't actually specify that. If anyone asks, I'll imply you're a kinsman of mine – that's close enough to the truth. By the spirits of the dead Charas, Adrian, what should I wear?"

I laughed and held onto the wine-table, which Carle was in danger of knocking over. "You sound like a young woman about to meet her betrothed for the first time. What does it matter what we wear? No one will notice us. The question is, When should we get there? If we arrive early enough tomorrow, we'll be able to find a place right in the front, so that we can have a good view of the Chara."

Carle stopped dancing and began fiddling with the sheath of his dagger, which he had begun wearing in the army camp, in keeping with his forged reputation as a dangerous, lawless man. "To witness the truth, I was thinking of hiding us away in one of the corners of the court. I'm not sure that I want a good view of the Chara in judgment; I've heard tales of strong men fainting away when they saw the look of the Chara for the first time."

"Oh, Carle."

"Very well, very well." He laughed, but somewhat nervously. "We'll take a place in the front, as close as you want. I'm still not sure what to wear, though. I want to wear something that will honor the Chara."

"Then wear the brooch."

"Of course!" Carle hit his forehead with his palm. "I am a fool, a dog, a dull-witted schoolboy. Thank the wisdom of the Charas that you're here to tell me what to do. I'd forgotten about the royal emblem brooch, but it's exactly the thing to wear. I'll be offering tribute to the Chara and will also be honoring my father, poor miserable man, who did at least one kind act in his life by leaving me that brooch. So will you come with me, Adrian?"

I laughed in reply, but he said seriously, "No, I mean it. This is a formal occasion, so I am formally inviting you to accompany me to the Court of Judgment. There is no one else I would want there beside me."

It took me a moment to swallow the lump that had formed in my throat during this speech, and by the time that moment was over, my reply was delayed by a rap on the tent-post.

It was Hylas, bearing a letter for me from the lieutenant.

"He's probably telling us that he has run out of mountain-cooled wine," Carle said cheerfully. "Never mind, we have more heady wine to draw upon now."

"It's not from the lieutenant himself," said Hylas, staring so pointedly at our wine that Carle turned away to fetch him a flask. "It comes from Koretia; apparently a Koretian delivered it to the patrol. He was a borderlander with a scar along his right arm – the lieutenant said to tell you that, in case his identity was important."

I looked down at the letter. It bore no superscription, and the seal was smudged, but for anyone who was looking for it, it was easy enough to recognize that the seal was in the shape of the mask of the Jackal.

I tore the letter open and read it. It was without greeting or signature.
 

You asked whether you could do anything for me; now comes the moment when I must take up your offer. By the time that you receive this, Carle will have asked you to do something for him. Do not comply.

I cannot tell you what the consequences of your action will be, for in all truth I do not know them myself; my powers have not told me. This much I do know: you will not be breaking your oath to the Chara nor bringing harm upon your fellow Emorians in doing this, and Carle will receive the reward of your action. What will happen to you, I do not know, and so, speaking as your kinsman now, rather than in my other role, I cannot advise you on what to do. I can only remind you that the gods will watch over you, whatever happens.


I was still staring at the letter when I became aware that Carle had sent Hylas on his way and was watching me closely. "Bad news?" he said.

I quickly closed the letter and went over to the side of my bed, where I store my flint box. Keeping my face turned away from Carle, I said, "It's from one of my contacts in Koretia. I'm afraid that I won't be able to attend the court with you tomorrow; something has come up."

"Oh, may the high doom—! Can no one else handle this? We won't get another chance like this in our lifetime!"

I shook my head as I sparked the flint and set the letter blazing on the earthen floor of our tent. "You'll have to tell me all about it afterwards. I'm sure that it will be just as exciting for me from your description. And this will give someone else a chance to go."

"I'm not interested in bringing anyone else," Carle said glumly. He came over and knelt beside me. I was watching the tiny flame die down as it finished eating the Jackal's letter. "Oh, well," he added with a sigh. "I knew that it was too good to be true. Never mind, I'll go by myself, and I'll wear the brooch, not as a tribute to the Chara or my father, but as a tribute to you, the great law-lover. You ought to be there instead of me."

"Perhaps I'll have another chance some day," I said. "Just don't pin on that brooch until you reach the Court of Judgment. If Captain Radley sees it, he'll guess that something is up and find an excuse to keep you from the palace."

Carle laughed and said that my advice was wise; then he spent the rest of the day trying to decide between his two formal tunics. I've spent the day worrying. Emlyn gave me the one incentive he could be sure would make me follow his instruction: he told me that Carle would benefit from what I did. But was he telling the truth?

o—o—o

The twenty-fifth day of August in the 943rd year a.g.l.

Carle arrived back at the tent at noonday; he must have run most of the way from the court. I had a story ready to explain why I hadn't gone to Koretia, but he was too excited to think of such matters. When I first saw him, he was still trembling from the experience.

"Never again," he said firmly. "It was the most wonderful morning of my life, but never, ever again. I swear that I will die a Slave's Death before allowing myself to stand in the same chamber as the Chara again. I scarcely survived as it was."

"Where did you stand?" I asked eagerly.

"I knew that would be your first question. Well, I took the coward's way out. Since you didn't come with me, I stood in the area behind the throne, where you can only see the back of the Chara's head. And that just goes to show that cowards get their just reward, because it turns out that the Chara walks through that area on his way in and out of the court. As he was leaving, he walked within an arm's length of me."

"What did he look like?" I asked, barely breathing.

"I was determined not to see, so I bowed very low – and when I raised my head again, he was standing right in front of me, stopped in his tracks. I suppose that his attention was caught by my bow. No one else did that."

"Carle!" I flung myself off my pallet, where I had been rereading entries in my journal. "What did he say?"

"Why should he say anything?" Carle was grinning with sheepish joy, readjusting the emblem brooch so that his neck-flap wasn't closed so tight. "I'm nobody important. I could see that he noticed my brooch, though – I was glad about that. He only stopped for a moment; then he continued on, which was a great relief to me, because all the stories about his look are true. I was on the point of passing out."

He still looked pale, so I took out a flask and handed it to him. "What does the face look like?"

"It's hard to describe." He sat down on the pallet with me, first unhooking his army sword from his belt. "It's very stiff and rigid – a bit like your Koretian masks, only it is built into the Chara's features. When he looks at you, you feel as though he is seeing through to the depths of your spirit and searching out every dark deed you have ever done. I found myself wondering whether I had accidentally broken some law during my manhood – if I had, I'm sure that the Chara would have known it. His face looked as ancient as Emor itself, as though he was holding in his expression the accumulated wisdom of a thousand years' worth of Charas. Thank that wisdom that I will never again have to face the—"

There was a cough, and Carle and I looked up in surprise to see that a well-dressed boy had pushed back the flap to our tent. "Carle son of Verne?" he said in a voice stilted with formality.

"That is I." Carle stood up. "What can I do for you, young man?"

The boy raised his chin as though he was offended by Carle's question. "I am a page to the Chara, and I bear a summons from him. He wishes to see you in his quarters immediately." He held up a document that confirmed his words. It bore the seal of the Great Chara.

I looked over at Carle. He had turned as white as new snow, and his fingernails were biting into his palms. Seeing this, I realized that he did not have the ability to answer the boy, and so I said hastily, "He'll come right away. Are you to escort him?"

The boy shook his head. "Come in by way of the east entrance," he told Carle. "The guards will let you through. But do not keep the Chara waiting."

With this pompous addition of advice, he left us alone. For a moment, Carle remained frozen. Then the page's final words apparently penetrated his mind, and he began looking frantically around, as though he had lost something.

"May the high doom fall upon me," he moaned. "What have I done? What have I done? Perhaps I should have knelt when he stopped next to me."

"Don't be absurd." I was just as panic-stricken as Carle, but it was obvious that one of us needed to remain calm, so I took on the harder task. "Only Daxions kneel to their ruler. He probably just recognized you as one of his spies and wants to talk to you about Koretia."

"How would he recognize me? I haven't seen him for six years, not since I gave him my oath as a patrol guard. No, I've done something terrible, that's clear enough, and now I'm to face the wrath—" He stopped; he had found what he was looking for and was on the point of clipping his sheathed sword onto his belt when he stopped and carefully laid the weapon back down on the pallet. He had remembered that prisoners appear before the Chara's judgment unarmed.

I said impulsively, "Let me come with you."

He shook his head and moved rapidly toward the tent flap. "He only wants to see me, and I'm wholly to blame for whatever has happened. You weren't there." He left without another word.

I wasn't there. Those are the words that have been haunting me all this afternoon while I await Carle's return – if he is returning. I wasn't there, and I wasn't there because the Jackal didn't want me to be there. Have I betrayed my fellow Emorian after all? Is Carle now in danger because of me?

o—o—o

Danger indeed. Carle returned to the tent a short while ago and announced his presence by hurling his royal emblem brooch into the corner.

"Cursed be the spirit of my father!" he shouted. His face was as red as it had been white when he left. "I ought to have known that any wine of friendship he offered me would be poisoned."

"What happened?" I asked, my alarm having reached its peak. "What did the Chara say?"

Carle, though, took no notice of my words; he was still staring darkly at the brooch in the corner. "That dog-bred, mud-dwelling, perfidious man! He always knew how to hurt those under his care the most. I might have known that he would pick an appropriate revenge. Not only does he reveal to me how ignorant I am of the law, but he stabs me through to the very heart of my spirit by tricking me into doing the one thing I'd sworn I'd never again do: be disloyal to the Chara. If my father were still alive, I'd—"

"Carle!" I cried. "For the gods' sake, what has happened?"

I had lapsed into Border Koretian; this was probably what attracted Carle's attention. He turned his head, and there crept onto his face that dark, sickening smile he had inherited from his father. It was directed, I knew, not at me but at his father's spirit.

"It is treason to wear the royal emblem," he explained lightly. "Only the Chara and the Chara To Be may wear the emblem. Anyone else who wears it is considered a pretender to the throne. It is a crime under the Law of Grave Iniquity, and it is punishable by the high doom of death by torture."

A Slave's Death. That was the common name for the week-long death reserved for disobedient palace slaves and the most treacherous free-men. I ought to have been overwhelmed by the image of Carle being slowly broken by the branding, the racking, the gelding, and all the rest, but only one thought remained in my mind: He tricked me. The Jackal tricked me.

"Carle, they can't do this to you!" My voice came out as a whimper, so close was I to weeping. "I'll go to the Chara; I'll tell him it was all my fault. I was the one who persuaded you to wear the brooch, and if I had been there, you wouldn't have hidden in the back and been seen by the Chara. I'm to blame for all this, and I should bear the punishment. I'll invoke the Sacrifice division . . . I'll make them do it to me instead—"

I stopped. Within a short time after I began talking, the darkness of Carle's smile had disappeared. All that was left was his pure, crooked smile, accompanied by his wise eyes watching as I made my wild and needless offer. I ducked my head and felt my ears burn.

"Would you really have done that?" he asked quietly. "Would you really have given up your life for me like that?"

"I'm a fool." My voice was muffled by the tears that still clogged my throat. "I ought to have known that it would only take the Chara an instant to see how loyal you are. It was stupid of me to think that you needed my help."

"I might have needed it." Carle's voice was still soft. "And how many men, do you think, would have troubled even to offer witness in defense of a man who had broken one of the Great Three? By the laws, it takes an event like this to offer me supreme proof of who my truest friend is."

I looked up and found myself barely able to bear the look that passed between us. Perhaps Carle felt the same way, for he turned abruptly away and went over to pick up the brooch from the dust. "Well, it's as you say – not so much that the Chara saw I was loyal, no doubt, but that he must have seen I was too much of a fool to be plotting treason. He was very kind to me and asked after my family. He remembered my father from when they grew up together at the palace, and he remembered me because of our border-breaching prank. I continued to be such a fool that I wasted his time by babbling to him about how I wanted to work for a town council some day. I'm lucky he didn't fall asleep from boredom. He even said that I could keep the brooch, since it was a family heirloom. Needless to say, I'm going to put it away in a box and never let it see daylight again."

"But you had the chance to talk with the Chara," I said, looking for some comfort in the midst of this disaster.

Carle turned back from the corner, holding the brooch in one hand. He was smiling again. "I was able to talk with the Chara. Some day, when I am dying and I review the accomplishments of my life, that will still be at the top of my list: I once spoke with the Chara. And you're right, Adrian: you're entirely to blame for what happened, and I owe it all to you."

I felt and continue to feel uncomfortable because I know that what Carle said wasn't true, not wholly. Carle owes his good fortune, not so much to me, as to the Jackal, yet I will never be able to tell him that his dearest dream came true through the help of a Koretian god. I still don't understand why the Jackal did this for Carle. But I remember telling the god that I wanted to do two things: to make a sacrifice for Carle and to make a sacrifice for the Chara. It is good to know that at least one of my own dreams has come true.