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Law Links

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Law Links 1
GOD OF VENGEANCE
 

CHAPTER ONE
 

Begun on the first day of September in the 940th year after the giving of the law, by Adrian son of Berenger, from the Village of Mountside in the Land of Koretia.


Hamar and I played Jackal and Prey this afternoon, with Hamar as the Jackal, and with me as the Jackal's prey. I spent three hours hiding amidst the mountain rocks, creeping away whenever Hamar came near, and he never caught me. Eventually Hamar called to me that I was cheating, and I came out and we argued about it and would probably have ended up duelling each other except that I was reluctant to get blood on the new dagger that our father gave me this morning.

Finally I told Hamar that it wasn't fair that he always played that he was the hunting god, while I was always delegated to being the hunted. He responded that I play the prey better than anyone else in the village – which is true – but I pointed out to him that I am just as good at being the hunter as I am at being the hunted. "Besides," I said, "I came of age this morning, and if you want to be at my birthday feast this evening, you ought to acknowledge that I am a man."

He sulkily allowed me to take the Jackal's role, and I caught him within a quarter of an hour. My father said this morning that Hamar and I ought not to be playing such games any more, since we are both men, even if I am only sixteen and Hamar is just two years older. But Fenton said that even boys' games have value to a man and that some day I may be able to make as much use of my hours spent at Jackal and Prey as I will of what I learned in the rite he performed over me late last night.

o—o—o

Fenton and I were silent for a long while after the rite was done. We were in the sanctuary, of course, but the small chamber seemed strange, for I had never been there at night, and Fenton hadn't lit so much as a candle. He had even shuttered the windows so that the uninitiated would not chance to hear the words he spoke. The only light came from the full moon, which shone down through the smoke-hole onto the altar. I could barely see Fenton.

He had tried to put his arm round me after it was through, but I pushed him away – it was the first time I had ever done that, but I wanted him to know that, being a man, I was now old enough to be strong on my own. So I had dressed, still shivering, and he had gone over to the table against the wall and poured wine for us. He paused after pouring the first cup, and for a moment I thought he would share a cup of wine with me, as he sometimes does with my father. But then he poured a second cup of wine and came over to where I was standing, staring through the cracks of the shuttered window.

He handed me my cup before he unlatched the window and swung it open. Light from my family's home, several spear-lengths up the mountain, spilled into the room. I could see, through the open window of our hall, that my parents were sitting on their chairs next to the central hearth. My father had Mira upon his knee and was bouncing her up and down as though she were riding a horse. She was squealing with delight as though she were a small girl instead of being thirteen and close to her coming of age.

I longed to join them, to return to the familiar safety of my house, but I was worried that would make me appear a coward. So I sipped from the wine, though my stomach remained so tense that I feared I would be sick.

Finally I said, "Perhaps I should have picked another god to serve. One whose rite isn't so frightening."

I meant this as a joke, and I tried to smile, but Fenton said seriously, "In many ways, the Jackal is the most merciful god. Some of the other god-rites are far worse."

I looked over at him then. He was leaning back against the altar, sipping his wine, and his face was shadowed by the hood of the frayed priest-robe he has worn for eleven years. He looked as calm as ever, just as he had looked calm when he spoke in the name of the god and raised the knife over me as I lay upon the altar. . . .

On impulse, I put my cup aside and came over to take Fenton's hand. For a moment I felt foolish; his hand was as steady as ever. Then I felt, very faintly, the tremor within him, like a thunder-roll deep within the earth.

It was then, I think, that I truly understood what it means to be a man: to put thoughts of others before thoughts of myself. I said softly, "I'm sorry," and for a moment I could think of nothing but Fenton's pain.

Then he turned his head to look at me. As the firelight fell upon his face, I saw his smile, and I felt foolish and boyish again.

"It's of no matter," he replied. "I have performed this rite many times before, and on other occasions it was far worse. At least this time I knew that the god would not require the worst of me."

I wanted to ask how he was sure that the Jackal would not accept my proffered sacrifice, but I thought the better of it. I let go of his hand and rubbed the back of my neck. It seemed odd to feel the soft night-breeze blowing where, only a short time before, my boy's-hair had been. I said, before I could question the wisdom of my asking, "Has a god ever required the full sacrifice when you performed the coming-of-age rite?"

To my relief, he shook his head. "Only once did he come close to doing so when I took part in a rite. And on that occasion, I was nearly the victim."

He lifted his hand as he spoke, in order to bring the cup to his lips. As he did so, his sleeve slipped back far enough for me to see the faint lines of his blood vows. He has three of them. One is the vow he took when he became a priest, and the second is the vow of friendship he took with my father. I have never asked him about the third blood vow. Now I found myself wondering: Had Fenton become blood brother to one of the other priests in the priests' house when he was in training? And was a vow between priests so great a matter that he had feared he would need to offer up a full sacrifice to his god or goddess?

Or perhaps he was simply referring to what had happened when the priest from Cold Run made Fenton a priest. I knew, of course, that the coming-of-age rite for a priest is different from that of an ordinary man, since the priest makes a greater commitment to his god or goddess. I supposed the rite must be far more frightening.

I felt again that odd tenderness I had felt before, and I wanted to find a way to remove Fenton's mind from what had just happened. Desperately, I looked about the grey-shadowed sanctuary. Thus I caught sight of my back-sling, lying near the door.

I raced over to it and pulled the bound volume from it, then ran back to Fenton. "Look!" I said, thrusting the volume into his hands. "I've never shown this to anyone. See what I've been keeping."

He opened it slowly, read aloud the first few words, and smiled. "Now I know why your Emorian has been improving so rapidly during recent months. I thought it must be due to more than my lessons."

Feeling shyly pleased, I pointed to the first entry of my journal. "You see?" I said. "I even date the entries the Emorian way: 'The fifth day of February in the 940th year after the giving of the law.' What does 'after the giving of the law' mean?"

"That's a lesson in itself," Fenton murmured. He was flipping through the journal rapidly, far too quickly to be reading the entries, so I knew that he wished to preserve my privacy. "Some time soon, when we have time, I'll explain Emorian law to you. I ought to have done so before now, I suppose, but it has been hard enough a task to teach you the Emorian language."

I grinned, not offended. We both knew that I had no special talent for learning foreign languages. It was a tribute to Fenton's talent for teaching that I now spoke his native language as well as I did.

He came to the final page, which was completed, and closed the volume. As he handed it back to me, he asked, "Will you continue to write this?"

I nodded. "I'm starting the second volume tomorrow. Today," I amended, looking at where the moon hung in the sky. "A new volume for a new life."

Fenton's eye lingered a moment upon the moon, and I found myself wondering whether he worships the Moon Goddess. He has never told me who his god is – there is a great deal Fenton has never told me about himself. Sometimes I feel that he is as mysterious as the gods, and that he is hiding something of vital importance from me. Something that would transform my life.

For a moment, standing in that dark sanctuary, I almost thought he would tell me. But all that he said was, "My only suggestion is that, from now on, you write as though you were speaking to an Emorian who needed to be told about Koretian life. Those first few words you wrote in your journal . . . I would not have understood them when I first came to Koretia. Not because you lack command of the Emorian language," he added, seeing my expression fall, "but because I was unfamiliar with Koretian customs. Knowing another person's language is only half the struggle. You must try to make clear to them how you think, so that they can understand ways that are strange to them."

I thought upon this for a while. Finally I said, "What do I need to explain to Emorians about Koretia that they don't already know?"

He looked at me for a long moment, his light-skinned hand curled around his cup. Finally he said, with a firmness that surprised me, "Emorians know nothing about Koretia. You will need to teach them everything."

o—o—o

I thought about that afterwards, while lying in bed at home. I suppose that I must accept Fenton's statement as true, since he was born in Emor and spent eighteen years there as a slave. I asked him again last night, for the twelve dozenth time, to tell me about his escape through the mountains. . . . But perhaps I should explain, for the benefit of my Emorian reader, that I live in northern Koretia, and my village is built on the side of one of the black border mountains between Koretia and Emor. We found Fenton one day, lying atop our mountain, where he was nearly dead after his escape past the border mountain patrol – I know that I don't have to explain about the patrol, since they are Emorian soldiers, after all. My father told me that Fenton is the only man he has ever known to slip past the patrol, either coming out of Emor or going into it, and I think it was mainly out of admiration for his bravery that my father made Fenton his blood brother and therefore made him a member of our village. For – I realize once more that I must explain – most Koretian villages are made up entirely of single families, relatives either through birth or through blood vows of marriage or friendship.

Fenton spent six years in the priests' house at our capital city, which is in southern Koretia, but when he had learned his calling he returned here. My father asked Fenton to come back here to tutor me, and he even allowed Fenton to teach me Emorian, which my father calls a godless language, but which Fenton says could be of use to me since we have several people of Emorian blood in our village. Emor may be godless, says Fenton, but it knows certain things Koretia does not know, and we who live here in the borderland are in the best position to take what is good from both lands and combine those goods into something new.

Needless to say, I do not report such remarks to my father. Tonight my father is giving me a birthday feast – a thoroughly Koretian one, with nut tosses and blessings and blood vows. Afterwards we will sleep by the fire in order to watch the Jackal eat his prey. (That's what we call it here in Koretia when the fire burns its wood.) I will bring along this second volume of my journal, in case anything happens at the feast that is interesting enough that I would want to write it down.

Perhaps, now that I am a man, I will be able to peer into Fenton's spirit and know what he is, in the same manner as the Jackal knows me.

o—o—o

The second day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

I suppose that I ought to be reluctant to write in this journal again, considering its role in what happened at my birthday feast. But when I told Fenton what had happened, he said that I must model myself on the Jackal and not destroy the good in my eagerness to erase the evil. Fenton does not say, as my father says, that the Jackal ate his prey and that what happened is the will of the gods. Instead, Fenton says that the ways of the gods are mysterious, and though the gods do not bless the evil deeds that men have done, they are able to take these deeds and turn them to good.

For this reason, I will continue to write in this second and now sole volume of my journal, though it feels odd to take up this book once more and remember it lying between Hamar and me on the night of my birthday, like a murderer's thigh-dagger hidden in its sheath.

We were sitting around the outdoor fire in our village green, which must have been selected for its purpose for the simple reason that it is the only piece of reasonably flat open ground in Mountside. What other flat places there are on the slopes of our mountain – usually naked boulders jutting out from the sparse grassland – are occupied by houses such as our own. My mother, who lived in Cold Run before she vowed herself to my father, often complains about how uncomfortable our rock floor is compared to the dirt floor she grew up with. My father, over the years, has always made the argument that such stony barriers prevent fires from spreading from one village house to the next, and I suppose that such an argument is now irrefutable.

We had already had my birthday blessing and the prayers to the gods – that took a while, since Fenton prayed to all seven rather than reveal which gods are worshipped by the people of our village. Some people, like my brother, consider their god-service something to be spoken of only to the priest. My brother and I were sharing wild-berry wine from one cup, since we were short of drinking vessels, and at a certain point Hamar commented, "The Emorians think wild-berry wine tastes like poison."

I had just received one of the nut bowls that was being passed hand to hand around the fire. I took a nut, gave the bowl to Hamar, and said, "Where did you hear that?"

"From Titus – I heard him talking to Lange. He said that the Emorians believe their wine to be the best wine in the Three Lands."

"Well, they would," I said in disgust. "They think that everything they do is better than what is done in Koretia and Daxis. They even say that it's better not to believe in gods."

"No!" Hamar stared in astonishment at this blasphemy.

"That's what Fenton says," I said calmly, having recovered from my shock at the time I first heard this. "He said that the Emorians believe that Koretians use the gods as an excuse to indulge themselves in passionate and irrational behavior."

I thought it best not to add that Fenton had said that the Emorians were sometimes right about this. Hamar leaned back his head to sip from our cup, as well as to watch one of the nuts soar over the flames and then crack at the moment before it reached the fire. We joined in the cheers and applause. Hamar said idly, "Do you suppose that Emorians have nut tosses?"

"I don't know, but I know they eat nuts. Fenton said that he tasted some Daxion nuts when he was a slave and that they were delicious."

Hamar frowned as he took from the man next to him the bowl of blackroot nuts. "Not that I want to accuse a priest of such a thing, but he must have been lying. Daxion nuts are a noblemen's luxury."

"Well, his master was rich, remember? —Oh, blessed of the gods," I said enviously as I noticed that Hamar was holding the last nut of the bowl he had been handed. He stared at the flames for the moment, formulating his thoughts, and then sacrificed his nut to the fire. Hamar was always eager to show off his throwing skills: as a result the nut went too high, then plunged quickly into the fire before it was hot enough to crack.

"Too bad," I said. "What did you pray for?" Then, at Hamar's look: "You can tell me, since the god didn't accept your sacrifice. The prayer won't be answered in any case."

Hamar shrugged, reaching over to take the wine cup from me. "It wasn't an interesting prayer," he said. "I prayed to the Sun God to protect me from harm."

"Is that who your god is?" I said with interest. "Why did you choose the Sun God?"

Hamar shuffled the heels of his shoes against the ground, which was dry in the late-summer heat and therefore gave off great clouds of dirt that rose into the night sky. "The Sun God is the most powerful god, I think," he said. "More powerful than the Jackal God, more powerful than the Moon Goddess – I don't know why people choose to serve the other gods. The Sun grows our crops and he makes the fires that warm us, like that one." He pointed to the balefire.

Annoyed, I said, "That's the Jackal's fire – he's eating his prey."

"Well, but who says that? Father, who worships the Jackal, and Fenton, who is his blood brother and wouldn't say anything to offend Father."

I rose to my feet and kicked the dust at Hamar, saying, "Don't you dare say such a thing. Fenton would never lie about the gods, not even if it meant hurting Father or anyone else."

Hamar jumped up and put his hand on his dagger hilt in a clear challenge. "Don't you dare say that my god isn't the most powerful!" he shouted.

A few heads turned our way, but not many, for our village had already had three duels that night, though only one of them resulted in serious injury. I could see my father watching us with amusement. He had kept out of our quarrels ever since we had reached an age where he trusted us to be able to duel without drawing more than first blood – and he had made it clear that such blood must not be deep.

I considered taking Hamar aside and teaching him a lesson, but I decided that Fenton would not be pleased if I were to quarrel with my brother on my birthday. "Peace," I said and held out my left hand.

Hamar considered this for a moment, then said, "Peace," and clasped my hand as though our palms were sliced and we were joining our blood in a peace oath.

I waited till we were seated again before saying, "Anyway, Fenton says that all of the gods are the different faces of the Unknowable God."

"Oh, well, if Fenton says . . ." Hamar's words dissolved into giggles as I attacked my brother's sides with my fingers.

I released him from my tickling eventually so that I could take another nut bowl that was passing my way. I noticed with envy that only two nuts were left. Taking my nut, I passed the bowl to Hamar, saying, "Here's your second chance."

Hamar was still catching his breath from my attack; he said between gasps, "You take it. If I tried it now, I'd probably drop it on Father's head. Besides, I owe you a birthday present."

Satisfied that this would now be a perfect birthday, I took Hamar's sacrifice, made it my own, and prayed to the Jackal, saying, "God of Vengeance, God of Mercy, God of Judgment: I do not yet know how you wish me to serve you, but I know that Fenton is your servant, as he is the servant of all the gods. Since he is the wisest man I know, give me the strength to do something courageous which would please him. Hunting god and trickster god, as my sacrifice, accept this, all that I have." I tossed the nut toward the fire.

It cracked while still clear of its flames, its sound breaking through the light chatter and laughter about me. Amidst the applause of the others, Hamar said with balanced criticism, "That's better than your usual throws."

"Thank you," I said, judging it better to interpret this as a compliment. Feeling a warm glow after the sign that my prayer would be fulfilled, and wishing to make up for my quarrel with him, I said, "Hamar, I've been writing a journal."

"Have you?" he said vaguely. He was looking over the fire at Fenton, who had risen to his feet. "Do you suppose that he's going to start the blood vow now? Oh, he's only walking over to get more wine. Listen, Adrian, I know what blood vow he has chosen for tonight – I heard him tell Father."

"You ought not to tell me," I said uneasily. "It's supposed to be a surprise."

"Well, you'll be finding out in a short while anyway, and I don't want you to look crestfallen. It's not at all an exciting one, like the one he gave me at my coming of age. He's going to have us take a peace oath."

"A peace oath?" I frowned in puzzlement. "You must have heard wrong. We're not feuding with anyone."

"We're feuding with Cold Run," said Hamar.

"Oh, that," I said, dismissing the matter with a wave of the hand.

It occurs to me here that blood feuds may not familiar to my Emorian reader. Fenton told me once that the Emorians don't take blood vows, which obviously must have been some sort of joke on his part, but perhaps the Emorians don't take certain types of blood vows, such as feud vows. Our village's feud with Cold Run had not yet reached the stage of blood, though both Hamar and I half hoped that it would, as we had never before witnessed a blood feud. Of course we had witnessed a dozen or more lesser feuds. This one had started when Richard of Mountside, driving his cart, ran over the prize rooster of Tabitha of Cold Run and refused to pay for the creature, arguing that the rooster had darted in front of his wheels. Since that time we had progressed from livestock theft to drilling holes in wine barrels to water-traps that left the victim squealing in indignation – I knew that Hamar had done the last, since he had gleefully confessed to me that he had drawn the lot for this deed. Otherwise I would never have known, for, except on the rare occasions when a fire-killing occurs during a blood feud and the victim is avenged by his nearest kin, those who take part in a feud are known only to the village priests who draw the lots.

I knew that Fenton was worried because we were only two stages away from a blood feud, but everyone said that the people of both villages were too wise to shed blood over such a small matter. Anyway, the dispute would be ended as soon as someone was caught in the act of carrying out a part of the feud. This being the case, I could not understand why Fenton would waste my birthday vow with a peace oath, which was usually used only to settle a prolonged blood feud. But I was too loyal to Fenton to voice my disappointment; instead I hid my feelings by saying, "Oh, listen to me, will you? I've been writing a journal for several months now, all about everything that happens to me. I just started the second volume – it's lying next to us here."

That caught Hamar's attention. He was always the sort of person who needed to have something right in front of him to fully understand it, this being the reason he did so badly at playing Jackal and Prey. I sometimes wondered too whether he hadn't inherited most of the Emorian blood in our family, for he was as pale-faced as an Emorian, and he sometimes talked about the unseen gods as though he were not quite sure he believed in them – but of course I would not insult him by pointing this out to him.

Now he said, "I wondered about that book, but I thought it was one of those volumes Fenton taught you to bind."

"He did," I said, "but I only bound blank pages, so I decided to fill them as a journal."

"What does it say? Does it have anything in it about me?" He reached toward the book.

I pulled it hastily from his hands, remembering what I had written about him earlier that day. "Not this one," I said, offering a silent apology up to the Jackal for my falsehood. "My earlier volume has some passages in it about you." Some of those passages, I knew, were complimentary enough to my brother that he would be pleased to hear them.

"Read them to me now," he ordered.

"I can't. I don't have the first volume with me. I hid it back in the house, where you and Mira couldn't paw your way through it."

"Then fetch it," ordered Hamar. He's like that sometimes.

I could see that he was on the point of going into one of his rages, so I said wearily, "You can fetch it yourself. I've hidden it in—"

"I can find it," he said, clearly annoyed that I had so little faith in his hunting abilities.

I shrugged and turned my attention back to my wine flask. When I looked again, Hamar was gone.

After a minute, I regretted his departure. All around me, villagers were chatting and laughing, but Hamar and I had set ourselves slightly apart from the rest, and no one rose now to take Hamar's place.

I looked about. Drew was on the other side of the fire with some of his playmates, and he looked longingly at me, but I was sure it could not be a manly act for me to go sit with a cousin so much younger than myself, so I turned my gaze away from him toward the younger men of the village. They were all standing in a knot, gathered round Drew's father, Lange, who was talking about the latest village council meeting. I realized, with a lowering of the heart, that I would have nothing to contribute to such a conversation.

Leda was sitting nearby, holding her baby and smiling as she watched Lange. I was trying to decide whether it would be manly to go talk with my own sister when, to my relief, I caught sight of Fenton gesturing to me. I rose and rushed to join him.

He said in a low voice, "Adrian, where is your brother? Your father wants to start the village's vow-taking now."

I looked at the hall, which was farther down the mountain. "He went back to our house to fetch something."

"Well, have someone bring him back here. He should be present for the ceremony, and he will need to be here for its sequel, when you and he exchange vows."

I looked round, but Leda was now in conversation with one of the more garrulous older women in the village; I knew that it would be difficult for her to extract herself from the talk. After a minute's more frantic searching with my eyes, I found Mira.

She was sitting with her friend Chloris, who recently married Titus. Some of the older boys were saying at the time of the marriage that Emorians do terrible things to their women, but I had known better than to pass that information on to Mira; my sister is a terrible gossip. Besides, Titus has lived in Koretia for three years now. He has had time to become civilized.

When I told Mira what I needed done, she treated me as though I was still a boy. "Fetch him yourself," she said, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. Then she said to Chloris eagerly, "Go on. What did he do next?"

Chloris turned pink; she was trying to bite away a smile. I sighed and stepped back out of hearing, turning my eyes toward Drew.

At that moment, though, I heard my father call for silence, and I knew that it was too late. I ran over and was just in time to scramble onto the speaking rock beside Fenton. My father remained below us, waiting for the moment when he would be called forward to help administer the vows.

I looked round from the heights of the speaking rock at the view before me. All in a cluster around us and the balefire were the men and women and children of the village – about thirty households in all, along with a few unmarried men who had become members of our village by vowing their blood to a blood-brother. That same vow – the one I was about to take with Hamar – is always taken by the village's boys when they become men, as a way of showing their loyalty to the village . . . and also, of course, because a double bond of blood to one's village, through birth and through friendship, makes a man more likely to exact vengeance in a feud.

So there were blade-carrying men and boys there, and very young boys who yearned to carry blades, and the women and girls who brought new sons into the world – and daughters too, for women and girls are needed to help with the healing of wounded men and the preparation of corpses. The last is a secret among women: the art of preparing a corpse so that it will stay fresh for three days, even in the hottest weather. But other than that, women are never allowed to take part in blood feuds. I'm glad I was born a boy rather than a girl.

Beyond the villagers stood the wooden houses, built on rock and dirt, including our own house: a hall, along with a loft where Hamar and Mira and I slept.

And beyond that was the Sea of Koretia, as it is called: the long stretch of green woods, nearly unbroken within the triangular bounds of the mountains that enclose Koretia. Sometimes, on clear days when I'm on top of the mountain, I've thought I could see Capital Mountain, where the priests are trained, and at its foot the city where the King lives and his lords meet in council. But my father says that the capital is much too far away to be seen – many days' ride away. Only Capital Mountain serves as a dim and distant sentinel of the capital's position.

We of the borderland are almost a people apart, for it was here, the stories say, that the tribesmen from the northern portion of the Great Peninsula met the tribesmen of the southern portion of the Great Peninsula – who, it was said, had originally travelled over the Koretian Straights to the east, from mainland areas that were turning into desert. And when the northern people met the southern people, they intermarried and formed a common language. And that language was what we now call Border Koretian.

Then, after a few generations, most of the people left the borderland, the northern people spreading north and the southern people spreading south, so that the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula came to be formed: Koretia and Daxis to the south, and Emor to the north. But here in the borderland, some villagers stayed, preserving the ancient manners of speech and living. We who are their descendants hold the memories of what the Great Peninsula was like, back in the years before the Three Lands were formed.

Or so Fenton has told me. None of this was on my mind on my birthday, so I know that the reason I am writing all this down is to avoid writing what came next on that day.

o—o—o

Presently I became aware of Fenton speaking, though not because he was speaking about me. He was describing how the Jackal, after tricking his enemies, would often forgive his enemies and make peace with them. He was leaving out the stories where the Jackal killed his enemies, and I could see from my father's expression what he thought of this selectiveness in the recounting. But like all the other villagers, he remained respectfully silent as the gods' representative offered us a glimpse of the wisdom of the gods.

After a while, Fenton became more concrete in his examples of acts that should be forgiven: he was citing acts that had taken place during our present feud in Cold Run, and I realized that Hamar had been right when he said that Fenton would require us to take a peace oath with Cold Run.

This reminded me that Hamar had still not reached the speaking rock in order to exchange his blood vow of friendship with me. I scanned the crowd with my eyes, trying to see whether, after finding my journal, Hamar had dilly-dallied in order to talk with some of the other boys.

Fenton was saying, ". . . and those who seek peace will experience the peace of the gods in their hearts, but those who seek fire and blood—"

He stopped suddenly. His head jerked up, as though he had heard the eerie wail of a jackal.

And at that moment, as Fenton was staring up the slope, and I was staring at Fenton, a woman screamed. A man cried, "The hall! It's on fire!"

o—o—o

By the time we reached my house, flames were leaping through the roof. I – who had shouted almost incoherent warnings on the way that Hamar might be in the hall – would have run into the building immediately, even though black smoke was pouring out of the open door. But Fenton caught hold of me and held me; for a priest, he is very strong. As I struggled in his arms, he said, "No. Look – your father is going in."

I turned my head in time to see my father duck his way through the doorway. He was carrying a face-cloth in his hand, which seemed odd, until I saw that it was dripping with water. He had it over his mouth and nose as he disappeared into the blackness.

More water was arriving, brought by the women from the mountain brook – women always seem to be quick-witted at such times. I saw Leda thrust her baby into Mira's arms so that she could help with the water-carrying. Drew and some of the other boys had run off to fetch the village's one ladder, other than our loft ladder, but they returned, panting, to report that the ladder was in a state of disrepair, as it was being mended by Warner, who is our village carpenter.

The men had joined the water-carrying now, and people were throwing water onto the flames, though it was clear that this was of no use. The flames were eating the walls of the house like a ravenous beast.

And my father and brother were still inside.

Suddenly my father emerged, stumbling, coughing. Fenton let go of me, and we both ran over to him.

"No . . . good," he was saying to Lange when we arrived. "Loft ladder is . . . burnt. Can't reach . . ."

At that moment, there was another scream, and the villagers, crying out, began to point.

I looked up. There in the tiny loft window, too small for anyone to crawl through, was a face I knew well, and a hand carrying a blade. I could not hear the voice above the roar of the flames, but the gestures that Hamar made with his dagger were clear enough.

The villagers had gone silent. Someone said, quite unnecessarily, "He wants us to avenge his death."

There was a crack, like the crack on the day that the gods split the Great Peninsula from the mainland, and I heard Hamar give a great cry, and then the hall collapsed, and there was no sound but for the crackle of flames.

o—o—o

Lange was shouting again, calling upon the village men to dig into the rubble of the hall. The men came forward eagerly enough, but it was clear that it would be some time before they could follow these instructions, for the fallen timber was still red-hot. Leda, crying openly, continued to pour water onto the lingering flames, while Drew and Mira huddled together with the baby, with my mother standing behind them, her arms protectively round them as she gave out small, whimpering sobs.

And I – I who had stood by all this while and done nothing, I who had sent my brother to the place of his death – stood numbly, unable to weep as a man should weep on such a day. I felt nothing, except for the presence of Fenton's hand on my shoulder.

Then I heard my father call my name. I turned and saw that he had tears streaming down his face. He gathered me into his arms, and I pressed my face into the hollow of his shoulder, closing my eyes and trying to rid myself of the image of the flames and the sound of Hamar's voice in the final moments.

When I looked up again, Fenton was gone.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

The third day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

I'm sitting on the back of our mountain – that is, on the northern side of the mountain, the side that is beyond the border and located in the no-man's-land of the black border mountains. Hamar and I used to sit in this spot to eat meals and to pretend that we could see as far north as Emor. Of course, our mountain is only a foothill in comparison to the other mountains, but the land to the north of us dips in such a way that our mountain actually looks taller than some of the other mountains. From this vantage point, you can see about one day's journey into the mountains, which takes you a third of the way to Emor, according to Fenton.

There isn't much to look at here, for what scrubby vegetation exists on the mountains is overwhelmed by the blackness of the rocky slopes, but right now I can see a flickering of light in the distance, accompanied by a low rumbling sound that has managed to travel this far, so I know that there must be a thunderstorm occurring to the north of us. It won't come this far – none of the clouds from Emor make it this far. Mountside receives all its rain from the south or the west or from whatever clouds have made their way over the ridge of mountains along the eastern sea-coast.

Mainly, what Hamar and I used to do here was listen: listen to the winds, and listen to the animals in the mountains, and pretend that we could hear the mountain patrol guards talking to each other, though we're too far south for that. Then, when we'd finished eating and listening, we'd play Jackal and Prey.

Father caught us playing here once, a few years' ago, and we could tell that his anger that we had crossed the border was combined with puzzlement that we could play Jackal and Prey in such a place. On the southern side of our mountain, where all the trees are located, Jackal and Prey is a game played through the eyes: you try to locate the prey by sighting him as he ducks around trees and bushes and rocks. But the rocks in the no-man's-land are so numerous that my father thought that you would have to spend years here before you could ever find your prey.

So we told him that we located the prey through sound, which made him even more confused. "How can you hear anything in the mountains, much less a prey?" he asked.

It's not as bad as everyone thinks, actually. It's true that the winds whistle through the mountains nearly without cease, and there are times when Hamar and I have to shout in order to hear each other. But every few weeks, the wind dies down altogether for a long period of time, and even when it doesn't, the wind is usually low enough that you can hear any sounds in the nearby mountains. Besides, there are the echoes.

Hamar and I experimented once to see how far the echoes go. Hamar stayed here, and I went a couple of hours' journey into the mountains, then dropped a rock. As a result of the echoes bouncing from mountain to mountain, Hamar could hear the rock's fall as clearly as though I had been standing beside him.

Hamar told this to our father, which of course was a terrible mistake, since it revealed how far into the mountains we'd explored. Our father didn't bother to tell us that we'd break our necks climbing over the loose rocks of the mountains, or would fall down one of the many fissures at the feet of the mountains. That might be true of someone who lived in central or southern Koretia, but those of us who live in the borderland spend our lives clambering over the slippery slopes or hopping across the deep chasms. Instead, he said that it is easy to get lost in the border mountains unless you travel by way of the passes. The mountains are so tall that you can't orient yourself by the sun except around noonday – even the shadows are no help, because everything is in shadow in the parts of the mountain that are low enough for men to climb. Our father said that a man who is fool enough to travel the mountains anywhere other than the passes is likely to get lost and die.

Fenton says that this is quite true, and that the worst mistake he made when escaping Emor was to leave the mountains next to the passes and travel through the other mountains. It enabled him to escape the patrol – even the patrol guards stay close to the pass – but he might have wandered around the mountains till he died if he had not reached the Koretian border by chance. Even then, he had nearly died of thirst by the time he was found by my father and our old priest and my cousin Emlyn and I. (Actually, he was sighted first by Emlyn, who always seemed to have a gift for knowing when something important was happening out of sight.)

Since our father was so angry, Hamar and I didn't bother to tell him the greatest discovery that we had made, which was that we could locate objects far away, just by the way that the echoes arrived at us. The experiment with the rock was actually superfluous, because Hamar had been able to trace my movements through the mountains by the sounds I made as I travelled: he could locate where I was every time some rocks rolled out from under my feet and even, when I was close enough, when I was panting hard from the climbing.

When I told Fenton this in confidence, he said that we had discovered one of the secrets of the mountain patrol – that this was why the patrol was so successful at locating border-breachers. "The patrol can hear a breacher coming about an hour ahead of time," he said, "and once the breacher is close enough, the guards use the echoes of his movements to pinpoint exactly where he is. With that kind of training, the patrol can catch nearly anyone who passes by them."

I doubt that the guards could have caught Hamar or me, because we learned how to run swiftly but silently over the mountains when we were playing here; otherwise our games would have been very short. We didn't stop playing here after our father forbade us to. We simply came here when the village council was busy in its meetings, or on dark nights when no one would suspect us of sneaking over here. Of course, everyone in the borderland knows how to walk over a mountain even on a moonless night, but nobody in Mountside suspected that we were foolhardy enough to do this in the no-man's-land, where the slopes are as black as the night sky. But this was when some of our best games took place.

Well, I'll never play Jackal and Prey here again, because I have no one to play with any more – none of the other boys in the village would be bold enough to come here. I called out Hamar's name as loud as I could a little while ago, and listened to the sound echoing off the mountains for quite a long time. I wonder whether the sound reached as far as the mountain patrol – if so, the guards must have wondered what it meant. It's the only tribute I can think of to pay Hamar: to send his name into the mountains that we both loved so much.

o—o—o

The fourth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

We have received word back from Cold Run, in response to my father's letter, sent by way of Fenton. The baron of Cold Run, Roderick, claims that the killing of Hamar was an accident and that the killer believed our home was empty at the time he lit the fire. Roderick therefore refuses to state who the killer is or to hand him over to Mountside for punishment.

We all had a bitter laugh at the idea of a fire-feuder not scouting beforehand the house that he was planning to set on fire. This is obviously just an excuse from Roderick, who must value the murderer in some fashion. Because of Roderick's lie and his refusal to surrender the murderer, my father declared that Cold Run has begun a blood feud. We have started to prepare for our side the feud – even emigrants such as Titus. As kin to the victim, my father will be sent to take revenge upon Cold Run for my brother's death.

In the meantime, my father says that we must observe the traditional three days of mourning, even though everyone knows that the Jackal does not wait three days in the case of a murder – he comes immediately to claim the body of murder victims. So Hamar's spirit is already in the Land Beyond, but father is determined to celebrate his life with proper ceremony. We men of the village will take our blood vows of vengeance tomorrow evening, after we light the balefire in honor of Hamar.

I spent this afternoon whetting my blade.

o—o—o

The fifth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

I went to see Fenton today, just after dawn.

Even though we are really too far north for such a construction, the priests' house is built in the style that became fashionable around the time that Koretia was born: it has an atrium in the middle, with a garden-bed of raised earth. Fenton uses it as a place to grow apple trees, however strange it may seem to grow trees within the walls of a house. He said once that the apple trees make him feel less homesick – the only time he has ever hinted that he misses his native land.

Now I found him busy, pulling the first apples of the season from the branches. I held the basket for him as I said, "Father wants me to make my blood vow of friendship today."

Fenton did not turn his eyes to look at me; he was trying to persuade a little green worm – which would no doubt destroy many of the apples on his tree – to crawl safely off the apple he was picking. "I imagine so. The blood feud begins tonight; you cannot take part in it unless you are pledged to one of the other men in the village."

"Yes." I let myself linger on that thought with pleasure, as I might have lingered on the last rays of summer sunshine. Hamar's death still made me feel sick and hollow inside, but at least we would be able to find his murderer and punish him.

"Do you wish to make your blood vow of friendship to your father, since Hamar is gone?" Fenton asked as he turned to drop the apple into my waiting basket. "Or do you wish another of your relatives to be your blood brother?"

"I thought . . . I thought perhaps it might be more pious to pledge myself to someone who is nearer to the gods."

I stammered a bit as I got the words out. I had spent much of the pre-dawn hours lying awake on my pallet, wondering how I would find the courage to make my request. My shyness was odd, for I am as close to Fenton as I was to my brother, but somehow, asking Fenton to be my blood brother seemed as bold as asking a god whether I might be a guest in his home.

Fenton gave me the barest flick of a look before turning his attention back to inspecting the apples in the basket. "Only the gods can say who is closest to them."

I bit my lip as my cheeks turned hot at this refusal. After a minute, Fenton added, "Here, put the basket down and come help me. I need the use of your blade over here, where the leaves are thickest."

I gladly helped but found I could not meet his eyes as we did our work. Finally, Fenton said quietly, "Do not think that I feel anything but the greatest honor at your offer, son of Berenger. If love alone were reason enough to pledge myself to another, my blood would already be on your blade. But I swore to my god, long ago, that I would not vow my blood to any man who took part in blood feuds."

"But—" I stared at the faint scar on his wrist that represented my father's oath to him.

Something that was not quite a smile touched the edge of Fenton's mouth. "Your father and I became blood brothers when I was newly arrived in this land, before I realized how matters of justice are played out in Koretia. I have received many fortunes from that vow: your father's friendship, the opportunity to serve as the gods' representative in this village, and the sweet enjoyment of teaching you. But now that I know of blood feuds, I cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to blend my blood with any man who takes part in them."

"But the gods ordained the blood feuds," I said in confusion, pausing from my work, blade in hand. "And the priests are the ones who bless the hunters."

Fenton, reaching high for an apple beyond my reach, said, "Not all of us."

After a time, he paused to wipe sweat from his forehead as he said, "I pray for the hunters' safety. I can do that much for them. But it is your father's decision to begin this blood feud, not mine."

"It was the decision of Hamar's murderer," I growled, misery and hatred washing over me again.

Fenton did not speak immediately. His face, bright in the early morning light, seemed as white as a bone. At last he said, "Let us leave the murderer aside. You know, as well as I do, that other men in Cold Run are likely to be killed in this feud. Is it right that their blood should be shed for another man's deeds?"

"They're shielding the murderer," I said quickly.

"We cannot know that they do so by choice. They may be acting under their baron's orders."

"They share the murderer's blood, for he is part of the village of Cold Run. Men who share the blood of a murderer deserve death as much the murderer does." The words tripped off my tongue easily, for I had learned them when I was young. Ironically, the lesson had come from Cold Run's priest, who had cared for us until Fenton became our priest.

"It is words like that," said Fenton, bowing his head over the basket, "which make me determined not to share my blood with any hunter."

I thought of this as I sheathed my blade and got down on my knees to begin inspecting the apples for worm-holes. I knew that Fenton's words could not be the words of a coward, not only because he is the bravest man I know, but also because he is in no danger of being killed. Any village man who does not bear a blade cannot be hunted in a feud, and Fenton never bears a blade. He cannot bear a blade, by his oath as a priest.

So his words puzzled me. Finally I decided that, being a priest who is oath-bound not to fight, he wished only to pledge himself to others in a similar circumstance. This made sense, that he would want to be blood brother only to men who were on a similar path of life to his own. And yet . . .

"What if," I said, my voice tight, "I should not be a hunter?"

His gaze flew over to me. "Your father would be angry."

His reply reassured me. He had not said, "No"; he had only shown concern about angering his first blood brother. Feeling myself on surer ground now, as though I had found a part of a cliff that did not crumble, I said, "I am a man, and I must decide for myself what oaths I take. If I had been blood-bound in friendship to Hamar, I would gladly have taken part in the hunt for his murderer. As it is . . . It's not too late for me to take another path, is it?" My words held more pleading than I would have liked.

"No," said Fenton, sitting back on his heels; he had joined me a moment before in sorting the apples. "It is not too late. Yet you place temptation in my path, Adrian. If I can keep you out of this feud . . . But that is a poor reason to bind myself in lifelong friendship to another man."

"You already said you wanted to be my blood brother." The words came more easily from me now. "If the only thing holding you back is that I'm to be a hunter, then I won't take part in the feud. It's as simple as that."

Fenton pushed back his hair under the hood of his robe, sighing. "It is far from simple. I see the possibility of another feud arising from this. And if you are doing this only for my sake—"

"No," I said quickly. "You are my priest. If you think it would be wrong for me to take part in this feud – if you believe that my god doesn't wish this for me – then of course I won't hunt. That would be wrong, whether or not you became my blood brother." The thought was rising in me that perhaps Fenton had specially chosen me for this role, as a Commander might have chosen one of his soldiers to remain away from battle in order to guard some important post. Normally, as a grown man, I would not be required to remain bladeless, as though I were a priest or a child. But perhaps Fenton believed that one man in this village should remain bladeless during the coming feud, as a visible symbol of the words of peacemaking that he had spoken at my birthday feast.

And he had chosen me. He believed that I had the strength to withstand the temptation of taking part in the hunt.

Something of my joy at being granted this special role must have conveyed itself to my face, for after looking at me for some time, Fenton said gently, "I wish I had the eyes of the Jackal, to know what will come of this. But as you say, you are a man, and it is your right to make this choice. Come, then, and I will pledge my everlasting friendship and faithfulness to you. May our bond never be broken, even by death."

o—o—o

And so we exchanged blood, and then I went home and told my father of my decision, and he shouted at length until he finally calmed down enough to say, "Well, in practical terms, this means little. I will find Hamar's murderer when I am sent out, and that will be the end of the feud. But you ought not to have misled Fenton into thinking that you are on the path to becoming a priest, Adrian. You know that, the next time a feud arises between us and Cold Run or another village, he won't want you to take part in it, because of the promise you made him."

This had not occurred to me; I had thought of myself only as a special sentinel for this coming battle, not as withdrawn from battle for all time. But I dared not express my doubts to my father; I said only, "That is farther away even than the death of Hamar's murderer. Surely you have better things to worry about at this time. Have you whetted your blade?"

This turned our conversation to easier matters – ways to trap and kill the murderer – and so, in the end, I escaped further rebuke from my father. As for my mother, I think she is relieved that I will be in no danger from the coming feud, though of course she cannot say this openly, with my father so angered by my decision. And Mira is too young to fully take in all that is happening; she still cries every night from Hamar's loss.

But I . . . I have a difficult role given to me by the gods, and I have a blood brother who will help me to keep my promise.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

The sixth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

My father left for Cold Run early this morning before any of us had awoken except Fenton, who gave his blood brother the blessing for safe killing before sending him off – or so everyone thinks, but I now realize that Fenton must have given him only a prayer for his safety.

Leda packed a food-bag last night for my father, in case he should need several days to find a suitable prey. I'm staying at the house of Lange and Leda and Drew at the moment, since there isn't room enough for more than my father and mother and Mira in the sleeping-hut they have moved into since the fire. My father says that the village's first task after this is all over will be to build a new hall.

Lange came up to me somewhat hesitantly this morning and said that he knew I must still be upset over what had happened to Hamar, and would I like him to take care of matters in the village until my father's return? That was a nice way of saying that he didn't think I could handle the job yet. I gave him my permission gratefully. Now that Hamar is dead, Lange is next heir to my father after me, and he has much more experience in these matters than I do. He has been on the village council for twenty years now, and I have only attended one meeting since coming of age.

This set me thinking, though, of what Hamar's death would mean for me. I had almost forgotten, amidst the pain of what happened, that I am now the heir. Before this, I had planned to do some travelling in order to help me decide what sort of work I wanted to do. Of course, I could live at home as long as I wanted, and my father would support me, but I am not the sort of man to be a blood-worm to my parents. The money for my travels was my father's second birthday gift for me, but now there is no question of what work I will do.

I don't really mind. I think I will enjoy working alongside my father, though Hamar, who liked to elicit pity, always tried to make it sound as though he was training for the worst job in the world. Most of all, I will enjoy being able to attend village council meetings. For the last few years, Drew and I have been eavesdropping on the meetings by listening through one of the windows. (Drew is only nine, but he likes to pretend that he is as old as I am.) Now that I am of age, I would be able to attend the meetings anyway, but it will be different sitting at the right hand to my father and presiding over the meetings when he is away.

I will try not to remember that Hamar should be doing that instead of me.

o—o—o

The eighth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

My father still has not returned, and I am trying not to worry. Perhaps the Cold Run villagers are simply being cautious, as well they might. Anyway, if my father is killed, Cold Run's priest will send word.

Drew is so excited about the feud that I nearly slapped him today out of frustration, though I felt the same before this all started.

o—o—o

The tenth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

Still no word. Surely they would not have killed him and kept the news to themselves? It would be their victory, after all. Lange says that if we do not hear from Cold Run by tomorrow, he will send Fenton over to discover how matters stand.

o—o—o

The eleventh day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

My father returned at noonday. He drew blood – Nathaniel, whom I vaguely remember as giving me rides on his pony when I visited Cold Run as a child. Everyone here is now tensely awaiting Cold Run's hunter, and all of the boys have long faces because they are not allowed to wear their daggers until the blood feud is over. My father spent a long time this evening reminding me that I must not wear my free-man's blade or even hold it in my hand as long as I am determined to stay out of the feud. I think he said that in order to shame me into taking my blood vow to murder, but I have remained steadfast to my promise to Fenton.

My father was delayed in returning because he hunted in Cold Run for several days before picking his prey. He had hoped that one of the villagers would say something that would reveal who Hamar's murderer was, but everyone there kept quiet about the subject, no doubt knowing that they might be overheard by our hunter.

My father was also delayed because it took him several minutes to bind Nathaniel, and during that time he got a lot of blood on his only remaining tunic – mainly Nathaniel's blood, fortunately. So my father decided to travel south to Border Borough to buy new clothes, not only for himself, but also for my mother and Mira and me, since we lost all our goods in the fire. (Our money is safe, since my father always kept that with the town bankers.) While he was in town, my father informed Lord Ellis of our feud, and Lord Ellis says that he will send word to the King, though I cannot imagine why the King should be bothered with such a matter. There must be several dozen blood feuds going on in Koretia right now, and none of them is likely to go beyond the village or town where it began. But since the King is head of our blood line, he has to know about even a small feud like this, since he may be called upon to defend us.

My father took two days to travel to Border Borough and back – of course, it would have taken less time than that to go east to Blackpass, but Blackpass's baron is Blackwood of the old nobility, and my father will not do business in a town that is run by our enemies' kin.

o—o—o

The twelfth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

I had Fenton read over the above entry, and I asked him whether there was anything in it that an Emorian was unlikely to understand. He laughed and said that it would all be incomprehensible to an Emorian. One of these days, he said, I will have to explain in my journal about blood lines and blood debts and why the King is obliged to defend us in the feud if it grows serious, and why Blackwood must do the same for Cold Run, and a dozen other matters that I would have thought would be perfectly obvious.

I had no desire to argue with Fenton; it was the first time I have seen him laugh since this blood feud started. These days, he spends most of his time in the sanctuary, praying, and all the rest of his time with me, cramming me with knowledge of the Emorian language as though I had only hours to live, though of course he and I are the only men in this village who are safe.

My father gathered all the men in the village square today and warned everyone not to wander off alone, since Cold Run's hunter is no doubt hiding near our village at this very moment and waiting to make his kill. I heard my father tell Fenton afterwards that he expected the others to follow his advice for no more than half a day before forgetting it.

I changed into one of my new tunics today. It feels odd to be wearing a tunic with silver trim, just like my father and Hamar. All I am missing now is a sword, but my father says that will have to wait until we go together to Border Borough and have one custom-made for me. The delay is of no importance; I will only wear the sword on formal occasions, and I cannot even wear a dagger right now, as my father keeps reminding me. I think he is puzzled that I am remaining so obstinate.

o—o—o

The thirteenth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

Despite our efforts to stay alert, Cold Run's hunter made his kill today. His prey was Titus.

I went over to see Chloris this evening. She was still weeping in her hut, refusing to see anyone, but she let me in; she said it was because I had refused to take part in the feud.

"I tried to persuade Titus to do the same," she said as I handed her a face-cloth because her own was soaked through. "Titus thought the blood feuds were foolish; he said that in Emor, Hamar's murderer would have been brought to judgment, and that would have been the end of it. But he said that he had to abide by Koretian customs, or nobody here would believe that he was truly loyal to the gods. As if anyone could have doubted that!" She exploded into another shower of tears, and I put my arm around her.

After she had calmed somewhat, I asked, "How would the Emorians have brought Hamar's murderer to judgment? Cold Run refuses to surrender the man."

"I keep trying to remember," she said, gulping between sobs. "Not that it matters to me, but it mattered to him – it was all he kept talking about during the last few days. He said that Cold Run refused to surrender the murderer to us because their baron was sure that the murderer wouldn't receive fair judgment here, and that Roderick was right. Titus said that there ought to be someone who could judge the murderer without any bias."

"Like a priest, you mean?"

"No, Titus said that even the priests are allied with the villagers they minister to. He said that, in Emor, the law would stop the blood feud. That's what he kept saying over and over – that if Koretia had the law, there would be no feud. And now he's dead." She flung herself face-down onto her pallet, and eventually I had to leave because I saw that I was only making her more upset by having her talk about this.

So I went to Fenton to ask him about the nature of Emorian law, and how it differs from the gods' law. I found him in the dark sanctuary with his fingers on the Jackal's mask – that seems to be the only god he prays to these days, I suppose because the Jackal is the hunting god.

He pulled away from the mask when he saw me, though. After I had asked my question, he said, "I wish that I had had time enough to explain Emorian law to you, but it seemed a lengthy enough task just to teach you the Emorian language. And now—"

He turned away suddenly, and for a moment I feared that he would ask me to leave, as he does sometimes when he feels he must speak with the gods. But instead he went over to the altar and stood there for a moment with his head bowed, looking down upon the grey slab of stone. With his back to me, he seemed like a stranger. I could not see his face or his hands, and only his robe told me who he was – his robe, and the fact that he bore no blade.

A blood-fly buzzed past his head. The weather has not yet turned to autumn mildness, and so the blood-flies are still thick in the early evening. Fenton waved his hand, and at first I thought he was trying to kill the blood-fly before it settled upon him. Then I noticed that other flies were in the room – house flies, attracted by the drying blood on the altar.

He turned then, beckoning me over, and by the time I reached his side, his robe sleeves were pushed up to his elbows and he was scrubbing the blood with a brush. I found the other brush without needing to ask where it was; he rid himself of his assistant last year, after I offered to help him with his menial work. Together we dug away at the hard blood. There was a great deal of it. Usually, at his daily worship, Fenton sacrifices small animals: birds on feast days, and on other days, the rodents he traps in our houses. My mother said once that a priest in a village is as good as a cat. When the blood feud started, though, my father offered up to the gods our entire flock of goats. Our hired hands were happy at this news of less work, until they realized how long the feud might last, and that there might be no goats left in the end for them to watch.

Fenton said finally, "Why should we serve the gods?"

I was ready with an answer; we had talked about this many times. "Because they are good, pure good; anything good that we have, we received from them. If we serve them, the good in us will be increased. If we turn our face from them, the gods will curse us – not because they want us to suffer, but because they can no longer help us, unless we turn our face toward them again and ask their forgiveness."

Fenton pushed his right sleeve further toward his shoulder. For a moment, I caught a sickening glimpse of what he keeps hidden under his robe; then he pushed his sleeve back down to his elbow. "And how do we serve the gods?" he asked.

"We serve them by thinking of what they want, always, before anything else," I replied promptly. "We serve them by being willing to sacrifice everything we have and are, for their sake. We serve them by following the gods' law, as given to us by our priest – you." I ended with a smile.

Fenton smiled back, but said, as he pulled a bowl of water toward himself. "And what if I say the gods want one thing, and Cold Run's priest says the gods want the opposite? Whose law do you follow then?"

I wanted to say that I would always follow his commands, no matter what any other priest said, but I knew that was not the answer he wanted, so I said reluctantly, "I would follow the gods' law as proclaimed by the High Priest – when he finally comes. Do you think he will come?" I looked over at Fenton, who was now washing the altar with as much tenderness as a mother might wash her child.

I thought his smile wavered somewhat, but he said only, "In your time, perhaps. I don't think he will show himself to the Koretians while I'm alive."

I looked with concern at the wrinkles next to the sides of his eyes. It had never occurred to me before that he would die before I did. "Are you very old?" I asked tentatively, not wanting to add to his pain.

He laughed then, a light, soaring laugh, and threw a dry rag my way. "As old as the black border mountains," he replied. "I celebrate my thirtieth birthyear next spring."

That sounded quite old to me, but I had no wish to offend him, so I said quickly, "You didn't tell me about the Emorians' law."

"I didn't have to," he said as we wiped the altar dry. "You told me yourself."

My expression must have been as blank as my thoughts, for he smiled again and said, "I've heard many people say that the Emorians have no religion, but they're the most religious people in the world. They have a god whom they serve with duty and sacrifice. They have priests who tell them what the god wants them to do. They have a High Priest who serves as the living presence of the god whom they worship. They even have their own gods' law."

I stood back from the altar, watching the last drops of moisture glisten in the ruddy evening sun. Finally I said, "The Emorian law – that's their 'gods' law.' And the 'priests' – they have people who tell them how to follow the law?"

Fenton nodded. He had brought out the brush again and was rubbing at a bit of blood we had missed. The flies, disappointed, wandered out the door. "They have men called judges who decide when their law has been broken. And the Emorian 'High Priest' is their ruler: the Chara. He is High Judge of the land, and he makes final decisions on the law. The Emorians even call their law the Chara's law, believing that the Chara is the living embodiment of their god."

"And who is their god?" I asked with curiosity.

"The law itself."

I gave a laugh of disbelief as Fenton finally stood back, satisfied that the altar was purified for the morrow's worship. "That makes no sense," I said. "The law is what the gods give us – the law isn't the gods themselves."

"The Emorians may have seen it that way in the past," said Fenton. "Some of their old documents refer to a Lawgiver, as though something stood behind the law – but you won't find many Emorians talking that way today. To them, the law itself is worthy of worship and sacrifice, and they are as ready to lay down their lives for it as we are for our gods."

I shook my head. "Somebody should tell them the truth," I said. "Somebody should teach them that the gods are the only ones that are purely good, the only ones that they should worship. The gods are pure goodness, so the gods' law is pure goodness, unlike the Emorians' law."

"Is it?" Fenton had been looking down at the altar all this time; now he raised his eyes. I could see them clearly in the light, bright blue like a newly forged blade. "It is the gods' law that tells men to murder each other," he said softly. "In Emor, this blood feud could never have happened. The Chara's law would have forbidden it."

I was so astonished that by this time I had forgotten my original question: of how the Emorians' law accomplished this feat. Just the fact that Fenton would speak of the gods' law in such a way made my heart beat fast, as though I expected a god to bring down his vengeance on us at any moment.

Finally, I swallowed the hardness in my throat and said, "But . . . you worship the gods."

Fenton nodded. His gaze had drifted past me toward the door, and I realized from this that he did not wish his words to be heard by others; he was telling me a secret no one else had heard. "I pay honor to the gods with my life, but we men are imperfect; we see only glimpses of what the gods want. You said a while back that I give you the gods' law, but I have never done that. I have given you my own understanding of what the gods want, an imperfect understanding. And sometimes, when men's hearts turn evil, and they wish to follow their own wills rather than those of the gods, they pretend that the gods want what they want. They create rules for murder and execution and enslavement, and they call these rules the laws of the gods."

Now my heart was beating so hard that I felt the blood throb at my fingertips. What Fenton was speaking was blasphemy; I was old enough to know that. Nothing less than a terrible death would satisfy the gods who heard such words spoken . . . and yet I could not believe that the gods, good as they were, would ever want to harm Fenton. I stood bewildered, not knowing what to say.

For a moment, I thought that Fenton would speak more, but his eyes flicked to the side again and he said, "The Emorians' law is hard to explain in one lesson, and surely it is time you were home and helping your father with your family's evening worship."

I turned around and saw standing on the threshold of the sanctuary my father, his brows drawn low as he looked, not at me, but at Fenton. For a moment, I feared that he had heard what Fenton had said and that he would denounce Fenton for his blasphemy. Then I remembered with relief that my father is blood-sworn not to harm Fenton, and that anything he had heard he would keep locked in his heart.

So I went home, and we worshipped the gods together as we have done since I was a baby, but this time I stared at the mask of the Jackal, wondering what the Emorians know that we Koretians do not know, and wondering how their law brings them closer to the gods' will than ours does.

o—o—o

The fifteenth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

Our hunter returned today. Now that the blood feud is begun in earnest, we no longer wait out the period of mourning before we send our hunter. Digby, who is my great-uncle's cousin, killed Angus the shopkeeper, whose wife I remember: she used to give me sweets when her husband wasn't watching. My father is angry that Hamar's murderer has not yet been identified, but he congratulated Digby on a fine kill. Now we await Cold Run's hunter.

o—o—o

The sixteenth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

Every man in the village is on edge. I tapped Lange on the shoulder today as he was lathing wood, and he leapt as high as a funeral pyre flame.

Fenton continues to tutor me but has not spoken again about the Emorians' law. I am quite glad. Fenton is such a good man that I know that the gods would never punish him for anything he said against their law, but I fear that the gods will punish me if I listen to such talk.

o—o—o

The seventeenth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

My cousin Rosa woke this morning, turned over in bed, and discovered her husband Warner lying in a pool of blood. The flies were feasting on his neck.

Her screams must have been heard all the way to Cold Run. Everyone has been saying that it was Warner's fault, for wearing his dagger to bed. No hunter can kill a man unless he wears a blade at his belt or carries it in his hand.

Lange has been sent to Cold Run. Drew is in a very bad mood and refuses to play with me.

o—o—o

The eighteenth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

I have been having a hard time keeping from thinking about the gods' law, so I allowed myself to think about the law today – I mean the Emorians' law, but I find myself thinking of it just as the law these days. I suppose that is impious.

If I were creating a law, I decided, I would make a law where the innocent need not die in the place of the guilty. It is not Warner's fault, or Titus's, or even Nathaniel's or Angus's, that someone at Cold Run killed Hamar. Why should all these men be killed to satisfy the gods' vengeance? It would be better if the gods were to pick priests who would have the power to say, "This man is guilty and must die for what he has done." And something would have to force those priests to follow the gods' will, rather than simply follow the desires of the villagers whom they served.

I just read the above paragraph and am now cold with fear for what I have written. I am tempted to blot out my words, but the gods already know that I have criticized the law that they gave us, and so I can do nothing except go to Fenton and confess to him my impiety – my blasphemy, rather. But he has said words harsher than mine against the law, so I do not know whether he will consider what I did to be wrong. I am very confused.

o—o—o

The nineteenth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

I had no chance to ask Fenton what I should do yesterday, for Lange brought back exciting news in the evening: he has killed Cold Run's baron.

My father says that Lange must have had great skill to accomplish such a feat; a baron is always especially wary during a blood feud, and Roderick was an accomplished swordsman. Lange, who is modest, says that he is lucky Roderick didn't kill him, and that Roderick's death is a sure sign that the gods wish for Mountside to win this feud.

Everyone has been celebrating tonight, sitting in front of the fire and making toasts to the gods in thanksgiving for their blessing upon Mountside. I had to leave the fireside before I was sick. When we visited Cold Run when I was young, we always stayed at Roderick's house. Roderick was like an uncle to Hamar and me, bringing us gifts from far-off villages when he went travelling.

Is something wrong with me? My father has begun to imply that I am nothing more than a coward, and I think he must be right. I ought to be rejoicing that Mountside is so close to winning the feud, but instead I feel as near to weeping as a woman.

I wish I could speak with Fenton, but he has gone to Cold Run. My father sent a message that we would observe the three days' mourning in honor of Cold Run's baron.

o—o—o

The twentieth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

Again I had no chance to talk to Fenton, for when he returned to Mountside he was accompanied by Cold Run's priest, Felix, and by Cold Run's new baron.

Griffith I remember even better than Roderick. He and my cousin Emlyn swore blood vows of friendship when they were children, and Hamar and I used to go to Cold Run to play with Emlyn and Griffith and Griffith's younger brother Siward. Sometimes the Cold Run boys would come here, and we would all play Jackal and Prey in the woods; Emlyn usually won, but Griffith was almost as good at the game. He and Emlyn were the best pranksters among the boys in either of our villages. My father used to say with a smile that it wasn't safe to become enemies of those two.

All this was back in the old days, before our feud started with Cold Run.

Griffith was dressed in mourning grey today, with a face to match; his eyes were so barren that it seemed his spirit had accompanied his father's to the Land Beyond. When he began talking, though, he was quite calm. He said that he had no wish to take the feud any farther than it had already gone, and that he was willing to concede victory to Mountside. He would compensate Richard for the damage to his cart when it ran over Tabitha's rooster, and he would pay Mountside whatever fee it liked as blood-payment for the Cold Run man who would have died if the feud had ended in the normal way, with a hunter being caught and killed.

My father's answer was short. "Give me Hamar's murderer," he said, "and I will consider the matter ended."

We were all crowded into the sanctuary, there being as yet no village hall in which the council can meet. I could see Drew peeking in through the half-opened window, and the women's voices murmured outside. Some of the younger men had had a hard time restraining their laughter during Griffith's speech. Now they stared at my father, amazed that he would ask so small a victory price when it was clear that Cold Run's new baron was spineless.

I was standing next to my father and could hear Fenton murmuring in his ear, urging a peace oath, regardless of Griffith's answer. My father ignored him; he was staring with dark eyes at Griffith, whose spine appeared quite firm to me, and whose dagger-hand was twitching in a manner I did not like. I was glad that Griffith had vowed a truce oath and would not draw the blade at his side.

When he spoke, though, it was in the same mild voice as before. "Hamar's murderer has already received his punishment from our priest. If you wish his blood in payment for your son's death, I stand in his stead."

This time there was no laughter, only a collective intake of breath. Faintly through the window, I could hear Drew whispering the news to the other children, and soon after a gasp arose from the women outside. Felix was staring at Griffith as though he had gone mad.

My father is too well-bred to show his contempt for weaklings, but I thought his face shimmered with a smile for a moment before it grew grave again. He said, in a voice raised so that the women outside could hear, "My son, dying from the fire, demanded vengeance upon his killer. The gods were witness to that cry, and I would be lacking in my duty to the gods if I allowed their vengeance to go unfulfilled. I will accept no substitute for the murderer's blood."

Fenton began to say something, then stopped, having caught sight of Griffith's face. I wondered, then, whether Griffith himself was Hamar's murderer, for he looked at that moment like the sort of man who would willingly burn flesh. He said, slowly and precisely, "Then let the gods judge between us. They alone know which of us deserves their vengeance." And he turned and walked out of the sanctuary, with Felix trailing behind, looking as proud as a mountain cat when her cub makes its first kill.

So tonight the men are whetting their blades in preparation for the next hunt. Lange, who is always gentle with Drew, lectured his son sternly when Drew touched Lange's blade.

Fenton and my father have been locked together in the sanctuary all day. I heard my father shouting.

o—o—o

The twenty-first day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

Everyone was relieved yesterday when my father emerged from the sanctuary with his mind unchanged. I heard some boys saying today that Fenton has forgotten to worship the god of vengeance; by the time I was through with them, I was sure that I had proved I was no coward. When I told Fenton afterwards how I had defended him, though, he said that a fist is no better than a blade. I felt ashamed of myself and begged his pardon for breaking my promise to him.

He smiled then and said, "Men are called to different paths in life, and your father is wrong in thinking that I am training you to be a priest. I hold no doubt that, in future years, you will unsheathe your blade and defend others who are in need, and that the gods will honor your bloodshed as much as they honor my bladelessness. I want to be sure, though, that when you shed blood, you are following the gods' will, not your own."

This came so close to our previous conversation about the law that I'm sorry to say that I asked leave to skip our lesson that day. I left Fenton alone in the sanctuary, polishing the curved blade he uses during his daily sacrifices.

I remembered then that Fenton has shed more blood than any other man in our village, and I grew angry at my father for not remembering this. But when I arrived at my parents' sleeping hut, I had no opportunity to speak with my father, for my mother was weeping and my father was shouting.

I quickly climbed the ladder to the loft where Mira sleeps, before my parents could notice me, and then I listened to their conversation. "Thank the gods that Emlyn lives in the south," my mother was saying between sobs. "If he still lived in Cold Run, I've no doubt that you would have killed your nephew with your own blade if you had the opportunity."

"Emlyn is no kinsman of ours!" shouted my father. "Nor has he been since the feud began. Blood feuds break ties of kinship – you know that, for I would never have married you if I thought that you understood otherwise."

My mother drew breath to answer, but my father bellowed over her words, "You are a woman of Mountside – have you forgotten that? Or do you hold your birth-blood more dear than the blood I gave to you when we exchanged our marriage vows?"

"Never," my mother choked out. I could see her through the cracks in the floorboard, and I saw that her face-cloth was moist with tears. "I am yours always; the gods are witness to that. Why must this feud continue, though? Griffith has offered an honorable peace—"

"Honorable?" cried my father. "Honorable to allow the death of our first-born son to remain unavenged? Those are words I might hear from any weak-minded woman in the village. Those are words I might hear from our priest, who will never know what it is like to lose a son. May the gods watch over me, those are even words I might hear from my heir, who has turned into something halfway between a priest and a woman. Those are not words I expected to hear from the woman I picked to be my wife."

I heard no more; I picked up a cushion from Mira's bed and buried my head under it, afraid of hearing more about myself, and even more afraid of believing what my father said of me.

I went to see Fenton later, but Drew said he had gone out onto the mountain, and he had not returned when it was time for me to go to bed.

o—o—o

The twenty-second day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

Today was the worst day since the feud began. No one died – we are still observing the period of mourning – but my father and I fought.

I have no need to record what he said about me; it is burned into my spirit. I will record here, though, what I said in the end, as a sort of penance, for it is painful to recall my shamelessness. I said, "You are just like the men Fenton talked about, who are evil in their hearts, and who pretend that the gods want what they want."

My father said nothing after that, which frightened me more than if he had shouted. He has commanded me to stay in this hut until dinnertime, when he will allow me to join the villagers around the fire we are building to match the fire built in Cold Run tonight for Roderick's body.

I almost wish that I had taken part in the feud after all. Perhaps I would be dead by now and would not feel this pain at what I have done.

o—o—o

The men had built the funeral pyre by the time Fenton arrived tonight, and the women were throwing onto it the mourning cloths that were meant to represent Roderick's body. As I saw Fenton's face, pale over the bright flames, I had a sudden image of Fenton himself burning in the fire, dying the death of the god-cursed, but I quickly thrust this thought away. The gods love Fenton; of that I can be sure.

He was very quiet tonight, saying the words in honor of Roderick's life. His gaze strayed a couple of times to my father, who kept a seemly silence throughout the rite. As soon as Fenton was finished, though, my father roared for wine, and soon all of us were sitting around the fire, warming ourselves as the first touch of autumn coolness travelled over the mountains from Emor.

I had hoped to be able to spend time talking to Fenton, but he was busy offering comfort to Chloris, who used this mock funeral pyre as an opportunity to reopen her grief for her dead husband. When he had succeeded in persuading Chloris to put aside her open grief, he began to walk toward my father, but he stopped as my father shouted for silence.

Licked by the light of the flames, my father stood with cup in hand, looking round at the people about him, like a father regarding his beloved children. His gaze rested finally on me, sitting between Mira and Drew. Then he raised his hand and said, "Eleven years ago last spring, we welcomed a new kinsman into our midst."

I knew immediately what my father was going to say next, and I looked over at Fenton. His lips were parted with surprise at this honor, and I saw a blush start across his cheeks. Then he ducked his head and went over to help one of my aunts collect the empty wine flasks.

"Eleven years ago," my father continued, "we met a stranger, an Emorian who had chosen to leave his old life and to brave danger in order to enter this land. He was called to Koretia by a voice, he told me, and he soon came to believe that the voice he had heard was that of his god. Wishing to serve his god with the same loyalty with which he had served his previous master, he took on the robes of priesthood and dedicated his manhood to the seven gods and goddesses of Koretia. Since that time he has borne no blade, except when serving as the gods' representative at the sacrifice."

All around me, I could see people nodding. Even those who were angry at Fenton for wishing an early peace with Cold Run knew that he had acted as he did out of love of the gods. Fenton himself, still busily collecting flasks, looked as flushed as a boy in love.

"Because he had shown himself to be a god-lover, I asked Fenton to share blood with me," my father said. "Because he had shown himself to be a god-lover, I entrusted to his care my younger son, who has now become my heir. It is because of Fenton that my son is what he is today."

He turned and handed his flask to Lange, who had been nodding with the others; then he unsheathed his dagger. A small sigh drifted through the crowd like mist.

I was as impressed as the rest. I had expected my father only to offer a toast to Fenton, as a sign that this disagreement was superficial in comparison to their blood-bond and their love for each other. Now I realized that my father was going to go further and renew his blood vow of friendship with Fenton.

Fenton had raised his head. I saw his lips part again, and then he quietly took a step forward, awaiting the moment when my father would hand the blade to him. My father raised the underside of his arm so that all could see the thin slit of whiteness upon his wrist. He pointed to it with the tip of his dagger, and then carefully, precisely, he cut his wrist cross-wise from the original mark.

No one spoke. All eyes were now on Fenton, who looked like a corpse that had been drained of blood. My father, it was clear, had not told him what he planned.

"As the Jackal is my witness," said my father in a cool and level voice, "I hereby abjure my vow of friendship with Fenton son of Paulin. No longer is his blood mine; no longer will I protect him from harm. He has broken his vow of friendship to me by teaching my son godless ways and has brought danger to him through those teachings."

Now a murmur ran through the crowd, like wind running over grass. Everyone's gaze turned toward me, including my father's. For a moment more, as my spirit screamed from fear of what he would say next, my father looked upon me. Then he said quietly, "Fenton remains blood-bound to my son; I will not say anything that would cause harm to my son's blood brother. For this reason, I will not repeat the teachings I have heard Fenton speak. Nor will I ask him to leave this village; he remains kin to us through my son. I have sent a letter to the King, though, asking him to send a new priest to us. When that priest arrives, Fenton may leave or stay, as he wishes. If he stays, I will not ask him to take part in the blood feud, for his vow to the gods forbids that. No longer, though, will he represent us before the gods. I believe that, if he were to remain as our priest, our village would be in danger of the gods' anger. That is all I wish to say." And wiping his blade clean on his sleeve, he sheathed his dagger and turned to Lange for his flask.

I looked over toward Fenton, but he was gone already, and when I ran to the sanctuary, the doors were locked.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

The twenty-third day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

I have been to the sanctuary five times today, but each time I have found the doors locked, and I dare not knock on the doors, for I have heard Fenton's voice murmuring prayers. I have been to see my father as well, and he listened to all that I had to say, but in the end he said nothing more than that, having been tutored by Fenton, I could not be expected to understand how Fenton had turned his face from the gods. The best I could do for Fenton, my father said, was to pray that the gods would show mercy toward him.

He also said that the greatest blame lay with himself, for allowing me to be tutored by an Emorian, but when he said that I left the hut, fearing that my anger would overcome me. How can my father not see that Fenton is a man loved by the gods, full of mercy and peace and goodness? It does not matter that Fenton was born in Emor. Even the blindest man ought to see that Fenton's a man of honor despite that.

But I have already brought about too much trouble by failing to show respect to my father. I am praying to the Jackal to solve the problems I have caused, for Fenton has always taught me that the gods can turn good to evil, and that the Jackal in particular can transform evil through his fire.

o—o—o

The twenty-fourth day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

Nobody has been killed yet. Mountside's men are very much on edge. My father says it is likely that the hunter will avenge Roderick's death in an especially terrible manner, so everyone is taking care to stay close to the village.

I was unable to visit the sanctuary until this afternoon. My father wanted me to help him pick the location for our new hall and to discuss the plans for building it. I tried to keep my mind on all that he was telling me, but after a while he began looking at me out of the edge of his eye, and eventually he said in a sharp voice that he could do better work without me. So I went running to the sanctuary.

The doors were open. I slowed to a walk and entered cautiously, but the sanctuary was empty and was dark from the shadows of the tapestries on the walls. The smoke-hole in the high ceiling beckoned in a beam of light that fell straight onto the altar, as it always does at noonday. When I was little, I thought that Fenton slept on the altar, since the sanctuary has no sleeping loft. Only when I grew older did I realize that he kept a pallet in the storeroom. Everything in the sanctuary is intended for the gods: the wood and pitch for the sacrifice, the everlasting flame from which Fenton lights the sacrificial fire, and the priest's blade.

I used to spend hours looking at Fenton's dagger when I was young. Unlike most priest's blades, its hilt is made of gold and is dotted with polished bloodstones; its blade, curving like the Jackal's claws, is finely tempered and is kept honed as sharp as a thigh-dagger. Fenton told me once that his blade was made by a craftsman in the south, who created it for the High Priest, but since the High Priest has not yet shown his face, the craftsman loaned the dagger to Fenton. I love to watch Fenton practice bringing the sparkling blade down upon the sacrifice. He says that it is better for him to practice the swift death-stroke when the altar is bare than to miss the heart of the sacrificial beast and cause it more pain.

Today, when I arrived, the altar was bare, but the room smelled of burnt meat, so I surmised that Fenton had finished his noonday sacrifice and had gone to take the remaining goat-meat to our village butcher, to be distributed to the poorer members of the village as an offering to the gods. I looked for something in the sanctuary that I could tidy, but all was in place except for a piece of paper and a pen and an open inkwell. I walked over to stop up the inkwell before the ink should turn dry, and as I did so, I caught sight of my name on the paper.

It was a letter of some sort, though Fenton had not yet addressed it; it told of everything that has happened recently, from Hamar's death until the events of two nights ago. Fenton ended the letter by saying, "From all that I have written, you will understand why I believe that my duties will soon be ending here and that, when we meet again, it will be in the manner which we once discussed. That this prospect does not grieve me is due mainly to Adrian: I feel that I have received richer rewards during my four years here with him than most men receive in a lifetime. Therefore, I leave now with the god's peace in my heart and need only record here my very great love for you, in anticipation of our reunion."

I read the last paragraph several times, my heart beating harder each time, until I looked up and found Fenton standing next to me.

For a moment, I failed to recognize him; all I saw was the sober-colored lesser free-man's tunic. It has been many years since I last saw Fenton without his priestly robe. Then I noticed that the man before me had no blade at this belt. I swallowed the hardness in my throat, saying, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been reading your correspondence."

"It doesn't matter," he replied with half a smile. "I never write anything that might be dangerous for others to read."

I tried to puzzle this out, as he reached over to place the pen and ink back where they belonged, on the table where he keeps the holy instruments that are used only in the gods' service. Finally, finding no better way to speak my thoughts, I blurted out, "You're leaving!"

"Only if the gods will it," he said. His long hair, which is usually tucked into his hood, veiled his face as he leaned forward. "If the gods permit it, I'll stay."

I wanted to tell him that my father would never send him from the village, but my voice faltered as I watched Fenton gently place the pen and ink next to the silver blade. Fenton was a priest, and he had vowed to serve the gods; if he could not serve them here, he would have to go elsewhere. "I'll come with you," I said at last.

Fenton raised his eyebrows as he turned round. "Leaving your father with no son to be his heir?"

I could make no answer to that; I knew that Fenton would think less of me if I failed in my duty to my father and my village. In the end, I asked, "Who were you writing to?"

Fenton glanced over at the doorway. People were passing by, and I could hear my father's voice nearby, giving instructions to our village's new carpenter. Without need for instruction, I went over to Fenton, and he and I left the sanctuary together, walking past the village boundaries toward the top of the mountain.

I went slowly, for Fenton's sake; he did not grow up on a mountain, as I did, and it takes him time to scramble over the rocks. When we had reached the edge of the cliff, where the mountainside breaks free of forest, and scrub tickles the legs of passersby, Fenton said, "I was writing to your cousin Emlyn."

I looked at Fenton with surprise. I knew, of course, that Fenton was the one who took Emlyn to the priests' house in hopes that the priests there could cure Emlyn's long-standing mind-illness; I also knew that he had tutored Emlyn when they lived together at the priests' house. But Fenton had scarcely spoken of Emlyn since that time, except when my mother asked questions about him. Since Emlyn's mother was my mother's sister, my mother has a special fondness for my cousin.

"I didn't know that you'd kept in contact," I said.

Fenton nodded, though his concentration was focussed on climbing over a jutting ledge. I paused to help him over the hard part. "Emlyn and I have written to each other since I left the south," Fenton said. "He sends his letters to the priest at Blackpass, and I pick them up there whenever I visit."

I thought about this as we made our way up the rocky path to the top of the mountain. Fenton's exercise in subterfuge was perfectly sensible, of course. My father would not like the idea of any of us sending friendly letters to a native of Cold Run – not while our villages were feuding. I could not help but feel hurt, though, that Fenton had never revealed the secret of his correspondence to me. After all, our blood was now mixed, and our spirits had been mixed long before that.

As though guessing my thoughts, Fenton added, "Emlyn preferred that I not mention our correspondence to anyone. He embroiled himself in some trouble during his time at the priests' house – he never got along well with most of the priests there. Therefore, he has been trying to live a quiet life now, hoping that people will forget his past so that he may freely make his mark on the future when the time comes."

"What sort of work does he do?" I asked as I scrambled my way up to the mountaintop, and then waited with restrained impatience as Fenton followed behind.

"He is a jeweller," replied Fenton, and smiled at my look.

A more unlikely profession for my cousin I could not have imagined. What little I remember of him is of an active boy, forever darting around our village when he came to visit – often in a secretive manner, since he and Griffith were fond of playing pranks on their elders. When he was not helping Griffith set up water-traps for men or locking indignant women in their chambers, Emlyn was most often busy ducking through the woods next to Mountside, playing Jackal and Prey. He was the best Jackal I ever knew, though he said that I was the best prey. Certainly I was the only boy who had any success in keeping hidden when he went hunting for us.

If I had thought about it, I would have imagined Emlyn as a soldier or a dagger-thrower or at the very least a fisherman. The idea of Emlyn being content to spend his life sitting on a bench, poring over bits of gold and emerald, was sorely disappointing.

"He's not an ordinary jeweller," Fenton said loyally; he always seeks to see the best, even in men who have wasted their lives. "He sells his own work rather than depend on traders to do so – that allows him to travel a great deal. And his way of looking at precious metal and stones . . . He sees into the heart of them. I remember standing in the work chamber of the priests' house when Emlyn was a boy, watching him craft a neck-chain for a noblewoman. He told me – as though he were my tutor rather than I his – that the Koretian people are joined together by their love of the gods, like the links of a precious chain."

I puzzled over this image as we walked across the scrubby grass that shivered continuously from the wind from the black border mountains. "Joined together in what way?" I asked finally.

"I mused on that thought for many a day afterwards," Fenton responded. "I finally came to realize that what binds all of us together is our belief that we must make sacrifice to the gods. If I truly love the gods and their law, I will know when the right moment comes to offer up my sacrifice. That is true of all of us who love the gods."

I raised my eyes from our path and felt a shiver shudder over me as though I were grass, for as chance would take it, at that moment we were passing the spot of my earliest memory.

Although I was only five at the time, I could still remember that day: hearing Emlyn give one of his lilting cries, like a wild animal, and then arriving at the mountaintop to see my cousin standing over the body of a dead man. At the time, being young and filled with stories of the gods, I had imagined that the Jackal would appear at any moment to carry the man away to the Land Beyond. I was therefore eager to help Emlyn start the funeral fire so that I could meet the god.

To my disappointment, the man had been alive, though close to death.

"You offered up your sacrifice to your god long ago," I said as we turned our paths toward the mountain range north of us. "You came to Koretia when your god called you, though you nearly died on the journey."

"The god was guiding me during that journey, else I would never have survived," said Fenton as we reached the edge of the mountaintop and sat down where I had rested on the day I mourned Hamar. "Few border-breachers make it past the patrol alive."

"You did, though," I said, feeling pride swell within me as I looked over at Fenton. Even in a lesser free-man's tunic, he is no ordinary man, I decided. Fenton's face contains something I have seen in few other men; my father once told me that Fenton has a look of patience that was won through endurance to hard pain. Fenton's eyes, too, are beyond the ordinary – not dreamy, as one would expect in a pious priest, nor practical, as Felix's eyes are. Fenton's eyes are cautious and calculating, but not in a mean sense – rather, when Fenton looks at you, it is as though he sees everything in you, down to the blackest evil residing within you. And yet I have never heard him say a harsh word against anyone, not even the Emorian slave-master that he fled from.

"I had assistance," said Fenton, his left-hand fingers rubbing the slave-brand on his right arm as he stared out at the black peaks before us. "Do you remember that I mentioned my master's son?"

"Yes, he helped you to escape." I was bubbling with pleasure that Fenton would discuss his life in Emor; he so rarely does. "He and an older boy he'd met in the Emorian borderland. The older boy gave you food for your journey, and your master's son persuaded you to leave Emor."

"He did more than that for me," said Fenton, his gaze continuing to embrace the still peaks. "My master's son and the older boy became acquainted because they both wanted to join the border mountain patrol – in fact, they had spent that day in the mountains, listening to the patrol guards whistle their signals."

"Whistle them?" I stiffened with excitement. This was a part of the story that Fenton had never told me.

Fenton nodded. The wind was blowing his hair into his face like a mask, but he was paying it no heed. "The patrol guards aren't like any other soldiers. I remember how startled I was when I first caught sight of them, for I expected them to be in armor, like ordinary soldiers. I suppose, though, that the weight of leather, small as it is, is considered too high a price to pay for the loss of speed. Speed is all-important to the patrol – it is how they manage, against all odds, to catch breachers who are making their way through or near the pass in the mountains. Speed is important, and secrecy. If it hadn't been for my master's son, I wouldn't have known that the guards were near me, until they had me surrounded. But my master's son, who had spent the day watching and listening to the patrol as the guards went about their business, revealed to me one of the secrets of the patrol's success.

"Rather than shout messages to one another – spoken messages that would be heard by the hunted – the guards instead whistle messages to one another. My master's son, clever boy that he was, had managed to guess the meaning of a few of the whistles. Just a few; I believe that the patrol may have two dozen or more whistle-codes. But the few that he taught me were the most important ones, and with their help I was able to detect the changing movements of the guards and flee accordingly."

I had stayed quiet all this time, but now I pelted Fenton with  questions, like a Daxion archer sending forth his arrows. To my surprise, Fenton answered all my excited queries. Within the hour I had learned all of the whistle-codes Fenton had been taught, as well as facts about the patrol that Fenton had never before told me. I will have to record them here when I have greater leisure, but the one I remember most – because Fenton looked so grave when he said it – is that, if I ever crossed the border into Emor, I must never, ever draw my blade in the presence of a patrol guard. I am not sure why this is so. Perhaps it has to do with Emorian customs I have not yet learned.

As the afternoon shadows began to enfold us, I was still practicing the whistles – for Fenton, always the tutor, had insisted that if I were to learn them, I must learn them well. Fenton had his arm around me, which made me feel like a boy again, but so great was my contentment that I snuggled my head under his chin. I still am not as tall as Fenton, so it was easy to do that. I could hear Fenton's heartbeat, as steady as well-balanced blade-steel, and the vibration of his voice as he said, "I've never wanted to reveal the patrol's secrets to others. I breached the border through sore need but would not want others to follow in my footsteps. Yet it occurred to me today that the day may come when you will wish to visit Emor. I thought I should give you what information I could in anticipation of that day."

"I wouldn't need to breach the border, though," I murmured; I was beginning to grow sleepy in the heat of the sun. "My father would give me a letter of passage. . . . You could come with me," it occurred to me to add. "You could visit your native land and show me places where you'd lived. The patrol wouldn't recognize you in your robe. Where is your robe, by the way?"

"Your mother fetched it away this morning to mend it, before I awoke," said Fenton; I could hear the smile in his voice. "I think it was her way of apologizing."

I was silent for a long moment, listening to the regular pace of Fenton's heart. Then I said, "Fenton, I tried to talk with my father—"

"It doesn't matter." Fenton's voice was quiet. "If this brings good that I cannot yet see, then I am glad. If it brings evil, then I am sure that the gods can transform that evil to good. . . . We were talking of sacrifice before."

This was such a sudden change of topic that it took me a moment to retrace our conversation. I could feel Fenton's hand tighten on my arm, as though he were thinking hard about what to say next. "Yes," I said with a yawn. "Sacrifice. You gave your sacrifice a long time ago."

For a moment more, Fenton's hand remained tight on my arm. Then it loosened, as though a decision had been made. "Not my sacrifice only," he said. "The dearest desire of my master's son had been to join the patrol, yet he broke Emorian law in revealing to me the patrol's secrets so that I could breach the border. He was too honest a boy to lie about his crime to others, so in aiding me, he lost his chance to join the border mountain patrol. I've never forgotten the sacrifice he made for me."

Amidst my sleepiness, I felt a sting of jealousy toward the young boy who had captured Fenton's heart by offering him a sacrifice. I have never had the opportunity to make a sacrifice for Fenton. Then I remembered that I had possessed Fenton's company all these years, while the boy would never even know that Fenton reached Koretia alive. I chided myself for my selfishness.

Fenton said, "The older boy . . . Adrian, are you listening?"

"Yes," I said, swallowing another yawn. "Go on."

"The older boy was named Quentin. Since he did nothing more for me than give me food, it's possible that he joined the patrol in the end. If so, he could be of assistance to you if you ever needed to enter Emor and had trouble doing so – if, for example, you lost your letter of passage during your travels."

I was going to deny scornfully that I would be so careless, but it seemed too much trouble to break through the weight of the heat pressing itself down upon me, hugging me like Fenton's arm. Heat, I thought; a bright spring day. Emlyn standing over a dead body . . . "Emlyn," I murmured, feeling misery embrace me. "The Jackal . . ."

I heard a loud thump against my ear that woke me suddenly. After a moment, I identified it as Fenton's heart, which was now beating hard. I raised myself drowsily, saying, "What happened?"

Fenton smiled at me, though I thought there was a curious look to his gaze. "You were dreaming, I think."

"Yes," I said, remembering. "I was dreaming about the Jackal coming to our land and claiming the High Priesthood. That was one of the reasons I chose him as my god," I reminded Fenton. "Because there's a chance that I might meet him one day. Don't you think that would be glorious? Meeting a god face-to-face?"

"I imagine it will be a bit frightening, too," Fenton said, continuing to smile.

"I suppose so," I said reluctantly, not wanting to dwell on this aspect. "What do you suppose he'll be like? He'll have black fur, I think, with golden whiskers and fiery eyes . . ."

"Fiery eyes for certain," said Fenton with a laugh. "As for the rest . . . I should think that his outward appearance will be less important than his godliness. We were talking of your cousin Emlyn a while ago – do you remember his trick of being able to guess people's thoughts? He always seemed to know when villagers were intending to walk through certain doors, and he planned his water-traps accordingly. I suspect that when the Jackal comes, he will have that power, but in a godly form. He will know our spirits in a way that we do not know ourselves."

I said nothing for a moment; Fenton's words had uncovered for me the forgotten portion of my dream, the part that had distressed me. Always, my first memory had been of Emlyn finding Fenton and calling to the rest of us, but now my dream had reminded me of what had happened a few moments before that call: Emlyn insisting on travelling further, though all of us were planning to return to Mountside at that point. He had ignored our objections and gone ahead to the mountaintop, just as though he had known what he would find lying there. . . .

I felt myself shiver, and Fenton put his hand over mine, though he continued to look deeply into my face. "Is it the dream?" he asked quietly.

"It's something I remembered," I said in a low voice. "I don't remember Emlyn well, but I remember a few things . . . I don't suppose anyone else noticed this about him, not even Griffith; Emlyn always hid it from everyone when it happened. But I was so small, I suppose he didn't realize that I'd understand. I didn't at the time; it was only later, several years after he'd left for the south, when my father was speaking about how Emlyn's illness made him stare into emptiness . . ." I shivered again and gazed upon Fenton, frightened for the first time.

I have never before been frightened in Fenton's presence. I've known, of course, that he is a priest, and I've known what duties were required of him, but our village has always been filled with god-loving people, so his duties in that regard have gone unexercised, like a blade that remains always in its sheath. Yet if I told him . . . Was it right for me to place Emlyn in danger?

Fenton was still watching me, saying nothing, and peace descended suddenly upon me, as it often does when Fenton looks at me that way. My highest duty is not to Emlyn but to Fenton – to the gods, really, but Fenton is their representative. I knew, without asking, that Fenton would only do what was good for Emlyn's spirit, however much pain Emlyn's body might undergo. I said, trying to keep my voice steady, "Emlyn used to see things that weren't there, and know things that were about to happen, before they happened. I think . . . I think Emlyn has a demon."

The words were out, and I waited tensely. When Fenton finally spoke, though, his words were not ones I had expected. "Would your feelings about your cousin change if he was possessed by a demon?" he asked quietly.

I stared at him. Then I felt hot shame cover me as I realized the answer, and discovered what Fenton already knew: how small my loyalty is to the gods. "No," I said painfully, staring down at the rock upon which Fenton and I were sitting. "I'd still love him. I know I shouldn't love a god-cursed man, but . . ."

After a minute of agony, I raised my head, and to my surprise, I found that Fenton was smiling. "I feel the same way," he said simply.

The heat in my face increased as I took in what he must be saying. Of course; what a fool I was. Fenton must have known all along that Emlyn was demon-possessed. And knowing that Emlyn's spirit was being eaten by a murderous demon . . . Any other priest would have placed the curse upon Emlyn at once, but not Fenton, I realized. No, Fenton would wait until the final moment before Emlyn's spirit was lost, doing all he could to draw Emlyn back from the evil path he was taking.

This, then, was the meaning of the correspondence between Fenton and Emlyn, and for the love that Fenton had voiced in his letter to my cousin. Blade and fire were not Fenton's primary weapons against evil, as they would be for any other priest. Fenton would fight the demon by loving the man who had given himself over to the demon.

"Adrian, you speak of matters that I would gladly share with you, but I cannot," said Fenton solemnly. "The god has bound my voice on this subject, and I cannot speak to you without his permission. Perhaps, if my god should give me liberty—"

"It's all right," I said quickly. "I know that you can't reveal the words of someone who confesses evil to you. I don't need to hear what's happened; I know that you'll help Emlyn if you can and kill the demon if you can't." I felt my skin prickle at the thought of what will happen if Fenton cannot rid Emlyn of the demon. Then I quickly put the thought aside. Fenton, I'm sure, can exorcise any demon.

Fenton seemed about to speak; then he stopped. The wind from the north continued to blow over us both, whistling through the mountain peaks like soldiers far away. Finally he said, with an intensity that surprised me, "There is one thing that I would have you know, Adrian, and this is something I want you to remember even if I must go away, and you and I are not able to keep in contact with each other. You'll meet many people over the years, even priests, who will tell you, 'My god told me to do this,' and 'It is the gods' wish that we do this.' Don't make the same mistake I once made and assume that their words are true. Though the gods can turn our evil to good, not all that men will in the gods' names is the will of the gods."

I felt like a prey that has entered the Jackal's trap. Too late, I realized what subject I had been inwardly hoping all afternoon we would avoid. This was not what I wanted to hear; I did not want to listen to any speech from Fenton that suggested my father's words about him are true. Of course I know that the gods would never punish Fenton for criticizing the gods' law – how could they punish a god-loving man like him? But I who am so weak in my love of the gods in comparison to Fenton, I who might misunderstand whatever truth lay behind Fenton's mysterious thoughts about the gods' law and use that misunderstanding to attack the gods and their law . . . Could it be, I wondered suddenly, that the gods had arranged for Fenton to leave this village so that I would not be endangered by his presence?

So horrible was this thought that I leapt to my feet. "I promised my father I'd help him with his duties," I said. "I'll have to go now." And I bounded away while Fenton was still trying to reply.

I ran across the grass and then down the mountain, feeling guilt claw at me because I knew that Fenton could not match my pace. Only as I reached the village did I look up toward the skyline, where the top of our mountain meets the sky. A man was standing there, silhouetted against the bright blue. Though his face was shadowed, I somehow knew that Fenton was smiling down at me.

o—o—o

I see that I have written a very long entry today; I suppose that is partly due to my guilt at leaving Fenton so abruptly. I will have to apologize to him tomorrow, and I think I will have to tell him also about the doubts I am having about the gods' law. For me not to confess my evil would be as wrong as if Emlyn had not confessed his evil to Fenton. If I am indeed in danger of turning my face from the gods, Fenton must be told.

I must shamefully admit, though, that I spent most of this evening thinking about the patrol guards and their whistles. I suppose that shows how frivolous I am.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIVE

The second day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

The peace was broken today, in a fashion that I can hardly bear to think about. Cold Run sent its hunter; I saw him myself.

Father had sent me into the woods to look for trees to cut for the new hall. As I returned to the edge of the village, I saw the hunter standing next to a tree, leaning against it and holding his side as though he had been running. I could just see the edge of his face, and it was flushed red with warmth. I thought at first that he must be my youngest uncle, who is about my age, and that he was playing Jackal and Prey. So I called out softly, so that his playing partner would not hear, "Which are you, the hunter or the hunted?"

He turned swiftly, and for a moment all that I noticed was that he looked very ill. Then I saw the fear in his eyes, and I recognized him. It was Griffith's brother, Siward.

I felt a wave of relief flow over me. All I had to do was capture Siward, and the feud would be over. I had no dagger, but my father had taught me ways to fight if I were disarmed during a duel. I took a step forward.

Oddly, Siward did not move, not even to draw his dagger. Perhaps it was this peculiarity which made me turn and look back at the village. There were no bodies to be seen; everyone was going about their regular business. But there was a long, thin trail of smoke arising from one building.

I doubt that I looked back at Siward again. I was racing back into the village, ignoring the startled faces that swivelled my way, ignoring a call that sounded like my father's. I only stopped when I reached the sanctuary door and swung it open.

Immediately I began to curse myself. What had I been thinking? I had let the Cold Run hunter go and chased after a fire that turned out to be nothing more than Fenton's daily fire for the god. It was blazing on the altar as usual, the goat's meat already half-burned from the bones, while the sacrificial smoke wound its leisurely way up to the smoke-hole. It went straight as an arrow to its target, which Fenton had once told me was a sign that the gods were pleased with the sacrifice.

I was just about to turn away and run back to the woods to find Siward again when I noticed two things. One was that there were a great many bones on the altar. The other was that Fenton was not standing as usual next to the sacrifice.

I think I screamed. I know that I stood frozen at the doorway, unable to move. It was only a few seconds before I began to fling myself forward, but in those few seconds other men had reached the sanctuary, and I found myself struggling against a pair of strong hands pulling me back. They belonged to my father, saving me from flinging myself into the god's fire.

The other men, though too cautious to actually throw themselves at the flames, were pulling down tapestries and smothering the fire in that way. I had already seen, though, that it was too late, so I turned my face against my father's chest and wept the tears I had not shed when my brother died.

I do not think he blamed me. When I looked up at him again, many minutes later, he was staring bleakly at the altar, where the flames were dying down. "Such barbarity," he murmured. "Never, in all the feuds I've taken part in . . . Not even an Emorian would curse himself in such a way." He turned suddenly away from me to Lange. My brother-in-marriage had stepped away from the altar to comfort Drew, who was sobbing in the doorway. "Find a trader to send word to Cold Run," my father said sharply. "Tell Griffith that one of his hunters has burned an unarmed priest. If Felix doesn't confirm the curse and hand the murderer over to us for punishment, then we'll know that entire village lies under the gods' curse. . . . What are you looking at?" His voice softened.

I stared up at him blankly. I could scarcely take in what he was saying; my spirit had begun to grow numb. My hand trembled as it tightened on the paper it held. With my fingers still cradling Fenton's neat handwriting, I said, "A letter. Fenton was writing to Emlyn."

My father was still a moment. Then, with one swift move, he snatched the letter and threw it into the dying flames.

I gasped and tried to move forward, but my father held me back. "Emlyn is your enemy," he said in a hard voice. "He is kin to the man who killed your blood brother. Would you honor Fenton's murdered spirit by showing kindness to his enemy?" His grip tightened on me. "How will you honor him?"

After that, I could do nothing but close my eyes and cry for a long time, while my father held me tenderly.

o—o—o

The third day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

I slept last night with Fenton's sheathed dagger, which Lange found next to the altar. I knew, of course, that I was placing myself in danger by holding even a priest's blade all night, but it was the closest I could come to Fenton's spirit. Since he was murdered, he is in the Land Beyond already, being welcomed by the kind gods he loved so much. I tell myself that in hopes that my pain will decrease.

I wish that Fenton was here to advise me. Already I have made one serious mistake: I told my father who Fenton's murderer was. That gave my father more arrows for his bow, though I suppose his attack on me would have occurred in any case.

I feel ashamed of myself for having written the above. I know that it does not do justice to the grief my father feels for the death of his former blood brother. "I was wrong to abjure my vow to Fenton," he told me today. "I see that now; I should have stayed by his side and guided him to see how he had turned his face from the gods, rather than allow the gods to punish him this way."

"The gods didn't murder him!" I shouted. "It was Siward!"

"Siward was the instrument of the gods' will, though that makes him no less guilty of his blasphemy," my father said steadily; his face was pale. "Siward will receive his just punishment for breaking the gods' law. The only question is whose hand shall execute his sentence."

I had a hard time steadying my breathing, though I had known what would come. "If Felix places him under the gods' curse—"

"He won't. Griffith has already sent word that Fenton was killed in error – an unarmed priest killed in error – and that he will not surrender the murderer. Nor will Felix acknowledge that the murderer is already under the gods' curse. Of course we know why, thanks to you. Griffith has so little loyalty to the gods that he will not surrender his heir and younger brother, law-breaker though he is. Well, Griffith has already shown what sort of baron he is; the gods will punish him in time. Siward, though, requires justice now. Fenton's spirit will not be able to rest peacefully in the Land Beyond until he is avenged. By his blood brother."

The words were finally out. I tried to turn away from my father, but his hand held me fast. "I cannot avenge Fenton's death," my father said in carefully spaced words. "The abjuration of my vow will not allow that. You are his nearest kin; it is to you that this duty falls."

"But Fenton wouldn't want me to kill Siward," I said miserably.

My father sighed and released me. We were standing in the sanctuary, now stripped of all of its holy objects, since it had been profaned by the murder of a priest. Only Fenton's dagger, which I had carried with me all day, remained in the sanctuary, and even that, I had discovered upon inspecting it, was covered with blackened blood. Fenton must have been so preoccupied by his worry over the feud that he had sheathed his blade after his daily sacrifice, before wiping it clean. I had cleaned the blade and the sheath, this being the best I felt I could do for Fenton's spirit. Now, though, I was being asked to do more.

"Fenton held peculiar notions about the blood feuds," said my father. "He told me honestly about those notions when he came to serve us, so I am yet more to blame for his death. I ought to have assisted him in recognizing his impiety, especially since he told me that he had been reprimanded for his views by the other priests at the priests' house. One matter, though, Fenton and I always agreed upon, and that was that a murderer should receive his just punishment. Fenton disapproved of the blood feuds because he did not believe that a law-breaker's kin should suffer from his crime, but he never once suggested that the law-breaker himself should escape justice." My father reached out and held me again, gently this time. "You know who Fenton's murderer is," he said quietly. "There is no chance that the innocent will die under your blade. All that is needed is that you execute the man who broke the gods' law twice over – by killing an unarmed man, and by killing a priest. Even Fenton would have approved of such an execution; he was not as soft as you present him."

In my mind, I saw again Fenton cutting his skin unflinching, then handing the bloody blade to me. I closed my eyes against the image, saying with tightness in my throat, "It just doesn't seem right for me to do this."

After a while, the stillness grew so long that I opened my eyes. My father had taken his hand from me; in his face was a coldness more chill than the black border mountains in winter.

"If that is your feeling, then that is a sign of what you are," he said in a slow, deliberate voice. "And if that is what you are, then you are no son of mine."

I stared at him, feeling the weight of what he had said descend upon me. First Hamar, then Fenton, and now— My spirit could not survive another loss. I had no choice, no choice at all.

I burst into tears once more, and my father, sensing my answer, wrapped his arms around me. "Just Siward," he said softly. "That is all I will ask of you. I won't require you to take part in the feud beyond that."

And so tomorrow I go to Cold Run, a hunter in search of his prey.

I hope I am caught.

o—o—o

The sixth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

One thing I can tell my father when I return. I am not the greatest coward in Koretia; Siward is.

I have never seen anyone so heavily protected. He cannot so much as go outside to empty a chamber pot without attracting half a dozen escorts. Nor does he seem at all bothered at being treated like an unmarried woman whose chastity must be protected. I am finding it hard to control my growing contempt for him.

Despite what I wrote in my last entry, I know that I would not honor Fenton's spirit by allowing myself to be captured and killed, so I have been cautious, approaching the edges of the village only in the evening hours, when I cannot be seen in the shadows. Through the leafy bushes surrounding the village, I have glimpsed men I know: Griffith and Siward and my mother's uncles, and others I know less well. Once I thought I saw Emlyn, but it turned out to be a young boy I had never known, and I remembered then that Emlyn is a grown man now. Even if he had returned to the borderland after all these years, it is unlikely that I would recognize him.

I hope he is still in the south; I would not want my skilled cousin to be among those who might capture me. The danger is great, for everyone in Cold Run knows who the prey is this time, and everyone will be on the lookout for Mountside's hunter, lest he kill their baron's heir.

In the daytime I have been visiting neighboring villages and buying food. My father supplied me with a generous amount of money, since we both guessed it would take me at least a week to lure my prey into the open. Now I am beginning to think it will take me a month. Why could my prey not be an honorable man who was willing to fight his hunter, rather than a terrified titmouse hiding in its nest?

o—o—o

The seventh day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

Before I left, I took my blood vow to my father and to the Jackal to participate in this feud. The mark has finally healed; its itch no longer annoys me.

Siward annoys me a great deal, though, and the more I watch him, the more my anger grows. At night I see Fenton in my dreams, screaming in the fire – or more likely, since he was a man of great courage and honor, remaining silent throughout his agony, so as not to weaken the courage of the rest of us. After that, I am sure, his fire was over; I know that the Jackal would not burn him further when Fenton reached the Land Beyond, just as I know, without even having to think it through, that Fenton was loved by the gods. My father was wrong about that; the gods would never punish Fenton, even if he spoke in error.

My father was not wrong about Siward; I can see that now. Griffith's brother has all the marks of a god-cursed man. He shows no concern for the crime he committed and has so little shame that he will allow other men to endanger themselves in order to protect him against the consequences of the evil he has done.

I understand now why my father, after I had made my oath, spent a full hour talking to me of the sacred duty I was about to undertake. It was a speech such as I would not have expected to hear from him – a speech, indeed, that sounded as though it might have come from Fenton.

My father began by reminding me of how, in the old days, priests were responsible for the punishment of all of the god-cursed. Gradually, over the years, the priests graciously allowed other men to assist with this holy task. First the priests permitted the people of each village or town the privilege of helping to execute men and women who were demon-possessed; then the god-cursed who were sentenced to a Living Death were handed over to the care of the nobles; and finally, when evil men sought to escape from the justice of the gods, the priests began to send men out in the names of the gods, to kill the criminals. Thus began the blood feuds.

By the time my father was through speaking, I could see why he believes that he has a duty to the gods to avenge Hamar's murder. I still think that something must have gone wrong with the blood feuds over the centuries, as Fenton suggested. Surely the priests who invented the blood feuds never intended for innocent men to be killed in the place of guilty men. Yet there can be nothing wrong in killing a man who has burned a priest alive; indeed, if Fenton were here, I am sure that he would want such a man to be executed, lest he spread his curse among his people.

Already, I can see, that is what is happening. I cannot feel the anger that my father does toward Griffith and the other people of Cold Run; rather, I pity them for allowing themselves to be lured by a god-cursed man into protecting him.

I am surprised, actually, that Siward has managed to do this. He is the same age as me, and I would not have thought he was clever enough to beguile a man like Griffith. I suppose Griffith loves him greatly, though, and his love blinds him to the evil in Siward.

And perhaps Siward has allowed a demon to enter him, and the demon itself is directing Siward's actions. If that is the case, then the sooner Siward is dead, the better for Cold Run's people. Siward should be grateful that I will save him from a stoning.

o—o—o

The eighth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

May the Jackal eat his dead – will Siward ever emerge from the arms of his protectors? Does the man have no honor left in him at all?

I suppose that it is time for me to stop hoping for chance to send Siward my way; it is time for me to begin creating a trap. To do that, I must remember what Siward's weaknesses are, and that is hard for me to do. Our feud with Cold Run began nine years ago, the year after Fenton and Emlyn left for the south, and I have not conversed with Siward since that time. Surely, though, he would not be much different now than he was when he was seven?

I remember that he was ravenous with curiosity, exploring everything odd and interesting in our village, but that he was not terribly clever. He was like Hamar that way, though he was much better-humored than my brother. These days, he seems sulky; I suppose that is the effect of the demon, if my guess about him is correct. In the old days he was quite pious, often visiting our sanctuary and even leaving offerings to the gods on our village's ash-tombs, which impressed Fenton greatly. I am inclined to wonder now whether the demon was already working in Siward then, teaching him how to lure Fenton into unwariness, but perhaps I should not speculate that far. Siward's piety may have been genuine in the old days, before he gave himself over to evil. Perhaps there is even a part of him now that continues to turn its face toward the gods . . . though when watching Siward yawn with indifference throughout the day, I find that hard to believe.

Now that I think of it, the yawning is strange. As a boy, when Siward wanted to show that he was indifferent to something, he tossed his head backwards; he never yawned. Could it be that Siward is yawning because he is truly tired? And if so, why—?

Ah. I have it now; the gods have sent me the answer. I must go to prepare my trap.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIX

The ninth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

It is hard to write what comes next – harder even than it was to write about Fenton's death.

Last night I found Cold Run's cemetery easily enough. It was where I remembered it, at the edge of the forest, well beyond sight and hearing of the village. That was just as I wanted it.

I was right too in remembering that Cold Run had an ancient sanctuary next to the cemetery. That shows the age of Cold Run, I suppose. Fenton told me that in the early years of Koretia, sanctuaries were never built in villages and towns but were instead built away from the people's homes, so that the priests could spend all their time worshipping the gods, and the people could receive peace when they came to offer up their sacrifices.

It has been many years, I am sure, since any priest offered a sacrifice here except, perhaps, on the occasions that villagers' ashes are placed in the ground. I had been foresighted enough, though, to bring my flint-box on this hunt, and it was not hard to find the right sort of wood nearby for a torch. I spent the last light of evening fashioning a torch-hook out of bits of spare metal in the sanctuary, then attaching it to the sanctuary wall. By the time that darkness came, I was ready.

I had to wait a long time, though. I suppose that Siward has been delaying each night until he was sure that I was no longer hunting on the edge of the village, and it was safe for him to come out. I had been afraid that he would bring his escort with him, but to my relief he came alone, cradling late summer vegetables in his arms. I supposed that, god-cursed though he was, even he knew that it is proper to visit the dead alone.

He placed the vegetables where I knew he would, on the ash-tomb of his father. I did not wait to see whether he would occupy himself with prayer or with some activity more befitting a god-cursed man; I was too busy trying to light the torch. It took me a dozen tries and a dozen more before I could persuade a spark to stick on the torch-wood, even though I had rubbed the wood with lamp oil I found in the sanctuary. It was sacred oil, I suppose – but then, what I was doing was sacred.

I had just reached the point of cursing softly when the torch flared up. Hastily I placed it on the hook near the open window. Then I waited.

He came, of course. Siward's curiosity had not been tamed by the years, and he could hardly have expected his hunter to be waiting in a place like this. I stood behind the door, my dagger drawn, holding my breath as the blood made my body throb with fear and eagerness.

The door opened, and Siward stepped through. For a moment, all I could see was the back of his dark head, turning from side to side; he was looking around the sanctuary to see who had lit the torch. Then his gaze was snagged by the torch itself, and by the objects lying in the corner beneath it: my back-sling, and atop it Fenton's glittering dagger.

I heard Siward gasp, and waited impatiently for him to come to an understanding of what was occurring. Finally he fumbled his dagger out of its sheath and whirled around.

This was as I had planned. I knew that my father would ask me for the details of the killing, and I was not going to shame myself and my family by attacking a man who had his back to me. Fenton's dagger was there only to remind Siward of why I was doing this, and of how great the crime was that he would pay for.

I was surprised, really, at how easy it was. I did not even have to wound him; it took just a few blows to disarm him. He tried to flee through the door then, but I abandoned my dagger and fell upon him, grinding his face against the floor as I chanted the words of binding.

He was sobbing before I had even started the chant, and he struggled to escape my grasp. Then, as I spoke the final words, he went limp under me, like a body whose spirit has escaped.

I wondered then, for a fleeting moment, whether the demon had deserted him, so that I was left only with an ordinary man. Then I iced over my heart, remembering whose hand had burned Fenton. Dragging Siward to his feet, I said sharply, "Go stand over there."

He went in the direction I pointed, his body still limp. When he had reached the dark corner, he turned round to look at me. I had already sheathed my blade and stepped away toward where the torch still hung, eating the air with its flame. With a soft prayer of thanks to the Jackal for use of his fire, I picked up the torch and walked steadily toward Siward.

I was a body's pace from him when he realized what I would do; then he screeched like an old woman. I suppose the contempt showed on my face. He gulped down the remainder of his scream and stood panting, like a bitch dog that has run too fast. "No," he said in a trembling voice. "Not that . . ."

"What ails you?" I took another step toward him. "Aren't you brave enough to receive the type of death you give?" I took hold of his hair with my free hand and began to bring the torch toward his face.

He screamed again, screwing his eyes shut against the approaching heat. At the very end of the scream, he babbled, "He was dead before I burned him! I swear it!"

I paused. The torch was causing my hand to sweat; moisture was running down Siward's face like tears. He opened his eyes a crack, swallowed another scream, and whispered rapidly, "It's what he wanted. I swear to you, it's what he wanted."

I had paused only to figure out which part of his face I should burn first; I knew better than to pay heed to the words of the god-cursed. Something made me hold my hand, though. If the demon was truly gone . . . Siward still must pay for what he had allowed the demon to do, but if the demon was gone, perhaps there was some hope that Siward would tell the truth.

I brought the torch forward a little more and watched Siward's eyes widen with terror. Demons, I supposed, did not show fear; they showed defiance. I waited a moment more before I realized that Siward's hair was beginning to tug in my hand. He was not trying to escape; he was on the point of passing out.

This was proof enough to me that I was dealing with a real man. I swung the torch back a bit. The moisture running down his face, I saw, was indeed tears. Not allowing my voice to soften – for that would be an act of impiety, given the godly task I was undertaking – I said, "You murdered a priest. The god-cursed deserve this sort of death. If you tell me, though—" My voice wavered, and I had to start again in a firmer manner. "If you tell me truthfully what Fenton said and did before you killed him, I'll grant you a quick death with my blade. If not . . ." I gestured with the torch.

"I will!" he said in a voice high with hysteria. "I vow to you, I'll tell you the truth!"

The oaths of the god-cursed are worth nothing, but I nodded as though his word was of worth, then walked back to place the torch on the hook. When I turned back, Siward was where I had left him, bound to my will.

The corner where he stood was dark, now that the torch was gone. Even when I returned to stand beside him, I could barely see his face. His body was pressed against the wood – the sanctuary was very old, too old to be made of modern building material such as wattle and daub. I took a second hasty look at the torch-fire, in order to ascertain that it was well away from the wall, then leaned against the wall next to Siward and said, with the firmness of a priest hearing a confession, "Tell me what happened."

I heard him swallow, and then he said in a quivering voice, "It was because of what Felix said. I mean— It's not his fault, but he told me before I left that what I was doing was a sacred act, so when I saw your sanctuary, it just seemed right that I should hunt my prey there." He paused, as though hoping I would understand his logic – as, indeed, he had reason to believe I would.

I said, "Felix must have told you that it's blasphemy to kill a priest."

"Of course!" Siward sounded stung. "I knew that when I was a babe in arms. But Fenton didn't look like a priest, that's the trouble. I thought he was the priest's assistant; his back was to me, and he was wearing ordinary clothes and holding a dagger—"

"It was a priest's dagger!" I said, exasperated. "He was readying himself to do the noonday sacrifice. Don't you know the difference between a curved priest's blade and a free-man's blade?"

Siward shook his head; one of his hands was gripped tight around the other. "I was too excited to notice. And – and too scared, I suppose. I knew that someone would come by at any moment and see me, so I closed and barred the sanctuary doors quickly. After that, I could hardly see anything. The only light was from the smoke-hole and from the cracks in the wood of the door and window-shutter."

It took all my effort to keep from springing for the torch; I could tell from the misery in Siward's voice that he too was aware of how careless he had been. No hunter is supposed to attack his prey that quickly – not for the prey's sake, but because it would have been too easy for the prey to cry out for help, leaving the hunter trapped.

"Fenton didn't call for help," I said flatly.

"His back stiffened when I closed the door, and I knew then that my prey would call out or flee or attack . . . I wasn't sure what he would do. So I ran over to him and pushed his chest down onto the table – the altar," he amended. "I didn't see at first what it was. He spoke to me then, but I didn't hear what he said, because I was so busy reciting the binding and taking the blade from his hand. I did think it was odd that he didn't resist me." His voice trailed off. Perhaps, even in the darkness, he had seen the look I was giving him.

"Go on," I said harshly.

He swallowed again, and wiped his nose, and returned to clutching his hands together. "I pulled him up and turned him round, and – and then I saw who he was. And I was so scared, I wanted to flee. I expected him to call down the gods' vengeance upon me, but he didn't say anything, and that made me even more scared, because I realized he knew—"

Siward stopped abruptly. Outside the sanctuary, cicadas were singing in a drowsy manner, their sound nearly drowned out by the crackle of the flame nearby.

"Knew what?" I said. I felt his body start to slide away, and I grabbed hold of his arm. "Knew what?" I shouted.

I could feel that Siward was shaking under me. "I didn't mean to," he whimpered. "I swear, I didn't mean to."

I went suddenly still; I felt, as I had not felt before, the first touch of autumn on my body. Then, with no thought to what I was doing, I struck his face with my fist.

He stumbled to his knees, but I pulled him up by the back of his tunic. I could feel that he was shaking like a rock-tumbled brook. "I didn't mean to—" His voice was muffled.

"You killed him!" I shouted. "You killed Fenton, and you killed Hamar too! You killed them both!"

"I thought he was at your feast!" His reply was more a scream than a shout. "I was sure everyone was at your feast, or I'd never have lit the fire! Fenton must have known that, or he wouldn't have let me go last month."

I released him, feeling the cold reach my stomach. "He saw you?"

Siward nodded; his hands were over his face. "I waited till your hall collapsed – I'd hoped they'd be able to rescue Hamar – and then I ran. I thought everyone would be at the fire, but as I passed the sanctuary, I saw Fenton standing near the door. His hand was on the mask of the Jackal, and he was looking at me. My heart nearly stopped then, but he didn't say anything, so I kept running."

I turned away; I could feel bile on my tongue. He had known – Fenton had known all along who Hamar's murderer was. If he was willing to see the guilty be punished, as my father had said, why had Fenton remained silent? Why had he let innocent men die in Siward's place?

I turned round, and what I was going to say next died in my throat as I took in Siward's appearance. His hands had fallen from his face; blood was running from his nose, and his left cheek was already turning dark from the mark of my fist. I felt sick, and was too confused to understand why.

"Go on," I said roughly. "You'd bound Fenton."

Siward was biting his lip, which was trembling, but he managed to say, "I was afraid he would try to dissuade me from killing him. I knew that it was wrong to kill a priest, but I was sure that it must be even worse to break a blood vow to murder – and I'd vowed to murder the first man I bound. And I had to kill a prey; it was my way of making up to the gods for the mistake I'd made with Hamar the first time. So I explained all this to Fenton quickly, and told him how he mustn't try to dissuade me, or I'd have to kill him immediately – and he just listened, looking at me. I couldn't read what was in his face. And when I was through he said, all gently as though I were a child, 'Do not worry. It is the gods' will that I die this way. The Jackal must eat his dead.'"

For a sharp moment, I could see all in clarity: Siward trembling against the wall, the torch-fire casting long shadows toward us, the glint of the moon-glow over the cemetery. Then I shouted, "What sort of fool do you think I am? You can't expect me to believe such a tale! Do you really think I'll give you a quick death in exchange for that lie? I'll—"

I stopped then. Siward had sunk to his knees and was sobbing uncontrollably; the blood from his nose splashed onto his hands as he tried to shield his face. I looked down at him, feeling coldness extend to the tips of my fingers. I knew then that I had not been mistaken before in what I felt.

I was sick, sick enough to vomit. Something had gone terribly wrong; my hunt had turned into something it was not meant to be.

I gulped in some air to steady myself, and then knelt down beside Siward. He began sobbing even louder as I touched him. After a moment of struggle with myself, I pulled my face-cloth out from my belt-purse and offered it to him.

He took it but seemed not to know what to do with it. "I didn't lie," he said between sobs. "I didn't lie."

I took the cloth and wiped his face clean. "It's all right," I said gruffly. "Go on with your story. I won't use the fire."

It took several minutes more for me to calm him. I was aware, as I had not been aware before, of the ash-tombs nearby. Oh, I was not superstitious enough to believe that the dead linger near their tombs. Why should they, when they live in the glories of the Land Beyond? But I could feel their presence: centuries' worth of villagers who had died of injuries and child-birth and sickness—

And feuds? How many had died in blood feuds?

Siward said finally, "I didn't know what to say after that. I was shaking so much that I dropped my dagger, though I was still holding Fenton's blade. I didn't think it would be right to kill a priest anywhere except his heart, and I was afraid that if I tried to kill him from where I stood, I'd miss the spot. So I made him lie on the table – on the altar, I mean. And then I placed the blade-tip against his heart, but when I looked, I saw that his eyes were closed and his lips were moving. I knew that he must be praying to his god, so I waited until he was finished, and then— It was really quite quick. I don't think I hurt him much."

I closed my eyes, took a long breath of dark night air, and said, without raising my lids, "And the fire?"

"That – that was because of what Fenton said. About the Jackal eating his dead. I knew that meant he wanted his corpse to be burned. It occurred to me afterwards, though, that because he was Emorian-born, your father might think he wanted to be buried whole in the ground, the way the Emorians are buried. I thought of writing a note to your father, but I was afraid he would recognize my hand. He helped me to learn my letters. So instead I took the sacrifice wood out of the pile and placed it all around Fenton, then poured oil on him, and then lit the wood, using the sanctuary flame. I took his blade away first, so that it wouldn't be harmed," Siward added. "I waited until the Jackal's fire began to eat him, and then I scooped up my dagger and ran, and – and you saw me. And that's all that happened."

I rose slowly to my feet. After a moment I thought to open my eyes. The sanctuary was darker than before; the torch had begun to burn down to its root. I went over and took the remainder of the torch in my hand; I heard behind me a shuffle as Siward stumbled to his feet.

"Are you going to—?" He stopped and swallowed. "Will you cut my throat, as you promised?"

I shook my head without looking his way.

"But Adrian—!" His protest was halfway between a sob and a scream; he stopped abruptly as I threw the torch to the ground and stamped it out. The night's darkness gathered us in.

"I'm not going to kill you at all," I said in a voice that sounded distant to my ears. "I'm going to let you go."

There was no sound behind me, and for a moment I wondered whether Siward had slipped out the door. Then he said hesitantly, "But you have to kill me. You vowed to."

I shook my head again and went to stand by the window. It faced north; beyond the ash-tombs, gleaming like fire-burned bones under the rising moon, I could dimly see the shapes of the border mountains, black against the black sky.

I heard steps behind me; they stopped a body's length away. "Why?" asked Siward breathlessly.

I leaned my cheek against the age-smoothed wood of the window frame, feeling the night wind cool the tears, even as they flowed down my face. After a while I said, "Fenton wouldn't have wanted me to. He hated the blood feuds, not only because innocent men die in them, but because hunters kill for the wrong reasons. They kill, not out of love of justice, but out of hatred and revenge." I looked down at the ash-tombs again; their whiteness blurred under my tears. "That's why I was going to kill you."

Siward was silent, and then took another hesitant step toward me. "But your family . . ."

"I know." I closed my eyes, but the tears gushed out regardless. Presently, I felt a nudge at my elbow, and I turned to see that Siward was offering me the face-cloth.

I wiped my face, smearing Siward's blood on it in the process, as Siward said in a hesitant manner, "I think you're wrong, Adrian. I really think you should kill me; it's what you promised your god. But if you decide not to— If you let me go—" He paused, then said in a rush, "I won't tell anyone I saw you. Not until they ask me. That will give you time to escape."

I lowered the cloth, ignoring the chill breeze blowing down from the north. The coldness had left me; all that remained was emptiness. "What about your face? I marked you."

Siward shook his head. "Griffith won't ask me about that. I'm always coming home this way." He gave a weak smile that I remembered from the old days. "I'm an easy target for the others. You remember."

I did, and as I looked at him standing there, shivering with cold fear, with blood on his face and a smile trembling on his lips, it was a wonder to me that I had ever forgotten. Many times, I had been the one who came to his defense as a boy, though I was no larger than he was; it had been all too obvious that Siward would never be the sort of boy who could defend himself against enemies. What demon had entered me to make me think Siward was vicious?

I said, my voice suddenly calm, "I'm sorry I threatened you with fire."

He shook his head. "It doesn't matter," he said in a resigned voice. "That's part of the punishment."

"Punishment?"

"The punishment the gods have given me. Felix said that death would be too easy a punishment for me. He said that I must live with daily reminders that I am a man of dishonor."

My breath caught at the back of my throat. In my spirit's eye, I was seeing Siward, walking submissively between his escorts like a captive between his guards.

I turned and went over to the corner where the torch had been. When I came back to the window, Fenton's blade lay across the palms of my hands. Siward stared down at the glinting gold and said, "I used it to murder a priest. Is it desecrated?"

"I don't think so," I replied. "I washed off all the blood." I stared down at the blade for a moment, then took a deep breath and said, "My father burned a letter that Fenton was writing to Emlyn. It said how much Fenton loved Emlyn and how – how he was looking forward to seeing him." I bit my lip to control myself, and then forced myself to continue. "Fenton really cared for Emlyn, so I think Emlyn should have his dagger, to remember Fenton by. Do you think Griffith would let Emlyn have it?"

"I'm sure he would," said Siward, continuing to stare at the bejewelled sheath. "If you left it at the doorstep of our hall—"

I shook my head. "I can't leave it in the dust; it's a sacred object. It has to be entrusted to a man of honor, someone who will care for it until Griffith has a chance to see Emlyn." I held out the dagger. "You take it."

For a moment, I thought that Siward would fall to his knees again. Slowly he reached out and took the dagger from me. A smile was trembling on his lips once more. His hand touched mine briefly, warming my body.

The moon was rising higher. I turned away, picked up my back-sling, and was walking toward the door when Siward's voice halted me.

"I won't ask where you're going, but . . . do you know where you're going? Is there a place you can go where you'll be safe?"

I looked back at him. He was still standing there, defenseless even with a blade in his hand, and for a moment I felt my determination drain for me. It would be so easy, so very easy. Siward wouldn't blame me, my family would praise me, and the gods . . . Then I saw, beyond Siward, the black rocks framing the sky, and I felt courage enter me, like wine warming blood. "Yes," I said. "I know a place to go where I'll be safe from my family."

I turned and left.

o—o—o

So now I am journeying away from Cold Run, and away from Mountside, which I will never see again. My thoughts, I know, ought to be on my family, and I ought to be grieving at the loss of them. But I cannot think of that today, not after what happened last night. For I did not tell Siward the whole truth of why I broke my vow.

The gods murdered Fenton. That is what I learned last night; that is what Fenton learned in the moments before his death. It must have been as hard for him to accept as it is for me, yet his words leave no doubt as to what he believed, and what he believed must be true, for he was the wisest man I ever knew.

I see now how, in an odd way, I was closer to the truth than he was. I feared that the gods would punish me for my blasphemous questioning of their ways; Fenton was sure that neither he nor I would be punished, for he believed the gods to be all-good – he thought that they, like he, hated the blood feuds.

How wrong we both were. I was wrong in believing that the gods would not punish Fenton; he was wrong in believing that the gods hated the feuds. Not until Siward stood before him with his blade did Fenton realize the truth: that the gods are blood-lusting demons who, if they could not have his unquestioning obedience to their cruel ways, would punish him with death.

Fenton spent his final words in comforting Siward, who was too blind to be able to see that he was a tool in the hands of tyrants. I think Fenton also said those words in hope that I would hear of them and be warned. Yet even so, I think Fenton must not have given up hope that the gods would forgive him. I can see him lying on the altar, with Siward's blade touching his heart, praying to the gods to show him mercy.

The gods gave him their answer, in blade and fire.

So now I am not simply fleeing away from my family, but toward something new: the other gift Fenton left me. For if it is true, as I now believe, that the gods' law is a brutal system designed to bring hatred and pain to this world, there remains another law that has not been tampered with by the gods' bloodstained hands. My mission now is to find it.

I only hope I can reach Emor before the Jackal discovers what I have done.

Chapter Text

Law Links 2
THE SWORD
 

CHAPTER ONE

The twelfth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

I am in the mountains now, camped along the pass to Emor, beside a prickly mountain bush. It is dawn, and I have just finished eating some of the food that I bought yesterday. Ever since my last journal entry, I have been hurrying to escape Koretia, lest my blood kin discover what I have done and track me down. But I had to stop at Blackpass in order to buy more food and to wait until dark before crossing the border. I had no fears that I would meet anyone I recognized in Blackpass; it is a big town, nearly as big as Koretia's capital, I have been told.

I had only been to Blackpass once before, and that was several years ago. My father brought Hamar and me along when Blackwood summoned the priests and noblemen of the borderland – all of them, no matter what their kinship – to a full council about the changes King Rawdon was making to the gods' law. Since Hamar and my father were busy at the council meeting during most of our visit, I was free to wander the streets and marvel at how people could stand to live jammed so close together.

On that visit, I remember, I was struck by the fact that so many people in Blackpass spoke Common Koretian. Most of the people in our village know the language, of course, since we deal with so many tradesmen and peddlers from Koretia proper. But I had always assumed, without thinking about it, that Common Koretian was the language everyone used to make bargains in, while Border Koretian was the language that everyone talked the rest of the time. It was not until I visited Blackpass that I realized that most Koretians never even learn Border Koretian; it is as foreign a language to them as Emorian is to me.

Blackpass is in the borderland, I feel obliged to note for my Emorian reader, but it is visited by many Koretians from the rest of the land. Fenton did not accompany us on that trip, since he was living in the priests' house at that time, but when I told him last year about the trip, he had me compare some sentences in Border Koretian, Common Koretian, and Emorian, so that I could see how Common Koretian and Emorian are both descended from Border Koretian. I learned from Fention that it is mainly the borderland accent that makes Border Koretian hard for others to understand; otherwise Emorians and Koretians alike could probably understand Border Koretian to a certain extent, and it might become a trade language.

It is still hard for me to write about Fenton in this journal. A question arose in my mind a moment ago about whether Border Koretian is ever written down; all the documents I have ever seen have been written in Common Koretian or Emorian, which use the same alphabet. I found myself thinking that I must ask Fenton when I saw him again. Then I remembered, and it was as though I was watching him die again.

On this trip, it is the Emorians that I found myself watching and listening to. I met a group of them on one of the Blackpass streets, visiting Koretia on business, and I shamelessly tracked them halfway across town, eavesdropping on their conversations. I was delighted to find that I could easily understand what they were saying, which is not surprising, since I had Fenton to teach me the language. I did realize, to my embarrassment, that Emorians use many contractions in their speech, whereas I have been using almost none in these journals. For some reason, I had assumed that Emorians were always stiffly formal in the way they talked. Now I am— Now I'm going to try to write this journal closer to the way I heard the Emorians speaking.

At the end of my hunt, I went up to the Emorians and greeted them casually, as if I were simply interested in welcoming visitors to my land, though in fact I wanted to see whether they could understand my Emorian.

They could, though I thought for a moment that they would ignore me altogether. But one of the men noticed the silver edging along my tunic and muttered something about this to the others, so that they all ended up giving me a stiff version of the free-man's greeting. It so happens that they were noblemen, but I don't see why that would have made a difference as to whether they answered a friendly greeting. But perhaps they come from the Emorian capital. I understand that city dwellers are more careful about matters of rank.

This did remind me, though, that my tunic was too obvious a clue as to who I was, so I spent the last of my money to buy a lesser free-man's tunic, one that was black, so that I would blend in with the mountains.

The tunic came in handy when I crossed the Koretian border a few hours ago. I stood for a while near the border yesterday, watching the guards at the entrance to the mountain pass. I soon came to the conclusion that they posses no authorization to do anything except stop people travelling along the pass, so it was easy in the end to cross the border. I simply waited until after dark, and then I climbed over the side of the mountain next to the pass. I could see the guards in the moonlight below, and they gave no indication that they heard me, even when my foot slipped and I sent a shower of rocks down the mountainside.

I wish I could believe that getting past Emor's border mountain patrol will be that easy.

o—o—o

It's nearly dusk, and I must hurry to finish this entry before the sun sets, for I dare not build a fire yet, though my flint-box will come in handy if it grows unbearably cold in the mountains. So far it feels pleasant; it's warm here, like at home.

It's very quiet here, aside from the winds and the mountain birds that travel the winds, sending their cheerful chirps down toward me. I've seen only one beast since I arrived here – a jackal that had strayed from its usual territory – though I've seen a large number of birds and insects. The blood-flies are growing lesser in number the further north I go; Fenton once told me that Emor is too cold a place for the flies to survive. I hope that Emor isn't too cold a place for a homeless Koretian to survive.

But first I must worry about the border mountain patrol, and since there's nothing else for me to do as I walk, I spend my time practicing softly the whistles Fenton taught me. I don't think that I've forgotten any of them. I've also been remembering everything Fenton ever told me about the patrol, and have been trying to use that information to formulate a plan.

The patrol is made up of a single unit of twelve men, I remember, and this is divided into a night patrol and a day patrol. The night patrol is led by the lieutenant of the unit; the day patrol is led by his sublieutenant. I spent a while debating with myself whether to try to breach the Emorian border in daytime or nighttime. Obviously, I would have the advantage of surprise in the nighttime, since it's likely that most of the Koretians that the patrol encounters aren't as good as I am at moving through the mountains at night. On the other hand, Fenton said that the patrol tracks border-breachers mainly through sound, so a lack of light wouldn't give me any advantage. I finally decided that it would be better to try my skills against the sublieutenant, who would be less of a challenge than the lieutenant.

Then there's the question of where I should travel. If I stay along the pass, I'm sure to be sighted by the patrol eventually, but if I travel along the mountainsides next to the pass, it will take me weeks to reach Emor, and I don't have enough food to last that long. In addition, the sound of my travel along the rocky slopes will probably alert the patrol to my presence in any case.

I rejected without inner debate the idea of going further into the mountains. I have Fenton's example to dissuade me against that idea.

I'm beginning to understand why so few people make it past the patrol. Obviously, the only way in which to do so is by a trick. One idea I have is to try to pass the patrol while the guards are busy pursuing another border-breacher, but I suspect that in such a case, the guards would simply split into two parties.

I have another day in which to think before I reach the first of the patrol points that Fenton told me of.

o—o—o

The thirteenth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

It's dawn again. I awoke in the middle of last night covered in sweat, as I have every night since I left Cold Run.

The dream is always the same – always vivid, like a memory. I see Fenton, and he is standing next to the altar, his back naked to Cold Run's hunter. I cry out to him and try to warn him, but when he turns to me, his face is already afire, being eaten by the Jackal.

The image fills me with such horror that I fall to my knees, gasping. Then I become aware of dark shapes around me – trees, I think at first, but then I realize they are hunters. Not Cold Run's hunters – Mountside's hunters, seeking me. I try to stand, and then I realize that my hands and feet are bound. I am already captured, and the priest is pronouncing the curse over me.

Then I hear my father's voice; he is kneeling behind me, speaking to me. I feel a rush of relief, but before I can beg him to help me, I feel a cold blade touch my throat. The blade is my father's.

That is when I awake. I only wish that I could believe that the dream is an imagining rather than a shadow of the future.

o—o—o

I reach the patrol tomorrow, so all day I've been frantically trying to think of a new plan. Just when I was about to give up, one came to me, as though sent by the gods.

I'd been thinking of myself as the prey until now, pursued by six jackals, which is not good odds. But what if I were to reverse the picture? What if I were to become the jackal and pursue one of the guards? Two of the guards, I mean; Fenton said that the guards patrol in pairs. If I stayed close to my prey, the other guards would attribute any noise they heard from me to the guards I was following. As for my prey, they would assume that I was a wild animal, for they couldn't imagine that any Koretian would be bold enough to follow closely behind them.

Fenton says— Fenton said that the guards patrol up and down the pass in an area close to the border. Thus, if I follow a pair of guards on their patrol, and if we aren't interrupted by another border-breacher, I will be able to come close enough to the border to make my break.

Tomorrow I see whether my plan works. I must remember to pray to the Jackal for my safety tonight.

o—o—o

I had closed my journal and placed it in my back-sling before I realized what nonsense I had written above. I'm going to Emor to get away from the Jackal and the other gods. In any case, I imagine that I'm too close to Emor now for any prayers to reach the god.

o—o—o

The fourteenth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

My plan fell to pieces before I could even try it, for the simple reason that I miscalculated how far I had travelled, so the patrol guards heard me before I heard them. I will never forget – assuming I live long enough to have any memories of this – the chill that went through me when I heard the faint sound of the Hunted is Heard whistle and knew that I was the hunted.

I'm still on the run, and have paused only long enough to eat and rest, as I mustn't grow exhausted. Thus I will not record in detail here my efforts to dodge the patrol, and my realization that the efforts were not working when I heard the signal for Form the Circle.

There are many more whistle-codes than Fenton taught me, but the ones he did teach me seem to be the important ones, and they helped me to know what was happening. Even more important, I knew where it was happening, and when I heard the Acknowledgment whistles for the sublieutenant's order, it was easy enough for me to identify the gap in the forming circle and to race through it. That's how I was able to escape, at least momentarily.

All of my running was back and forth along the mountains, so I'm no nearer to Emor than I was when I was sighted. Now I'm going to see whether I can tell where any of the guards are and try again to carry out my plan.

o—o—o

A second failure, this time a more dangerous one, for the guards reached the point of closing the circle on me. As I saw them coming forward, I was greatly tempted to draw my blade, but I remembered what Fenton had told me and instead identified the weakest guard along the chain closing in on me. He was about my age, and it was easy enough to get past him; he was no better than Drew at his hunting.

The other guards are considerably better, though I'm surprised by how young they are. The eldest is the sublieutenant, and he looks only a few years older than me. I didn't come close enough to him to see any identifying mark of his rank on his uniform, but I could tell that he is the sublieutenant because he gave a brief whistle as we came forward. I have been hearing his whistles all day, and I'm beginning to realize how distinctive a man's whistle can be.

So now the patrol has seen me, and there's no chance of my being able to go up to the guards now and pretend that I have legitimate business in Emor. I'm closer to Emor than I was, but I still have—

o—o—o

I broke off the last entry because I was able to identify for the first time where a pair of guards was located. For most of today, I haven't been able to do this, for the guards climb the mountains as quietly as I do, except when they are in pursuit.

I tracked the noise, and found to my delight that I had located the sublieutenant and another guard. Nothing could be better, for no Koretian in his right mind would try to hunt the sublieutenant of the border mountain patrol. (Whether I am in my right mind in trying all this is a matter I will leave to my Emorian reader to decide.)

I hid in a hollowed-out area next to a ledge where the two guards were standing. The hollow was easy to hide in, for it was screened by one of the mountain bushes that grow to a man's height and are thick with twigs and needles. I have scratches all over me now. I was in a shadow so dark that I could barely see myself, but I could catch glimpses of the sublieutenant and the other guard, who were standing on the side of the mountain, trying to listen for me.

It was my first close view of Emorians, aside from the ones I saw in Koretia. They don't look much different from Titus and Fenton, except that the Emorians I've seen before this all shaved their faces, and these men had beards. I suppose that it's hard to find time to shave yourself if you are a soldier. The sublieutenant is a red-haired man, so white of skin that I wondered briefly whether he was sickly, but he has given no indication of illness during his pursuit of me. He has a very odd smile, one that looks as though he's uncertain whether to smile, but his laugh, which I heard briefly, is quite energetic. He is light-framed, but I had already learned that this allows him to run faster than any of the other guards, and the muscles in his thighs and arms are hard. His voice, which I've only heard talking softly so far, is pleasant in timbre, and is less distinctive than his whistle, which has an emphatic tone to it.

The other guard, whose name is Fowler, is less remarkable in appearance. He appears to be about a year younger than the sublieutenant, and he has sandy-colored hair. He seems to be on friendly terms with the sublieutenant, for he addresses him by his name, without his title.

I was interested in overhearing their conversation, not only so that I would be able to find out how they planned to hunt me, but also in hopes that they would mention the man named Quentin whom Fenton thought might have joined the patrol. But though they mentioned the names of several other guards, that name never passed their lips.

Eventually, Fowler went off to the other side of the mountain, while the sublieutenant remained on the ledge, listening. I stayed very still during this, and apparently succeeded in making no noise, for when Fowler returned and said, "Any luck?" the sublieutenant shook his head.

"I surrender," he said. "We're going to have to bring the expert in on this." Without any more words, he let out a whistle.

It was a name-whistle, I knew; whenever the sublieutenant sends an order to a particular guard, he precedes it by a whistle that always begins with a trill. I identified these trilled whistles eventually as names, and by now I know the whistled names of every guard in the day patrol. But this was a whistle I hadn't heard before.

The acknowledgment came immediately, though it was faint. Fowler said, "By the spirits of the dead Charas, I'm tired," and he and the sublieutenant sat down on some rocks overlooking the slope and began chatting. Their backs were to me.

I was intent on hearing when the so-called expert arrived, but I never did. I saw him first, sliding along the side of the mountain so quietly that not even the two guards heard him coming. As I shrank further back into the hollow, I caught a glimpse of his face: it was light brown, and set into it were two sky-blue eyes.

For a moment I was simply confused. This could not be an Emorian, not with skin that dark. Then I remembered, and nearly laughed aloud at my puzzlement. Of course – this man was from the borderland, just like me. Not the Koretian borderland, but the Emorian borderland, where Emorians and Koretians intermarry, just like at home.

He was immediately behind the two guards now, but they were still unaware of his presence. He had a way of putting his feet down as gently as a mountain cat lowers its velvet paws; if I had closed my eyes, I would not have known that he was there. Yet there had been no tentativeness to his climb around the mountain; he had placed his feet with decisiveness and accuracy, exactly on the rocks that wouldn't give way under him. He hadn't been running, but he had moved almost as quickly as though he had been doing so.

I felt my heart beat inside me. The guards who had been hunting me were skilled, but until now, I had been certain that I was the best jackal here. Now I knew that I had met my true rival.

"What is the problem, sublieutenant?" The man had the softened vowels of a borderlander, but his words were spoken with an Emorian accent to them; he sounded like Fenton. The other guards stood and turned, but did not appear startled. Apparently they were used to being crept up on by this man.

"I apologize for disturbing your sleep, sir," said the sublieutenant. "We have a stubborn breacher on our hands – we have been chasing him all morning."

The lieutenant paused before replying. His face was very serious, with no trace of a smile to greet the two men smiling at him. He had a scar down his left temple and another along his neck – once I started looking, I could see that he had scars over most of his body. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties.

"Are you seeking my advice, or do you wish me to take over the mastership?" he asked. His voice was so quiet that it blended in with the wind, and I had to watch his lips to tell what he was saying.

"I would be grateful if you could take over the day patrol for this hunt, sir," replied the sublieutenant. "It is not a serious enough matter yet to justify calling out the night patrol, but the breacher has escaped us twice, and I fear that he is beyond my abilities."

The lieutenant nodded, then sent out a piercing whistle containing his name and another signal I could not identify, but that I tentatively labelled according to what the sublieutenant had said.

Four acknowledgment whistles chirped back; this has been occurring all day in the exact same regular manner, and so I've concluded that the guards are trained to respond in a particular order, though why this should be so is not clear to me.

"Now," said the lieutenant, "report."

The sublieutenant began telling him what had been happening all day. I was surprised when Fowler simply stood by, listening silently, but at the end the lieutenant said, "Report, Fowler," and I realized that this was a set routine known to the soldiers. I would have thought that it would have made more sense for Fowler simply to interrupt the sublieutenant's report whenever he had anything to add, but I reminded myself that Emorians probably have their own ways of doing things. It would be a great mistake for me to assume that Emorians always act like normal people; they are foreigners, after all.

(No, I am the foreigner now, I realized after writing the above sentence. I must adopt the Emorians' way of thinking and acting if I want to learn about their law.)

After Fowler had added his brief comments, the lieutenant said, "It sounds as though the breacher knows our signals."

"One of the King's spies, then?" Fowler said, lifting an eyebrow.

"Perhaps. It is too early to say." The lieutenant turned toward the slope overlooking the pass, and stood motionless, with his back toward me. Like all of the patrol guards, he wore a back-sling. These appeared no different from my own except that a leather strap hangs part of the way out of them; I had not yet figured out its purpose.

The lieutenant added, "He did not draw his blade, you say."

"No, though he had a chance to do so when we closed in on him," the sublieutenant replied.

The lieutenant nodded and turned back to look at the others; I caught another glimpse of his azure eyes. "Very well, then, we capture on sight. Every guard to stay with his partner at all times. We communicate by words only from this point on. If the hunted shows signs of drawing his blade, do not try to capture him by yourselves; retreat and call for help from the rest of the day patrol. Understood?"

The others nodded. Fowler said, "Our first problem will be finding the breacher, sir. He is as silent as a hibernating burrow-bird at the moment."

"I will take care of that," replied the lieutenant. "Spread the word to the others – and for love of the Chara, remember to stay with your partner. Just because this Koretian has refrained from drawing his blade yet, that does not mean he will refrain from changing his mind. I do not want any of you ending up like Byrd."

The sublieutenant gave one of his half-smiles, drew his sword, and held it flatwise against his face. I'd seen the soldiers at Blackpass make this gesture, so I knew it to be a salute. Then he sent out a series of whistle-signals to the other guards, none of which I could identify except for a request for locations. These locations the guards evidently gave, for the sublieutenant and Fowler were soon headed down the mountain in the direction of one pair of the guards.

The lieutenant resumed looking over the pass. His head turned slowly from one side to the next as he did so; after a moment, I realized that he was listening for the hunted. The sublieutenant had done the same thing not long before this, but something made me take shallower breaths and stay absolutely still.

He was a long time listening. It was hard staying still, and I could feel my nose beginning to drip. (I caught a cold last night, having finally reached a point in the mountains where the autumn air has already arrived.) I reached up and wiped the moisture from my nose, sniffing as I did so – then froze as the lieutenant's hand went to his sword hilt.

There was little sound as he drew his blade, for the sheath was made of leather. For a moment more, he and I stood fixed in our positions. Then he turned with a suddenness that made me jump, and walked swiftly and unerringly up to the bush.

"Come out," he said sharply in Common Koretian.

There was no use in pretending I wasn't there; he was close enough to see me now. I considered staying where I was and making him come in after me, but fighting amidst those thorns would do as much damage to me as to him. Better to appear to be a compliant prisoner.

I slid past the twigs, bowing my head, and trying to appear as much as possible like Siward in the moments after I bound him. I didn't look up at the lieutenant. All that I could see was his sword, pointed my way. I said in a trembling voice – it was not hard to produce such a tone – "Please don't hurt me."

My act worked; the lieutenant's voice was gentler as he said, "Turn around, sir."

He spoke this time in Border Koretian, having identified my accent from my few words, and it was clear from the ease with which he spoke that this was his native tongue as well. I was standing with my back against a cliff wall. Slowly I turned away to face the wall, but not before allowing a few tears to drip from my eyes – again, this effect was not hard to produce.

I even managed to tremble as he took my limp wrists and pulled them back behind me crosswise. He did so firmly but without any harshness. I felt the touch of leather against my wrists; this was the meaning of the strap in the back-sling.

A cold touch against my wrist told me that he was still holding his sword, but I knew that he would be doing so lightly, now that he was absorbed in binding his passive prisoner. I waited for the moment at which he began to draw the first knot together; then I brought my right elbow back hard against his stomach. In the same moment, I grasped the blade of his sword with my left hand.

I cut my palm in the process, of course, but I succeeded in wrenching the sword away from the lieutenant. I swung my left side around in order to force the lieutenant to back up to avoid being sliced open by his own blade. For a moment I caught sight of him; he was bent over from the pain of my jab, but his eyes had turned hard, and he did not appear frightened at what I had done. Then I threw the sword high and heard it clatter down the mountainside. I had no interest in harming anyone in the patrol; I simply wanted to disarm this guard, above all the others.

By the time the sword fell, I was already at the edge of the ledge, preparing to climb further down the slope. At the moment of my descent I looked back to see where the lieutenant was. He was standing where I had left him, still panting to regain his breath, but his right hand was raising the edge of his tunic with a smooth motion. Something brown was wrapped around the top of his right leg, and his hand touched it; then he withdrew his hand, and afternoon sunlight flashed off of a tiny object in his palm.

I had never before seen a thigh-dagger, but I had heard what injuries it could inflict. For a fleeting moment, I wondered whether I had been wise to strip the lieutenant of his sword.

Then there was no time to think, for I was scrambling down the mountain with the lieutenant in close pursuit behind me. He did not whistle to his men, but I knew that the sound of the hunt would alert the other guards to where we were. Somehow I had to find a hiding place before the others caught up.

I nearly discovered the place by falling into it. I had encountered this sort of ravine before, though, while travelling through the mountains near Mountside. Everything in the border mountains is black, but nothing is blacker than these fissures that occasionally occur between two mountains. If you aren't on the lookout for them, it is easy to fall straight into them, and Hamar and I had found pleasure in tossing pebbles down them and seeing how deep they were. Some were so deep that we never heard the pebbles strike the ground.

These clefts are deep, but they're also very narrow. As a result of some experimentation (and lots of dares), Hamar and I learned that it was possible to go down into these ravines by bracing our backs on one side of the cleft wall and propping our stretched legs against the other side; with a narrow enough ravine, we could work our way up and down without trouble.

I used this fact to my advantage to plan an elaborate practical joke on my brother one day: I ran straight into the path of a cleft and disappeared into the hole with a cry, leaving Hamar to surmise my death. Actually, I had caught the edge of the ground at the last minute and jammed myself into position, but it's impossible to see far into these ravines, even when you're standing straight over them. I nearly killed myself trying to keep from laughing when Hamar came forward to peer into the hole . . . until I looked up and saw his face turned moon-white. When I emerged from the hole, Hamar gave me the worst fist-beating of my life, but I never grudged him it.

Now I gave no elaborate thought to what I was doing, having done it before. I stripped off my back-sling, since I needed my back bare for this feat, and flung the sling under a narrow overhang at the foot of the mountain. Then I ran back around the curve of the hill to see where the guards were.

The lieutenant was very close behind, so close that I could see the razor-edged dagger in his hand. Not far behind him were the sublieutenant and Fowler; the rest of the guards were beyond sight, but I could tell from the sound of their footsteps that they were closing in fast.

I waited until I was sure that the lieutenant could see me; then I turned and began running around the mountain, toward the ravine. I heard the lieutenant shout something behind me, but I paid no heed to his words, for I was concentrating on the difficult task of sliding, jumping, screaming, catching, jamming, and – hardest of all – freezing.

The panting of my breath nearly obscured the thunder of steps. I forced myself to take longer and shallower breaths and then looked up, despite the fact that I knew I shouldn't allow my reflective eyes to chance catching a bit of light.

The lieutenant was staring down the ravine; he was joined in the next moment by the sublieutenant and Fowler. Fowler took a long look at the black pit below, then backed away. I heard him say something to a pair of guards who had just arrived. The sublieutenant looked over at the lieutenant and said, "Anything?"

I resisted the temptation to hold my breath; any change in sound might alert the lieutenant to what had happened. The lieutenant was standing motionless. His thigh-dagger was now in his left hand, and his right hand was curled in a ball. After a moment he said quietly, "He's breathing – but it makes no difference. These ravines are too deep; we will not be able to get him out of there."

The sublieutenant glanced down at the lieutenant's hand, then reached into the lieutenant's back-sling and took out a face-cloth. He handed it to the lieutenant, who absentmindedly wrapped it around his right hand. As he opened his palm, I saw that it was covered with blood; he must have accidentally cut himself with his thigh-dagger during his final effort to reach me before I fell.

"Shall we call down to him?" asked the sublieutenant.

"No." The lieutenant's voice had turned flat. "There is nothing we can do for him. He has his dagger; he will use it when he realizes his situation."

"If he has the courage to do so." This comment came from Fowler, still standing beyond my view.

"He has it." The lieutenant's voice was clipped short. He glanced over to the side as another pair of guards arrived, their voices raised with queries. He cut short their questions with a decisive whistle.

It was an End of Hunt whistle that Fenton had taught me . . . although, he has explained with a half-smile, I would never hear it used if the hunt for me ended this way. The whistle means, "The hunted is captured dead."

"Return to patrol," the lieutenant added, and turned his head back to look down the hole. His face was in shadow, but what little I could see of it appeared to hold no expression.

There was soft murmur as the guards began to depart. Soon only the sublieutenant remained, still standing beside the lieutenant.

The latter said, without looking his way, "I said, Return to patrol."

"I was wondering whether you needed help in finding your sword, lieutenant," the sublieutenant replied in a matter-of-fact voice.

After a moment, the lieutenant said, "Thank you, yes. He dropped it down the north side of Mount Skycrest; I will be there to search in a minute."

The sublieutenant nodded; then he disappeared from my view. I heard his retreating footsteps and his whistle as he signalled something to his partner. The lieutenant remained where he was, staring down at me – to his knowledge, he was now alone. So only I saw his eyes close and his hands form into fists, and only I heard him whisper, "May I die a Slave's Death."

Then he walked away.

o—o—o

I've written all of this in my latest hiding place. When I worked my way out of the ravine and went over to place where I'd flung the back-sling, I found that the narrow opening between the rocks led to a tiny hollow that could barely be dignified with the title of cavern; it seemed to be the sole chamber of a cave. I've spent all afternoon here, at first because I needed to bandage my cut hand, then because I was too shaken by my experiences to move, and finally because I realized that I couldn't make it to the border before sunset, and I didn't want to be on the move when the lieutenant led his night patrol out.

Tomorrow morning I think I will have a good chance of reaching the border. Everyone here thinks I'm dead; as long as I remain quiet, I doubt that they will ascribe to me any sounds that they hear. So tomorrow I will be in Emor.

I haven't yet thought about what I will do when I get there. I will need food while I'm searching to know about the law, and that means I will need to seek out some sort of work. The obvious place to look for a job is in the Emorian borderland, where I won't be conspicuous, but I'm not sure whether the law is to be found there. Perhaps I should go to the capital city. I know that it isn't far from the border, and perhaps many visiting Koretians go there.

It seems too much to hope for: that I should make it past the patrol without being harmed, that I should reach Emor, and that I should actually have my chance to learn what the law is.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

The seventeenth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

This is the first day that I have been well enough to write, and just sitting up causes me pain enough, but I have so much of importance to write about that I can't keep myself away from this journal any longer. I find myself smiling as I read the end of my previous entry, for nearly everything I hoped there failed to come true: I am not in Emor, I am not free from the patrol, and I have been badly injured. And yet my greatest hope has come true at the same time.

It was my curiosity that caused all this to happen – my curiosity on not one but three occasions, and the disastrous consequences of not following my common sense. But I need to go back to the start of the story. It was dusk three days ago, I was lying in the cave and trying to sleep in the cold, and I was listening with half an ear to the sound of whistles in the distance.

There had been whistles earlier in the afternoon when another border-crosser was sighted, but the hunt ended almost immediately, so I surmised that either the border-crosser had legitimate business in Emor – or Koretia, if he was going the other way – or else he was a far wiser breacher than me and had surrendered immediately. After that, there was quiet except for the periodic sound of the sublieutenant sending out a certain whistle that was routinely acknowledged by the other guards. I decided that this must be the way for the sublieutenant to tell that his men were still safely patrolling, and as I ate the last of my food, I found myself listening for the sublieutenant's signal when I expected it to come.

So it was the patrol's silence that drew me out of the cave, and it was the muffled sound of laughter that drew me cautiously around the mountain, toward the pass.

The laughter was coming from the other side of the pass, but the noise was so faint that I could not pinpoint its location. A half-moon was up now, and I stared at the mountains opposite: they were blacker than the night, reaching up to touch the vault of the sky. Aside from the muffled voices, I could hear nothing in the mountains but the sound of an occasional mountain bird. No slight rattle of rocks indicated that the guards were still patrolling.

Then, like a death spirit walking through walls, a guard emerged from the side of the mountain opposite. I was positioned in shadow, and I flattened myself against the rock I was leaning back against. The guard took no notice of me. A moment later, a second guard emerged, and then, in short order, three more guards. After that, there was quite a long delay, and I began to think that I should retreat to my cave before I was discovered, out in the open. But finally a sixth guard walked out of the mountain. I could not see his face, but I recognized his whistle as he signalled another guard: it was the lieutenant.

This was obviously the moment at which to retreat. The lieutenant was on his night-prowl, and anyway, I had learned as much as I needed to know. The mountain patrol had a secret hideout where the full patrol gathered at dusk; presumably, this would happen again at dawn, and during that valuable interval of time I could be well on my way to Emor. The best thing to do was to return to the cave and get a full night's sleep.

I waited until I was sure the lieutenant must be far away on his patrol. Then I walked forward to find the entrance to the hideout.

I justified it in my mind, of course; I told myself that I wanted to eavesdrop on the day patrol to learn what their plans were for the following day. But the truth was more complex. I had become intrigued by the patrol, and especially by its lieutenant and sublieutenant. I wanted to know what these men were like who spent their days hunting border-breachers in the mountains. And I wondered whether any of the guards might say something while off-duty that would tell me more about the Chara's law.

Even though I had seen the men emerge from the mountain, it took me a while to locate the entrance. This consisted of one rock wall overlapping another; though I am slender, I could barely squeeze my way through the entrance. The tunnel behind was wider but dark; I couldn't see any light at the other end. I began walking forward, first steadily, then more and more slowly as something about the echo of my footsteps made me uneasy.

At a certain point, the rock path beneath my feet began to tilt downward. Feeling my feet slip slightly, I stepped back and got down on my stomach to feel the ground ahead.

It was very clever; if I had been less cautious, I would have fallen straight into the trap. The tilting slab of stone which had been set in place was so slippery with algae that any attempt to back up would cause the visitor to slide forward instead, straight into the pit that had been dug for such intruders. I threw a pebble into the pit and ascertained from the sound of its fall that the pit was deep enough to trap a man, but not deep enough to kill him. Being captured, though, was a fate that had become as fearful to me as death, so I spent several nervous minutes ascertaining how far I would have to jump in order to reach the other side of the pit.

I managed the jump, but just barely; it was hard to be sure at what point I should leap into the air. Clawing at the wall of the tunnel to keep myself from falling backwards, my hand discovered a wooden plank. This, I supposed, was used when the guards brought visitors to their hideout.

I walked forward, the tunnel curved, and soon I could see light ahead and hear voices. Stepping soundlessly through the tunnel, which now flickered with golden-red light, I cautiously edged myself up to the exit of the tunnel. Then I stood a moment in the shadows, looking out at the scene.

There before me, like a cupped hand raised toward the sky, was a green hollow in the mountains. On all sides, the naked mountains rose in steep walls; down below, unlike any other part of the mountains I had seen, the ground was covered with grass and autumn flowers. A stream, splashing down in a waterfall from the mountainside, cut across the far end of the hollow before disappearing into the earth. Near it, a small and windowless stone cottage stood, barely more than a hut. Its door was open, but its interior was black with night.

I could see all of this, not only because of the moon's glow, but because a large balefire blazed to the side of the hut. Sitting around it in pairs were the six guards of the day patrol, drinking from flasks and idly tossing wood chips into the fire. One of the guards was saying something, but he was being interrupted by periodic interjections and laughter from the other guards.

It was very cold by now, and I found myself shivering; I hadn't possessed money enough to buy a cloak before starting on my journey north. The wind whistling into the hollow pushed toward me the sweet scent of smoke and the warmth of the fire, as though it were breathing upon me. I strained to hear what the guards were saying, but all I could catch were tantalizing phrases tossed my way by the wind. I stepped out of the entrance.

No one noticed me; the guards were absorbed in their conversation. Looking around, I saw that the hollow was ringed by a garland of thorny bushes like the one I had hidden behind on the previous afternoon. There were gaps between the bushes; through one of these I stepped. Then I began my silent crawl toward the guards.

I did not have to worry here about my body making any reverberating sound on the rocky ground; the grassy carpet went up to the edge of the mountain wall beside me. I concentrated on making as little sound as possible, and did not allow myself to pay attention to what the guards were saying until I had come within a short distance of the fire. Then I peered through the bare branches of the bush as though I were staring through the bars of a prison.

Directly opposite to me was the sublieutenant and his partner; the others I recognized from their one attempt to close the circle on me. I knew their whistles, and since I had heard the sublieutenant describe their hunt for me, I also knew their names. The guard to the right of Fowler was just finishing what sounded to me like a mysterious incantation, while the others applauded and cheered. The guard turned red as I watched, in the manner that light-skinned men do.

"By the spirits of the dead Charas, Iain, you are a true lover of the law," said the sublieutenant, leaning forward to warm his flask over the fire. "I pity you, Fowler, trying to better that performance. What is your pleasure, Iain?"

"The Law of Interpretation," Iain replied promptly. He was sitting cross-legged, balancing his flask on one knee, and pulling his cloak closer as he shivered in the wind.

"The Law of what?" yelped Fowler; whereupon he endured the laughter of the other guards.

"It is the interpreters' law," said the sublieutenant, grinning as he sipped from his fire-warmed flask. "You know that one; I taught it to you last summer."

"You taught me six dozen cursed laws last summer," muttered Fowler.

"Watch your language," said the sublieutenant. "We have a child in our midst." He ducked in a mock manner, as though to avoid the wrath of the guard sitting on his other side, the one my age who had been unable to stop me from escaping from the day patrol's closing circle.

Iain had already begun saying, "'And being as it is more grave that a man talented in tongues should reveal secrets which are given to him under the shield of interpretation—'" He stopped and looked expectantly at Fowler.

There was a pause, and the guard named Jephthah suggested, "Turn the chain, Fowler."

"No, I remember this one," Fowler replied, stretching out his legs toward the fire. "'—the sentence for such a crime shall be mercy or branding or death.'"

"Death! Is that right?" said the guard named Hoel. Iain nodded, and Hoel asked, "Why death?"

"Listen to the Justification," said the sublieutenant. "Jephthah, if you flick one more piece of wood in my face, I swear that the next time you call for help, I'll leave you to your doom."

Jephthah, smiling, tossed another wood chip in the sublieutenant's direction as Fowler said, "For those who have been entrusted with the work of interpretation, and who have therefore been allowed to hear secrets which they could not otherwise lawfully hear, have a greater duty than most men to remain silent, even when threatened with pain or death. For the interpreter is an intermediary between men of different lands, enabling the Chara and his people to spread knowledge of the Law to others in the Three Lands and beyond. And should the interpreter fail to keep to his duty, the Law will— It will—' Oh, may you die a Slave's Death, Iain. Complete the link."

It took a while for Iain to be heard over the laughter. Finally he said, "'And should the interpreter fail to keep to his duty, the Law will die in the end, for the Lawmaker ordained that the Law should be given to all people. This is Emor's gift to the other lands, and so the interpreter, because he stands between two lands, is granted a role almost as great as that of the Chara, since he alone has the ability to show Emor to other lands, and other lands to Emor.'"

"Did he get that right?" Fowler turned for confirmation to the sublieutenant, and then sighed heavily and dramatically as the sublieutenant nodded. Fowler dragged his body back until it was outside the tight circle of guards surrounding the fire.

The sublieutenant said, "One link missing, but you relinked the chain nicely, Iain. It is Jephthah's turn again."

"Not again!" protested Jephthah, who was sitting beside Iain. "I swear, sublieutenant, you arrange it this way every time: the chain always turns when it reaches you, and you win the game purely because it is never your turn."

"It makes no difference if the sublieutenant does play," said Hoel. "He never breaks a link."

The sublieutenant gave a faint smile. His smile still intrigued me: one half of his face turned upward while the other remained serious. "I have broken more than enough links in my time," he said. "Just ask the lieutenant. But I will be glad to take the next turn if you insist. Iain?"

"Hold your attack," said Iain. "I still cannot think of a linking law."

"The Law of Ambassadors," suggested Hoel, turning his flask upside down to confirm that it was empty. "That is another law about intermediaries."

"The Law of Peace Settlements," offered Fowler from outside the circle. "Ambassadors are mentioned in that one."

"Only in the Definition, not in the Justification," said the sublieutenant. "What about the Law of the Border Mountain Patrol, Iain? I am sure that I cannot remember that one."

His suggestion was hooted down amidst the laughter. Iain said, "No, I know which one to use; there is a mention of interpreters toward the end. I have been saving this one for you, sublieutenant – you will never complete the link. 'And being as it is gravest of all that anyone should disobey the Great Chara—'"

"It is bound to fail, Iain," said Jephthah. "He knows all of the Great Three by heart."

"Not entirely," said the sublieutenant, "and I still have to memorize most of the Law of Grave Iniquity. But I know the subsection that you are going to cite."

"You only think that you know it," said Iain. "Subsection Thirty-Four, 'On Obedience of Witness.'"

The sublieutenant smiled and tossed a twig into the flames. Through the fire I could see his eyes, bright green like the grass around him. There was an odd intensity about his gaze as it rested upon Iain – odd because his voice was light as he said, "'—the sentence for such a crime shall be mercy or enslavement or the high doom of death by the sword. Subsection Thirty-Four. It is also important that at all times the Emorian people give true witness to the Chara, not only in his court, but even when he speaks with them outside of the court. And this remains true if a man should meet with the Chara in private—'"

Iain's howl cut short the sublieutenant's recital. Hoel said, "I have no memory of that sentence."

"The Chara revised the subsection last year," said the sublieutenant, patting Iain on the back with a show of commiseration as the guard buried his face in his hands. "He changed it so that it would conform with the proclamation he issued in connection with the charge brought against the court summoners' clerk who lied to him. It was the first time that the Chara had been obliged to interpret whether this subsection should be applied to private conversations."

"Is that the clerk whom Neville replaced?" asked Jephthah.

"Neville told me about the revision," Iain said, tossing his head up. "He said that the revision hadn't been published yet, and he swore that he hadn't told you about it. May the high doom fall upon you, sublieutenant – how did you know about the change?"

The sublieutenant replied calmly, "Because unlike the rest of you, I spend my winters studying the law rather than dissipating my time in wine, women, and song. I do not waste my evenings in taverns filled with crooning bards singing sickly sentimental songs about murder and suicide – unlike a certain guard I could mention." His gaze turned toward Jephthah, who silently toasted him amidst the laughter. "Nor do I spend my time hand-in-hand and lip-to-lip with loose women, as does our junior-most guard, judging from the volume of letters he receives—"

"We are betrothed!" the youngest guard said indignantly.

"The more fool you for getting yourself betrothed when you could be spending your leisure time practicing swordplay and the law."

"We all practice swordplay during the winters, sublieutenant," volunteered Fowler from the half-light where he sat.

"I assume so, or you would all be dead," replied the sublieutenant. "But if Chatwin does not spend more time learning the law and less time sighing over his betrothed's picture, he is likely to take another misstep into lawbreaking one of these days. I swear, Chatwin, you know as little law as a god-loving Koretian."

Chatwin's partner, Hoel, looked angry, but Fowler interjected his voice first. "Be gentle on him, sublieutenant. He has only been with us for three months. Anyway, you still need to finish your link."

"Do not bother," said Iain, pulling himself out of the circle. "He knows the rest of the subsection; I have heard him recite it. What is your next link, sublieutenant? The Law of False Witness is an obvious choice."

"I am not sure I know that one," said Chatwin in a subdued voice.

He was staring at the ground, and the sublieutenant looked his way, then smiled again suddenly. "This one you know," he said. "'And being as it is more grave that a soldier should be disobedient to his official—'"

"'—the sentence for such a crime shall be mercy or reprimand or beating,'" Chatwin replied promptly. "'For however small an order it may be that the soldier refuses to obey, his obedience is necessary in all things . . .'"

I was beginning to feel very cramped, crouched as I was behind the bush. Part of me knew that I should leave while the guards were still absorbed in their conversation; it was clear by now that they would not be discussing their patrolling plans. But nothing could have driven me from where I was. Here at last I had found what I was seeking: information about the law. And though I didn't understand most of what was being said, I knew two things: that the mountain patrol was learned in the law, and that the patrol's sublieutenant was more learned in such matters than anyone else here.

At that moment, the sublieutenant, still listening to Chatwin's recital, leaned forward to throw a few final drops of his flask-liquid onto the fire. As the flames sizzled and steamed, his eyes rose, and for a brief moment I thought that he could see me, but his gaze continued to rise until he was staring straight up at the stars above, leaning back on his hands.

There was a pause in the conversation. Chatwin had finished his recital; now he said, "Did I get that right?"

"Quite right," said the sublieutenant, still staring up at the stars wheeling above. "Except that you said 'obedience toward the Chara' rather than 'to the Chara.' That makes a great difference in the law, you know."

"How so?" asked Fowler.

The sublieutenant finally looked down again to stare at his empty flask. He made no reply to his partner's question, but said, "I am out of wine, and so is Hoel. Will you fill our flasks, Fowler?"

"Let Hoel go," responded Fowler. "I want to hear what the difference is."

Again, the sublieutenant did not reply, but he hummed a short phrase of music that sounded vaguely familiar. The other guards' heads swivelled in the sublieutenant's direction, and after a moment, Fowler grinned and said, "Oh, very well, I will take on the duty. Where did Devin put the new cask?"

"At the south end of the storeroom, in the direction of the door. If you are going to open a cask, though, you had better clean that blood-dirtied blade of yours."

Fowler obediently came up to the fire and held his blade over the fire to cleanse it, then sheathed it once more as Iain said between yawns, "Good hunting in finding that cask, Fowler. The way Devin hides our goods, you will be at it all night."

"Five minutes at most," said Fowler, looking toward the hut. "I place a day's wages on it."

"Wager accepted," said Iain as Fowler walked away. "All right, sublieutenant, I surrender. What is the difference between 'to' and 'toward'?"

The sublieutenant tossed his empty flask to one side. "As a term of the law, 'to' indicates a difference of rank: we are obedient to the Chara because we are all subject to him. But if you were obedient toward the Chara, that would imply that you were of the same rank as he was, and that your obedience to him was voluntary. That is why, in the Law of Vengeance—"

All of the guards present groaned, and Jephthah said, "Not the Law of Vengeance again. I thought we would be able to spend one evening without hearing you mention that law."

"It is relevant." The sublieutenant glared at Jephthah. "In the law's Justification, in the passage on the burdens of the Chara, it is stated that the Chara has no equals, but it also says that the Chara is obedient to the law of which he is the embodiment. That shows that not even the Chara is as high as the law, and that even he must be obedient to its consequences. Thus the Chara's only master is the law, just as our greatest masters are the Chara and his law . . ."

We were reaching here closer and closer to the center of all my questions: what the law was, who decided what it said, why it existed. Yet something continued to tap at the back of my mind, and in a single instant I recognized the two thoughts that were trying to break through to my consciousness. One was the realization that Fowler had not taken any flasks with him when he walked away from the fire. The other was the realization that I knew what tune the sublieutenant had been humming: it was a whistle-code, and it meant, 'The hunted is sighted.'"

I stood and whirled, but it was too late; Fowler was standing beside me, blocking my path to the tunnel. His sword was out, and in the dim shadows where we stood, I could see that he was smiling.

"So you are back from the dead," he said in strongly accented Common Koretian. "Well, you will have no further opportunity to trick us, Koretian."

I had only a moment to think. Behind us, the sublieutenant had stopped talking; I knew that he and the other guards were poised to leap forward. I couldn't climb the sheer wall next to me; if I went toward the fire, the guards would capture me; if I ran toward the back of the hollow, there would be no place for me to hide. My only hope was to reach the tunnel, and Fowler was between me and the tunnel.

I had only a moment to think. Then I was past him, and in my hand was my dagger, now wet with blood.

I did not pause until I reached the point where I would break out of the bushes and reach the tunnel. I could hear that the guards were just starting to run forward in response to Fowler's grunt; now I looked back to see how far ahead of them I was.

I barely noticed the guards near the fire, for what I saw was closer than them: the sublieutenant, leaning over Fowler, his hand drenched with blood as he tried to staunch the wound in the side of his motionless partner. He looked up. For a moment I thought that he would pursue me and that he would succeed in catching me, since he was so far ahead of the others. Instead, from his shadow-dark lips there emitted a sound unlike any I had ever heard a human make. It was a whistle, but it was as high and blazing as a shooting star in the sky. It pierced the still night air with such force that I thought the mountains would crack, yet it was higher in tone than any bird's call.

Fenton hadn't taught me this whistle, but I could guess its meaning. I turned, and began my escape from death.

By the time I reached the other end of the tunnel, a deluge of whistles was pouring through the mountain air, all overlapping each other so that I could barely tell where they were coming from. Above them all, I could hear the whistle of the lieutenant, close to where I stood. I turned, and ran in the opposite direction, toward Koretia.

It didn't take me long to realize my folly. I might save my life in this way, by returning to Koretia, but of what use was my life if I spent it in a land where I would never learn about the law? Stubbornly, I turned and began racing east into the mountains. The whistles around me were closer; my only chance was to do as Fenton had done and leave the safe territory of the mountain passes.

The guards around me were racing toward me much faster than they had throughout the day. No attempt was being made to safely encircle me; no caution was being shown toward me any more. Every guard, I could guess, now had his blade drawn, and every one of them was prepared to use it on me the moment I was captured. I had drawn deep blood; I was as much in danger now as I had been when I hunted in Cold Run.

I ran, I swerved, I dodged, and at a certain point I found myself in a narrow cleft, with three mountain walls around me. I turned, and found the lieutenant at the entrance to the cleft.

The moon had risen high, and though the shadows draped darkly upon us, I could see the moon's glitter upon the lieutenant's eyes and his sword. He had paused, but the angle of his sword told me that he was on the point of attacking. The pause was longer than it had been when I faced Fowler, and this time I felt pain well up inside me, and the feel of the trap's jaws close upon me. I must kill him, or be killed. I had no choice, no choice at all.

I had only a moment to think. Then I flung the dagger from my hand, and with a sob escaping from my throat, I turned and tried to climb the mountain wall.

I was no more than an arm's length up the wall when I felt my collar seized, and I was flung onto the ground, back-first. My head hit the rock, and for a moment I lay stunned. Only one whistle-code echoed through the air now, one that sounded familiar. With my head still sick with dizziness, I tried to rise, but something sharp against my chest held me back. I opened my eyes and saw the lieutenant, calmly pressing his sword against my heart.

The hunt was ended; the hunted was captured alive.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

The eighteenth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l. (entry continued)

I lay very still. My hands were still raised above my head, the way they had been when I tried to climb, and I felt my wrists and ankles being pinned to the ground by unseen guards. I didn't resist them. I was afraid that if I moved in the slightest, the lieutenant's sword would miss the spot he was aiming for, and I would die a more painful death than already awaited me.

There was a pause while a soft shuffle of footsteps gathered round me. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that there were more than six guards here; I had been right in thinking that the full unit was after me. My gaze, though, was on the lieutenant, staring down at me with dark hatred in his eyes, and my one thought, outside of terror, was my growing concern as to how long he was going to make me wait like this before he finished his deed.

Softly he said, "Search him."

Instantly, on both sides of me, I felt hands touching my body, swiftly and firmly. I resisted an impulse to flinch away, mainly because I was uncertain as to what they were doing. What did it matter to them whether I had another weapon? I'd have no chance to use it. The hands ceased to touch me on my front, and then I was rolled over onto my stomach, and I could feel myself being touched again. Still I did not move, for now I could feel the lieutenant's blade against my spine.

God of Mercy, I thought. Is he really going to kill me in the back? For the first time I felt the impulse to speak – not to plead for my life, which was clearly forfeit, but to ask the lieutenant to give me an honorable death. Then I stifled the impulse. What did I know of Emorian honor? Perhaps in Emor there was no shame attached to being stabbed in the back, as a fleeing man might be killed.

"He is naked," said one of the guards, meaning of course that I was unarmed. There was another pause, and my shoulder-blades began to draw toward each other, bracing for the moment.

Then the lieutenant said, "All right, get him up. And bind his eyes too; we take no chances with this one."

My momentary bewilderment was ended by sharp pain as one of the guards jerked down my upraised hands down and began to bind them behind my back with a leather strap. Another guard was tying a cloth over my eyes. Then I was pulled to my feet.

This was worse than I had expected; I was not even going to be granted the quick death I had dreaded. They were going to take me some place where they could give me a slow, painful death – perhaps they would torture me for days. I felt myself begin to shiver once more, and this time I knew that it wasn't from the wind.

Given the fact that I had been travelling in near darkness, I ought not to have had any trouble travelling eye-bound, but there is a great difference between walking forward in the darkness on your own feet and being propelled forward without having a chance to feel the ground beneath you. I never fell; the hands holding me on either side wrenched me upward each time I stumbled. After a few minutes of this, I discovered to my fury that moisture was forming at the edge of my eyes. Death I could accept, pain I would endure somehow, but this march of humiliation seemed calculated to break my spirit.

Presently the hands released me, and someone pushed me sideways, then forward. On either side of me I could feel rocks brushing against my arms; from the hollowness of the footsteps before me and behind me, I could tell that we were in the tunnel leading to the hut. The patrol guards must have marched me over the wooden plank across the pit, for the echoes of my footsteps ceased. I felt grass under my feet for a while, then the hands took hold of me again, and I travelled through open air for a short space before being suddenly thrust forward. I stumbled and fell to my knees, just saving myself from falling entirely to the floor. The ground beneath me was dirt, the air felt warm, and there were low voices speaking around me that had a hollow tone to them. I must be in some sort of enclosure again.

I heard the lieutenant saying something soft to his men. I was raised to my feet, less harshly than I had been thrown forward, and the cloth was removed from my eyes.

I found I was standing in a small room – this must be the hut I had seen in the hollow. Immediately in front of me was an open hearth-fire that was the sole source of light in the room. Beyond it, most of the soldiers were crowded around a dark, open doorway. Then they stepped back, and from the room beyond the main chamber stepped the sublieutenant.

He took no notice of me. He went over to the lieutenant, who was standing near me, and pulled his sword from his sheath. For a moment, he held the blade flat against his face; then he sheathed his weapon once more.

"How is he?" asked the lieutenant in Emorian.

"He will live." The sublieutenant's gaze wandered over toward me for the first time, and his brows dived low. "He caught Fowler's side – the wound is bad, but his life's blood has not spilled without measure. Gamaliel says that he should be taken back to the city. He doubts that Fowler will recover before the snows fall."

The door in the back was closing, and the other soldiers had begun to turn my way. The lieutenant was looking at me now as well; his expression had not grown any lighter since he first captured me. I felt my lungs being squeezed short at the same moment that my breath quickened. Now, I thought, they will begin.

"Very well, sir," said the lieutenant to me in Common Koretian. "You obviously wanted badly to cross the border. You may as well tell us why."

I must have gaped – at least, that was what I was feeling inside. But perhaps my expression came across as defiance, for the next thing I knew the lieutenant had me pinned by both shoulders against the wall. "Listen, Koretian," he said, his voice still even and cool, though his hands were pressed hard against me, "you just wounded one of my best men. I am not in a mood to be patient. You will answer the questions I ask you."

My voice came out in a feeble sort of tremble. "You won't believe me."

"You have nothing to lose by telling me the truth," said the lieutenant, still very cool. "You have a great deal to lose by not speaking."

Blocked from my view by the lieutenant, the sublieutenant said, "He is probably going to say that his gods made him do it. That is what Koretians always say when they break the law."

The one, small part of me that was still functioning rationally put out an urgent message that I must not mention the gods in my reply. This created a difficulty – I had never before tried to censor all reference to the gods in my speech – but the lieutenant was clearly not prepared to wait long, so I switched over to Emorian, which gave me an excuse to stumble slowly through my speech. "I wanted to be Emorian," I said. "I knew that you wouldn't let me into your land without a letter of passage, but I wanted to become one of you. I wanted—" I hesitated before remembering what Fenton had said about the law. This was how I could find a substitute for speaking of the gods. "I wanted to take a vow of service to the Chara."

There was a good deal of murmuring going on between the soldiers now, but the lieutenant didn't move his gaze. He still had me pinned to the wall, and his face was but a hand's span from mine. "I see," he said. "Is there any particular reason you were so eager to do this?"

"My family is in a blood feud."

The side of the lieutenant's mouth quirked up, though his eyes remained angry. "You fled to Emor so that you would not be murdered?"

"No. So that I wouldn't have to murder."

The lieutenant made no reply; he still hadn't released me. I thought wildly to myself that I would never be able to explain. He must have heard of blood feuds, but he couldn't understand what it was like to take part in one. I wouldn't have understood if it hadn't happened to me. I might as well remain quiet and let them do whatever it was that they planned to do to me.

But I found myself saying, "I wanted to live in a land where there are no blood feuds. I heard about the Chara's law – about how murderers in Emor are brought to judgment, and no one has to kill out of blood-lust. I wanted to find out more about this law. It seemed to me that it must be more worthy of honor than—" I faltered, then concluded, "Than the gods."

The murmuring in the room had died out. The lieutenant straightened his elbows so that, while he was still holding me, he was further back from me now. "Carle," he said.

The sublieutenant's head appeared over the lieutenant's shoulder. "Sir?"

"Is he telling the truth?"

The sublieutenant looked into my eyes, peering as closely at me as I used to look at Emorian writings I was trying to translate. Sublieutenant Carle said slowly, "Yes, sir, I believe he is."

The lieutenant released my shoulders with a suddenness that startled me. "So you like the idea of Emorian law, do you?"

I nodded mutely.

"Do you think what you did just now was lawful?" asked the lieutenant softly.

I swallowed; my throat was so tightly closed that even that was painful. "I don't know, sir," I said. "I don't know any Emorian law."

"Let me try another question. Do you think that what you did was just? Do you think that it was right?"

"He has no understanding of justice, sir," said Carle with disgust. "He does whatever his gods tell him to do."

I could feel myself growing dizzy with bewilderment again. Was it right for me to have attacked a man who had been keeping me from doing what I wanted? The question would never have occurred to me. If I were in my village— No, that wouldn't do; if I were in my village, I would either be dead or undergoing torture by now. There must be some reason that the lieutenant was asking me these questions. Well, in the old days, would I have thought that the gods would approve of what I did? Despite Carle's statement, it seemed to me that that was closer to what the lieutenant was asking me, but I was still unsure of an answer.

"I don't know, sir," I said. "Perhaps it wasn't."

In the silence that followed, I could hear the crackle of the fire and the moan of the wounded man in the next room, but nothing more. Then the lieutenant said, "I will give you a choice, then. You can return to Koretia now and start your life over again. Or you can undergo judgment by Emorian law for what you did. The maximum penalty for your crime is death."

It wasn't clear to me what he was offering. On the one hand, he seemed to be offering to let me go, as long as I went back to Koretia . . . and that was a fate that I was not prepared to contemplate. On the other hand, he was asking me to accept certain death – or was it certain?

"Did you say 'maximum penalty,' sir?" I asked.

"Yes. You could be given a lesser sentence." Then, seeing my blank look, he added, "A lesser punishment. But I cannot promise that; you might be sentenced to death."

"The question is not which penalty is worse," said Carle. "By the law-structure, lieutenant, is it not clear that this boy has no understanding? He is just trying to find the easiest way out. He cares nothing about what he has done."

Somehow, Carle's words made it clear to me what I was being offered. I felt a burst of joy and said, "Will you do that? Will you show me how the law works?"

"It would not be a game," said the lieutenant. "You would be on trial for your life."

"That doesn't matter," I said impatiently. "I'd rather die than go back to Koretia. But if I could just know first what the law is—" I stopped, thought back to the words I had heard Carle speak at the fireside, and added, "It would be worth dying, to know what the law is and to be obedient to its consequences, even for a short time."

The soldiers' murmuring returned once more; I heard one of them mutter, "Heart of Mercy," but I did not hear the rest of this mysterious oath. The lieutenant was exchanging looks with Carle. After a moment he said, "Very well. What is your name?"

"Adrian son of Berenger," I replied.

"Adrian, since you are in the black border mountains, you are under my care and therefore under my judgment; I will be the judge for your trial. Carle, who is the witness?"

"Myself, sir."

"Devin, you are the herald, Payne is the clerk, and Sewell is the summoner; we may as well do this properly for the benefit of the prisoner's education. As for a guide— Adrian."

"Yes, sir?"

"Since you know little of the law, you are entitled to a guide to answer your questions during the trial and explain to you what is happening. Sublieutenant Carle is appearing as a witness against you, but he also happens to be the man in this unit who knows the most about Emorian law. Are you willing to accept him as your guide, or would you prefer that I appoint someone else?"

I looked over at the sublieutenant uncertainly. He no longer looked angry, but I couldn't read his look; it was as if a mask had appeared over his face. "He would be fine, sir," I said, "if – if he wishes to be my guide."

The lieutenant raised his eyebrows toward Carle in query. Carle said, with phrasing that appeared deliberate, "I would be glad to undertake this duty, sir. I want him to have a fair trial."

"Let me know when you are ready, then. I will be in the storeroom in the meantime." And the lieutenant, without looking my way again, walked over to the room in the back.

I looked around uncertainly. Most of the guards had withdrawn to the other side of the hut and were standing there, talking in low voices amongst themselves, but two guards came forward to join Carle and me. One, who appeared to be struggling to keep anger from his face, barely glanced at me as he pulled off his back-sling and rummaged in it. From it he took a pen, an inkwell, and a small wooden board that had paper pinned to it.

He knelt down onto the ground to open the ink, but my attention was distracted by the other guard who had come over to stand by us. His face was white, whiter even than Carle's, and his hair was the color of sun-bleached cloth. Even his eyelashes were blond, as though all bodily color had been stolen from him. He said, with an accent I could barely understand, "What is your pleasure, sublieutenant?"

Carle glared at him, as though the guard's light words were unfitting for the occasion. "I request a charge, Sewell," he said shortly. "I wish to charge Adrian son of Berenger, lesser free-man, with the murder of Fowler son of Serge, lesser free-man."

"Murder!" I exclaimed, taking a worried look at the door through which the lieutenant had left.

"Attempted murder," Carle amended. "It is the same charge, under the law."

"But—" I stopped to look at Sewell, who was watching the other guard scribble down some words as he rose to his feet, pen and paper in hand.

Sewell glanced over at me. "Do you wish to dispute the request?"

I looked uncertainly at Carle, who said, "He is not asking you whether you dispute the charge – whether you are innocent or guilty. He wants to know whether you think that he should charge you with a lesser crime. Sewell is the court summoner, and it is his job to decide whether you should be charged with a crime. The lieutenant, who is judge, can overrule Sewell's decision, but only if he justifies his actions to the higher courts."

"The higher courts?" I said in some bewilderment.

"There is only one court higher than the mountain patrol court," said Sewell, leaning over Payne's shoulder to see what he had written. "That is the Court of Judgment, the Chara's court. If the lieutenant overruled me, he would have to tell the Chara why he did that, so it is unlikely he will overrule me."

I stood where I had been this whole time, pressed against the wall, my hands bound behind me, and feeling increasingly foolish. My life depended on my saying the right words now, but I felt as though I had been asked to learn an entire language in just a few minutes. Sewell waited expectantly for me to reply, then raised his yellow-white eyebrows at Carle when I did not.

"Let us try it this way," said Carle. "Are you surprised that I would charge you with attempted murder? Is that the crime you were expecting to be charged with?"

"I wasn't trying to kill Fowler," I said in a small voice.

Around the hut, the mountain winds continued to whistle. One of the guards went to the door, which had been closed during this time, and opened it a crack before returning to where the other guards stood, murmuring together and occasionally glancing our way. The central fire painted leaping light upon Sewell's face as he said, "Sublieutenant, I am going to have to question the prisoner in private, since you are presenting testimony against him. You can give Payne your witness in the meantime."

Carle nodded, and I watched with concern as my guide and the pen-bearing guard went over into another corner. As they left, Sewell said softly, "Whatever you tell me won't be used in your trial. I just want to determine whether the right charge has been requested against you. What sort of charge did you expect the sublieutenant to make against you?"

"I wasn't trying to kill Fowler," I repeated. "I just wanted to get past him. I did wound him, but I tried not to hurt him badly."

Sewell nodded. "Then you believe that you should be tried under the charge of striking a free-man."

"Striking?" I said tentatively.

Sewell smiled suddenly. "It's a law term. It means any injury that isn't intended to kill."

I nodded wordlessly, and Sewell said, "Very well. You must be skilled with your blade to have breached Fowler's guard. If you didn't kill him, I'll assume that it was because you didn't intend to do so. In the name of the Chara, whose law I am sworn to serve, I charge you under the Law of Assault. The sentence for such a crime is mercy or beating or branding."

I felt what remained of my supper curdling within my stomach. Branding – and not a brand I could hide, as Fenton had hidden his old slave-brand under his sleeve, but a brand on my cheek, to show everyone I met that I had committed a terrible crime. If Emorians were great law-lovers, as Fenton had said, what hope would I have of being accepted in this land when I was branded with the symbol of my lawbreaking? The patrol might as well send me back to Koretia.

I said, struggling to keep my breathing even, "How does the judge decide which sentence to give me?"

"Carle!" The sublieutenant, who had been speaking all this while to Payne as the latter scribed words on the paper, raised his head as Sewell called to him. Sewell said, "The prisoner has a question about his sentences. Are you through there?"

Carle nodded. As he came over to stand by us, Sewell added, "I am charging him under the Law of Assault. Do you wish to appeal my decision to the lieutenant?"

Carle wordlessly shook his head. Then, to my dismay, he reached down to his thigh-pocket. I pressed myself further back against the wall, and a humorless smile flickered across the sublieutenant's face. "Be at peace," he said as he pulled out his thigh-dagger and turned it so that its hilt faced me. "You are not in Koretia – no one is going to murder you. I am releasing your hands. Prisoners are not bound unless they have been charged with a crime that carries a sentence of death. What is your question about the sentences?"

As he pulled me around and used the slender dagger-hilt to pry open the knot in the strap, I repeated my question. He replied, "The judge can find you innocent, or he can find you guilty to varying degrees. If you wounded Fowler willfully and with clear understanding – if you knew what you were doing and you had no excuse for doing it – then the lieutenant will sentence you to a branding. If you wounded Fowler without clear understanding – if you did not realize what you were doing when you committed the crime – then he will sentence you to a beating. If you wounded Fowler under provocation – if something or someone made you do it – then you will still be found guilty, but the judge will show mercy to you and will not sentence you to punishment. Is that clear? You have to decide how to plead your charge – whether or not to admit your guilt, and if you admit it, then to what degree you will say you are guilty."

I considered this as I rubbed my numb wrists. Finally I said, "Saying that something made me do it – what does that mean?"

Carle glanced over at Sewell, who had been murmuring to Payne as the other guard rapidly scribed words on the paper. Sewell looked Carle's way, raised his eyebrows again, and continued speaking to the guard who was acting as clerk.

"Well, you cannot blame your gods." Carle's voice, which had been neutral until now, took on a tinge of sarcasm. "Self-defense is considered provocation; if you thought that Fowler was going to attack you even if you surrendered yourself to him, you could use that as a way to defend yourself against the full charge. Or if you thought that the patrol was going to kill you unlawfully, that is a defense. For that matter, if you thought that you would be murdered in your blood feud if you returned to Koretia, you could use that as a defense." He would have spoken further, but I nodded quickly, and he said, "That is what you will plead? Guilty, but with provocation?"

"Yes," I said. "And then the lieutenant decides on my sentence?"

"After he has heard our witnesses. Devin, I think we are ready." He said this with raised voice to a guard standing next to the storeroom door, then added immediately, "No, wait. Listen, Adrian, we are informal in the patrol court; we use no more ceremony than a village court. But I know what informality means to you Koretians. You cannot just talk whenever you feel like it. You can ask me questions, and if you do not understand what I say, you can ask permission to speak to the judge. But otherwise, you only speak when the judge tells you to. Understand?" I nodded, and Carle said, "The prisoner is ready, Devin."

Devin opened the door a crack, murmured something across the gap, and then closed the door again and said in a booming voice, "All rise; the judge approaches."

Everyone was already standing, but I saw the other guards stiffen and fall silent as the storeroom door opened. The lieutenant looked different from when I had seen him last. He was wearing a cloak, though he had worn only a tunic a short time ago, and he was also wearing a gold chain that lay flat against his chest as he came over to stand against the far wall of the hut. But the greatest change was in his face, which was now drained of all anger and any other emotion. His eyes, cool and reserved, rested upon me briefly before settling upon Devin.

Devin, who had apparently been waiting for this signal, promptly proclaimed, "Let it be known that the Court of the Border Mountain Patrol in the Empire of Emor is now opened. This is the fifteenth day of October in the nine hundred and fortieth year after the giving of the law. The judge for the day is—" He hesitated, looked over at the lieutenant, and said quickly, "The Lieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol is the judge. Let all who speak in this place do so with truth and with reverence for the law."

I waited for the lieutenant to speak then, to ask me why I had done what I did, but it was Payne who stepped forward and said, "Adrian son of Berenger, you have been brought here to answer a charge made against you by Carle, Sublieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol. The charge is that you did willfully and with clear understanding strike a free-man, namely Fowler, Soldier of the Border Mountain Patrol. The witness in this charge is Sublieutenant Carle, and the sentence for such a crime is mercy or beating or branding. Do you—"

I had been trying for some time to interrupt; now I said rapidly, "Yes, I know all this. Soldier Sewell explained—"

I stopped; Carle had thrust his elbow into my ribs. I took a quick glance at his glowering face; then I looked over at Sewell, who had raised his eyes and was studiously watching the smoke disappear through a small hole in the ceiling. I bit my lip shut.

Payne said, as though I had not spoken, "Do you deny the charge?"

I looked hesitantly over at Carle. He nodded slightly, and I said, "I'm not sure— That is, I know that I'm guilty, but I wounded Fowler— I mean, I struck him under provocation. I think I did, anyway."

Carle hissed, "Do not look at me. Look at the judge."

I turned my attention back to the lieutenant. He was standing as still as before; only his cloak rustled from a breeze whistling through the doorway. Beside him, Payne said, "The prisoner pleads that he is guilty but states that his crime was done under provocation. Let the witness against the prisoner be called."

"Carle, Sublieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol!" cried Devin in a booming voice.

Carle took one step forward, and I waited for him to speak, but the lieutenant's muteness seemed to have carried over to him as well, for he stood silently as Payne shuffled through some sheets in his hand. Then Payne said, "The witness against the prisoner is as follows—"

After a moment, I realized that Payne was reciting what Carle had seen after I attacked Fowler. The witness was dry and concise – so concise that it was over almost before it had begun, and Payne was soon saying, "Is this your witness against the prisoner?"

"It is," replied Carle in a voice as dry as his witness.

"Step forward, then."

Carle did so, and I watched with bewilderment as he took the scribing board and pen Payne offered him, and wrote something short on the page Payne had been reading. Then Carle stepped back and rejoined me.

My head was beginning to spin with uncertainty. I almost wished I was back in Koretia, being placed under trial for my broken vow. There, at least, I would have known what I was facing: a long, three-way argument between myself, my father, and the gods' representative, Fenton's successor. There would have been much shouting before the matter was settled, but at least I would have had the opportunity to defend myself. I was beginning to doubt that I would be allowed to do so here.

"Does any other witness stand in this court?" Devin paused, and I glanced to the where the other patrol guards were standing, but all of them continued to watch the proceedings silently. Devin cried, "The prisoner may offer his witness!"

"Address the judge," Carle whispered into my ear, perhaps doubtful by now that I could follow instructions unless they were repeated. "Keep to the point. Tell him only the relevant facts."

I wondered what the relevant facts were. I took a step forward awkwardly, cleared my throat, and said, "Sir, I—"

"Call him Judge," hissed Carle.

We proceeded slowly, me explaining that I had taken a blood vow to avenge the death of my blood brother, Carle correcting the manner of my witness at intervals. When we reached the point of the breaking of my blood vow, I hesitated, knowing that my next witness would condemn me in any trial of the gods' law. But I was here because I believed that the Emorians' law was a just law, so I told the entire tale of the breaking of my blood vow and of my decision to flee to Emor. I skipped forward to the moment when I struck Fowler with my dagger; then, having described that, I hesitated, uncertain.

The room was silent, but for the whistle of wind. The door of the hut had been eased further open by the wind's hand during the proceedings, and only the faint warmth of the fire ate away at the chill in my body. Yet sweat ran down my back.

The lieutenant had been utterly still during my witness, with no change of expression to help me assess what he thought of my tale. Now, in a voice as level as an altar, he said, "I wish to question the prisoner."

"The judge may interrogate you or the other witnesses if he has questions about the witness that has been given," Carle explained in a whisper.

Still with no movement but that of his mouth, the lieutenant asked, "If you had settled in another Koretian village, would your life have been in danger?"

I looked at Carle. He nodded, and I said, "If it was a village in the borderland, my family might have found me in the end. But if I'd travelled farther south— No, probably not."

"So you had a choice besides breaching the Emorian border."

I felt a lump forming in my throat, but I forced myself to say, "Yes."

"So you did not need to enter Emor in order to save your life."

"I didn't just come here to save my life— It was everything— I had to know— It was because of the law—" I abandoned my efforts and said in a dull voice, "No, I didn't have to enter Emor in order to keep from being killed."

The lieutenant allowed Payne barely enough time to scribe these words before he said, "You gave witness that you did not intend to harm any patrol guards. Why, then, did you strike Soldier Fowler?"

"I didn't mean to," I said miserably. "I was just frightened and – I didn't think. If I'd had time to think, I wouldn't have hurt him."

Another pause followed. Payne, I saw, was continuing to scribe all that the lieutenant and I were saying, while Devin appeared alert, apparently sensing the approach of the trial's end. Two of the guards had wandered over to the open doorway, as though fearing that I would attempt flight. There was a pause.

"I wish to give witness," said the lieutenant in a flat voice.

I stared. At my ear, Carle said, "The judge normally does not give witness, but if he believes that a judgment is in balance and that his own witness will tilt the balance, he is duty-bound to speak. You will have the opportunity afterwards to dispute the witness."

I acknowledged Carle's words with a nod, but my gaze had already fallen to the floor. I knew what witness the lieutenant would give. He was the only man who had seen me, not once, but twice with a blade drawn against him. This was the proof needed to condemn me as a dishonorable lawbreaker.

"On two occasions, the prisoner held a naked blade in his hand in my presence," said the lieutenant, his voice still curiously flat. "On both occasions, the prisoner discarded the blade rather than attack me, despite the fact that he was in imminent danger of capture. I offer this witness in support of the prisoner's witness that he did not intend to harm the patrol, and that his crime was undertaken without clear understanding of his deed."

Devin had been watching the lieutenant throughout his speech; now he turned to look at Payne and raised his eyebrows. Payne gave a slight shrug. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the other guards exchanging glances.

I felt moisture trickling down from my mouth and realized that my mouth was hanging open. I rubbed my face against my sleeve, began to speak, and closed my mouth again hastily.

I missed whatever signal the lieutenant gave Devin. Devin announced to the far corners of the hut, "The prisoner may speak."

"I don't understand," I said. My eyes were now on the lieutenant, trying to read from his expression or his pose what his thoughts were. "You spoke for me. You didn't have to say what you did. You could have remained silent. Yet I nearly killed one of your guards. If we were in Koretia, you'd have killed me. Why . . ." My breath failed me momentarily. "What made you do this? What made you help me?"

"I could have spoken out of fear," the lieutenant replied in the same formal voice he had used before. "If any of my men knew or suspected that I was omitting important witness in a case I was judging, they would be duty-bound to place a charge against me with the Chara's court summoners."

I was already shaking my head before he finished speaking; I had seen the guards exchange glances again. "I don't think it was that," I said. "I don't think you told the others what happened between us – at least, not about the last encounter between us. Nobody else knew – not the soldiers, not the Chara. No one knew, so why did you tell?"

I could not have said whether the lieutenant's voice was still formal, for when he replied, it was in a soft voice that barely reached me. "I knew," he said. "And if I had broken my vow to the Chara, I would have known."

The door must have blown all of the way open at that moment, for I felt a chill cover me as though the famous northern snows had fallen upon me. I understood then what Fenton tried to tell me a month ago: I knew then why it was that the Emorians had no need for vengeful gods. What were the gods but the creators and upholders of the gods' law? And what kept men from breaking the gods' law? Not fear of the gods and their vengeance – that hadn't stopped me from breaking my vow.

What kept men from breaking the gods' law was desire for honor. I knew that, I who had stripped myself of all honor five days ago and had lived in dishonor ever since. I could never have had the courage to do that if I had not suspected that a greater honor lay beyond the gods' law. Here, in the land where I had fled to, so great was men's sense of honor that they did not even require gods to peer into their spirits and bring vengeance upon them if they went astray. Their own sense of honor kept them from breaking the law – the true law, the Chara's law.

The lieutenant had been watching my face all this time. Now he said, "I will not give you false witness as to the nature of Emor; Emorians exist who will lie in court. Lying occurs in this land, and murder, and all the misdeeds you know in Koretia. This is the Land of the Living, not the Land Beyond; you will not find perfection in Emor."

"I'm not looking for perfect men," I said, my throat tight. "Just a law that makes men try to be perfect. I'm looking for a law worthy of honor."

The lieutenant simply looked at me. I could not tell whether or not I'd said the right thing. I no longer cared whether I said the right thing. I'd said the truth – and here, here in this court where truth meant honor, that was all that mattered.

o—o—o

He found me guilty through lack of clear understanding and sentenced me to forty lashes. I had half expected that, after the witness he gave me on my behalf, but even so I felt a mixture of sickness and relief when he handed down the sentence: Sickness that, so new to this land, I had already committed a crime. Relief that I had not been judged to be worse.

"Do you wish to appeal my sentence to the higher court?" the lieutenant asked as he slipped off his cloak and chain and gave them to Devin. In exchange, Devin offered him something that flashed grey-bright, like a lake. As the lieutenant pinned closed his neck-flap, I saw what the clasp was: a silver brooch, whose open metalwork depicted a mountain barred by a sword. Now that I looked closer, I could see that the same picture was faintly woven upon his right sleeve, black against black. And all of the other guards here – I saw at a quick glance – wore the same brooches, though the metal differed from person to person: either copper or dull iron. Carle wore a copper brooch. Only the lieutenant wore a silver brooch.

I looked back to see that the lieutenant was watching me levelly, and I remembered the question he had asked me. I had a sudden vision of myself in the Chara's court, being stared upon by the ruler of the Emorian Empire, his expression as cold as the lieutenant's, or even colder . . . "Please, no!" I blurted out.

Devin put his hand over his mouth, and for a moment I even thought I saw the lieutenant's mouth twitch. But the lieutenant simply said, "Then wait outside, please. Carle, a word with you." He turned aside from me.

I looked round, but everybody was avoiding looking at me. After a minute of staring uncertainly, I followed the order I'd been given and left the hut.

When I got outside, I went to the corner-post of the cottage and leaned against it, shivering in the sharp wind as I remembered all the beatings I had witnessed as a child. There weren't many; beatings are a serious matter in Koretia, inflicted only on serious criminals, such as thieves. I remember one such thief, sobbing as the whip lashed open his bare skin.

The sky was turning grey with dawn. I wondered whether any Koretians were taking advantage of this moment to slip over the border. Then I wondered why I had been allowed to leave the cottage alone. Surely I could easily slip away from the patrol and escape my punishment.

But no, if I travelled in the direction of Emor, the patrol's sharp-eared lieutenant would surely catch me again. If I travelled in the direction of Koretia . . .

That was why the lieutenant had allowed me to come out here alone, I realized: to give me the opportunity to run away, to turn my back on the Chara's law. I straightened my spine and waited.

After a few minutes, patrol guards began to leave the cottage, one by one. None of them looked my way. They disappeared into the tunnel, four of them; then there was a space of time in which I waited for Sublieutenant Carle to leave for his daily patrol as well, but he didn't come. I wondered whether he had decided to spend the day sleeping, after his exhausting hunt the night before.

The cottage door opened again, and a man exited. It was Carle. In his left hand was a flask, and in his right hand was a whip.

My breath left me all of the sudden, and my knees felt as though they would give way. So quickly departed the courage I had hoped would sustain me. Carle reached me just as I was sure I would fall to the ground. With a grim look on his face, he took hold of my arm, so hard that I yelped. His look turned to contempt.

He pulled me round to the side of the cottage. There, crammed between two rocks high up on the cottage wall, was a whipping ring. Carle released me, and I looked hopefully at the flask; was it perhaps drugged wine, meant to dull the pain of my punishment? But Carle simply placed the flask on the ground and ordered me to strip to my loincloth. When I had done this, he bound my wrists to the ring with the now-familiar leather strap. I had to stand on my toes to reach the ring; its creator had evidently assumed that all prisoners would be of a full-grown height.

I looked over at Carle, who had shifted to the side in order to inspect his handiwork. There was nothing reassuring about his expression. He looked like a dueller who plans that the first blood he draws should be the last.

His gaze dropped down to me. "The lieutenant showed you pity," he said. "Expect none from me."

No reply could be made to such a statement, and so I remained silent. Carle stepped back. I was shivering hard now from the chill of the autumn wind against my bare skin.

Then his lash bit into my back, and my body blazed with pain.

Forty lashes, the lieutenant had said. I tried to count them, as a way to focus my mind on something other than the red pain that gnawed at my back like a hungry animal. Soon I was gasping; then I was sobbing; and then, without warning, night swept down upon me.

In the next moment, I learned the purpose of the flask, as Carle dashed the flask-water into my face. I came back to my senses, sputtering from the water that had made its way into my nose and mouth. I opened my eyes to see Carle looking at me. This time, his contempt took the form of a dark smile.

"What weaklings you Koretians are," he said. "The lieutenant, in his pity, gave you twenty fewer lashes than he would have given an Emorian, and you cannot even bear those."

I mumbled my reply, and Carle's smile disappeared. "What did you say?"

I was afraid that, if I wasn't clear this time, I would not have the courage to say it again, so I shouted my reply: "Give me sixty lashes!"

Carle's face was like a thundercloud. He moved out of sight, and his whip whistled through the air before it tore into my back.

I counted the lashes till they reached forty, and then I kept counting, and then I lost all awareness of anything but the lash, slicing into my flesh with sickening thoroughness. Somewhere, dimly, I could hear a voice, calling upon the God of Mercy, and I realized with horror that the voice was mine.

o—o—o

I don't remember how Carle got me back inside the cottage. He must have carried me, I suppose. The next thing I remember is hearing myself scream as my back touched the pallet. Somebody said something, and I was lifted. Wine was forced into my mouth, and I choked on it but forced myself to swallow the liquid, because I could taste the heavy drugs that I knew would ease my pain.

I was pushed back onto the pallet, gently this time, being placed on my side rather than my back. After a minute, I opened my eyes.

Carle was nowhere in sight. A patrol guard I hadn't seen before was kneeling beside me, cutting out bandages with his dagger. Above him, looking down at me, was the lieutenant.

"Well, Adrian," he said, "what do you think of the Chara's law now?"

There was no mockery to his tone. With effort, I whispered, "Will you let me enter Emor?"

I could barely hear my own voice, but he nodded slowly. "You have earned the right."

I wasn't sure what he was saying – whether he was saying that my punishment had earned me the right, or that my conduct at the trial had earned me the right. It didn't matter. For it had come to me that, whether or not he let me enter Emor, I had known the Chara's law, and had seen its justice. That was all that mattered. I could die now.

I said something of this, I don't know what – I must have been incoherent. But whatever I said caused the lieutenant to suddenly kneel by me and put his hand on my shoulder. He looked over at the guard beside me. "Gamaliel?" he said.

"He will live." Gamaliel didn't look up from where he was cutting bandages.

The lieutenant's hand tightened on my shoulder, as though the other man's answer truly mattered to him. Then he looked back at me. "Sleep, Adrian," he said. "Nobody will send you back to Koretia against your will. I swear that."

He was not the sort of man, I knew, to treat an oath lightly. I felt myself relax, and my head began to swim, and then I fell into the deepest sleep I had ever known.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

The nineteenth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

I awoke this morning feeling well enough to get up and walk around. Gamaliel, who is the patrol's physician, grudgingly allowed me to do so; he has been clucking his tongue each day as he tends my back. He keeps telling me that he has seen beaten men with much worse wounds, but one time when he said this, I looked over my shoulder and saw him glaring in Carle's direction.

I'm becoming accustomed to the rhythm of the patrol schedule: the times when the patrol guards sleep, the times when they work, the times when talk and entertain themselves, and the times at dawn and dusk when the full unit gathers together to exchange information. During my first day spent in the patrol hut, I was barely aware of this rhythm, for I drifted in and out of my drugged sleep like a burrow-bird bobbing his head in and out of his earth-hole. Occasionally I heard snatches of conversation or laughter. Once I opened my eyes and saw all the guards except the lieutenant and sublieutenant standing stiffly against the hut wall; even the sublieutenant, though he was apart from the others, was poised as straight as a nobleman's blade as the lieutenant spoke. Such interludes, though, were brief. The bitter wine soon pulled me back into a blackness where I was grateful to flee, for my back felt as though it were being ridden by the sun.

My first full wakefulness, then, came a day and two nights later, when the hut was silent except for the soft snore of a guard nearby.

Some time during my sleep I had been transferred onto a cot, for I was several inches from the floor. I was still lying on my side. I shifted my eyes – the only part of my body I could bear to move – and looked around me. All about the room I could see the dark shapes of men lying on the floor on thin pallets, covered by the same sort of rough blankets that now covered my back and scratched at my wound bandages. Red embers, as small as demon's eyes, glowed from the central hearth, casting a light as dim as twilight shadows. I was placed close to the fire, facing toward the open hut door that pulled wind-whistles in from the mountains. A sound behind me, as soft as a sigh, almost caused me to jerk my head around, but in the next moment, the source of the sound came round to my front, looked down at me for a moment silently, then sat down on the floor in front of me. He was holding two cups and two long flasks, as tall as pitchers.

"Wild-berry or wall-vine?" asked Carle, holding the flasks forward for my inspection. "We drink both here in the mountains; you have your choice."

"What is wall-vine?" I asked, trying to keep my voice as low as Carle's so that I wouldn't wake the others.

"It's an Emorian wine."

"I'll take that one," I replied quickly. I was aware that I was being tested, but I would have made the same choice in any case. My father has no taste for Emorian wine, so this was the first time I had been granted the opportunity to taste an Emorian vintage.

It was hard to tell from Carle's expression whether I had passed the test. He handed me the flask; it was so warm to the touch that I knew he must have heated it by the central hearth-fire nearby, which was filling the room with a mist of smoke. Somewhere above us, the smoke-hole whistled from the night wind.

Carle was sitting to the side of the cot, so I had not even needed to raise my head in order to see him. Now, with a movement that sent pain down my spine like white lightning, I propped myself up on one elbow and sipped from the flask.

I tasted green meadows. Green meadows, and dew shining under the dawn sun, and just a touch of the sweetness found in white clover. I looked up at Carle, who was sipping silently from his own flask, and I said with surprise, "This is good!"

He didn't quite smile, but I thought I saw a spark of satisfaction flare in his eyes. "I've always thought so," he replied. "Of course, it takes some Koretians a while to adjust to wall-vine wine. A lot of them think that the taste is too bland."

I shook my head, sipping from the flask again. The wine was like cool water compared to the fire of wild-berry wine; it blended well with the soft breathing of the sleeping patrol guards and the hushed sigh of the wind. Faintly on the border of the wind, I heard a short whistle, and the whistled reply.

"I lied to you, you know."

My gaze returned to Carle. He had set the flask upright on the floor and was sitting more stiffly than before. When I made no reply, he said carefully, "Emorian judges have leeway in how hard a sentence they impose. The lieutenant could have given you anything between twenty and sixty lashes. He chose to give you forty lashes; it had nothing to do with you being Koretian."

My mind was still befogged with the drugged wine; I groped toward a coherent thought. When I still did not speak, Carle said, with his spine now as stiff as a black mountain, "I told the lieutenant afterwards what I'd done, and he called the patrol together so that he could give me a public reprimand. He said that, the next time I disobeyed his orders in such a manner, he'd have me stripped of my rank." There was a pause, during which a fire-breath of smoke passed between us; then Carle concluded, "He didn't tell me I must apologize to you, but that was obvious enough. So I'm sorry. I behaved in a manner unworthy of one of the Chara's soldiers."

I couldn't think of anything to say at first. I had thought that Carle was approaching me of his own free will, but now it appeared that he was talking to me only out of a sense of duty toward his official. But Carle was still sitting as rigidly as though he were pinioned to a wall, so I finally said, in a stumbling manner, "Well, that's all right. It doesn't matter."

Carle's face grew as dark as the Jackal's face. "Of course it matters!" he said in a voice that might as well have been a shout, though both of us had been speaking softly all this while. "I disobeyed my army official. My crime is greater than yours, since you owed no duty to Fowler."

"No, I mean— I only meant that I've done things wrong before too. Gone against my duty."

Something melted in Carle's spine. He reached forward for his flask, though his gaze remained upon me. "You mean your broken blood vow?" he said. "Would you like to tell me about that?"

I did, very much – that is to say, I had wanted for days now to ask another person's opinion of what I had done. If I had still owed any duty to the gods, I would have sought out a priest before this. Still I hesitated, not wishing to bore a stranger with my life's troubles.

In the end, I gave him the minimum he needed to understand my tale: my friendship with Fenton, Hamar's death, the blood feud, Fenton's death, my father and the blood vow, and finally, my moment of revelation concerning the gods. By the time I was through, the fire-logs had settled lower in their bed, and Carle had his legs spread out upon the floor.

He was silent for a while after I finished, and I felt a tightness in my chest, wondering how he regarded the revelation of how far my dishonor extended. His gaze remained fixed on his flask, untouched for some time, and then rose to meet mine. "I was thinking about Fenton," he said. "He was a good man; he didn't deserve to die that way."

"Well, yes . . ." I stopped, bewildered. Something deeper than sympathy for a stranger's death was etched into the lines of Carle's face.

He started to raise the flask to his lips, then abandoned it, saying softly, "Fenton was my father's slave. I'm the boy that Fenton told you about, the one who helped him escape." He took hold of the flask again, but did not raise it. "The lieutenant is Quentin, the other boy Fenton mentioned . . . though I don't advise you to call the lieutenant by his name. He comes from a long line of patrol guards named Quentin, and I don't think he likes to be reminded of his heritage."

"But . . ." My bewilderment had reached its peak; I had forgotten, now, the fire burning my back. "But Fenton said that his master's son lost his opportunity to join the patrol."

Carle shrugged. "The patrol is more forgiving than its reputation suggests; you've witnessed that for yourself. Of course, it helped that Quentin was willing to speak on my behalf."

I stared at Carle. His body was being licked by the flicker of the fire, turning his skin golden and highlighting the copper in his hair. There was a watchfulness to his eyes I had not noticed before, a patience that I guessed had been hard learned. I felt a shiver join the pain along my back as I remembered where I had seen that watchfulness last. I ought to have noticed before his resemblance to Fenton.

"But—" My voice staggered to a halt.

"Yes?" Carle turned his gaze toward the men around us. One of them murmured in his sleep, while another snored softly. At the front of the hut, the door was open a crack, and the smoke was edging through it.

"It seems so odd, you helping Fenton to escape to Koretia, then Fenton helping me escape to Emor, and us meeting this way . . ."

Carle shrugged, picking up his flask and running his fingers along the leather. "It's not so strange if you think about it. The patrol is the key in both cases. I was able to help Fenton escape because I wished to join the patrol, so I'd memorized the patrol whistles. You were nearly able to pass the patrol because of the patrol whistles I'd taught Fenton. It's just a coincidence." His gaze returned home to me. "I hope you're not going to say that it was the will of the gods that we met."

His brows were drawn low now; I wondered whether this was what lay behind his watchfulness. "I'm not a servant of the gods any more," I said quickly, as though that answered his question.

Carle nodded. His gaze fell to his flask, and he began tracing its outline once more. After a while, he said, "So . . . you've refused to murder an old friend, which means that your family believes that you've been cursed by the gods. If your family finds you, they'll murder you in order to please their gods. That's what it comes down to in the end?"

It was odd, hearing him describe my dilemma that way. Having witnessed for myself how the Chara's law worked, I could see now how the workings of the gods' law would appear to an Emorian, yet dimly I felt that Carle wasn't being entirely fair to the Koretian perspective on what I had done.

My hesitation must have seemed like unwillingness to speak of the shadow of my fate, for Carle didn't await an answer, but instead added, "So you're emigrating to Emor, both to escape your family and to live in a land where blood feuds are forbidden."

"Yes," I said, relieved that Carle understood. "I want to live under the Chara's law. The lieutenant . . . Quentin . . . he hasn't changed his mind about letting me enter Emor, has he?"

Carle shook his head, his gaze still carefully fixed on the flask. "Have you decided what you'll do there?"

"Find out more about the law," I said promptly.

The side of Carle's mouth twitched slightly. "I meant, have you decided what sort of work you'll take up? Are you trained for a trade?"

"No," I said, "not really." This was a matter that had begun to worry me in the day before I met the patrol. Absorbed as I had been by Fenton's tutoring, and confident that my family would continue to support me once I came of age, I had thought that there was no great rush in deciding upon my life's work. Then, with Hamar's death, it had seemed that the matter was decided for me. Now I was beginning to realize, with a chill, that I was in a position frightening for a young man of my age: I had no special skills, nor any money by which to apprentice myself. Could I perhaps work the fields, doing some lowly manual labor? And if so, would that leave me enough time to learn about the law? For my experiences at my trial had only whetted my appetite to learn more, and I was rapidly realizing that my need for food to feed my body was less than my need for the law to fill my spirit.

"We've been talking about you while you were asleep."

I looked up, startled out of my silence, to find that Carle's gaze was now speared upon me. He must have read the confusion in my expression, for he added patiently, "The patrol. We've been discussing you. Disagreeing about you."

"Oh?" I said faintly, unsure what this disagreement signified. Could it be that Lieutenant Quentin did not have the power alone to allow me to enter Koretia? Did the whole patrol have to vote on the matter?

"Yes." Carle's gaze rose up toward the rafters, where the smoke was rising. "We can't agree, you see, on your character. The majority of the guards are most impressed by your skill with a dagger, and by the way in which you almost managed to fool us. They say that your character is shown by your boldness and your determination. Quentin, though, disagrees; he thinks that your character is best shown by your behavior during your trial. He says that he has never before placed on trial a prisoner who showed so much honesty and so much thirst for knowledge of the law. As for myself— Well, you can guess what impressed me most."

He paused, and I wondered whether I was coming down with a fever; my skin had turned as hot as an oven. With his eyes still tilted up toward the dark ceiling, Carle concluded, "Though we can't agree on whether you're most distinguished in honor by your resolve or your love of the law or your courage, we're all agreed about one thing: that you should be offered the opportunity to join the patrol."

"The patrol?" My voice, which was still in the process of taking on manly tones, squeaked as I spoke, causing the guard nearest me to sigh and turn over. I lowered my voice and said, "But how could I—? I mean, I attacked a patrol guard— Surely it can't be that easy to join the patrol."

"Oh, it's not." My reaction had evidently reassured Carle, for he looked back down at me and sipped from his flask. I could see a spark of amusement in his eyes. "The Chara's border mountain patrol receives more applications for entrance than any other unit in the Emorian army; even though nine out of ten of the applications are rejected immediately, we still make it hard for qualified candidates to be accepted. For one thing, youthful vigor is needed for this sort of work, so all applicants must be between their sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays. You're qualified that way, aren't you?"

Something in his expression told me that he was hoping I would lie if I wasn't. "I am," I assured him. "The day Hamar was killed – that was my coming-of-age day, my sixteenth birthday."

Carle nodded. "You need to be skilled with your blade. Well, Fowler can give witness that you are qualified in that respect. You need to speak Common Koretian and be familiar with Koretian customs; that eliminates most of our candidates, but of course that isn't a problem for you. You even know the Border Koretian dialect, which few Emorians do. You need to be the sort of man who would show supreme loyalty to the Chara—" He stopped, reading something in my face, and said in a softer voice, "That's not something any of us can judge for ourselves. Quentin says you're qualified in that respect, and he's the best judge of men I know. . . . There are several dozen more qualifications, but I'll save time by saying that you qualify in all of the ways that matter. The question is . . ." He placed his flask on the floor and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "The question is whether you would want to join the patrol."

I suppose that my face must have been expressive, for Carle chuckled lightly. "I don't want to leave you with the impression that the border mountain patrol is like a pleasant game of Hunter and Hunted."

I had no idea what he was talking about, but feared showing my ignorance, so I simply said, "I realize that the consequences for dealing poorly with a border-breacher can be deadly."

"Well, yes." For a moment, there was a twist to Carle's mouth that made my breath catch within my throat; then Carle turned, threw back onto the fire a branch that had slid off – we were that close to the flames – and said, "But the danger doesn't just come from the breachers. Adrian, the border mountain patrol is the oldest army unit in the world. Our origins go right back to the earliest days of Emor. So we have traditions, and we have a reputation to uphold. As a result, you're not going to find it easy to accept the strictness of the patrol's discipline. Quite frankly, even I find it a trial sometimes, and I'm as pure-blooded an Emorian as any man can be."

I was so stung by this implication that I lacked the necessary blood to be a patrol soldier that I said, without thinking, "There are no pure-blooded people in the Great Peninsula, other than in Emor's dominions. All of us share blood, right back to ancient times."

Carle lay down on the floor then and laughed. His laughter was quiet, and breathy, and a little sad. "Oh, my," he said finally, sitting up and brushing dust out of his hair. "It has been eleven years since I heard Fenton speak those words. How that brings back memories. . . . He was right, of course. I hear tale that some of the men in the Dominion of Marcadia set great store by the pureness of their family's blood, but there's less of that nonsense down in Southern Emor. Oh, I won't say that you'll be entirely free of taunts about your skin color or your accent or any number of other things. But it's not as bad as it would be in the dominions, where whether your hair is white or merely light blond really does make a difference in your standings among other people."

"I expect," I said, comforted by Carle's words, "that the dominion dwellers don't have a borderland to remind them of the old days."

Still brushing dust out of his hair, Carle said, "I meandered from the subject. What was I speaking of again?"

"Discipline," I replied. And then I added on impulse: "The patrol's law."

From the flash of the smile that Carle gave me, I knew that I had provided the right response. He began to talk then about the Law of the Border Mountain Patrol – of how, being isolated from the rest of Southern Emor, the patrol has the high honor of serving, not only as a unit of capture and discipline, but also as a court. The lieutenant holds the same role in the patrol as the Chara does in the empire, and the lieutenant's men serve like the Chara's council. Indeed, the lieutenant is required by law to formally consult with his men on matters of severe discipline of a patrol guard, before passing sentence.

"But the lieutenant tries to keep matters from reaching the point where he must place high discipline upon a soldier." Carle fiddled with his wine flask; he hadn't drunk from it since our conversation grew more serious. "I'll give you an example. There's a certain soldier in the unit; I won't give his name—" He stopped, smiled, and said, "No, I will. If you're joining us, you need to know such matters. Chatwin just became a member of the unit this summer – he's our newest member – and on his first hunt, he balked at an order that the lieutenant gave him that would have placed him in danger. Sheer nerves; all of us undergo this at some time or another. But that left the lieutenant with a difficult choice: he could beat Chatwin for his disobedience, or he could rebuke him."

So absorbed had I become in Carle's tales that I had nearly forgotten the bodily pain that weighed me down, like a heavy blanket. Now it came upon me again, and it was a moment before I could find the strength to say, "A rebuke doesn't sound like much of a punishment."

Carle emitted his soft chuckle. "You've never been rebuked by the lieutenant. But yes, it was the lesser punishment . . . in a way. In a way, Not. For the army laws say that, if a soldier is rebuked and then commits the same crime again – in this case, blatant disobedience to orders – he must receive the highest possible punishment for his crime. Otherwise, you see, the lieutenant has more flexibility in choosing how high a sentence to give to a prisoner he is trying."

He was trying to avoid my eye now, which made me smile. "That's all forgotten. You've had your rebuke from the lieutenant; I'm not going to give you another one."

My voice must have sounded firm, for the look Carle gave me then was a mixture of amusement and respect. "I was wondering when that diffidence of yours would begin to peel away."

"Oh. Well." I scraped at the dirt floor with my fingernail, suddenly shy again. "It's proper for me to be diffident, isn't it? If I'm to join the patrol, I'll be the lowest-ranked member of the unit."

Carle shrugged. "Maybe."

I began to rise up to see his face better, then immediately regretted it as pain clawed its way down my spine. "Only maybe?" I said breathlessly as I lowered my body.

"In the patrol, rank is based on merit rather than seniority. Quentin's partner Devin is third in rank here, even though he only joined us last spring."

I understood what he was saying: that it was unlikely I would ever rise above the lowest-ranking position in the guard, having had the disadvantage of not being raised as an Emorian. But that didn't matter to me; just to join the patrol was privilege enough. So I couldn't resist saying, "You're second-ranked. How long have you been in the patrol, in relation to the others?"

He glared at me then, as though I had just pulled a slave-mask from his face. "I'm nineteen," he said gruffly. "That's all you need to know."

That meant he had been in the patrol for three years, which was, I was quite sure, less than some of the other patrol guards I'd seen, if they all joined the patrol when they were sixteen. I kept my mouth shut, since it was clear that Carle's own distinguished service as a soldier was the one topic he was not prepared to discuss.

After a moment more of pulling out the stopper in his wine flask, pushing it in, and examining the leather, Carle said, "You'll need a partner."

"Does the lieutenant assign me one?" I asked.

"No. That's one of the patrol traditions. The new patrol guard must find a guard who's willing to take him as his partner. It's a serious choice. Even though the lieutenant juggles around the partnerships whenever needed . . . Well, it's like being married at a time when warfare is taking place. That's the only way I can describe it. Your back is bare to a border-breacher's blade unless your partner is willing to protect you. The trust needs to be high between two guards who partner together, or else they're all too likely to fall into the most common patrol tradition."

"Which is?"

Carle's mouth quirked. "Death. Most patrol guards die within two or three years. Are you sure that you want to join a unit where the odds are against you surviving?"

The firewood settled in its bed. One of the patrol guards was snoring lightly. Through the door, I could hear faint whistles in the wind. And very far off, I thought I could hear the howl of a jackal.

It's odd how death has become so close a companion to me since my birthday. I never expected it to be that way. I grew up on tales of feuds and duels, yet I had always thought of myself as immune from the Jackal's reach. Others might need to pass through that fire, but not me.

I've heard that the presence of death exhilarates some men. Presumably, such men haven't angered the Jackal. The thought of meeting his claws in just a short time, of feeling his fire – or, since I would reject the cleansing of his fire, to be sent to eternal coldness. . . .

"Being a man means seeing death on the horizon and not flinching," I said softly, more to myself than to Carle. "Fenton met his death without flinching. And I . . . I think I could bear anything except seeing the execution dagger in my father's hand." I looked up at Carle, who was sitting very still and silent through this recital. "Carle," I said, as though we were old friends sitting around a fire reminiscing, "I know that I'm the last person who should ask for this honor . . . but would you be willing to be my patrol partner?"

Carle was silent for a minute longer, long enough for me to realize my audacity in asking such a favor from a soldier whose partner I had nearly killed. Then slowly, ceremonially, he held out his flask of wine.

I had no idea what type of ceremony he was alluding to. But the basic message behind his gesture was clear. I reached out my hand and took the wine and drank from it.

And that is how I joined an army unit where my life is not likely to be long. But it was a clean decision, pure and joyful, unlike my decision to become a blood-feud hunter.

Chapter Text

Law Links 3
GOD OF MERCY
 

CHAPTER ONE

The twenty-second day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

Carle and I are on our way to Emor. Carle says that the Capital City of Emor isn't far from the border – only half a day's walk – but we're forced to proceed slowly, as we are pulling a cart that carries Fowler.

Gamaliel drugged Fowler for the journey, for which I am grateful, as I'm sure that I'm the last person Fowler would want as his escort. It's necessary that I accompany Carle on this trip, though, because I must be approved for the patrol by the Captain of the Home Division.

"It's purely a formality," Carle assured me as we reached the final ridge leading down into the Emorian borderland. "The patrol selects its own guards and takes care of its own. Captain Wystan's only duty is to intervene in important disciplinary cases. I'm sure that the captain is more than happy to leave the patrol's activities in Quentin's hands; Wystan already supervises three divisions. The Home Division," he explained, without waiting for me to ask. "That's the division which guards the city and palace if the vanguard should be withdrawn from the palace grounds due to war. The Border Division – not just the mountain patrol, but all of the border guards of the empire. And the Division of Disclosure – that's made up mainly of spies."

"Spies?" I said, turning my head. We've been taking turns driving the hand-cart: one person pulls at the front while the other pushes at the back. Carle's face was covered in sweat, and his red hair had turned black where it clung to his forehead.

"Spies," said Carle with a grin. "You'll meet those eventually. So what do you think of our palace?"

I swung my head around, as rapidly as though I had heard a breacher creeping up behind me. There, falling away under our feet, was the final stretch of bare mountain, followed immediately and abruptly by a carpet of autumn-brown fields, neatly divided by stone walls. Not a tree was in sight – this was the first thing I noticed, as I suppose it is the first thing that any newcomer to Emor notices. But my puzzlement was soon replaced by a hollow pit in my stomach, for spread across much of the horizon was the curving grey wall of the Emorian capital. The city was built on an upswelling of the land, and I could see little grey houses clustered within the great walls. Rising above them all, ringed by two more walls, was a steep hill of immense proportions. It looked as though it could house all the armies of the Three Lands and still have room for the barbarian armies. Yet the whole of its crown was capped by a shining white building. It looked, I thought, like the palace of the gods within the City of the Land Beyond.

I became aware that Carle was standing beside me; he was pulling from his pack the food for our noonday meal, while watching me, a smile on his face. I cleared my throat and said, "It's a bit larger than the buildings I've seen before."

Carle laughed then and said, "A bit more intimidating, you mean." I nodded. "Well, you'll have to overcome your fear soon," he said. "This time tomorrow, you'll be standing inside that building."

I gulped and looked back at the palace, blazing white like the sun at noonday. "We're going inside the Chara's palace? Why? I thought you said that the army camp was located next to the palace."

"On the northern side of the palace grounds," Carle confirmed, leaning over the cart to check on Fowler. "But of course we have to enter the palace. You still want to give your oath of loyalty to the Chara, don't you?"

His face was serious; his expression mildly inquisitive. Perhaps he was wondering, from the expression on my own face, whether I was going to faint on the spot. "Carle," I whispered, "you don't mean . . ."

"Oh, didn't I mention that?" he said lightly, handing me my share of the bread. "Border mountain patrol guards, like all other members of the special divisions, have the honor of being under the Chara's immediate care. Strictly speaking, Captain Wystan isn't our high official; the Chara is. Naturally, one can't expect the Chara to supervise the everyday activities of the division; Captain Wystan does that, in the Chara's name. So you'll never meet the Chara – except when you give him your oath. It's no worse than meeting the King. You've done that, of course?"

"Carle, I've never— That is, when I was young— But I was only a babe in arms when my grandfather died and my father—" It is perhaps just as well that I lapsed into Border Koretian at this point, and no doubt incoherent Border Koretian, for in the next moment I noticed the laughter struggling behind Carle's face, and I realized that he was teasing me about my prior contact with royalty. So we both burst into laughter, and by the time we were through, the moment was past, and our talk had turned to other subjects. It occurred to me afterwards, though, that I gave Carle a very hasty summary of the events leading up to my arrival in Emor, and perhaps I didn't tell him as much as I should have. But there's plenty of time for that. Right now, my mind is too filled with the powerful oath of loyalty I will give tomorrow. Finally, and for all time, I will be free of the blood-lusting gods.

o—o—o

We've paused again on our journey. I had thought that Carle would hire a pony to pull the cart, once we reached the Emorian borderland, but we passed through the borderland without stopping at the villages, and eventually I realized the obvious. Quentin could easily have hired a merchant and his horse-cart to bring Fowler back to Emor's capital; merchants pass by us every few days. He must have chosen this manner of travel so that Carle could test my physical endurance. This drove from my mind any temptation to complain about the heavy travelling.

We're taking the journey in easy stages, though, and we're presently sprawled under the afternoon sun, all except Fowler, whose cart is under the shade of the only tree we have passed during our journey.

Carle is an arm's length from me, lying on his back with his hands behind his head and his eyes closed, though I've no doubt that he would leap to his feet with blade in hand if he heard the slightest sound of danger. Between us is the flask of wine we've been sharing. It has occurred to me since I wrote my last entry in this journal that, while Carle doesn't know everything about me, I too know very little about Carle. Fenton almost never spoke of his slave years, and all that I know from him about Carle was that the young boy whom Fenton tutored was clever and loyal and courageous and affectionate in a reserved manner. I've learned all of that on my own. I wish I knew more about Carle – about his weaknesses especially – for I'm dreadfully afraid of doing something that will hurt him and build a wall between us.

Yesterday, for example, the patrol brought Fowler out of the hut's storage room, where he had been lying since his wounding. He was groggily conscious at that time, and I felt uncomfortable being in his presence, so I went into the storage room to see what lay there.

I'd never seen a room that was filled with so many items. Iron shelves jutted out from the stone walls, from floor to ceiling; I could dimly see them in the lamplight. Stacked on the shelves, in an orderly manner, were food supplies, bowls and spoons, fire-pots, swords, whetstones, boots, blankets, bandages and dried medical herbs, splints, fire-flints, firewood, a death mask . . .

I asked Devin about this last item when he entered the storage room a short time later, in order to fetch a fresh linen cloth for Fowler. "That is Sublieutenant Carle's notion," he explained, pouring wine into a flask from one of the kegs. "When we execute Emorian prisoners, we send their bodies back to Emor for burial, but we burn Koretian bodies here and spread their ashes. That is why the ground around the hut is so fertile – it contains a thousand years' worth of dead Koretians. The sublieutenant thought our relations with Koretia would be better if we burned the bodies in the Koretian manner: placing death masks over the corpses' faces, reciting one of Koretia's less disagreeable death rites . . ."

He gave a disarming smile as he said this. He was speaking in Border Koretian, which was kind of him, so I took the opportunity to ask him what it means when an Emorian shares his wine with another person.

His smile disappeared then, and he gave me a look that I could not interpret, but he answered my question readily enough, even though it took me time to realize what he was saying.

When he did, my breath was driven out of my body by the realization of what Carle had offered me. The Emorian reader for whom I began writing this journal, if he has not long since disappeared, must have been shaking his head during the past couple of entries, wondering at the ignorance of Koretian-born men. Truly, how could I have known? But I understand now what Fenton meant when he said that the Emorians don't take blood vows. After all, a life-binding vow need not be exchanged through blood. It could just as easily be exchanged through wine – and could be just as binding.

I was thinking all this through after Devin left, and was feeling the weight of what had happened fall upon me, when I noticed that Carle was standing at the door to the storage room, watching me with a serious expression. I was tongue-tied for a moment. What do you say to a new blood brother when you had not even known that you had exchanged blood? The matter was taken out of my hands a moment later, as Carle spoke.

"Now that you're well again," he said in a firm voice, "I suppose we'd better start your patrol training, and part of that training consists of learning the law. The first thing you need to understand is the concept 'without clear understanding,' which played such an important role in your trial. It's more than simply a trial sentence; it's a term that pervades the whole of the Chara's law. The premise behind it is that no man can be condemned by the full force of the law unless he deliberately breaks the law, and that requires him to understand that he is breaking a law. Likewise, no man can keep the law in full unless he understands the law that he is keeping. Thus, Emorian law declares that an oath is not binding upon a man if he does not understand, at the time of his oath-taking, what vow he is making . . ."

Carle continued in this vein for several minutes. Gradually, it dawned upon me that Devin had reported to him what I had asked, and that Carle was telling me, in as tactful a manner as possible, that I need not consider myself his wine-friend, because I had not understood what he was proposing at the time he offered me his wine.

It was an awkward moment. Because Carle had spoken in the way he had – rather than raise the subject overtly, as Fenton or Hamar would have done – I tried to answer in the same way, making clear to Carle, through my comments about the law, that I would have accepted the wine in any case and that I was honored and overwhelmed to learn that he wished us to be bound in this way. But I had no practice in this type of sideways speech, and after a while, I found myself falling into helpless laughter.

Carle looked deeply hurt at first, as though I had pulled my blade on him while his back was turned, but after I explained, he grinned and said, "I suppose there's something to be said for Koretian forthrightness."

So then I poured wine into one of the flasks from the shelves, and this time I was the one who offered the wine, and everything was all right after that. But it made me wonder in how many ways I have hurt Carle's feelings since my arrival, without clear understanding of what I was doing. I have so much to learn about being an Emorian.

o—o—o

The twenty-third day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

I'm writing this entry under candlelight; it is not quite dawn yet, though from where I sit, next to the window, I can see the sky turning violet above the stone houses of the city. A few men are walking about already, all unarmed; my ears still burn as I remember Carle's laughter yesterday when he noticed how I gaped at such men. Yet I think he understood my reaction better than anyone else would – certainly better than our host would have.

Yesterday evening, after we had delivered Fowler safely to the city physicians, I thought that we would proceed directly to the army camp, but Carle shook his head. "Never disturb an army official when he is off duty," he said. "That's the first rule you should learn as a bottom-ranked soldier. Of course, that rule doesn't apply to me and the lieutenant, since we're always on duty alert, but other army officials appreciate their leisure time. We'll see Wystan in the morning. In the meantime, I'd like you to meet Neville."

Neville, it turns out, is the palace clerk I heard Carle talking about several days ago; he was a mountain patrol guard for a year. "He's the eldest son of a town baron," Carle explained as we wound our way through the market, drawing stares from passersby who noticed Carle's uniform and sword. "He doesn't stand on ceremony, though. He considers himself to be just another patrol guard."

I'm glad Carle explained this to me; I never would have guessed otherwise.

We sat a little while later in Neville's living chamber, surrounded by a dozen lamps. Made of glass. I'd never seen glass before, but Carle assured me that that was what they were. Certainly the lamp-glass made the light much brighter than if the candle-flames had been shining through horn, which allowed me to appreciate in full measure the rich tapestries, satin cushions, gilded plaster, and jewel-spangled wine cups. No less than six servants hovered at our sides, offering imported Koretian wine, delicate pastries from Emor's Central Provinces, and Marcadian berries that exploded with flavor when one bit into them. The only missing objects of richness were Daxion nuts, and Neville apologized for their absence.

"My father has cut down on my allowance," he explained with a cheerful smile as he held his cup carelessly to the side. The servant next to him promptly stepped forward to pour the wine. "I think he wants to encourage me to work harder as a clerk so that I can win my elevation – hence the incentive. And here I've been promising for three years to introduce you to the delights of fine eating, Carle."

"There's no hurry, sir." Carle, much to my surprise, was sitting relaxed among the opulence, barely glancing at the servants, but his voice had taken on the same tone it did when he was receiving orders from Quentin. "This winter will be soon enough to begin my introduction to the decadent ways of civilian life."

Neville laughed appreciatively before turning to address one of the servants, who had brought forward a new wine bottle for inspection. I was sitting on a couch next to Carle; I took the opportunity to whisper into his ear, "I thought you said that Neville was a bottom-ranked soldier. Why do you keep calling him 'sir'?"

I decided afterwards that patrol-level whispers should be spoken only when the room does not contain third parties who formerly served as patrol guards. Neville turned instantly, his eyebrows shooting toward the mosaic ceiling.

His voice was even, though, as he said, "Rank is always a difficult subject for Koretians to master."

I felt Carle stir beside me, clear his throat, and then draw breath and hesitate, as though reviewing in his mind the text of a book entitled, "How to Rebuke the Man You Have Just Called 'Sir.'" His face must have reflected what he was thinking, for Neville quickly added, "My apologies. I meant 'Koretian-born Emorians,' of course."

"But we have ranks in Koretia," I said, then added belatedly, "sir."

Neville smiled then, the laughter lines crinkling in his face. He is eighteen, a year younger than Carle, but the wave of the hand with which he dismissed the servants was so authoritative that I began to wonder whether I had misheard what Carle had told me.

"Certainly you have rank in Koretia," he said. "You have slaves, lesser free-men, lesser . . . No, you tell me. What ranks do the Koretians recognize, and what do the titles signify?"

It was then that I began to feel acutely uncomfortable and to wish that I'd taken more opportunity to talk with Carle during our journey. But I replied obediently, "Slaves are . . . Well, they're slaves. Lesser free-men are free but not noble. Lesser noblemen are village barons and their heirs. High noblemen are rulers, lords, town barons, and their hei— Oh, I see." I felt my ears grow warm.

Neville made no further reference to the matter, though the look he gave me managed to convey the fact that he expected me to be grateful for his mercy. Instead, he turned his gaze toward Carle and said, "That reminds me, Carle. Last week, the Chara handed down a new decision which was meant to settle the question of whether honorary lords are equal in rank to council lords."

"But it didn't settle that question, sir?" Carle leaned forward; I caught a glimpse of the spark in his eyes.

"Apparently the Chara's clerk and the council law researchers have been working late into the night to try to decipher the implications of the decision. Part of the decision, you'll be interested to hear, cites titles given to members of the royal family over the years, and another part of the decision rests on the question of whether a younger son automatically becomes heir to a nobleman if the eldest son dies. Apparently that issue ties in with the question of whether honorary lords are under the care of the Chara or whether, as the lordship of dominion governors would appear to suggest, they are in fact under the care of the Great Council—"

"Was the decision of the Chara Rufus's reign mentioned, sir?" Carle broke in. "I understand the Chara cited that in a case eight years ago, when he confirmed that the heirs of cousins in the royal family normally cannot inherit nobility – not that that needed to be confirmed. But that case also dealt with the question of whether being under the immediate care of the Chara brings obligations of special duty—"

I lost track of what was being said after that. Instead, I was noting how swiftly Carle turned the conversation from the general discussion that Neville had begun, transforming it into a minute examination of past court cases dating back to the early years of Emor. Within a short while I was dazed, and I think Neville must have been as well, for he eventually leaned back in his chair, gave an indulgent smile, and said, "We don't want to discuss law matters too difficult for your partner to follow, Carle. Perhaps Adrian has a question or two about what we've been discussing?"

It was a generous remark, and it was aimed entirely, I could guess, at having me ask the ignorant questions that Neville himself was afraid to voice. I didn't dare look Carle's way, but I saw the steady manner in which he set down in his cup on the marble table before him, and I knew that he too had guessed Neville's motives for turning the conversation toward me.

It was in my spirit to ask Neville the question that was really bothering me – why he baroned his rank over Carle when Carle knows so much more about the law than he does – but instead I said, in a voice that was a tad bit too cool, "I was still wondering about Emorian rank, sir. Forgive me for my great ignorance of such matters, but I don't understand why what we discussed before has any application to this evening's conversation, since we're meeting in private and are not discussing official matters."

Neville lifted his eyebrows again; this time a sardonic smile was on his face. "Carle," he said, "can you make any sense of your partner's thoughts? I confess that his reasoning is somewhat high for me."

"I'm afraid I can, sir." There was genuine regret in Carle's voice, and I realized, with a lowering of heart, that this must mean I had acted the fool. "In Koretia, rank is linked with duty, so that when a nobleman is off-duty – when he is meeting privately with friends, for example – he will address the friends as though they were his equals."

"Ah." It was amazing how, in that single syllable, Neville managed to convey his full opinion of Koretian barbarities. "Well," he said, his voice taking on the tone of a schoolmaster, "matters are different here in Emor. Here in Emor, if you meet a nobleman— No, perhaps we should explain this by way of the law. Carle?" The largesse of his gesture conveyed the impression that he could easily explain the matter himself but was allowing his inferior guest the honor.

"Let's take a court case," Carle replied. "A lesser free-man strikes another lesser free-man. He is judged to have acted without clear understanding. What sentence does the judge give him?"

I felt warmth run through my body as though it were a Koretian summer night rather than a cool Emorian evening. It was not simply that Carle had mentioned the case without revealing to Neville that I had been the prisoner. It was that he had mentioned the only law I yet knew, thus allowing me the opportunity to display my knowledge before Neville, who was so sure of my Koretian ignorance.

"Twenty to sixty lashes," I said in a casual voice. "In most cases, forty lashes would be the sentence – unless, of course, the man was a soldier and had previously been sentenced to a rebuke."

I noticed the slight intake of Neville's breath, but he covered it quickly by sipping from his wine and then saying, "The same man has struck a nobleman, rather than striking a lesser free-man. What is his sentence?"

I hesitated, trying to guess the nature of this trap; I dared not look Carle's way. Finally I said hesitantly, "Sixty lashes?"

Neville allowed himself to flash a tight smile of triumph before replying, "Branding."

"But—" I stopped short, aware that any protests I babbled now would be scored on Neville's inner chart of victory. In the end I said, in a carefully controlled voice, "I see. The crime is considered worse because the man who has been attacked holds greater duties."

"No." To my distress, exasperation filled the voice of Carle. "The prisoner was given a higher sentence because the man he attacked was above his rank. That's the only reason. The nobleman in question could have been an imbecile, unfit to carry out any duties, and the crime would still have been considered great."

"But . . ." This time I turned toward Neville in genuine bewilderment. "Is that fair? The crime is the same in both cases. It shouldn't matter what title the victim holds."

Neville relaxed back into the softness of his armchair. I sensed that my consternation had cleansed him of his earlier annoyance. "It works the opposite way as well, though," he said. "If I struck you, a lesser free-man, then I would receive a higher sentence than Carle would if he struck you. My rank offers me greater protection against crimes against myself, but it also burdens me with greater responsibilities toward those of lesser rank. That's why you don't see Emorian noblemen being placed on trial very often," he added with a quick smile. "There just aren't sufficient rewards for committing a crime if you're a nobleman."

I sat staring at him in the flickering white light of the cut-glass lamps, watching sparks flare up periodically in the gilt of the plaster, and listening to the logs moan in the weariness of the late evening. Beside me, Carle said with urgent passion, "Adrian, listen. Tomorrow you will give your oath to the Chara. Would you strike him under any circumstances? Even if he were off duty? And would you complain if you were given a higher sentence for a crime against him than you would receive for committing a crime against me?"

I felt a deep stillness enter into me then, one I hadn't felt for many weeks – one I hadn't felt since the last time Fenton and I spoke. I understood. Not for the reasons that Carle had mentioned; I understood because Fenton and I had talked about this many times. About loving the gods. About loving them without reserve and accepting without complaint the mercy and vengeance they gave. And most of all – this was something Fenton told me, and I doubt any other priest would have said it – about taking that love and acceptance and giving it to all the people around you, as a sign of your love for the gods.

All of that is false, I now know; the gods are evil, and they care nothing for love. For many weeks now that knowledge has been an emptiness inside me, longing to be filled. And now I had learned that what Fenton had said was true – not about the gods, but about the Chara. Fenton must have taken what he learned in Emor as a child and applied that knowledge to the gods, trusting them to be as honorable as the Chara who had once been his ruler. Fenton was wrong about the gods, but he was not wrong about the Chara, and now I could take all that he had taught me and put it to use.

"I see." I looked at Carle, forgetting that Neville was there. "You serve those above you in rank in the same way that you serve the Chara, and they care for you in the same way that the Chara does. To serve and care for each other is a way of showing your loyalty to the Chara."

Carle said nothing; he only smiled. I don't even remember how the conversation turned after that. But what I've decided – and I must finish this entry quickly, for I can hear the others stirring from their sleep – is that it doesn't matter what my life was like in the past, and I needn't tell Carle anything that might discomfit him. Anything good that happened to me in the past is here with me now, as I serve the Chara.

The rest can be forgotten.

o—o—o

The twenty-fourth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

I have had the greatest disappointment of my life: I am not going to be able to meet the Chara after all.

"His schedule is too busy at the moment, I fear," explained Captain Wystan when we met with him yesterday morning. "He is preparing for the wedding of his young sister – an important wedding from the point of view of the law, since the groom will become second in line for the throne, after the Chara's son. Or is he third in line? Carle, you know these matters better than I do."

He had raised his voice to be heard above the rain. Yesterday's storm came on with a suddenness that startled me; winds pulled dark clouds from the north as quickly as though they were a vanguard army on the move. Fortunately, the army tents are waterproof – the Emorian engineers are just as skilled as I'd always heard – so only a trickle of rain came though a gap in the tent where part of the cloth didn't overlap properly. The tent's brazier was blazing fiercely when we arrived, so that Carle and I, still soaked from the rain, were able to warm ourselves. This was in fact the first order I received from Wystan, which says much about the man who will be my high official.

Carle was in the process of hanging our wet cloaks from one of the interior tent poles. He turned immediately and said, "Second in line, sir, since the Chara Anthony has no brother. The line of succession is son, grandson, son-in-marriage, brother, brother-in-marriage, uncle, and nephew."

"And cousin," said Wystan with a smile. "We must not forget the Chara's cousins."

"The succession is unlikely to fall that far, sir," Carle replied stiffly.

Wystan raised an eyebrow, but merely replied, "Unlikely, yes, since the Chara's son will doubtlessly produce an heir of his own soon. At any rate, my old captain says that Lord Nicholas gives the appearance of being a happily married man." Seeing my puzzled look, he added, "The Chara's son, Lord Nicholas, is presently living in Marcadia, assisting the subcommander of the Marcadian Army. I am originally from that dominion, as you will have guessed."

I hadn't guessed, for I'd assumed that his white hair came from old age; Wystan appears to be approaching his sixtieth year. But now I remembered Sewell's white hair, and I realized that Wystan must be the second Marcadian I've met. I had a sudden vision of the whole of the Emorian Empire, stretching from Southern Emor on through the Central Provinces and up to the northern dominions of Marcadia and Arpesh, with nothing beyond them except the ice-bound mainland, where the barbarians live. . . . A moment later, I discovered that my breath was still caught by the wonder of it. All that land, bound in peace by the Chara's law. If only the lands to the south of Emor . . .

I woke from my dreaming then as I caught sight of Carle, cloaked once more, ducking through the tent flap, and I realized that Wystan must have asked him to leave so that he could talk with me alone. My stomach tightened.

In fact, the interview was relaxed. The hardest part was explaining about my blood vow. When I'd finished, Wystan nodded and said, "Your lieutenant is right in believing that your broken vow is no barrier to your joining the Emorian army. From an Emorian point of view, you showed more honor by breaking your vow than you would have shown by keeping it. In any case, the law takes no notice of crimes committed in another land, unless those crimes are against the Chara's law as well." He leaned back in his chair. We were both seated, and Wystan had moved his chair out from behind his small desk so that we would be closer together and so that our conversation could not be overheard by Carle and Wystan's orderly, who were conversing outside the tent.

"Do you have questions of your own?" Wystan asked. "I know that Carle is well qualified to answer questions you have about the patrol, but if you have any general questions about the army, I would be glad to answer them."

I frantically searched my mind for an appropriate question. Fortunately, the sun shone forth at that moment, and a shaft of light travelled through the tent gap, onto Wystan. His neck-brooch shone like a reflection of the sun.

"I was wondering about the brooches, sir," I said, with my eye on the gold brooch before me. "Most of the patrol guards wear iron brooches, but a few of them – including Sublieutenant Carle – wear copper brooches, and Lieutenant Quentin wears a silver brooch. I asked Sublieutenant Carle about this, but he didn't seem to want to talk about it."

"I am hardly surprised," said Wystan. "Your sublieutenant is a modest man." He rose to his feet, and after a moment I realized that I ought to do the same, and so I jumped up and watched as Wystan walked over to close the gap in the tent covering. As he did so, he said, "The brooches are awarded by the subcommander of the Emorian Army for honor and courage. The copper brooch is for great honor, and if a soldier should distinguish himself a second time, he is presented with a silver brooch for greater honor."

"And the gold brooch is for greatest honor," I said, keeping my gaze fixed on Wystan's brooch.

Wystan laughed then as he tossed dirt onto the brazier to douse the flames. "Do not assume that my brooch is higher in honor than Sublieutenant Carle's. Each unit in the Emorian Army establishes its own criteria for what constitutes honor, and the brooches are presented accordingly. I received my brooch in the regular army, which has lower standards than the special divisions – that is to say, the vanguard, the Border Division, and the Division of Disclosure. The highest standards of all exist in the border mountain patrol, with good reason. If we awarded brooches to patrol guards on the same basis that other soldiers are honored, every patrol guard would be awarded a gold brooch before the end of his first year. Those who were still alive, that is." His gaze slid over to me.

I recognized what he was telling me – not only that the honor of being a patrol guard was the greatest, but also that the danger was the greatest. I did my best to straighten my back and look like the type of man who fearlessly faces death. The results must have been amusing, because a smile flickered across Wystan's face, quickly suppressed.

I abandoned the effort and asked, "What type of act brings such an award in the patrol, sir?"

"Acts that are in the tradition of the patrol," he replied promptly, seating himself once more. "That is to say, acts which no man with the slightest amount of sanity would perform. If you were to fling yourself unarmed onto a blade-wielding breacher, without the faintest hope that you would survive the encounter, that might earn you an honor brooch. I say 'might,' because your act would need to have been witnessed by at least two other guards, while at least two-thirds of the patrol – including one of its officials – would need to have agreed that your act was a model for other patrol guards." He smiled as I reseated myself on a stool. "Even so, the border mountain patrol is the most heavily honored unit in the Chara's armies. The patrol shields its honor jealously, and it admits no man to its ranks unless the patrol believes that he will match the honor of past guards."

I thought of my broken vow; and of Fowler, lying wounded in the city physicians' house; and of myself, standing trial for my crime; and I felt the darkness of the day lower itself upon me. I was still trying to figure out how to save Wystan the words he must say next when he added softly, "Which is why I consider it one of my greatest privileges to welcome to the Emorian army those men whom the patrol believes meet those standards. Here is your own brooch, which, I assure you, shines more brightly in the eyes of the world than my own." And he placed into my hand an army brooch of dull iron.

So then he called Carle back into the tent to be witness, and I gave my oath of loyalty to the Chara by way of Wystan, and afterwards I couldn't remember why I had felt disappointed at the beginning of the visit.

o—o—o

The twenty-fifth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

Today I, Soldier Adrian of the Border Mountain Patrol of the Emorian Army of the Chara's Imperial Armies, was fitted for a uniform.

Actually, it doesn't look much different from the lesser free-man's tunic I was wearing before. I was also fitted for boots, and afterwards Carle took me to the armory so that I could select my blades.

"You have your choice," explained Carle, handing me a sword. "Have you ever had a close look at an Emorian-style blade?"

I examined carefully the sword. It was heavier than any I'd held before, and the hilt was guarded by curving metal that was evidently meant to protect the hand.

"I like this better than Koretian-style swords," I said, moving the sword from side to side to check its balance.

Carle nodded. "I thought you might. I prefer Koretian swords myself, because of their lighter weight. I suppose you've never fought with a sword before."

Actually, I had. Hamar used to let me borrow his sword, and he'd borrow Father's, and we'd practice together. But of course I couldn't tell Carle that, so I said carefully, "I have on a few occasions. The baron's son in our village was generous about loaning out his sword."

"Ah, yes; the baron's son in my village was the same way. Now, then—" Carle unsheathed his sword in a move that dazzled the eye, and held it in readiness. In the next moment, I had my new sword poised, and we began to fight.

The armorer watched us with a mirthful smile. We were in the cramped space of his tent, along with other soldiers who had taken shelter from the never-ending drizzle of rain. This is the third time it has rained since we arrived in Emor, and I'm beginning to wonder whether I'll ever see the sun again.

I concentrated my initial efforts on not killing accidentally any of the men standing nearby. Within a short time, my efforts were focussed on staying alive. The best bladesman I ever knew was my cousin Emlyn, but if he had met Carle, I think he would have hesitated before challenging Carle to a duel. Carle's sword sliced through my barriers as though he were cutting soft cheese, his blade-tip always withdrawing before it touched flesh. Obviously he was aiming for disarming rather than first blood, so I clenched my teeth and tried to follow suit. After three sweaty minutes, I finally succeeded in flicking my blade upward at the very moment that Carle's was sliding past.

His sword went flying, nearly decapitating a bottom-ranked soldier who was leaning forward to watch better. The soldiers had been chatting lightly with one another throughout the fight; now silence fell like a corpse upon the crowd. The armorer was no longer smiling.

The tip of my blade was touching Carle's throat. I hastily withdrew it and sheathed my sword, saying, "I'm sorry – did I use a forbidden move?"

Carle was breathing heavily from the fight; his eyes were unfocussed. Several seconds passed before he smiled and said, "Don't ask that question to a Koretian breacher. He'd geld you in order to teach you the meaning of 'forbidden moves' in Koretia."

Several of the men laughed, and everyone turned their attention away from us as Carle scooped his sword off the dirt floor. "I won't have to worry about whether you can guard my back," he said. "I should have guessed you'd be skilled. I suppose you received your first blade when you were seven or eight years old?"

"Six," I replied. "My cousin Emlyn gave me my first dagger as a gift when he moved south."

"I received my first blade when I was fifteen," said Carle; then he laughed as I struggled to control my expression. "It's the custom in Emor – and the main reason why so many patrol guards die in their first year. We're ill-trained in comparison to Koretian bladesmen, though fear of imminent death is an effective incentive to improve our skills." He reached under the edge of his tunic, and when his hand came into sight again, he was holding a sliver of metal. "This is one area where you'll need training," he said.

And so he explained to me how to hold a thigh-dagger and how to wield it in combat, and I listened impatiently until he handed me the dagger, and then we had to wait for the armorer to hunt up a bowl of water and strips of cloth, and after Carle had washed and bandaged my hand he told me again how to hold a thigh-dagger, and I managed to do it properly the second time.

The other soldiers were very amused.

o—o—o

The twenty-sixth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

This is our last day in Emor. We spent most of today doing tasks for Quentin that were easier accomplished by messenger than by message. Carle went over to the city physicians' house briefly, in order to check on Fowler and to confirm that he will recover within a month's time. At the end of the day – a day when it miraculously did not rain – we sat with our backs against the exterior of the inner palace wall.

From where we sat, we could see the sweep of the army headquarters just below us, nestled at the northern foot of Palace Hill: tents and banners and horses and milling men, squeezed tight together yet spreading, it seemed, halfway to the horizon. It's hard to believe that the headquarters houses only the Home Division and the vanguard, and that the greater part of the Chara's armies is scattered throughout the empire.

I looked over at Carle, but his head was tilted back, and I saw that his gaze was directed further toward the horizon. From where we sat, the line of the horizon was blocked by a series of low mountains – foothills, really – that interrupted the rolling fields of lower Southern Emor. One low mountain stood out from the rest, being slightly forward of the others, and I could see that immediately behind it was another mountain, slightly higher, and still another mountain behind them, though this was almost hidden by the haze at the horizon. The flattened peaks looked like the knobby spine of an animal.

"Those are signal-fire mountains," Carle said, seeing where my gaze was now fixed. "When a fire is lit on one of them, it can be seen on the next mountain in the chain. The signal-fire mountains reach all of the way up to the Central Provinces."

"Why are the fires lit?" I asked. "To warn of war?"

"On rare occasions," said Carle. "Tell me, what do you think it will be like patrolling the mountains when the snows come?"

I was unsettled by the rapid change of subject. A moment later, I was even more unsettled as I began to think my answer through. I've actually seen snow before; in the borderland, it snows occasionally, so I've witnessed the feather-fall of moist flakes from the sky. It always seemed quite peaceful on our side of the mountain.

On the other side, it was different. The mountain winds, howling almost ceaselessly through the mountain passes, whirled a wall of blinding whiteness against any passersby. Father had forbidden Hamar and me from visiting the northern side of our mountain when it snowed, and after one numbing, panic-raising visit, Hamar and I had complied with this order.

Carle had been watching my face carefully. Now he gave a short laugh. "Don't worry, our sacrifices to the Chara aren't that high. So few breachers try to cross the border during the winter that keeping us in the mountains isn't worth the number of patrol guards who would die if we were forced to remain there. The patrol is withdrawn during the snow season. The trouble is in predicting when that season begins."

As he spoke, the light wind continued to buffet our face. Above us, dark clouds rolled in endless waves across the skies. The shadow of one such cloud thundered silently past us, faster than a galloping horse.

I understood then. "So the signal fires are to warn that the snow is coming?"

Carle nodded. "The signal fires are the only messages that can move faster than the storm clouds; even the Chara's messengers aren't that quick. Of course, sometimes the storms halt before reaching the mountains, but Captain Wystan can't take that chance. As soon as he receives word through the signal fires of the storm's approach, he sends a sealed message to Quentin. Sometimes the warning arrives a few days ahead of the storm, and sometimes it arrives only a few hours ahead."

"Why a sealed message?" I asked.

One side of Carle's mouth twisted upward into a wry smile. "Because our lieutenant has the unenviable task of deciding when to withdraw us from the mountains. Late autumn is the time of year when any Koretian who knows what he's doing tries to breach the border, so we stay in the mountains until the final moment possible, in order that we can catch any Koretian making a last-minute trip. When to leave is the lieutenant's decision, and while he has never miscalculated our withdrawal, I don't envy him his job."

I considered this, stretching my legs out onto the damp grass and feeling the shadows of the grey clouds scurry over my body. The stones behind me were grey with old age, but new mortar kept them firmly in place. Everything below us looked newborn: the bright weapons, the attentive guards at the camp's perimeter, the crisp orders being shouted by a subcaptain. Yet all that I saw and heard was a thousand years old.

"Carle, why did you become a mountain patrol guard?" I heard myself ask.

Carle took the wine flask from my hand and sipped from it before saying, "Because of the Law of Vengeance, I suppose."

"The Law of Vengeance?" I felt my heartbeat increase. I've resigned myself to the fact that the law seems to have the same effect on me as a rich meal does on a glutton, or as a beautiful woman does on a lecher. "You mentioned that law once. What is it about?"

After a moment, I turned my head and found that Carle was gazing upon me with the sort of expression I might wear if he had asked me the names of the seven gods and goddesses of Koretia. His voice was matter-of-fact, though, as he said, "The Law of Vengeance concerns the third of the Great Three crimes that can be committed against the Chara – the crimes that the Chara alone may judge. The other two crimes are described in the Law of Grave Iniquity and the Law of Bloodshed. Some day soon I'll recite to you the Justification of the Law of Vengeance; the Justification is the portion of a law that describes why the law exists. That Justification's passage on the burdens of the Chara is one that every schoolboy in Emor is required to learn. Less well known, though, is the sixth division . . ."

"Wait," I said. "You told me yesterday that Emorian laws are divided into five parts."

"All except the Great Three." Carle's gaze was fixed on the nearest of the signal-mountains. He had not raised the wine flask to his lips for several minutes. His voice was soft as he said, "The Great Three are the oldest laws in this land, so they retain a division that all of the older laws must have included at one time: the sacrifice division, allowing any man to offer up his body or life in exchange for that of a condemned prisoner. The chronicles say that this division was treated with great seriousness on the few occasions when it was invoked. Not only was the man punished in the appropriate manner, but he took on all of the guilt and dishonor that rightfully belonged to the prisoner. The prisoner was freed of his pain, his death, and his shame. The other man bore all of this for the prisoner's sake."

The wind continued to buffet us with its hand; the black clouds hovered over us, low and heavy with rain. From the city walls to the mountains lay fields filled with sheep and horses, lazy under the patchy sunlight.

"You said that the division 'was' invoked," I said finally. "It's not used any more? No one today offers up their life that way?"

Carle smiled, saying nothing. Beyond the army camp, beyond the outer palace wall, lay the buildings of the capital city of Emor: law houses, market stalls, community halls, and homes. And beyond our sight, hidden by the palace that threw its shadow over the whole eastern portion of the city, lay the city physicians' house, where a patrol guard lay drugged, suffering from the pain of a blade inflicted by a law-breaking Koretian.

"I see." My voice was low. I was struggling with the knowledge of a burden taken on – the knowledge of how far the Chara's mercy extended, and who took on the weight of seeing that his mercy was carried out. I should have known, I thought, from the moment that Quentin bloodied his hand in his effort to save my life.

We sat a while longer, until it grew too dark to see the clouds hiding the stars above, and then we walked back to Neville's house as the rain began to fall on the green and golden fields.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

The twenty-seventh day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

I am now a patrol guard. Oh, I know that I've been a guard since the moment I gave my oath of loyalty, but I didn't really feel it until this morning, when Carle and I arrived back at the patrol hut, and everyone ignored me.

We arrived shortly before dawn, when the day patrol was finishing breaking its fast. One or two of the other guards broke off their conversations to greet Carle, but no one said anything to me. I felt cold all through, wondering whether, in the time I'd been gone, the others had changed their minds about wanting me as a fellow guard. Carle, though, seemed cheerfully unaware of what was happening. He went over to chat with Iain while I spooned bean porridge from the pot and tried to pretend that everything was fine.

The night patrol arrived soon afterwards, all of the guards weary in body and face except for the lieutenant, who always looks quietly alert. None of them greeted me, not even Quentin. Instead, Quentin went over to talk to the day patrol while the rest of the night patrol gathered round Carle and started teasing him about the ladies they suggested he must have spent his time courting during his visit to the city. I was just beginning to wonder whether the porridge had been poisoned, for I felt quite sick to my stomach, when Carle glanced at the violet-pink sky and announced, "Time for work, I would say." Casually, as though he'd done it a thousand times before, he unsheathed his sword and passed its blade over the flames before sheathing it and walking slowly toward the tunnel that leads out of the hollow. He had not looked my way since our arrival back.

The other members of the day patrol did the same, and a couple of the night patrol guards, now gathered around the porridge, glanced their way and said, "Good hunting." Then, as Chatwin finished fire-cleansing his sword of old blood and turned away, a silence fell upon the patrol, and I realized that everyone was looking my way.

Even so, it took me a moment to realize why they were waiting. Then I stumbled hastily to my feet, almost cut my hand in my eagerness to unsheathe my sword, and held my unblooded sword over the flames. When I looked up, the entire patrol was spread in a line, awaiting me.

My face was now burning as hot as the Jackal's fire. I hesitantly stepped forward, and as I passed the first guard in line, Chatwin, he said, "Good hunting, Adrian."

I looked back at him, but before I could think of anything to reply, I had come abreast of Teague of the night patrol, and he was saying, "Good hunting, Adrian." After that, I was too busy trying to walk as quickly as possible down the line to be able to think of what to reply to everyone, aside from embarrassed mumbles.

As I reached the end of the line, Carle clapped me on the back as he said, "Good hunting, Adrian," but I hardly noticed him, for my gaze was upon the lieutenant, who had stepped into my path. He looked down at me for a moment, his expression serious, and then he said quietly, "Good hunting, soldier. Take care of your partner today."

My chest was squeezed tight. I think that in the next moment I would have burst into tears if Carle hadn't rescued me by beginning to talk loudly about the dilatoriness of young patrol guards. He grabbed me by the scruff of my collar and pushed me forward, while several of the guards behind him chuckled. Then we were through the tunnel, and my first day on active duty had begun.

o—o—o

The twenty-ninth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

Ten hours of climbing mountains is a good cure for sleeplessness. The first evening, I was ready to collapse onto my pallet the moment I arrived back at the patrol hut, but Carle quickly made clear that the time that the patrol guards spend talking together is considered just as much a duty as our patrolling.

I don't mind, especially when we play Law Links, which we do every night. I'm the first guard eliminated each time, of course, but I've already learned a dozen laws that way, and Carle has been tutoring me during the day while we're on patrol.

Even better than Law Links is when the full patrol gathers together at dawn and at dusk. At first, I wondered how many border-breachers must make their way past the patrol during this time, as I had planned to do. I soon realized that Quentin's hearing is so acute that he can even hear border-breachers from the insulated hollow. Twice he has broken the gathering short to send the next patrol out in pursuit.

Most of the time, though, we have a chance to exchange information about what has happened during our patrols, and we younger guards take the opportunity to ply Quentin with questions about our work.

Quentin must have great patience, for some of the questions he answers seem quite foolish. Yesterday, for example, Payne said, "I fear I fail to understand the rule on disarming, lieutenant. Our standing orders are to disarm Emorian border-breachers upon capture, but we are only supposed to disarm Koretian border-breachers if they draw their blades against us. Does that not make it easy for the Koretians to attack us?"

His gaze flicked over toward me as he spoke, and I could see the other guards eyeing me as well. There were five of us sitting around Quentin: me, Payne, Chatwin, Teague, and Devin. The other guards were gathered on the opposite side of the fire, quizzing Carle about the details of a new court case that Neville had told us about.

Quentin didn't look my way, but as he reached over to his side to pick up his water flask, he said, "Soldier Adrian, I know that it will be difficult for you to discard momentarily your Emorian way of thinking, but I would appreciate it if you would cast your mind back to the days when you were a Koretian and explain to Payne what you would have done if I had tried to disarm you before you had drawn your blade against me."

"I would have killed you." The answer was so obvious that I didn't pause to think, but a moment later, I felt my spirit jerk as though it had been torn in two, for it suddenly occurred to me that there was something odd about what I had said.

I did not have time to analyze the matter, for Quentin had turned his attention back to Payne. "In Koretia, Payne, the symbol of manhood is a blade. No Koretian man will disarm himself except for the gravest of reasons, and any man who tries to disarm a Koretian who has not threatened him will find his life in danger."

Payne's expression had been tightening during Quentin's speech. Now he burst out, "But that is barbaric! How can they be so childish?"

Quentin lifted one eyebrow, then glanced over at me, sitting with fists clenched, trying to keep control of myself. "Adrian, please tell Payne – passing your mind back to your Koretian past, of course – what you thought the first time you saw an unarmed Emorian man."

I was uneasily aware that I did not have to return as far as all that to find the answer to Quentin's question, but I obediently replied, "I thought he looked like a child."

Too late, I realized that Payne had put aside his sword. Fortunately, Payne's expression was so comical that the other young guards burst into laughter, and after a moment, Payne gave a weak smile.

"If Adrian could find room in his spirit to appreciate your manly qualities, despite your obvious deficiencies," Quentin said, rising to his feet, "I imagine that you can learn to appreciate the barbaric Koretians. . . . Sublieutenant, two men are approaching from the north." He said this quietly to Carle, who immediately abandoned his food and rose to his feet. I was at his side within a few seconds, and when the day patrol left moments later, I heard Payne say, "Good hunting, Adrian," although I had not had time to flame my blade.

o—o—o

The fifth day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

Since arriving back in the mountains, I've continued to accompany Carle on patrols, though he has not yet allowed me to participate in a hunt; I'm supposed to watch from a distance and learn how hunts are conducted. Much of our work, I've discovered, consists of stopping legitimate border-crossers and asking for their credentials. We usually hunt at least one border-breacher a day, and sometimes several. If the hunted doesn't resist capture, we interrogate our prisoner on the spot and either send him back the way that he came, or – in the rare cases where the breacher has a legitimate reason for crossing the border – we allow him past us.

I was surprised, though, to learn that border-breachers who draw their blades are all treated in exactly the same manner as I was: they are hand-bound and eye-bound, roughly led to the patrol hut, and questioned in a harsh manner before being placed on trial for their crimes. I asked Carle about this, and he said that fear was the patrol's secret weapon.

"It's our only weapon in most cases," he said, speaking to me in a low voice because we were standing on a mountain overlooking the pass. "If the breacher doesn't attack us, and if he isn't a lawbreaker such as an escaped slave, then we can't punish the prisoner in any way. We simply scare him in hopes that he won't try to breach the border again. If the breacher is violent, we try to give him the impression that his life is forfeit in our hands, though in most cases the lieutenant only condemns the prisoner to a beating."

"So my trial was a sham," I said unhappily.

"No Emorian trial that I've ever attended has been a sham. You were in real danger of being executed at the start, and we were really angry at you for what you had done – but even if we hadn't been, we would have acted as though we were." Carle's head turned slowly as he surveyed the landscape below us. "The only way in which your trial was different from the others is that it was more formal, because part of your defense was that you had escaped to Emor to learn about the law. So the lieutenant was judging you partly on the basis of how you acted during your trial."

I discovered today that Carle was right when he said that most patrol trials are less formal. Our prisoner was a Koretian who held to my theory that it's better to find the patrol guards before they find you – only in his case, his motive for finding us was to cut our throats. This type of episode happens every few weeks, Carle assured me with a grin, and is the reason why patrol guards are trained to be the hunted as well as the hunters. It's also the reason why we patrol in pairs, and in fact it was Payne's patrolling partner, Gamaliel, who saved him from death and sent out the Immediate Danger whistle.

I had thought that I knew about moving fast before then, but I found that the implications of the danger whistles had been so firmly planted in my mind that I was beyond the doorway of the patrol hut before I even realized that I had awoken from sleep. We captured the hunted alive, brought him back to the hut, and then, with only a short preliminary of questioning, placed him on trial for attempted murder. This time there was no court summoner or herald or clerk, and the prisoner rejected the use of a guide. Only the lieutenant acted the same, wearing his gold chain and sitting in judgment with cold formality.

The prisoner's defense – such as it was – was that he wished he'd murdered the lot of us. Quentin's patient questioning failed to elicit any stronger defense. So, in the end, Quentin pronounced the sentence of death that could have been mine.

I don't know what I expected to happen after that – some sort of small ceremony, I suppose, before the prisoner was discreetly taken outside and executed. So I barely took in what actually did happen: Quentin asked the prisoner whether he wished to appeal the judgment and sentence, waited only the mote of time necessary to receive a negative answer, then pulled out his thigh-dagger, stepped over to where the prisoner was being held by Carle and me, and plunged his blade into the man's heart.

The Koretian wasn't expecting this either; he died with a look of surprise on his face. After I had managed to still my queasy stomach, I asked Carle about what had happened. He told me that Quentin was following Emorian law, which states that a prisoner must be brought to trial as soon as possible, and that his punishment must take place immediately after the trial.

"We Emorians think that the cruelest punishment of all is fear," said Carle. "We try to spare condemned prisoners that much at least."

Thinking about the fear that held Mountside in its frosty grip in the days before I left, I decided that Carle was right.

o—o—o

The sixth day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

I'm beginning to realize how hard it is to think like an Emorian.

This morning, as we were waiting for the night patrol to arrive back from duty, I was taking my turn at tending the stew. The food in the patrol surprises me; from the stories I'd heard of army life, I'd expected a steady diet of blackroot nuts. The patrol, though, gets its food and other supplies from the merchants that pass over the border every few days, so we're much better fed than other soldiers – we dine as well as nobles, even eating meat. I've almost reached the point where I expect to be introduced to such delicacies as Daxion nuts.

I was saying as much to Carle and joking with him in our usual manner, when I realized that the other members of the day patrol were giving me dark looks. This puzzled me, as I couldn't think of anything I'd done to earn the other guards' wrath.

"Soldier," said Carle sharply, all of a moment, "I wish to speak privately with you."

I looked around to see whom Carle was addressing, and then realized with chagrin that I was the one he was glaring at.

He took me as far as the fall, where we could not be heard. I realize I must take a detour in my narrative here, because I haven't explained fully about the waterfall. It tumbles down the mountainside from one of the high peaks, where the snow lies year-round. From the fall we gain our drinking water and bathing water, and our latrine is located in the area where the water rushes underground.

Using the latrine at night is a chilling experience. Even more chilling is bathing under the fall; I always take care to do so when the sun is up. All of the guards do except Carle, who sneaks out to bathe when the rest of us are asleep. He receives a great deal of teasing for his bodily modesty.

Speaking low under the soft roar of the fall, Carle said, "Adrian, didn't anything Neville said to you penetrate your spirit? You mustn't call me by my name alone in front of the others."

I stared at him uncomprehending for a moment; then I felt the chill of the waterfall's flicking bite against my skin fade away as heat rushed across my face. I said stiffly, "I am sorry, sir. I thought . . . If I had realized . . . Sublieutenant, when may I address you by your name? You will always be above my rank, so will I ever be able again to . . . I mean, I thought the wine . . ." I fumbled for words, struggling to keep control of my voice.

Carle sighed and turned me away so that my back was to the other guards, who were watching us out of the corners of their eyes. "Strictly speaking, not until one of us retires," he said. "Army rank isn't carried over to civilian life, so we'd be free to address each other as equals then. But in reality . . . Curse you, Adrian; I suppose Emorian life isn't as orderly as I sometimes pretend it is. When I first joined the patrol, I tried to adhere to the rules of rank at all times; I was determined to be a good soldier. The lieutenant, though, soon cured me of my naiveté. He pointed out the folly of the two of us always addressing each other formally when we had to patrol together for eleven hours a day, every day of the week, for eight months straight. So now the rule I follow is to address my fellow guards in accordance with their rank, but only when we're in active pursuit, or when orders are being given and received, or when we're in the presence of others. But for love of the Chara, Adrian, I expect you to follow that rule as though your life depended upon it! Do you know what it looks like for you to call me by my name when the others cannot?"

I hadn't, but I understood well enough when I arrived back at the balefire, where the others were waiting in watchful silence. Still burning from my unofficial reprimand, I poured out soup for Carle and handed it to him, taking care to address him by his title – and immediately grins spread from one guard to the next, like a peace oath travelling swiftly from one town to the next. Not long afterwards, Iain put his arm around my shoulders and offered to tend the soup in my place.

Every time I stumble in my understanding of the law, I grow weak with fear of what I might do next. How far will I go in breaking Emorian rules before I enter into serious trouble?

o—o—o

The tenth day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

Now I know.

As I mentioned before, I haven't yet taken part in a hunt. This can be frustrating, for I must watch the pursuit from afar and gain what knowledge I can from the tiny figures I see. By last week, I was already growing eager to put my knowledge to the test, but Carle, after reciting the names of all the patrol guards over the centuries who had died during their first hunt, put my request aside.

Today, as the sun was setting in the sky, Carle went a few paces ahead to speak with Hoel and Chatwin. Rounding the side of a mountain, I discovered a border-breacher making water against the rock.

That he was a breacher I had no doubt; he was wearing an Emorian dagger and was well past the point where we would have sighted him if he'd been travelling from Emor in the normal manner. I concluded that he must have travelled through the nearby mountains, somehow retaining his orientation, and that he now believed himself to have journeyed beyond our patrolling ground.

He very nearly had; if he went any further, a pursuit by the patrol would be hard, as we were less familiar with the mountain areas to the south of our patrolling ground. With no thought, only instinct, I quietly drew my sword, crept up behind the breacher, and placed my sword-tip against his spine.

He yelped but did not move his hand toward his dagger. I had doubted he would; I had already learned that most Emorian border-breachers are defiant only up until the moment of capture, whereupon they surrender quietly. And so, feeling the same triumph that a bridegroom might feel after taking his bride's maidenhood, I sent out the End of Hunt whistle.

Carle reached me within seconds. Hoel and Chatwin were not far behind, and I relished the look of Iain and Jephthah as they arrived two minutes later and saw who the captor was in this hunt. Carle waited long enough to be sure that the prisoner would not resist; then he pulled me aside. "What happened?" he asked. "Did he attack you?"

With eager joy, I explained how I had saved the patrol from a difficult hunt. Carle said nothing. Though Iain was leading the interrogation of the prisoner, I could see that he and the others were eavesdropping on what I said. When I had finished, Carle said only, "Let's deal with the prisoner first."

I was disappointed, but I told myself not to be foolish. Carle's matter-of-fact acceptance of my ability to capture a breacher single-handedly was a greater compliment to me than if he had shown amazement at my accomplishment. So I followed him over to where the prisoner stood, babbling forth his story.

As it turned out, I was wrong; the Emorian had not been leaving Emor but returning to it, and he had been armed only because he had been travelling amongst the dagger-wielding barbarians of Koretia. In fact, he had travelled from Emor to Koretia while Carle and I were at the army camp, and he was known by the rest of the day patrol to be a legitimate border-crosser.

This tarnished my inward triumph only slightly. Even if I'd been wrong, Carle had told me long ago that it was better for a patrol guard to be too zealous in his duty than to allow a genuine breacher past the border. I'd still saved the patrol from what might have been a perilous pursuit.

The sun had dipped behind the mountains; the birds were beginning to quiet in the scrubby vegetation that clings to the rocks, and the winds had gone still, as they sometimes do for several days on end. Carle, having apologized to the prisoner and released him, sent out the signal of the withdrawal of the day patrol from duty, though he usually waits for Quentin's signal that the night patrol is ready. Then, without looking my way, he began to walk back to the patrol hut.

I tried to talk more with him on the way about what had happened, but he didn't respond to my remarks. Behind me, the other patrol guards were speaking in low voices, the way they always do when the wind is so soft that their remarks might be heard by coming breachers. After several attempts to break past Carle's barrier of silence, I withdrew from his side, puzzled and hurt. Could it be, I wondered with horror, that Carle was actually jealous of me? Did he envy me so much for my daring capture – which surely no other patrol guard had achieved during his first hunt – that he would allow his feelings to poison our friendship?

I struggled with this unpleasant thought after reaching the patrol hut, and so I was not as aware as I might otherwise have been of the conversations taking place between the day and night patrols; nor did I pay much attention to Carle as he took Quentin aside and spoke privately with him.

My first warning of my change in fortune came when Quentin whistled the call for assembly.

It took me a moment to recognize the whistle; I had not yet heard it used, except in practice. Then I joined the other patrol guards lining up against the outside wall of the hut. The balefire flickered upon us, showering warmth and light. Just beyond the flames, several paces ahead of the other guards, Carle was standing so that he could see both the patrol and their lieutenant.

All of us stood at alert, our arms stiff, our eyes straight ahead, though I could not prevent myself from watching Quentin out of the corner of my eye as he slowly walked down the line, inspecting each man. When he reached me, he said in a colorless voice, "Soldier Adrian – step out of line, please."

I did so; my face was burning. This I had not anticipated. I tried to tell myself that this was no doubt part of the normal initiation into the patrol. Probably I would only be honored for my first successful participation in a hunt. I couldn't help wondering, though, whether my bold capture of the Emorian was substantive enough to earn me an honor brooch.

"Soldier Adrian," said Quentin softly, "I am told that you disobeyed Sublieutenant Carle's order and took part in a hunt. Is this true?"

I stared amazed at Quentin, then looked down the line at Carle, whose gaze was fixed straight ahead of himself. I said, "But I—"

"Soldier." At Quentin's voice, much softer than before, I turned my eyes back to him, then felt my stomach lurch from the look in his eyes. His face was only inches away from mine. "I asked you a question. Did you disobey Sublieutenant Carle's order?"

I swallowed in an attempt to moisten my dry mouth. "Yes, sir, I did."

The low wind brushed the balefire, sending sparks into the air. Next to me, I could not hear so much as a drawn breath from any of the other guards. Quentin took a step back, contemplated me for a moment as though I were a bound breacher, and finally said, "Very well. Report."

I did so, stumbling this time, and leaving out the words of exaltation and victory that I had spoken to Carle. When I was finished, Quentin stared at me coolly as my heart thumped louder than the growl of the fire eating the wood. Then the lieutenant said, "The fault is mine."

My heart thumped again, this time in astonishment. "Sir?"

"I should have taken you aside to give you special training in this matter. This is the first time that the patrol has ever had a Koretian-born guard, but I ought to have realized that this trouble would arise."

Not since my entrance into the patrol had Quentin made mention of my native origins in order to criticize me. I felt my face burn once more as I said, "Sir, if I lack skills because I'm Koretian—"

Quentin shook his head. "Not skills, understanding. Soldier, why did you disobey orders?"

I phrased my reply carefully. "Sir, I see that I was wrong in what I did, but at the time I thought I was saving the patrol from a difficult hunt."

"You say that you see you were wrong. In what way?"

I realized that I would not be spared the ordeal of a questioning. Something touched me then – my Koretian stubbornness, perhaps – and I said, "I don't know, lieutenant. I tried to save the other guards from possible danger. Why was it wrong for me to do that?"

Quentin's eyes flicked away from me toward Carle. A look passed between them, long and grave; then Quentin stepped back from me and addressed the line of silent patrol guards. "Soldier Gamaliel, step forward."

I turned my head to look as Gamaliel stiffly took a pace forward. He is the oldest patrol guard, older even than Quentin; he is only a few years younger than Fenton was when he died. As the light chiselled deeper the lines of somberness in Gamaliel's face, Quentin said, "Soldier Gamaliel, please recount for the benefit of Soldier Adrian the events leading up to Sublieutenant Shepley's dismissal from the patrol."

I heard a faint rustling behind me, as though several of the guards had shifted in their places. Gamaliel's chin rose as he said rigidly, "Yes, sir. Two springs ago, Sublieutenant Shepley was on duty, close to the patrol hut, with his partner, Soldier Byrd. Both soldiers sighted a man wearing the clothes of a barbarian mainlander. The mainlander saw them at the same moment and drew his sword. Soldier Byrd promptly issued the Probable Danger signal.

"Before the full patrol had time to respond to the signal, sir, Sublieutenant Shepley, jealous of your title—"

"Reword yourself, soldier." Quentin's voice was sharp.

"My apologies, sir." Gamaliel was silent a moment, then started again. "Sublieutenant Shepley, desiring glory for himself, immediately drew his sword and ran forward to capture the barbarian. Soldier Byrd had no choice but to follow. Just as Sublieutenant Shepley was on the point of reaching the barbarian, though, his foot slipped on some loose pebbles, and he fell to the ground, striking himself unconscious in the process.

"Soldier Byrd, seeing his partner in danger, responded by attacking the barbarian. Because he had only recently joined the patrol, Soldier Byrd's sword skills were not sufficient to allow him to defeat the barbarian unaided. The barbarian wounded him severely."

Gamaliel paused. The sun had set completely by now; cloakless, I was shivering in the evening wind, warmed only by the patrol fire flickering its glow upon us. Carle stood nearly outside the circle of warmth; only his face was alit.

"At that point, sir, you and your patrolling partner, Soldier Carle, reached the scene," Gamaliel continued. "As Soldier Carle is—" He stopped, his gaze sliding sideways over to me, then said, "As Soldier Carle was the best swordsman in the patrol, you ordered him to keep the barbarian occupied while you carried Soldier Byrd and Sublieutenant Shepley to safety.

"Unfortunately, the barbarian was well skilled with his blade. Although Soldier Carle was able to defend himself for a short while, the barbarian soon broke past his defenses and disarmed him. At that point, Soldier Neville and I had just come within sight, but we and the other guards were too far away to assist. You, sir, had returned from carrying Soldier Byrd to a secure distance and was just picking up Sublieutenant Shepley. In order to give you and Sublieutenant Shepley time to reach safety, Soldier Carle, now naked of blade, flung himself upon the barbarian."

My gaze jerked over to Carle. He was continuing to stand motionless, staring at emptiness; the copper brooch at his neck twinkled in the light. I let out my breath slowly.

"Fortunately, the barbarian was so startled by this action that he stumbled and fell beneath the weight of Soldier Carle," Gamaliel said. "Soldier Carle was able to prevent him from using his sword for the time it took the other guards to reach the scene. The barbarian was then captured by the remainder of the patrol."

"And the aftermath of this hunt?" Quentin hadn't looked at me since the report began; his gaze was fixed upon Gamaliel.

"The barbarian was placed on trial and was discovered to be a legitimate border-crosser who had not realized that the men attacking him were the Chara's patrol guards. He was granted mercy for his crime and was released to continue on his way. Soldier Carle was awarded the subcommander's copper honor brooch for his courage, and he rose to the sublieutenancy of the patrol. Soldier Byrd died of his wound, but in his dying hours, he gave witness to Sublieutenant Shepley's actions. Sublieutenant Shepley—"

"That is enough." Quentin's soft voice cut off Gamaliel, who promptly stepped back into line; the lieutenant's gaze had already returned to me. "Do you understand now, soldier?" he asked quietly.

I found it harder to swallow this time; there was an obstruction in my throat. "Yes, sir. By disobeying orders, Sublieutenant Shepley brought danger upon his fellow patrol guards." I nearly continued, then thought better of it and fell silent.

Quentin, though, had been running his dark gaze over my face. He said, "You have more comments?"

I took a deep breath; the chill of the mountain air bit at my lungs. "Only a question, sir. Sublieutenant Shepley disobeyed orders – but didn't Soldier Carle disobey orders as well? Aren't we under standing orders to retreat if we're disarmed?"

The wind, whooshing down the sides of the mountains enclosing us, stirred Carle's hair; otherwise, his body and eyes remained motionless. Quentin, who was now running his fingers over his sword hilt, kept his gaze fixed upon me until I felt my knees beginning to melt. Then he said, "Yes, Soldier Carle disobeyed orders, in the most blatant manner possible. When, Soldier Adrian, you understand the difference between what he did and what you did, you too may disobey orders. Until then, your judgment is not sufficiently mature to allow for that."

I said nothing. The wind whistled around the hollow. Somewhere in the distance, a bird of prey screamed.

The lieutenant stepped back. "The mistake was mine, as much as yours. I should have taken your background into account. We will let the matter rest there."

"Sir—" I stopped, biting my lip, until Quentin gave an impatient gesture. Then I said, "Sir, I'm an Emorian now, and I should be held to Emorian law and custom as much as any other Emorian. I would rather that you dealt with me the same as you would any other soldier in this unit."

I couldn't tell, from Quentin's expression, whether I had said the right thing. After a minute, though, he replied, "Very well. As it happens, we have a special discipline for this type of episode – a test that should teach you not to make this mistake again." And then, as I let my breath out in a sigh, he added, "If you survive."

o—o—o

The eleventh day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

Carle took me into the mountains today for my test. He was very cheerful.

"Have you seen the seal yet?" he asked, after we'd walked for about an hour.

"What seal?" I asked as I stubbed my toe and stumbled.

"Watch out here; this path is rocky," Carle reported belatedly. "The Chara's seal. It's plastered everywhere in the palace, but since we didn't go inside the palace— No, wait, move a bit to the right. You're about to fall into a fissure."

I hurriedly crowded up against Carle's body. My eyes were bound; I had long since lost all sense of which direction we were going in. All I knew was that we must be far away from the pass, for I could no longer hear the whistles of the patrol.

Our journey was like an eerie replay of my first arrival at the patrol hut, but this time my hands were unbound, and I could even have dispensed with the aid of a cloth over my eyes, if I'd been sure I could keep my eyes closed. Not wanting to take any chances, I had requested to have my eyes bound.

Other than that, I was dressed as I ordinarily would have been for a day's patrol: I wore my army tunic, my thigh-pocket with its hidden dagger, my boots, my sword, and my back-sling, which held my water-flask, binding rope, and noonday meal. Also my journal and pencil, which I had received permission from Quentin to bring with me. "Recording your thoughts may be of use to you in seeing your way clear to the solution," he said, when speaking of my test.

Now Carle said, "Vengeance, mercy, judgment."

"What?" I swung my face toward him, as though I could see him.

"Those are the attributes of the Chara, and those are what are depicted on his seal. The Sword of Vengeance. The Heart of Mercy – that's shown as a wounded bird. And the Balance of Judgment."

I hesitated a moment before replying, then decided that I really did not want to tell Carle that vengeance, mercy, and judgment were the three attributes of the Jackal as well. "The Balance of Judgment holds the bird and the sword in its scales?"

"Precisely." Carle sounded pleased at my reply. "But judgment is a much greater matter than that. Take the Court of Judgment, where the Chara hears his cases. First of all, it's unlikely that the man the Chara is trying is being tried for the first time. More likely, the man has been judged by the lesser courts, the case working itself up the ladder of the courts as it becomes clear that the case offers some problem that the lesser courts haven't dealt with before. By the time the case reaches the Chara, he not only has the prisoner's witness to consider; he also has the judgments of the previous judges. And beyond that there will be witnesses – many witnesses in an important case. The Chara can't make a judgment on his own. He depends heavily on what is stated and judged by other men."

"I see." My mind was less on Carle's words than on the rocky ground that would have caused me to fall to the ground if Carle hadn't been gripping my arm. "So you couldn't just have a case where the Chara was alone with the prisoner—"

"Oh, that type of case happens occasionally. 'Private judgment,' it's called, and the Chara is the only judge in the land who is permitted to make private judgment, because of his high office. Even then, he'll invariably be drawing upon the written witness of men not present. . . . Here we are."

Carle pulled me to a stop. I strained my ears, trying to sense where we were. We had been travelling on the relatively level ground between mountains; I knew this from the number of times that Carle had pulled me back from stepping into fissures. I could hear no whistles coming from behind me, before me, or to either side of me. The wind shifted direction every few seconds. A few autumn birds twittered, but most had flown south at this time of year. Near us, a stone rattled down the side of a mountain.

My head jerked round; then I whispered, "It sounds like a breacher is near."

"We're too far from the pass for that," replied Carle, adjusting the cloth binding my eyes. "Most likely it's a cat."

"A mountain cat?" I tried to keep my voice matter-of-fact. "I thought they only lived in the dominion mountains, except when they're tamed. Do the wild cats travel this far south?"

"They don't come near the pass, but they'll occasionally roam these mountains, away from the pass. Don't worry. You may find that one is following you, but they rarely attack humans, unless the human is wounded. Now, then—" Without warning, Carle took hold of my shoulders and spun me round. By the time he stopped, I was thoroughly dizzy.

"Any idea which direction you're facing?" Carle enquired blithely.

"None at all," I replied, trying to keep from toppling over.

"Good. Now, here's how the test works. I'll leave you here. You count to a hundred. Once the count is over, take the cloth off your eyes and make your way back to the patrol ground."

"That's all?" I said cautiously. "It's just a test to see whether I can navigate through the mountains?"

"You can manage that, can't you?"

"Of course I can," I said quickly, though I was feeling uneasy, remembering Fenton's warning about sticking to the pass.

"Good. Keep in mind, Adrian: this test isn't meant to kill you. I don't want you to make the same mistake that was made by the only guard I know who failed this test. When you find that you can't locate the patrol ground, whistle, and we'll come fetch you."

I was stung by the lack of faith that Carle's "when" represented. "I'll make it back on my own," I said stiffly.

"Good hunting" was Carle's only reply. He said nothing more, and after a minute, I realized that he had left my side.

Taking a breath, I counted aloud to one hundred, keeping my count slow. I could not help continuing to strain for some clue of where I was. If Carle made any noise while walking back to the pass, I missed it. I thought, though, that I could hear the mountain cat, moving on some slope above. I had a sudden, nasty vision of what I must look like to the cat: an eye-bound man, easy prey.

Resisting the temptation to pull the cloth off my eyes, I pulled my sword instead. Perhaps the cat wouldn't recognize the significance of the eye-binding. On the other hand, perhaps the cat wouldn't recognize the significance of the sword either, if she had never encountered humans before. Not until she jumped me would the cat realize that I had a way to defend myself. And by the time I killed her, would her claws have mauled me sufficiently to make the killing mutual? I shivered.

o—o—o

I've been writing all this under a ledge in the tiny gorge where Carle left me. Evening had arrived by the time I removed the cloth from my eyes, and tonight the sky is too overcast for me to see the stars, so I will need to wait until dawn to figure out which direction I should take. I ate a little bit of my food and sipped a mouthful of my water, but I'm saving most of it for tomorrow. Surely I cannot be more than a day's walk from the pass; that's all the time that Carle spent in taking me here.

I haven't heard the mountain cat again. I'm hoping that she never saw me and has gone elsewhere to hunt.

o—o—o

The twelfth day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

It's noonday; I've paused to rest. I had hoped last night that, by this time today, I would be halfway home – halfway back to the patrol ground. But something has happened that I hadn't anticipated: the sky is still covered with clouds.

I could tell this morning where the east was; the glow in the clouds told me that much. But as the day went on, and the whole sky lit up, even that much became hard to discern. It's not as though I can even see most of the sky; the mountains here are so crowded together that I can only sight the sky directly above me. I had hoped that I might at least be able to tell at noonday which direction was south, since the sun is always slightly to the south at noonday. But even that much information has been hidden from me by the thick clouds.

There has been no rain; I can be grateful for that. Or at least, I thought I was grateful until I realized how far my water flask was depleted. Then I began keeping my eye out, not merely for glimpses of the sun, but for pools of water.

I've seen none. What pools there might be are probably drawn into the fissures, which are so dark that I find myself in continual danger of walking into one unsuspecting.

Perhaps I will have better luck higher up on the slopes.

o—o—o

Trying to climb around the sides of mountains is exhausting and frustrating. I keep running into insuperable barriers: blocks of rock that prevent me from travelling further. Of course, such barriers exist on the mountains alongside the pass too, but the patrol has been doing its work for so many centuries that the guards know where every barrier is located and can pass on that information to new guards. Here I am like an explorer in uncharted areas of the mainland.

I did find a wild-berry bush this afternoon. It was a pathetic thing, shrivelled up from living so far north, but it had a few late-autumn berries on it still, which I plucked and placed in my back-sling. I have enough food and water until the end of the day; after that, I have no idea what I will do. Trap mountain animals? I can't imagine how to make a trap out of the one bit of rope I have, barely long enough to bind a man's hands. And though I'm sure a mainland boy would be taught how to hunt with blade alone, I never was.

I spent a long while this afternoon simply standing still, trying to determine through sound where I was. All I could hear was the wind, and what might have been the mountain cat, moving closer to me from a slope nearby.

o—o—o

The thirteenth day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

I've run out of water. I'm trying to remember how long a man can stay alive without drinking water.

The clouds still block my sight of the sun today, and they still refuse to drop any rain on me. Perhaps it's just as well; the wind is so chilly now that I regret not having asked to bring a cloak. I barely got any sleep last night, curled up on the cold ground of a cave I found, wondering whether the cat would attack me before dawn.

My toiletry in the morning was exceedingly unpleasant. I miss the patrol's latrine.

o—o—o

I've eaten the last of the berries, doing my best to suck out their moisture. The rest of the food I finished last night. It's not that I've been greedy; it's that the climbing I've been doing is so strenuous. I've been trying to climb high enough that I can see the pass. But the mountains are so high and so thickly clustered together that it's like trying to sight Capital Mountain when you're in the midst of the forest of central Koretia.

I heard the cat again today, her delicate paws sending pebbles down the side of a mountain. I couldn't see her, though. I don't suppose I'll see her until she pounces on me.

And even if I should succeed in killing her before she kills me, what then? I'll likely be so badly mauled that I can't travel any further.

This afternoon, for the first time, I felt the temptation to whistle to the patrol for help. I manfully held back from doing so.

o—o—o

The fourteenth day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

Another cold night, this time without shelter of the cave. I received no sleep at all.

I must admit now that I am thoroughly lost. For all I know, I've been travelling in the opposite direction that Carle and I came from and have been driving myself deeper into the mountains. There's no way to tell; the day is overcast again.

Am I even within reach of the patrol if I should whistle? Most likely not, if I can't hear their whistles. I haven't heard a whistle since the time Carle left me.

My mouth is very dry.

o—o—o

It's becoming harder and harder to travel; I keep having to pause to renew my strength. I find myself thinking of Fenton – of how Fenton looked when I first met him. Lying on the ground, barely alive . . . Only Felix's urgent ministrations saved Fenton from entering the Land Beyond.

I can see now why the cat hasn't attacked. She's waiting until I'm too weak to be able to fight back. That shouldn't be long.

o—o—o

Now I really am in trouble.

This afternoon, trying to make use of the last hours of daylight, I hurried up a slope in too careless a manner. I slipped. I swear I fell down half the mountainside before I managed to stop myself. I'm bruised from head to toe, and my arm is bleeding. That's not so bad; I've put my face-cloth on it to keep the blood from running out of me. But I think my ankle is broken. When I try to walk on it, my leg gives way.

It is time to admit that I have failed. Even expulsion from the patrol would be better than to die alone here of thirst, or to await the cat's attack.

o—o—o

I sent out the Probable Danger whistle three times but received no reply. Am I too far from the pass? Or is the penalty for failing this test death?

I can't bear the thought of never seeing Carle again.

o—o—o

The fifteenth day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

I managed, through sheer exhaustion from my tears, to sleep a bit yesterday evening after I whistled my danger. When I awoke a short time later, the clouds were red with sunset.

Carle stood over me, holding a wine-flask.

I sat up and greedily took the flask from him. "Careful," he said, crouching down beside me as I began to swallow the wine. "You'll make yourself sick if you drink too fast. Let me see that arm of yours."

I set aside the flask as Carle undid my face-cloth, washed the wound with water from his other flask, and covered the wound again with his own, clean face-cloth. "Just a scrape," he said. "Now let's look at your ankle."

It took him some time to pull off the boot; the ankle had swollen. He carefully inspected it. "Not broken," he announced finally. "Can you walk on it?"

I tried again, and found that, in the interval since my fall, the ankle had gotten better.

"Just twisted," Carle decided. "It's likely to be good enough to walk on tomorrow morning." He whistled suddenly, turning his head slightly to the right of the direction where I had been heading. From that direction, clear as a birdsong at dawn, came the reply of the lieutenant.

I stared, open-mouthed; then I understood. I had been near the patrol ground all along. The patrol guards had simply refrained from whistling their code during the time I took my test.

I felt the heat of shame cover me then. I had whistled for help – had whistled Probable Danger – simply because I'd twisted my ankle a bit. There was nothing wrong with me at all, aside from being a little bruised and a bit thirsty. I could have lasted the time needed to find my way back to the pass.

"Do you have any of those berries left?" Carle asked as he sat down beside me.

"No, I ate the last of—" I stopped, realizing suddenly how little time had passed since I had whistled. "Carle," I said slowly, "that was no mountain cat following me. It was you. You've been following me since you left me."

Carle raised one eyebrow as he rummaged in his back-sling. "I told you that the purpose of this test wasn't to let you die. What if you had knocked your head on a stone when you fell down this mountain? Someone had to follow you to make sure you'd be all right. —Ah, here we are." He handed me a hard biscuit.

I took it but did not eat it; I was feeling sour in my stomach. I had never been in any danger. Never. I had just let my fears get the best of me. "I'm sorry," I said in a low voice.

"Sorry for what?" Carle enquired as he inspected one of my bruises.

"For failing the test."

Carle rubbed a bit of dirt off my bruise to see it better. "Well, yes, you very nearly did. I was beginning to wonder whether you would whistle for help before you started dying of thirst."

The evening wind, sighing, slid over my skin. The sky was beginning to turn the color of my bruises. A sudden cloud-break showed the stars above me, shining sweetly.

"I was supposed to call for help?" I said.

Carle sighed as he leaned back. "Adrian, try to use that quicksilver mind of yours. Why were you punished in the first place? What lesson was it that the lieutenant wanted you to learn?"

I was still for a long while as the night chill settled into the mountains, like lowering mist. Then I said, "All that chattering you did on the way here, about the Chara needing aid in making his judgments . . . You were talking about the test, weren't you? You were saying that I couldn't make it out of the mountains unaided."

Carle shrugged. "Quentin might be able to make it back on his own. We know that Fenton managed it. But for us ordinary men . . . Adrian, there's a reason that the Chara placed twelve patrol guards in the black border mountains, and it's not just so that most border-breachers will back away in terror once they see how many opponents they're facing."

"None of us can survive here on our own," I concluded quietly. For a moment, I saw myself as I had been just a few weeks before, running alone through the mountains, questing alone for knowledge of the Chara's law. And then I saw myself as I now am: surrounded by fellow law-lovers, learning from them, and sharing with them my knowledge of blade-play.

"Come on," said Carle, standing up and offering me his arm. "This is no place to spend the night. I passed a cave below that will shelter us if any exceedingly foolish mountain cat should decide to attack two patrol guards at once."

I let him help me up, feeling no shame now at his assistance. "I'm such a fool," I said.

Carle grinned at me. "You and half the young men who enter the patrol. Why do you think we have this handy test available? You're by no means the first patrol guard to make the mistake of thinking he can hold back breachers on his own, believe me."

"Carle," I said hesitantly, "on our way here, you spoke of one guard who failed the test. What happened to him?"

Carle's smile broadened. "The lieutenant issued the worst possible punishment. He made me responsible for the lives of five other patrol guards." Still grinning, Carle helped me hobble my way down the mountain.

o—o—o

The seventeenth day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

I was permitted to take part in my first hunt today.

I killed a border-breacher today.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

The twenty-third day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

Carle and I had a short patrol this morning. The cause was a man we sighted riding on horseback through the pass, headed toward Koretia.

Carle saw him first. He caught hold of me and pointed, saying in a low voice, "What do you make of that?"

I looked down the mountain at the man, who was wearing the uniform of an Emorian subcaptain. His face was clear in the morning light: he had pale skin and looked to be about thirty years of age. He was accompanied by a man of about Carle's age who was dressed in the uniform of a bottom-ranked Emorian soldier.

"Well," I said, remembering my lessons, "the fact that they're wearing uniforms doesn't mean anything – they could be spies in disguise. And we have the duty to stop even high army officials unless we've been informed ahead of time of their journey."

I looked over at Carle. He was smiling as he looked down at the two men. "What sort of signal do we give?" he asked.

"If we recognize them as genuine soldiers or if they appear to be such, we give a regular signal of sighting. But if we think that the men may be spies, we give a Probable Danger signal, because spies are presumed to be dangerous. . . . Do you recognize them?"

"The older one," said Carle, "and I would say that he is quite dangerous indeed. In fact, he has his own signal." He communicated the whistle to me in practice fashion.

I felt my heart beat harder in anticipation. Only the most notorious border-breachers are assigned whistle-names; this would be my first encounter with grave danger. I asked, "Are you going to send the signal?"

Carle, still smiling, turned his head my way. "I'll leave it to you. Let's see how well you remember your whistles."

Flattered that he would assign me this task in such an important hunt, I sent out for the first time the pulsing rhythm of the Probable Danger whistle. As I did so, the man dressed as a subcaptain jerked his head up – a confirmation, if any were needed, that this man was not what he appeared to be, for regular army officials are not entrusted with knowledge of the patrol's whistles.

Quentin's response came immediately, faint in the winds around us. Doing my best to send the whistles low and quickly, since we were hunting a spy who might know what we were saying, I sent out the hunted's location and name. For a moment, there was no reply from the lieutenant, and I began to worry that I had whistled too softly. Then confirmation came of the night patrol's response and of Quentin's takeover of the patrol mastership from Carle.

I looked over toward Carle, but he was already running lightly down the side of the mountain, out of sight of the two men below. I paused long enough to check whether I would need to send rocks down to halt the horses, but the spy was apparently clever enough to know better than to flee on horseback. He and his companion were already dismounting, and the younger man was taking hold of the reins as the spy raised his head to scan the mountains with his eyes.

I ducked out of sight the moment before his gaze reached me, then followed the path that Carle had just taken. As I ran down the mountain, all of my thoughts were concentrated on the hope that, if a killing was forced to take place, I would not be the one duty-bound to carry out the death. I know – and the other patrol guards have told me this as well, since the incident occurred while the full patrol was closing the circle – that I had no choice but to kill the border-breacher who tried to murder me last week, but he still haunts my thoughts like a death-shadow. I have accustomed myself to the thought that I might die in service to the Chara; I had forgotten that I might have to kill in his service.

Carle, moving with the speed of a jackal, had already reached his position by the time I arrived at the foot of the mountain, as had the rest of the day patrol, but I caught up in time to join my whistle with those of the night patrol guards who had reached their spots. I was behind the spy and his companion, and so I didn't have to hide, as most of the other patrol guards needed to at this stage in the hunt. I could see the breachers clearly. The spy was apparently reserving his resistance for our arrival, for he hadn't moved; nor had he unsheathed his sword. His companion was stiff with fright and was clutching the horses' reins as though he expected a rescue to come from that quarter.

I heard the lieutenant's low signal; then I ran forward, helping Carle with the dangerous rear attack, the place where the spy was most likely to flee. The spy indeed whirled around to look our way, but after one glimpse of Carle coming forward with his sword raised, he turned back just in time to see Quentin emerge from behind a rock and come forward for the disarming.

Quentin slowed as he reached the circle of men surrounding the two imposters. Carle had hand-signalled me over to one side, so I could see that the spy's gaze was fixed on Quentin; there was a faint smile of challenge on the man's face. Then Quentin darted forward, his sword pointed toward the man's dagger hand at first. When it became clear that the spy was wise enough not to draw his blade, Quentin shifted the aim of his sword so that its point ended up touching the spy's throat. I could see the faint indentation it made on the skin, a pressure that was aimed to discourage the spy from changing his mind about fighting.

Carle had moved forward to prevent the spy from backing up, but he retreated again as Quentin signalled me to take his place. The younger man had already been trapped by Payne and Gamaliel and made no resistance as Gamaliel removed the younger man's sword and took the horse reins from his hands.

The spy, though, apparently merited more careful treatment. "Please do not move, sir, until I say that you may," said Quentin softly, taking a step forward and pressing the point of his sword harder against the spy's throat. "I would hate to have to slice off your arm because I misunderstood your intentions." He waited a moment to allow the spy to absorb this message. I could no longer see the spy's face, but he appeared from the back to be rock-steady despite what Quentin was doing to him. He must be a dangerous man indeed to remain calm in so desperate a circumstance. I could see that Carle, though he should have been helping guard the younger man, was watching the spy carefully, as though he knew that the hunt was not yet over – and indeed, Quentin had not yet sent out that signal.

"When I am finished speaking, you will do the following," said Quentin, his voice growing softer. "You will place your hand halfway down your sword sheath and unhook the sheath before dropping it to the ground. You will not allow your hand to come near the hilt at any time. If I see even a lone finger touch that hilt, I will cut your throat open. Now do as I say."

The spy, without hesitation, followed Quentin's instructions. When he was through, Teague began to come forward to take the sword from the ground, but Quentin whistled him away. Without removing his gaze from the spy's face, Quentin whistled me into position. I dashed forward, pulled the spy's arms behind him, into a painful and immobile position, and pulled him back so that his head was pointed mainly toward the sky.

"Sublieutenant," said Quentin, "your blade, please."

I could feel the man's arms muscle-tight under my trap-grip, ready to move the moment that he had his chance, but he would have no chance now. In the next moment, Carle's sword was pressed edgewise against the spy's throat – extra insurance that this very dangerous man would not try to escape.

"Now," said Quentin, turning his attention to the younger man, "let us see what manner of assistant you have."

Payne, without requiring the signal, pulled the younger man into the same position that the spy was in. The young man gave a yelp of protest, but was silent after that until Gamaliel's hands, searching his body, ran over his crotch. Then he tried to pull away, saying, "This is ridiculous. Don't you realize that the subcaptain is—"

The rest of his words were lost in a grunt as Payne drove his knee into the small of the young man's back. Quentin waited until the young man had his breath back before saying, "Nor will you speak until I give you permission. Mark my words – the next time it will be a blade that reminds you of what I have said."

"He is naked," reported Gamaliel, having finished his search.

"Unlike his master." Quentin turned his attention back to the spy. He paused a moment to take in the scene before him: the man trapped in my grip, with his head pointed upwards and his throat guarded with a blade. Then the lieutenant sheathed his sword, hurried forward, pulled up the spy's tunic, swiftly untied the cords of the thigh-pocket hidden there, and stepped back out of reach before the spy could have a chance to react.

For a moment more, Quentin looked at the spy, me, and Carle; then he whistled softly, and Carle stood back. I remained where I was, holding the spy.

"Adrian," said Quentin, "are you sure that your hold is secure?"

"Yes, sir," I said, puzzled that he would ask me such a question in front of a prisoner.

Quentin's gaze travelled over to the man standing unresisting in my grip. "Sir," he said, "you have shown great restraint until now, and I thank you, but I would appreciate it if you would demonstrate to my junior-most guard the error of his statement."

I had no time in which to ascertain the meaning of Quentin's words. At the next moment, the spy's boot swung back and struck me hard in the shin. For the barest of seconds, my grip slackened on the spy; then I felt myself shoved backwards, and in the darkness of the pain that followed, I was aware only of Quentin's whistle signalling the other guards to stay back.

When my vision cleared again, I found myself standing in the same trap-grip I had been practicing a moment before. The spy was holding my wrists with one hand; the other hand was holding my own sword, which was pressed edgewise against my side. I could see nothing except the sky and mountains above me.

A face appeared above me, smiling. It belonged to Quentin.

"Is that lesson clear, Adrian?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," I managed to gasp. "I should have kept my legs further back."

"Or else tilted my body more," said my captor, and he released me in the same moment, slipping my sword into my hand. Near me, Quentin was whistling the end of the hunt and the release of the remaining prisoner. By the time I straightened my back to its normal position, my captor was already busy strapping his thigh-pocket back on.

"I hope that you were not in a hurry to reach Koretia, sir," said Quentin solicitously.

"Not at all," replied the subcaptain, looking up in order to take his sword back from Devin's hand. "As a matter of fact, I was hoping that you would halt us. I wanted to see how you appeared in action these days. —Rolf, stop looking so sour-faced. If you are fool enough to resist the border mountain patrol, that is the sort of treatment you should expect." He flashed a grin at his orderly, who was rubbing the small of his back and looking at the soldiers around him with an aggrieved expression.

"Carle, you keep your edge nicely honed." The subcaptain reached up to touch his neck, which had a thin line of blood on it. "I had visions of meeting my end in the mountains after all."

"It is the only way to keep hold of a dangerous breacher like you," said Carle with an expression of mock seriousness.

"Iain, Gamaliel, Sewell." The subcaptain nodded his greeting to them. "The rest of your men are new to me, Quentin."

"It has been two years, sir," replied the lieutenant.

"Has that much time passed? That makes it – let me see – nine years in the patrol for you. You're pressing the odds, Quentin. I trust that you will be retiring next year."

"Next year is a long time away," said the lieutenant. "If all of us live until our winter leave, that will be achievement enough. Do you have time to stop and chat?"

"About old times?" The subcaptain's smile deepened. "I'm sure that we can find a more interesting topic than that. Yes, I'd like to spend the morning with you; I'm in no hurry. Carle, congratulations on your elevation. Quentin, here's a motive for you to retire: to allow Carle his chance at the lieutenancy, as I allowed you yours. By the Sword, my back hurts. Are any of your men good at back massages?"

The night patrol headed back to the hut after that, all except Gamaliel and Payne, who volunteered to patrol in place of Carle and me so that Carle could join in the conversation. Quentin introduced those of us who were new; the subcaptain's gaze lingered longer on me than on the others, but he greeted me with civility.

During the first part of the journey to the hut, the subcaptain regaled us all with humorous tales of Quentin's early days in the patrol, but as I began to slip back in the crowd, eager to ask Carle more questions, I found that the subcaptain had fallen back as well and was walking alongside me.

"Malise, Subcaptain," he said by way of introduction. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm well," I lied. "Sir, do you think you could show me how you escaped my trap?"

"Again? Heart of Mercy, you must be a lover of pain. I am growing soft with old age; being trapped once is enough for me. I have no desire to have you and Carle demonstrate your fine techniques on me again – at least, not for the next hour or so." He smiled at us.

"What takes you to Koretia, subcaptain?" asked Carle.

"The Chara wanted someone with a good knowledge of Common Koretian to serve as his ambassador to the King – and he chose me because he wanted someone with something close to a spy's training, who could tell him more about what the Jackal is doing."

Carle and I exchanged mystified looks. Malise added, "You have not heard, then? Well, I suppose it is not common knowledge yet, though there is no secret about it. There is a man travelling around Koretia, stirring up trouble. He claims to be the Jackal."

o—o—o

"This man appeared about six weeks ago," said Malise a few minutes later, as we all sat round the fire. "He walked into the sanctuary of the priests' house near the Koretian capital, while the priests were in the middle of a service – they were performing the Jackal's rite, apparently, and had just invoked the god. He claimed that he was the god taken human form. He was wearing the mask of the Jackal on his face, and he refused to remove it while he spoke."

"How did the priests react to this announcement?" Iain asked with a laugh.

"I suppose they would have thought it ridiculous, except that the priests had some sort of prophecy a few years ago that the Jackal God would come to Koretia soon and take over the High Priesthood. Some of the priests were impressed by the man; they said that he spoke like a god and had the presence of one. The others said that the man was simply an imposter who had heard of the prophecy and was taking advantage of it. They challenged the man to show his powers as a god, and he said that he could not use them in the presence of disbelievers."

"A convenient answer," commented Carle, chewing on a cool twig he had retrieved from the balefire. "I suppose he had an equally convincing explanation as to why he could not take off his mask."

"He claimed that he could not appear naked-faced to any man who refused to serve him, and that even among his servants, few would ever see his human face. Well, that convinced even more of the priests that this was nothing other than a pretender to the godhood. They threatened to place him under the gods' curse unless he abandoned his story."

"But he did not," said Devin, who was sitting with his chin on his knee, listening to the story with a serious expression on his face. I have discovered that the only men in the patrol who don't joke about the gods are the borderlanders. Even Quentin, though very Emorian in every other way, refuses to praise Carle's skeptical remarks about the Koretian religion.

"He abandoned the priests' house instead," Malise replied. "The Chara heard this story not long afterwards from one of the royal messengers who brought him news from the Koretian capital. Then, about three weeks ago, the man claiming to be a god turned up again, this time in the Koretian borderland. He was sighted late one night in the Village of Borderknoll – I am not sure where that is."

"Adrian?" Quentin, who had been standing silently apart from the rest of us, came over to crouch near me.

"It's in the borderland of Koretia, about a day's ride from Blackpass." It was also close to Mountside, but I didn't say this.

Malise, warming his hands over the fire, continued, "After that, he began to be spotted all over the borderland, but only a handful of people claim to have spoken to him. In every case, the Koretians say that this masked man calling himself the Jackal asked them to enter into his service, but the Jackal refused to tell them why until they had pledged their loyalty. I suppose that gods expect blind loyalty from their servants. Naturally, these Koretians were wise enough to refuse, but there is no knowing how many other Koretians have been tricked into serving this man. The Chara received a report on the Jackal's activities two days ago from one of his spies, and he is highly alarmed. There is already some sort of civil unrest occurring in Koretia, and if this Jackal-man adds fire to the situation through lawless activity, it could mean war, and that could affect our border."

Quentin was staring reflectively into the flames; I could see that his eyebrows were drawn low. Sewell, Teague, Devin, Carle, and the orderly were sitting close by Malise and were attentive to him; I was the only one who saw the look of concern on Quentin's face. He raised his eyes finally, saw me watching him, and said, "What can you tell us about this, Adrian?"

"I know about the prophecy," I said. "That happened when Fenton was at the priests' house. The prophecy didn't say anything about the god taking human form, though. It just said that he would come to Koretia and become the land's High Priest, and that he would destroy the Koretians' enemies."

Carle grunted and cast his half-chewed twig back into the fire. "Ominous news for Emor, if we should go to war with Koretia."

"What would it mean if the Jackal became High Priest?" Quentin asked.

"Well, the High Priest makes the final decision over matters such as the gods' law. At the moment, since there's no High Priest, the King has been making those decisions. I suppose you could say that the King has been Koretia's High Priest for the past seven years."

"So this man is a rebel," concluded Malise. "He wants to take the King's power away from him."

"Some of his power, at least," I replied uneasily, and looked over at Quentin. He had his chin on his knuckles and I could guess that, like me, he was worried about more than whether war would come to Koretia.

"You are Koretian."

I pulled myself away from my thoughts to reply to Malise, "Yes, sir. I joined the patrol five weeks ago."

"He is Emorian now, subcaptain," inserted Carle.

Malise gave a rueful smile and stood up to stretch his back. "Time was when I would scarcely talk to any man who had Koretian blood in him. When your lieutenant joined the patrol, my first thought was, 'Here's a brown-skinned dog sullying the fine tradition of the patrol with his slurring speech and superstitious ways.' I was sublieutenant then, and I was determined to drive Quentin out of the patrol by dirty means. I used every trick I could to get him transferred or even killed: I sent him against the worst border-breachers, I gave him orders that would endanger him if he obeyed me . . . He always obeyed me. Then one day – it was shortly after I had risen to the lieutenancy and had chosen a lesser man as my sublieutenant – I looked at Quentin and thought, 'When this man reaches his full power, he'll be a better soldier than I can ever be.' I nearly fell on my sword. Then I came to my senses and set about teaching Quentin to take over my job. I hope with all my spirit, lieutenant, that you never have to undergo such a disheartening experience."

"I think it unlikely that the lieutenant will ever meet anyone who might exceed him in skill," said Carle with a laugh, then turned the conversation to Quentin's acts of bravery.

I was closest to Quentin, so I was the only one who heard him say softly, "Don't be so sure." I looked over at him, and then my breath caught in my throat, for he was looking straight at me.

For a heartbeat, he held my gaze; then he stood up and went over to the other side of the balefire to examine the cut on Malise's throat. I was left alone on my side of the fire, wondering about the meaning of Quentin's look.

I've been wondering ever since then, and the conclusion I've reached is that it doesn't make any difference to my work whether Quentin thinks I'll be a good soldier or not, because I would work just as hard, no matter what level of skill or rank I was likely to achieve. Even so, I would like to believe that Quentin thinks well of me. I don't know why this is so important to me – it should be enough that I do my duty – but I suppose it does matter to me that he like me, since I admire him so much. I suppose it's all foolishness on my part.

I've spent so much time writing this entry that I have no time for further speculations, but of course one other thought remains in my mind as I go to bed: Has the Jackal God really become a man?

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

The third day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

I'm finding that I no longer have time to write in my journal regularly, since at the end of the day I'm too tired to do anything except sleep. By "end of the day," I don't mean when the day patrol ends its work, for I am usually awake for several hours after that, helping care for the cottage and hollow, playing Law Links – which is a duty for me, since I need to learn so much law – or spending the time in excruciating bouts of memorization.

There is so much to memorize as a patrol guard. There are many more whistles than Fenton ever guessed – hundreds, in fact – and I also have to memorize the names and locations of all the mountains near the pass, as well as the names and appearances of Koretians and Emorians whom I might encounter as border-breachers. These are people who have proved particularly dangerous or successful in the past twenty years; one day I found myself memorizing the description of a slave who could be none other than Fenton. I also need to learn of people who might try to cross the border in the future, such as the King's spies.

It's like being Fenton's student again, only much worse, for I've never been good at memorization. My only consolation is that Teague is far worse than I am. Carle says that he is an excellent guard otherwise, but that if his head weren't attached to his body, he'd forget to wear it every day.

It's becoming quite cold in the mountains. I wear my cloak every day now, except for last week when the winds ceased blowing for three days, as they occasionally do. Carle and I have been busy discussing our plans to rent a city house together when the patrol withdraws from the mountains at the end of the month. "If not sooner," said Carle, but when I asked why, he simply shook his head.

o—o—o

The fourth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Teague and Sewell have been sent back into Emor with the horse and cart. Sewell broke his leg during tonight's patrol, and Quentin thought the leg should be inspected by a physician.

It was Sewell's own fault; he and Teague were taking a shortcut back to the patrol hut after they met our mail messenger. Chatwin has been eagerly awaiting a letter from his betrothed, and they wanted to see his face when he received it. The lieutenant gave Teague and Sewell a lecture on safe climbing that made even my ears burn; then he cut up his extra tunic as a bandage for Sewell's bleeding, as we are short of supplies at the moment. Usually we have two weeks' worth of supplies on hand, but Devin, who is in charge of supplies, got into an argument recently with the peddler who delivers our goods, and I suppose that the peddler is taking his revenge by delaying delivery.

Carle helped Teague and Sewell to hook up the cart and came back swearing mildly about incompetence in young soldiers. Carle's twentieth birthyear begins this winter.

"After all that, Teague didn't even remember to deliver the letters," said Carle. "Well, if Chatwin dies of heartbreak before they remember to send the letters back, it will all be Teague's fault."

He grinned then, and we spent the next couple of hours memorizing laws. Carle has promised to start teaching me the Great Three soon.

o—o—o

The fifth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

I awoke at dawn today to find that it was a beautiful day: the sky was dark blue, and clear like spring water. Even with my cloak swept back so that my blades were close to hand, I was drowning in heat, and I was sorely tempted to drop the heavy cloth down a fissure. Carle reminded me, though, of the patrol regulation I memorized last month, about always wearing cloaks in the month of December, so I spent this morning sweating my way along the paths.

"You're lucky compared to the rest of us," Carle pointed out as we took a mid-morning break from our patrol, near the southernmost point of our patrol route. "You're a southerner; you'll be able to bear the mountain summers much better."

"And bear the mountain winters much worse," I retorted. We were lying on the side of a mountain, watching a flock of migratory birds make their way south.

"Ah, but we won't be here during the winter, so you have the better end of the deal," said Carle, swallowing with a gulp the remainder of our bread.

"Greedy man," I said with a laugh. "That was meant to last us until evening."

Carle grinned. "We'll dip back into the hut at noonday and pick up some more. Devin won't like it; he has been guarding our supplies this week like a hen guarding her chicks. I sometimes wonder whether Devin was meant to be a woman; he has a woman's obsession with these trivial details of domesticity. May the Chara preserve me from ever marrying someone—"

He stopped. I thought at first that it was because of the wind, which was blowing so hard from the north now that it was becoming hard for us to hear each other. Then suddenly he was on his feet, blowing one long note: it was the Immediate Danger whistle.

He followed this with a series of notes so rapid that I couldn't follow what he said. He must have guessed that this was the case, for he grabbed me and shouted, "Run! Back to the hut! I will meet you there!"

I have by now become accustomed to following orders without question and without hesitation. Even so, something made me pause when I reached the curve of the mountain, and I looked back at Carle. He was busy sending out the whistle demanding to know the locations of the rest of the day patrol, and the others were busy sending their replies back. His red hair, bright under the sunlight, made a striking contrast with the blue of the sky, but in the brief second in which I watched him, his hair was thrown into shadow as the storm-clouds rolled over us like deadly boulders.

I was racing through the tunnel when the snow arrived.

When I entered the tunnel, the first few flakes were beginning to whip against my face. By the time I reached the end of the tunnel, a journey of less than a minute, the world outside had become a wall of snow. I stood uncertainly for a minute, trying to see through the white blanket smothering the hollow before us. Then I realized that the snow was becoming heavier as I watched, so I took a blind step into the storm.

I have travelled this route eye-bound, I have travelled it at night, I have travelled it with the wind howling so hard that I had no sound to guide me – why, then, was it so much harder to find my way through the snow? I suppose that in the past there was always some small sense to guide me: if not my eyes, then my ears; if not my ears, then the light cast by the stars. Now, though, there was nothing to show which direction I was headed in, and the winds kept blowing me off course.

I hadn't gone far before my face was raw from the cut of a thousand tiny ice blades striking my face. My feet were too numb to feel the ground beneath me; more than once I fell when I slipped on the snow beginning to coat the grassy ground of the hollow. I stumbled over something hard, and my heart beat fast with hope, but a moment's worth of groping showed me that I had missed the hut and was standing next to the fireside rocks. I turned around, willed myself to walk in a straight line again, and started again.

In the end, I think my lone salvation was the fact that I was in the hollow: I could not wander aimlessly forever, as I would have done if I had not reached the tunnel in time. I bounced from one end of the hollow to the other until finally, by pure chance, I found myself touching something large and flat. I raised my hands higher and touched the whipping ring.

The wind was pushing me against the wall like a bully sitting on his victim. There was a great temptation to simply stay where I was and recover my breath, but I forced myself to grope along the wall. So intent was I on travelling in this manner that when I reached the end of the wall, I forgot to turn the corner and would have wandered off into oblivion again, except that hands grabbed me and dragged me a short distance to shelter.

I nearly fell to the floor as the door closed behind me. The hut was thick with smoke from the fire – I learned later that the smoke-hole had been plugged to keep the snow out – and all that I could see was the others crowded beside me. Devin thrust warm wine at my lips, and I gratefully swallowed the few drops he allowed me. The lieutenant still had his arm around me, holding me steady. He waited till I had finished swallowing, then said in a sharp voice, "Adrian – where's Carle?"

I looked over at him in bewilderment. Gradually, my numb senses began to take in who was surrounding me: Devin and Payne and Gamaliel from the night patrol, and Chatwin and Hoel from the day patrol – the latter two must have outraced me to the hut. Carle and Iain and Jephthah were nowhere to be seen.

"God of Mercy," I whispered.

Quentin gripped my arm harder; the pain brought me back to my senses. I said, "He was on Mount Sword— No, wait." This, as Quentin began to slip away. I paused a moment, trying to recover, from the depths of my memory, the whistles I had heard. Now of all times I must remember correctly. "Jephthah and Iain were on the eastern side of Mount Skycrest. Carle told them to go to the cave under that mountain – the one I discovered when you were hunting me. He said he'd meet them there."

The lieutenant whirled around, the edge of his cloak hitting mine; the snow that had clung to my cloak slid the warm floor. He was at the door to the hut before I knew that he had moved; the only reason I caught a glimpse of him at all was that he paused at the door, said, "Stay with the unit," and threw an object into Devin's hands.

It was not until he was gone into the blizzard that I saw what he had thrown, and then, like all the others present, I was stunned into silence. Quentin had given his partner the seal-ring of his lieutenancy. It is the ring he uses to seal official documents, and it is never to be removed from his hand unless he is in imminent danger of dying and needs to deputize his power to the soldier who will take command of the unit upon his death. Devin turned the ring over and over in his hand, as though he were examining a man's will.

It is five minutes from here to the cave. The lieutenant has been gone for an hour.

o—o—o

Two hours. We've all been sitting silently around the fire, except for Devin, who has been occupying his mind by counting up his beloved supplies in the store room. I've been spending the time thinking about Carle. Iain and Jephthah were on the eastern slope of Mount Skycrest, twice as far from the hut as the cave. Carle must have guessed that there would be just enough time for me to get back safely; if he had come with me, he would be safe too. Instead, he ran for the cave, where he could do no good except to be trapped there with Iain and Jephthah.

Try as I might, I cannot imagine Carle, being what he is, doing anything other than what he did.

o—o—o

Four hours. Chatwin and Hoel have been discussing how, several times a day, the mountain winds will stop for a few minutes before starting up again.

"If the lieutenant made it to the cave, that is what he could be waiting for," said Hoel. "The cave is close enough that the four of them might be able to make it back here during the break. The snow is not the problem; the problem is the winds blowing the snow around."

"Then why should the lieutenant risk himself at all?" asked Payne. "Carle and the others could make it back on their own."

Hoel shook his head. "The passes are tricky in the snow. You lose sight of your familiar landmarks. It takes someone like the lieutenant, who has grown up next to the mountains, to be able to find the way back from the cave."

"Then we can be sure that they will find their way back," Payne said confidently.

"If the lieutenant made it to the cave," said Devin without looking up from the supply list he was checking.

o—o—o

Seven-and-a-half hours. The winds died a short time ago, and everybody's head jerked up. Devin opened the door and stared out at the frosting of snow on the ground. The white blizzard blanket had fallen suddenly to the ground, and the air was clear of but a few steady flakes.

Devin was shifting from foot to foot. I could see that he was aching to leave in search of Quentin, but the lieutenant had placed the rest of us under his care. Devin dared not disobey orders while there was any chance that Quentin was still alive.

A minute passed, then another. Finally Devin said, "I am going to the tunnel. I can find my way back to the hut from there."

He left, and Gamaliel took his place at the door; he is next in rank after Quentin and Carle and Devin. The rest of us strained to look over his shoulder, trying not to be too obvious about it. There was a long silence, like a pause between the songs of a Daxion bard; then Gamaliel abruptly slammed the door shut, narrowly preventing the renewed winds from blowing out our fire. Gamaliel remained on the outside of the hut as he did so.

Payne told me earlier that this was the first time in his life that he ever wished he was Koretian, so that he could pray to the gods. Well, I have managed to keep from praying to the god I renounced, but in the five minutes that followed, it was a very close thing.

The door slammed open again, the winds screamed into the room like a wailing woman, and the four of us who had been waiting scrambled forward to help the figures stumbling in. As I threw my cloak over Devin, I counted automatically in my head, and then felt relief fall over me like sunshine. Six men had entered the room; everyone was back safe. No one had died.

Not yet, anyway.

o—o—o

The sixth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

We spent most of yesterday evening rescuing Quentin and Carle and Iain and Jephthah from frostbite. "It's cold in that cave," Carle said with a grin as I wrapped a fire-warmed blanket around his feet. "It makes this hut seem like a southern summer in comparison."

Carle is the only one who thinks so. The first thing Quentin did after he got back – before Gamaliel had even been able to persuade him to strip off his wet clothing – was to go into consultation with Devin about the supplies. Two minutes later, he smothered the fire with dirt; then he removed all but one of the logs and started a much smaller fire, one that Hoel says can barely be dignified with the name of fire-embers.

There was no evening meal. The reason for this became clear after Quentin, having submitted himself patiently to Gamaliel's doctoring, called us together in council. He had Devin read out the list of supplies. The list sounded long, but Devin followed this up by telling us how much food ten men can eat in a day.

What Devin's news amounts to is this: There is no telling how long it will be before the winds die down for a few days. If we keep the fire going at its present temperature – just warm enough to keep ice from forming in the hut – then we have enough firewood to last us three weeks. That's the good news. The bad news is that we have enough food to last us three days.

The lieutenant has put us on quarter rations: this means that every day we get a few gulps of wine, as much water as we want (we have plenty of snow to melt), a handful of nuts, and two large hunks of bread. Gamaliel is looking worried. I found him reading through his doctoring manual this afternoon; he was turned to the page discussing the need for men in cold climates to eat lots of food.

"When Teague and Sewell returned to the headquarters without the rest of us, Captain Wystan must have known that his letter of warning to me went astray," said Quentin. "There is nothing he can do, though, until the winds die down; nobody can reach us through these storms. The best we can hope for is that the captain will retain enough faith in us to send a search party when the winds die down, as it is likely we will be in no condition by that time to make the journey back on our own. Our duty, then, is to stay alive so that the search party's efforts are not wasted."

I decided that it was characteristic of Quentin to describe our desperate attempt to stay alive as our duty rather than our natural desire. If it wasn't our duty to stay alive, I think Quentin would have us feasting on the supplies right now, rather than condemn us to the prolonged death that awaits us.

o—o—o

The seventh day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Eleven days' worth of food left; we're still on quarter rations. We've all been squeezed up next to the fire today, trying to ignore the cold against our backs – all but Devin, who seems to find comfort in counting our supplies over and over, and Quentin, who keeps going outside to check on the weather. We slept in pairs last night, curled up against our partners so that we could throw two cloaks and two blankets over ourselves. I only woke up twice from the cold, but I think that's because Carle insisted that I face the fire and that he protect my back with his warmth. Like everyone else, he's worried that my southern constitution will prevent me from surviving.

We're all wearing our two uniforms double now, one on top of the other. Since Quentin cut up his extra tunic for Sewell, I tried to give the lieutenant my Koretian tunic, which I still have here, but he simply remarked that it was a good thing I would have extra protection. I didn't argue; it's amazing how quickly men become selfish in such situations.

Not all of us. Quentin isn't wearing his cloak, not even when he goes outside; he gave it to Iain, who has been suffering from a bad cold since his return from the cave.

o—o—o

The eighth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Ten days' worth of food left. I'm finding it hard to write; my hands feel like lumps of ice most of the time now, even when I'm sitting directly next to the fire, which is most of the time. We've been playing Law Links throughout today, and Jephthah, who has been to Daxis, tried entertaining us with some songs. But it turns out that all the songs he knows end with the protagonist dying, so the lieutenant made him stop.

Gamaliel has been spending most of his time with Iain, whose fever has grown worse. I heard him muttering something today about the need for isolation, but I'm not sure what he meant.

o—o—o

The ninth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Now I know; the rest of us have caught Iain's cold. Iain has taken a turn for the worse and is starting to become delirious. We all volunteered our blankets to Iain, but Gamaliel crossly said that having one patient was bad enough; he didn't want all of us dying from the cold. It's the first time Gamaliel has let slip his fears about Iain's state.

Nine days' worth of food left. I took an informal survey and found that five of us have fasted before: me, Quentin, Gamaliel (he says that it's part of a physician's training), Devin, and Jephthah. Iain may have fasted as well, but he wasn't in any state to ask.

o—o—o

The tenth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Eight days' worth of food. Quentin caught Jephthah feeding his dinner to Iain and brought Jephthah up before the unit for disciplining.

"I know what this is going to lead to," said Quentin, "so I am going to stop it now before it spreads any further. Jephthah, you are under my command, and you are to follow my orders to keep yourself alive by eating. If I find that you have failed to do so, I will force the food down your throat. That goes for the rest of you as well."

He let Jephthah go with a reprimand; I don't suppose any of us could survive a beating at this stage. I feel absolutely no temptation to stop eating. It's all I can do to remember my honor and not take more than my fair share when the food is passed around.

o—o—o

The eleventh day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Iain died during the night. Chatwin and Payne are now quite sick; Quentin, after consulting with Gamaliel, has raised their food allowance to half our usual rations. However, because of Iain's death, we still have eight days' worth of food left.

Jephthah borrowed my pencil and a sheet of paper earlier. He said that he wanted to write a letter to his family in case we didn't survive, but that he didn't want to bother Devin by asking for writing supplies.

o—o—o

Devin just found Jephthah's body in the store room. Jephthah hadn't disobeyed Quentin's orders by starving himself; he had fallen on his sword.

Quentin had us lined up against the ice-cold hut wall within minutes. I've never seen him look so grim, not even when he captured me. He spent a brief period ascertaining that none of us knew what Jephthah had planned. I was racked with guilt, but the lieutenant said I couldn't have known what a simple request for writing materials meant. After he had questioned us, Quentin didn't bother to give us a lecture. He simply made every man in the room take out his blade and place his palm on the flat, swearing that he would not take his own life by any means. This is called a free-man's oath and is the Emorian equivalent of a blood vow, treated just as seriously.

Emorians are usually buried whole, but Jephthah asked in his letter that his body be used for fuel, so we had a warm fire tonight as we sent his spirit to the Land Beyond.

o—o—o

The twelfth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Nine days' worth of food left. The reason we have so much is that another man died during the night: Gamaliel, whom nobody even suspected was ill. As the unit's physician, he could conceal that information from us.

Payne and Chatwin are much better, thanks to Gamaliel's doctoring; the lieutenant has put them back on quarter rations. There are now seven of us left here: Payne, Chatwin, Hoel, Devin, Quentin, Carle, and me. Despite Quentin's orders, Carle has been trying to sneak portions of his daily meal into my rations, though I've caught him doing it every time. During the rest of the day, Carle entertains us with stories of the worst winters he knew as a boy. If he is to be believed, we are experiencing an exceptionally mild winter.

o—o—o

The thirteenth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Eight days' worth of food left. Devin has been urging Quentin to let him try to make it back to Emor in order to lead the search party to us, but Quentin has refused to let him go. The winds continue to howl about our hut except during brief periods of silence that seem almost louder than the wind-blows.

Carle has been teaching me the Justification to the Law of Vengeance. I protested that my mind was in no state to be memorizing thirty pages' worth of law, but Carle sternly told me that I wasn't on convalescent leave and that I was to continue with my duty of learning the law. I didn't have the energy to argue with him.

Devin took Quentin into the storeroom with him tonight to consult him about the supplies. When it's used as a sickroom, a brazier is placed in there, causing the storeroom to be the warmest part of the hut. Now it's the coldest part, but all of us find ourselves wandering in there periodically to stare at our dwindling supplies.

o—o—o

The fourteenth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Six days' worth of food left. The reason we have lost a day's worth of food is that Chatwin has been stealing food. Quentin, lying in wait, caught him during the night.

Emorian law is amazingly comprehensive. I never would have thought there'd be a law covering the crime of stealing food from one's fellow soldiers when you are all on the point of starvation – but there is, and Carle knows it by heart. He says that the last time he recited it was two days ago, when Chatwin asked him whether such a law existed.

This was the evidence that caused Quentin to give Chatwin the maximum punishment, which is death. Actually, the maximum punishment is a Slave's Death, which is a fate too sickening for me to record here. But we all agreed that Chatwin didn't deserve a prolonged death of any sort, and the council and judge together can commute the sentence to a Free-Man's Death, which in this case meant a blade through the heart.

Quentin gave Chatwin's partner, Hoel, permission to carry out the sentence. Hoel thought it would be easier for Chatwin if he did it. I don't know whether it was; we could all hear Chatwin crying in the storeroom for a quarter of an hour before he reached the point where he was calm enough that Hoel could carry out the execution.

Hoel has been white-faced ever since then. The rest of us, by unspoken consent, decided not to play Law Links tonight. Carle's one comment was that Chatwin had an easier death than the rest of us will have.

o—o—o

The fifteenth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Still six days' worth of food left. We have Chatwin's share to divide.

Carle, evidently feeling that our time is short, has leapt to the end of the Justification of the Law of Vengeance and is now having me memorize the Chara's burdens, the passage he told me about during our trip to Emor. As Carle promised, it is a humbling recital of all the suffering that the Chara endures for the people of his land. The passage ends by talking about the sacrifices that the Chara's subjects should make out of love for the Chara. Carle has been providing no commentary on the passage; he doesn't need to.

The winds have finally started to die down, and Devin again begged to be sent back to Emor. Quentin has refused him again.

o—o—o

The sixteenth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

We've been here for eleven days now, and we've been debating whether anyone at the army headquarters will believe that we're still alive. I think that was what made Quentin give in to Devin's request – though Carle thinks Quentin could see that Devin was on the point of disobeying orders and wanted to spare him that dishonor.

There was no lengthy farewell, but all of us ignored the fact that Quentin accompanied Devin to the tunnel and spent longer coming back than one would have expected. Quentin has known his partner since childhood; they grew up in neighboring villages.

Quentin gave Devin a generous portion of the food, so I assume that we have four days' worth of food left, though Devin is no longer here to say, and Quentin has not issued his own report.

o—o—o

The seventeenth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

I learned today why Quentin isn't reporting how much food we have left.

"He isn't eating!" I whispered to Carle, having watched as Quentin went from man to man to ensure that we were all eating our rations, without ever picking up any food himself.

Carle was busy licking nut-grease from his fingers. He looked up and whispered back, "It took you this long to notice? He hasn't eaten for three days."

"But he'll die!" I protested. "He can't survive long in this cold."

Carle made no reply except to draw out from the folds of his cloak a small object: it was the lieutenant's seal-ring.

He hid it again before anyone else could see it and said, "He gave it to me this morning so that, if he died suddenly, there wouldn't be any dispute over who was his successor. In the meantime, he's still lieutenant. Short of mutinying against him, there's nothing we can do to stop him."

"But he made us swear—" I stopped, remembering the line of men holding naked blades, and Quentin standing nearby, his sword still sheathed.

"He administered the oath; he didn't take it himself," replied Carle calmly. "It's his privilege to sacrifice himself for the sake of the unit. He is like the Chara to us."

I've been thinking about the lieutenant tonight, with his skin stretched tight across his bones, and his eyes much too bright. He has stopped going outside to check the weather, and he hasn't been on his feet since mealtime. I've also been thinking about Carle, who will become lieutenant if Quentin dies, and who may decide, oath or no oath, that it is also his privilege to sacrifice himself for the unit. And I've been thinking about the passage Carle has been having me memorize, about how the Emorian people should make sacrifices out of love for the Chara.

I'm having a hard time deciding how to do this right.

o—o—o

The eighteenth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

The hard part was figuring out how to die. Jephthah was Emorian-born, so he regarded slaying himself as an act of honor, but I kept remembering Fenton's words about how the worst crime one can commit is to kill oneself. I wouldn't want to do anything that would shame me in the eyes of Fenton's spirit.

But allowing death to come to me naturally would be different. If I went to the cave in Mount Skycrest and waited there, it wouldn't even be a painful death. I would probably die of the cold rather than starvation, and Hoel has been saying that it isn't so terrible to fall asleep in the cold and never awake.

But I had to be sure that no one would come after me, so the device I eventually decided upon was to write a note pretending that I had gone unbalanced – that my wits had fled me and that I would be dead soon after I left the hut. I wrote a letter that I hope sounded sufficiently mad about how I planned to swim naked in the snow – some nonsense I blush to think about, since it will be the last communication anyone will receive from me. I hope that it doesn't hurt Carle too much to think that my life ended that way.

I waited until the winds had dropped before sneaking to the door and opening it in the still silence of the night. Carle barely stirred. I worried most about waking Quentin, but he was shuddering and breathing deeply in his sleep; I wondered if he would even be alive by morning. I left the two of them, along with Payne and Hoel, and raced into the snow-frosted world outside. As Hoel had said, it was hard to find the cave under the unfamiliar landscape of snow, and when I got there, I found that the gap was filled with snow that I had to shovel out with my arms before I could scramble into the cave.

The winds blow gently now and then, but there are long periods when the air is still. I hope it will remain that way for the sake of the others.

As it is, I'm surprised that I'm still alive. Part of the reason is that snow blocks the entrance and keeps out the winds, so this cave is no colder than the storeroom. Every hour or so, I shovel back some of the snow to allow in air and a bit of light. I don't know why I bother to do this, but I suppose that keeping alive is more an instinct than anything else.

It is in this light that I have been writing the words in this journal. I suppose I should have flung my journal on the fire and provided the others with more fuel; no one must ever read these words and know what I have done. I must be sure that I destroy my journal before I rest.

o—o—o

It's harder to keep awake in the cold than I thought. With this journal as my pillow, I fell asleep, thinking how nice it would be to escape just for a while from the aching in my stomach.

I awoke to the sound of a whistle: the hunted had been captured alive. For a moment, I lay where I was, feeling the cold floor cutting like a blade through my cloak. Then a shadow fell over me, and I opened my eyes.

It was Carle, standing above me with a wine flask in his hand.

As I pulled myself painfully up into a sitting position, he squatted down next to me and thrust the wine into my hands. The flask was warm: he must have held it over the fire before leaving the hut in order to keep the liquid from freezing. The look in his eyes was such that I dared not disobey, so I swallowed half the liquid before handing it back to him.

He took it after inspecting to make sure I had drunk enough, then said, "You know, you might have considered what it would be like for me, dying without my partner at my side."

"I'm sorry," I said in a low voice.

He grinned then and finished off the wine before sitting down cross-legged beside me. The wind had begun to howl outside again, and I knew without asking that Carle was now trapped in the cave like me. I thought of Devin, and wondered whether he was dying in the winds.

"You just did what the rest of us wanted to do but didn't dare," Carle said. "It takes a brave man to break a free-man's oath."

"I'm used to oath-breaking," I said with my head bowed.

"Only under the right circumstances, though I can't say that your wits always match your sense of honor. Did you really expect that letter to fool us? You're lucky you didn't have the lieutenant searching for you; Payne and Hoel had to pin him down to keep him from coming after you. He'll probably have us all up on charges if we survive, but we're past the point of caring about that."

We talked for quite a while after that. I can't remember everything that we said, but it was mainly about how I had made my decision to break my oath and disobey Quentin. At a certain point, Carle said, "But it's easy enough to find a justification for breaking an order. At his trial, Shepley said that he had tried to capture the barbarian on his own because he wanted to protect the rest of us from danger. He said that he couldn't have known that the capture would go awry – but that's precisely the point. We can never know the full consequences of disobeying orders; that's why it's up to our officials to make such decisions. They have greater experience and skill, and so they can see further ahead than we can."

"That's true," I said, huddling closer to Carle. He had wrapped his cloak around the two of us, and we were drawing upon each other's warmth like autumn flowers seeking the last rays of sunshine before their deaths. "And there's a more positive way to phrase it: we can never know the full consequences of obeying orders. It seems mad to me sometimes, the way that we risk our lives to stop unimportant men who would probably cause no trouble if they breached the border – but we just can't know that for sure. The best path to take is to obey orders, even if it seems that Emor will receive no reward for our sacrifices."

"Then why did you disobey the lieutenant? Don't mistake me; I think you did the right thing. I just can't find the words to say why."

I leaned my head against Carle's shoulder, closing my eyes against the dagger-sharp cold that bit at us. He put his arm around my back, and I felt him reach his bare hand out toward the cutting air in order to pull his cloak closed around me. I said, without opening my eyes, "I suppose it's a matter of instinct. When you threw yourself weaponless at the barbarian, you didn't stop to measure whether what you were doing was right or not. You just knew that Quentin and Shepley were in danger, and you acted accordingly. I think that you have to start with a strong love for the Chara and his laws, and draw upon that when it comes time to make such decisions."

I felt Carle's head move, and when I tilted my own to look up at him, I saw that he was smiling. "So my law lessons to you during the past few days haven't been wasted," he said.

"What?" I replied, blinking rapidly in confusion.

"The Law of Vengeance. You actually paid attention to what you were memorizing."

"Oh." It took me a moment to realize what he was saying. "I hadn't thought of that. Yes, I suppose that says the same thing."

"What law passage were you thinking of, then?"

I seemed suddenly a great deal warmer than I had been before – at least, my ears were quite warm. I ducked my head, but Carle had already read my eyes and was laughing. "Not a law passage," he said. "Something Koretian? Well, go ahead and enlighten me."

"It's religious," I mumbled.

"I promise to eliminate my usual sharp commentary on the subject. In any case, this doesn't seem to be the right moment to ridicule your gods. I suppose you've been praying to them."

"No," I responded quickly. The look of approval I received from Carle emboldened me to say, "It's something Fenton told me during our last conversation. He said that if you truly love the gods and their law, you will know when the right moment comes to offer up your sacrifice. He said that a cousin of mine who is a jeweller had once described the Koretian people as joined together by their love of the gods, like the links of a precious chain."

I expected Carle to say that Emlyn had stolen this image from the Emorians, but he was silent for a long while before saying, "Perhaps the Koretians are more civilized than I'd thought. By the law-structure, if they'd only direct their love to the proper source . . ."

"Perhaps they will some day," I said as I yawned. "Perhaps we'll find some way of persuading them to serve the Chara and his laws."

"Perhaps." Carle's arm tightened around me like a ring encircling another, and sleepily I remembered that we would not be there to help with this battle. But it scarcely seemed to matter, so strong was my satisfaction at having conquered another hard question of the law, and so pleasant was the sensation of being with Carle when this happened.

And so, when I fell asleep a short while later and knew that I was falling asleep for the last time, it seemed unimportant compared to what had happened before. It was thus an anticlimax when I awoke and saw the lieutenant standing in front of us, and behind him Devin and Malise and the rest of the rescue party. I was glad that we would live, but I was even gladder that we hadn't been rescued a few hours before. All of the pain we had gone through seemed worth it, just to have had that one conversation in the cave.

Chapter Text

Law Links 4
THE BIRD
 

CHAPTER ONE

The twenty-sixth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

The city physicians, after a final clucking of their tongues, have said that Carle and I may leave their house tomorrow. Carle and I have been restless to go since the day before yesterday, for we have no one here to talk with; the other guards left long ago.

Hoel and Payne and Devin were released on the first day back, into the care of their fathers, who had taken temporary housing in the city when they learned that their sons were trapped in the mountains. Quentin stayed only two days longer, though he looked as if he was one step into the gates of the Land Beyond. Although the rest of us had been carried back to Emor on blanket-muffled stretchers, Quentin had insisted on walking back, in order to assist with the navigation through the pass as only a borderlander could. He had seemed well during the journey, but the moment we reached within sight of Emor, he quietly collapsed and remained unconscious throughout the journey to the city.

Nor did he awake once we reached the warmth of the physicians' house. The physicians looked grave and refused to offer any prognosis. Devin, giving way finally to the strain, left here in tears, certain that he would never again see the lieutenant alive.

The only cheerful person was Quentin's grandfather, who had been awaiting us at the entrance to the pass, and who apparently had caused Malise a great deal of last-minute trouble by insisting that he must help with the rescue effort. Malise had finally placed him in charge of the carts left behind at the entrance to the pass. All the way back to the city, Quentin's grandfather distracted us from our worries about his grandson by telling us entertaining stories of his own days in the patrol.

The stories continued when we arrived here, so that Carle and I had no thoughts left for our painful healing. While we were sleeping or trying to sleep, though, Quentin's grandfather would go sit by Quentin and hold his hand silently. As far as I could tell, Quentin's grandfather never slept himself.

This lasted until Quentin awoke on the third day. His grandfather waited just long enough for the physicians to confirm that Quentin had taken one step back from the Land Beyond; then he announced that Quentin was well enough to go home.

This caused an uproar among the physicians. "Not again," I heard one of them say. The lieutenant eventually ended the argument by getting up and walking away. He only made it to the door before crumpling to the ground, but his grandfather had his way with the physicians after that. The physicians made him swear, though – on a freeman's blade, no less – that he would keep Quentin in bed for the next fortnight. "Not like last time," said the head physician, giving Quentin's grandfather a piercing look.

It was all very odd. I wish that I could have spent more time with Quentin's grandfather, to gain further insight into the lieutenant's upbringing.

o—o—o

The twenty-seventh day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Carle and I left the physicians' house today to find only a thin sprinkling of snow upon the ground. While the patrol was dying amidst blizzards in the mountains, Southern Emor has been enjoying a late autumn, with occasional dustings of snow that soon melt. Though the weather has chilled during the last few days, Carle says that it will be at least a month before the country roads become blocked to travellers. That's just as well, given the journey we've decided to undertake.

Our first duty, once we'd left the physicians, was to report to Wystan. He had dark circles under his eyes. Hoel reported to Wystan two days ago, and since that time, Wystan has spent his time with the families of Iain, Jephthah, Gamaliel, and Chatwin, explaining how their sons died. The interview with Chatwin's family was particularly painful, the only bright point being Hoel's announcement at the start that he would care for Chatwin's betrothed from now on. Chatwin's betrothed, having heard of Hoel through Chatwin's letters, wept on his shoulder for the remainder of the interview, and they left Wystan's tent together.

Wystan had nothing but praise for those of us who had survived, which Carle and I found embarrassing. Eventually, to our relief, Wystan passed on to other business.

"You two are planning to reside in the city this winter, I understand," he said, gesturing Carle back into his seat. Carle had been trying to rise when the captain did, though we're both still weak from our ordeal.

"Yes, sir," replied Carle, sinking down. "We hope to attend the city court as often as possible and to visit these headquarters daily in order to sharpen our sword skills."

Wystan nodded as he returned to the seat behind his desk. After a moment's silence in which Carle scrutinized the captain's face, Carle added, "Why do you ask, sir?"

Wystan flicked him an unreadable look before reaching over to pick up a folded and sealed paper on his desk. "I was wondering whether you intended to visit your family."

I did not have to look to see that Carle had gone rigid. The stiffness was in his voice as he said, "I had no plans of that sort."

Wystan gave him a look then that was all too readable. "Your father came to these headquarters the moment word reached him of your trouble. He stayed here for a week, to the neglect of his business at home, and only returned to Peaktop when word reached here that you had been rescued. Yet you have not asked after your family since your arrival back."

Carle's silence filled the tent like freezing snow. Wystan sighed and placed the paper back on his desk. "Sublieutenant, I know that you joined the army against the express wishes of your father. It is natural that there would have been tension between the two of you during the first year or two. Yet as far as I can tell, you have made no attempt to heal the wound between yourself and your family. Now your father has made an attempt of his own to reach out to you; I would hate to see his effort go wasted."

"Are you ordering me to return home, sir?" Carle's voice sounded as though it had been chipped from a block of ice.

"You know better than that, sublieutenant; I cannot interfere with your private life. I am simply offering you advice, as someone who also joined the army against the wishes of his family and remained estranged from his family for far too long. Believe me when I say that such matters become trivial over the years, in comparison with the memories of love and comfort one received as a child." Wystan took up the paper again and offered it to Carle. "Your father left this for you. It is a letter from your sister."

o—o—o

"I didn't know that you had a sister," I told Carle afterwards.

"Yes, a younger sister. And you?" Carle looked up from the letter. We were sitting in the mess tent, having eaten our noonday meal. After a diet of nuts and bread and snow-water, even army food tastes good to us.

"Two sisters, aside from the ones who died as babies," I said. "Leda is the eldest of us; she's married, with a son. My sister Mira will be coming of age soon – or she was, when I left. She's been insufferable for the past two years, telling Hamar and me how much more she'd enjoy the company of a husband than our company."

"My sister came of age late last winter, around her twelfth birthday," Carle murmured; his gaze had returned to the letter. "I remember her writing me about it at the time."

I nudged closer to him on the bench. "Does she say anything interesting in her letter?"

Carle shook his head. "She never does. The village blacksmith burned his hand . . . My mother was ill with stomach pains for a while but is better now . . . A noble came to visit this autumn – old and sharp-tempered, she said. 'Old' undoubtedly means my father's age," Carle added with one of his half-smiles as he folded the letter closed. After a moment, he opened it again.

"And what else?" I prompted.

"Nothing else," Carle said. "That's all she has written, aside from her usual threats to flay me alive if I come within a day's ride of her. She still hasn't forgiven me for leaving without saying goodbye to her." He started to fold the letter, re-opened it, and remained motionless for a while, reading the letter once more.

"There's something more," I said finally.

Under the loud chatter of the soldiers nearby, Carle said, "Yes, there's something more. I don't know what it is yet, though." He raised his eyes to me.

"We're taking Captain Wystan's advice, then?" I said.

Carle nodded. "I think I'll have to go home, at least for a while. You needn't come, though. You can search us out a city house in the meantime."

"Don't be foolish," I responded. "Of course I'll come. Unless—" Belatedly, it occurred to me that Carle might not be eager to introduce a southerner to his family.

I suppose that, if I ever die, Carle will be able to read my final moments from the look in my face. He gave another of his crooked smiles and said lightly, "Your presence is what will make the visit bearable."

The odd thing is, I think he was serious.

o—o—o

The twenty-ninth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

It's early morning. We rested overnight at an inn that's north of the city. Although Carle's village is apparently only half a day's swift ride from the city, neither Carle nor I wanted to go swiftly. We have just enough energy left to stay seated on the horses we borrowed from the army headquarters.

The inn is one of the new-style lodges, with individual chambers for each travelling party, in addition to the common chamber for single men and for travelling parties which can't afford the individual rooms. The beds in the individual chambers are so broad that they could easily accommodate three men. Since Carle and I have slept in the same room together for over two months now, I was surprised that Carle paid for separate chambers for the two of us. I didn't realize the reason until I jerked awake last night, as if to the sound of a danger whistle, and heard Carle crying out.

I rushed for his room, of course, but the door was barred. I hammered on it, and the cry cut off. After a moment, Carle spoke in his normal voice.

He did not even ask why I was at the door, but apologized immediately for waking me, saying that he'd been dreaming. I lingered at the door, expecting him to let me in, but after a while I concluded that he was so exhausted from the ride that he'd fallen asleep after his explanation. I was likewise weary, so I returned to my warm bed next to the hearth-fire and fell asleep soon afterwards.

I awoke to Carle's voice, crying out. Again I rushed for the door; again I found it barred; again my hammering elicited an apology from Carle, but nothing more. Puzzled, I returned to my room and sat by the fire, waiting.

The cry was not long in coming. I tiptoed up to Carle's door and pressed my ear against it. I could hear snatches of what he was saying. What I heard chilled me more than the night wind whistling down the corridor.

Carle was dreaming that he was being tortured. From what I could make out, it appeared that his captor was a vicious border-breacher; I could hear Carle begging his torturer to stop. I strained for the name of the torturer, but even in his torment, Carle followed patrol custom in calling the breacher 'sir,' so I could not tell whether the torturer was Emorian or Koretian.

I stood uncertainly outside the door. Eventually, after far too long, the cries died down. I spent the remainder of the night sleepless beside my fire.

When I see the lieutenant next spring, I must ask him whether this was something real that happened to Carle. If it was, and if the man who tortured him was Koretian, then it's a wonder that Carle ever spoke in friendship to me, much less shared wine with me.

o—o—o

The thirtieth day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Peaktop, Carle's home village, is located atop the southernmost of the signal-fire mountains. It is sprawled across the flat top of the mountain and is a little larger than Mountside. Its income derives mainly from horses and from orchard-fruit, the latter being more valuable than the former, as there are so few trees in Emor.

I learned all this throughout the course of yesterday. My first impression of Carle's mountain home was that its slopes are far too slippery.

I discovered this because Carle, having evidently decided that we were growing lax in our exercise, left our horses to be escorted to his home by some local country boys he knew, leaving the two of us to climb the side of the mountain, rather than take the easy road up.

I had thought that I knew how to climb mountains, but I'd never before climbed a mountain with snow on it. The last part of the journey, which required us to climb over a sheer rock with icicles hanging off it, nearly lost me my life, but Carle's hand grabbed me and hauled me onto safe ground. Then, before I had had a chance to decide whether I would ever breathe again, he demanded my impression of the village.

It was certainly a beautiful sight. Snow clung in soft clumps to the peaked rooftops of the village houses, lined all in a row along the curving road, but for an enormous house jutting up on a mound – the baron's hall, I supposed. Below the house was a vast orchard, lined on one side by a graveyard, and beyond that was a pasture with horses kicking the snow into the air as they raced to and fro.

I took a step in the direction of the village, but Carle smiled and shook his head, then led us down the shorter path to the pasture. As we crunched our way through the snow – soldiers' boots come in handy in Emor – I saw that the horses were being watched by a young man about Carle's age, who called out to them as they rode past, causing them to swerve their path in a seemingly ordered manner. Sitting at his feet, peacefully watching the horses' hooves thunder just paces away, was a dog with golden-red fur.

It caught sight of us at the same moment that the young man did, and bounded toward us, barking fiercely. I hesitated, unsure whether to draw my sword against this attack, but Carle merely went down on one knee and held out his hand to the dog. She leapt upon him and, in the next few moments, tried to drown him with her tongue.

The young man followed close behind. He skidded to a halt, churning up snow against his winter breeches, and smiled down at Carle and the dog. "She remembers you," he said.

"I had hoped she had forgotten me by now," said Carle, giving the dog a final rub behind the ears as he rose to his feet. "She belongs to you now."

The young man shook his head. Like Carle, he had a touch of red to his hair, though his complexion was darker than Carle's snow-white face. "Forget the boy who raised her from a pup? That's not likely." He gave a shy grin and added, "Only you're not a boy now. I hear you've been fighting snow demons in the mountains."

"They fled at the sight of my sword," said Carle with mock ferocity. "And you? How have you been, sir?"

Something flickered in the young man's expression, and I thought for a moment he would voice his thought. Then he shrugged his hands and said, "Well enough. I'm to be married, you know."

Carle's smile grew broad. "Felicitations! I had not heard; my sister never tells me the important news. Do I know the fortunate woman?"

A blush touched the cheek of the young man. "It's Almida." Then, hastily: "It's all right; you may laugh. I know that I'll be the hen-pecked husband that bards sing about. I really don't mind. After everything I have to do in the village, it will be nice to come home and be ordered around."

"I firmly agree with you, sir," said Carle, who showed no signs of laughing. "There is nothing I despise more than a woman who impotently allows herself to be bullied about by her husband. When I am married, it will be to a woman of character, like Almida."

The young man's look of gratitude could have spread to the far borders of the empire. "I've missed you," he said frankly. "Are you planning to visit long? You could stay at the hall if you like. We were always able to find room for you in the old days."

"Offer me no temptations." Carle shook his head. "I would like nothing better, but . . . Well, if nothing else, you would not have room for my partner here." Then, as the young man turned his shy gaze toward me, Carle added, "I apologize for the lack of an introduction. Sir, this is— No, wait, I see your father coming. I will make my introductions once he has arrived."

I turned toward the pasture gate and saw a man striding across the fields, seemingly immune to the danger of being trampled by the prancing horses. Unlike the young man, he had tossed his cloak back, and I could see the silver glint of his tunic's border. He was smiling even before he reached us. Putting his arm around the young man's shoulders, he said, "Carle, this is a welcome sight. Your letters to Myles are hardly fair exchange for the pleasure of your presence. I suppose you have come because of your sister's betrothal?"

Carle, who had been on the point of gesturing toward me, grew suddenly still. After a moment, he said in a voice as controlled as though he were on patrol, "No, sir. I had not heard."

"Ah." The baron's arm slid from his son's shoulders, and his face grew serious. "Yes, your father has been searching for a suitable match since last winter, and he has finally made up his mind, I understand."

"Do you know the man, sir?" Carle's voice continued to be steady, but I could see a bump in his cloak-cloth which suggested that, underneath his cloak, he was gripping his sword hilt.

"I have met him on a few occasions. He is Vogler, baron of a prosperous village in the Central Provinces. Because his first wife died without issue, he has been looking for a young wife to bear him heirs. From the point of view of the bloodline, it is an excellent match."

"And from the point of view of character?" Carle continued to stand as stiff as a sentry.

"His character . . ." The baron hesitated for a moment, then said quietly, "He is a man much like your father."

Myles's gaze passed from Carle to the baron and then back again; otherwise he remained silent. Only the dog seemed immune to the atmosphere and chose this moment to start bounding toward one of the horses. Myles quickly called her back; by the time she had returned, panting happily and nuzzling Carle's legs, the baron was saying, "But I see that you have brought a guest with you."

"Yes, sir." Carle turned toward me with a gesture so easy as to suggest that he had discarded all other thoughts from his mind, though I knew him better than that. "Sir, may I present Adrian, Soldier of the Chara's Border Mountain Patrol? He has been my partner this autumn. Adrian, I present you to Gervais, Baron of Peaktop."

"I am pleased to meet you, sir," I said, touching my hand to heart and forehead.

Myles's smile dropped away, followed by an expression of uncertainty. He looked toward his father, who was so far from smiling that I expected him to call for soldiers at any moment. Beside me, Carle said hastily, "Sir, I ask that you forgive him. He has only recently emigrated, and he is still learning Emorian ways."

The baron's gaze continued to pierce me like a spearhead. "I would have thought," he said slowly, "that showing respect for one's betters was the custom in all of the Three Lands." He glanced over at his son, who was looking mutely unhappy, and his gaze relaxed. "Carle, we must go; Myles and I have business this day to tend to. I hope that you will join us for supper before you leave." He gave me one final, dark look and added, "You are welcome also, Soldier Adrian. I suggest, though, that you become better acquainted with the customs of your new land."

I mumbled something that I hoped sounded properly submissive as the baron and his son turned their backs. They had gone a spear's length forward when Carle's hand closed upon my arm with a grip like a jackal's jaw.

He marched us grimly toward the north gate of the pasture. The dog tried to follow us for several paces, but Carle shooed her back, and we left her at the gate, wagging her tail as she watched us leave. I waited until we were well into the orchard before asking, "What did I do?"

"What did you do?" Carle blasted me a look that matched the baron's. "Adrian, you gave him the free-man's greeting! Have you forgotten you're a lesser free-man?"

Actually, I had, but this didn't seem the moment to mention that. "I know I'm only supposed to give the free-man's greeting to my equals," I said, "but surely your baron must have realized I was only trying to be friendly. In Koretia—"

Carle sighed, tossed back his cloak, and drew his sword. "Do you see this?" he said.

His sword looked all too sharp in the winter light that fell through the trees. I swallowed and nodded.

"If we lived in Koretia, I would have had to fight a dozen duels on your behalf by now, just to keep you from being killed by all the men you've insulted since arriving in this land. Be grateful we live in Emor, where people show more patience." With a grin, Carle sheathed his sword, then turned to catch the bundle of brightness that had flung itself upon him.

After a moment, I identified the scarlet-cloaked bundle as a girl. She had no sooner kissed Carle than she hit him on the side of his head with her fist. Then she stood back and contemplated him with furious eyes.

Carle rubbed his ear. "I'm glad to see you also, Erlina."

"You took your time getting here," she responded, glaring at him as she placed her fists against her slender hips.

"I'd have arrived here sooner if you'd been less subtle in your letters," Carle rejoined, scooping snow off the ground to place against his ear.

"I told you last winter that I'd come of age. You should have known what that meant. What else did you expect me to say, with him reading all my letters?"

"I didn't foresee him moving so quickly—"

"I'm of age," she said firmly. "I'm a woman, though unlike you I didn't run out the door the minute I reached adulthood, leaving everyone else in the household to deal with him. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

"So you've told me many times," said Carle, giving her one of his spell-binding smiles.

Erlina seemed unmoved by such charms. "And you don't write enough. You don't write enough even to Myles; he's told me how much he misses hearing from you. He says you're even calling him 'sir' now, which he thinks is so foolish, though of course he'll never tell you, because he thinks you're much too wise to be—"

"Erlina." Carle took hold of the young woman's hands and held them lightly. He said quietly, "Have you signed the betrothal papers yet?"

Erlina continued to frown at him, but she bit her lip before saying, "I had to. He was blaming Mother for my stubbornness."

Carle sighed and released her. "I'll talk to him."

"It won't do any good."

"I'll talk to Gervais also. Perhaps there's a law we can use to annul the betrothal."

"If there was one, you'd have thought of it by now," she said directly. "You know far more law than Gervais does. You're too late, Carle. And you're rude, too; you haven't introduced me to your friend."

Carle rolled his eyes toward the leaves above us. "This extremely difficult creature that you see before you is my sister, Adrian. I'd present her to you, but she'd probably claw your face to pieces."

"Don't be silly." Erlina spread the skirt of her gown and gave me a low curtsey. "Is Carle this much trouble in the army? You have my permission to hit him if you want," she told me hopefully.

Carle groaned. "One of these days, Erlina, I'll teach you the Law of Army Rank. Until then— Heart of Mercy, he's coming." His voice grew suddenly low. "You'd better go, Erlina. He'll want to be the first to greet us."

She was gone then, as quickly as she'd come, like a bright-winged bird fled to her nest. For a moment, all that I could hear was silence. Then, with no warning of his approach by sound or sight, a man emerged from the trees.

The first thought I had was how much he looked like Carle. Though his hair was beginning to silver over like frost, his short locks were the same shade of red as Carle's, and he even had Carle's crooked smile. The charm was there too; I felt it even before he turned to gaze at me. Then, evidently feeling that his son deserved the first welcome, Carle's father said, "I knew that you would come home in the end."

His voice was warm. By contrast, Carle's was as chill as the ice on the bark as he said, "Yes, sir. I have brought a guest with me."

"So I see." Carle's words caused his father's smile to deepen. The older man turned to me and touched his heart and forehead, saying, "Verne son of Carle. You are welcome, young man. You are one of my son's friends, I take it."

My hand was halfway to my breast by the time he finished speaking – after all, there was no question here about rank – but something made me hesitate. Perhaps it was only the remembrance of Gervais's dark look. Quickly I turned the greeting into a bow. I was rewarded – I saw upon raising my head again – with an approving look from Verne.

"Well," he said to Carle, "I see that the army is not short of courtesy. You'll have learned many useful skills in the patrol, I'm sure. I am eager to learn of them."

Coming from a man who had opposed his son's entrance into the army, this could be nothing other than an apology, but to my surprise, Carle did not follow up on his father's words with his own apology for having departed the family home without leave. "Yes, sir," he said in a flat voice. "I am permitted to visit, then?"

"Have I not made that manifest?" The smiling man embraced the orchard with his arms, as though he would offer all its bounty to Carle. "You are most welcome, Carle; I have been looking forward to seeing you and talking with you. Now, as to your guest . . . The guest chamber is taken at the moment, I'm afraid. Your friend will have to stay in your main bed-chamber. I'm sure you remember the way to your extra chamber."

A hiss that might have been an indrawn breath or the whisper of a blade against its sheath came from the direction of Carle. "I do, sir," he said in a voice as taut as a rope around a bound breacher's wrist. "Shall I show him to the house now?"

"Yes, that would be wise; our dinner will be ready in an hour. I'll just go now and tell the cook of your arrival. Your mother," he added as an afterthought as he turned to go, "will be glad to see you. She has much to say to you, as I'm sure you know." And he gave another of his deep smiles and walked away, as silently as he had come. It occurred to me, as he disappeared between the slender trunks, that Verne had not asked my name.

It was a while before I could think of what to say. As we walked slowly through the orchard, ducking snow-laden branches, Carle had an expression on his face as unrevealing as at my trial. Finally I said, "He is very gracious to guests."

"Yes, he usually is," replied Carle, his eye on the building that was beginning to loom above the tree-line. "I counted on that in bringing you here."

I was tongue-tied for a moment more, then said, "Your house must be large if you have two chambers to yourself."

The red in Carle's hair seemed to flow in that moment to his face; his ears grew scarlet. After a moment, my gaze followed his to the great house above us, perched atop a mound.

I stopped dead, my gaze rising up the four floors and taking in the number of windows in the stone building. Some of them, I now saw, were covered with glass.

I turned back to Carle, who was avoiding my eye so assiduously that I laughed. "No wonder you were comfortable at Neville's home. And this orchard . . . ?"

"Is my father's." Carle was still struggling to control his blush. "It's quite embarrassing. We have more money than Gervais does, which isn't how it's supposed to be."

"Oh, yes," I said. "I seem to recall you telling me how good you are at keeping to the proper order in rank—"

He swiped at me with his hand then, and we fell to laughing. It seems a good omen that we were still laughing when we entered Carle's house.

o—o—o

The thirty-first day of December in the 940th year a.g.l.

Carle's bed-chamber, where I am staying, has a beautiful view of the black border mountains. I imagine that, as a child, he must have spent many hours dreaming at this window about becoming a patrol guard. I can also see the Chara's palace from here. It glows white at night, lit by flames that have burned, Carle tells me, for near to a thousand years. Even during the terrible civil war of Emor's early history, the flames were never doused.

The bed here looks as though it were made for the Chara. It's finely crafted Arpeshian work and is so wide that Carle and I could easily sleep together on it. I was therefore surprised when Carle told me that he would stay in his extra chamber. I was going to protest, then realized the likely reason he wished to room separately. I really must question the lieutenant about the mystery of Carle's dreams.

But I have mysteries enough to occupy me here. One is where Carle is staying in this house. He has put off my questions in that regard, except to say that he is well used to his extra chamber. Apparently the room I'm staying in was often used as a second guest chamber when Carle was growing up. So enigmatic is Carle about this that I almost have visions of him hiding himself away in order to carry on a secret love affair with one of the slave-women.

The slaves are a second mystery. I don't mean, of course, that I am mystified by such things as would astonish a Koretian who had just arrived in this land. I have grown used, through my visits to the city, to the sight of slaves walking about naked-faced, talking as boldly as any free-man. Yet Verne seems to treat his slaves with greater generosity than the average Emorian. His slaves don't wear special clothes that distinguish them from free-men, and Verne always addresses them in the same soft, gentle voice he uses toward the rest of us. I cannot reconcile what I see with Fenton feeling so ill-used that he fled from his master. But Fenton never told me the full story of what happened. Perhaps Verne was not at fault at all; perhaps Fenton was being bullied by some of the other slaves here. Certainly the slaves have a sullen look, not in keeping with the considerate treatment they are receiving.

But the biggest mystery of all is this: Why is Verne hosting a barbarian prince?

"Prince" is the title Verne has given him. Alaric tried good-naturedly to explain to me his status on the mainland, but all I could gather is that his father rules over a territory, and that he is his father's heir. He is a mainland noble, at any rate, though much younger than the noble that Erlina is to marry: he is not much older than I am.

Even so, the prince already has a wife and two young daughters. He revealed this last night as we were sitting at the dining table, waited upon by an army of servants.

"I married very young," he said, smiling. "Too young, perhaps. You know, sir, how family duties can restrict the direction of one's life." He bowed toward Verne, as he is in the custom of doing every few minutes, confounding my preconceptions of barbarian manners.

In appearance, though, he is every bit a barbarian. His face is painted – I suppose for battle purposes – and his hair is as long as a boy's and is tied in braids. It's hard for me to imagine how any mainland woman could stand to be courted by someone looking like that, but I suppose barbarian women have lower standards.

"My wife has known how restless I am," he continued in good Emorian, "and so she finally tells me: 'Alaric, my cherished one, what you want is not to be found in our tribe. You must search further – search even the Great Peninsula, where I think you will find your heart's desire. And when you have found it, return here and be happy.' She is a very wise woman, my wife."

Verne, sitting with ease in his chair at the head of the table, said, "And have you found what your heart desires, here on the Great Peninsula?"

"I believe I have, yes." Alaric continued to smile. "And so I will start my journey back to the mainland soon, since my quest is finished."

Carle exchanged looks with me. Only a fur-covered barbarian, we supposed, would travel north during the winter. Well, I suppose that if my father could see me now, sitting in a house surrounded by snow that won't melt until April, he would think that I'd gone mad as well.

"Oh, but you must stay until the wedding." Erlina leaned forward. She had ignored her father's signal earlier that the after-dinner talk would be for men only, though this was the first remark she had addressed toward the oddly garbed barbarian. "I am sure that you have never seen such festivities on the mainland, not even at your own wedding. And my husband will be so eager to meet you in the spring."

Carle, who had been swallowing some wall-vine wine, was suddenly taken with a fit of coughing. As I pounded him on the back, Alaric said serenely, "The warmth and kindness of Emorian women never ceases to amaze me. You and your mother are like bright flowers peering out of the snow. Yet I, who have taken so much already from your father, cannot impose on his graciousness further." And he bowed again toward Verne.

"There is no imposition." Verne flung his courtesy whole at the barbarian, smiling back at him. "We would welcome your company until spring. Perhaps you can persuade my son and his friend to stay as well."

Carle managed at that moment to still the last of his coughing. He said nothing, which gave me hope. Could it be that, if we stay the winter, I can succeed in reconciling Carle to his father? I would so much like to give him that gift.

o—o—o

The first day of January in the 941st year after the giving of the law.

The village held celebrations today in honor of the founding of the laws of Emor. I could imagine my own family gathering today to offer up sacrifice to the gods in thankfulness for the creation of the gods' law at the turn of the year. I am filled with gratitude that I'm here rather than there.

Carle spent much of yesterday and today showing me around the village, where he is, it seems, much liked by the inhabitants. He also showed me his family's graveyard – a body-cemetery rather than an ash-cemetery. It lies upon a beautiful part of the mountaintop that overlooks the Chara's palace.

Carle has demonstrated greater reluctance to guide me around his home, though I have explored on my own during the periods when Carle and his father are closeted away together; Verne is evidently keeping his promise to listen to Carle's accounts of what he has learned in the army. The only section of the house barred to me is the slave-quarters, which are located in the basement. Nothing was explicitly said to me, but Carle made clear that Emorian views on rank do not allow for such mingling.

The rest of the house is beautiful and ancient, filled with carvings and decorations that date back to the early years after the civil war. One of the more recent tapestries evidently shows the family tree, though it is so filled with woven names that it is hard for me to read them. I will have to ask Carle about it.

I spent this evening talking with Verne. He was curious to know about my family background, and I found myself telling him the whole, terrible story of the blood feud. He was very sympathetic. Carle was angry at me afterwards when he learned that I'd spoken to his father about this. He reminded me that Quentin had advised me against telling this story to any but my intimates. Surely, though, Quentin never meant to suggest that I shouldn't tell the story to Carle's own father.

o—o—o

The second day of January in the 941st year a.g.l.

Carle was with his father all of this morning, and Erlina was invited to spend the day with Gervais's family, so I whiled away my time with Alaric. He tells me that he learned Emorian as a boy from a traveller who was mauled by a snow leopard and who was forced to spend many months with Alaric's family while he was healing. Alaric was surprised to learn during his travels here that Emorian can be voiced through symbols on paper. Apparently he had never seen a written word before he arrived in Emor, so I spent the forenoon teaching him the Emorian alphabet. He told me that he would continue to practice his letters until he was as good at writing Emorian as he is at speaking it, and he thanked me at such length that I was nearly yawning by the end.

He really is quite clever, for a barbarian. I feel as though, for kindness' sake, I ought to drop him a hint as to how unattractive long hair on a man looks to women.

o—o—o

The third day of January in the 941st year a.g.l.

I see that I haven't written anything about Carle's mother. This is because it's hard for me to know what to say about her. She is the shyest woman I have ever met; she never speaks unless Verne gently coaxes her into doing so. He is all kindness to her and often puts his arm around her in an affectionate manner.

Because of this, I am beginning to see that the disagreement between Carle and his father must have been serious indeed to cause the two of them to be estranged. Verne is not the sort of man who would ordinarily distance himself from his blood kin. On the contrary, he is always involving himself in his household's activities, flitting from chamber to chamber in his quiet manner.

Carle's mother I scarcely ever see, and I think that is by her wish. I came across her today, dressing the face of one of the slaves; he had evidently been in a fight with another slave, for his flesh had been laid open in a manner I've only seen among duellers. When she saw me, she was so startled that she fled from the room. I finished mending the slave's face, trying to converse with him, but to no avail. Eventually I realized that we were being watched by Verne, who smiled and thanked me for the assistance. He says that his slaves often get into such mischief as this. I fear that Verne shows too much softness toward the members of his household. Perhaps that is why Carle has leaned the other way and is keen on army discipline.

o—o—o

The fourth day of January in the 941st year a.g.l.

Carle and I spent this afternoon exploring the contents of his main bed-chamber. We found many old writings by him about the patrol; the writings made us laugh, since they showed a boy's view of what the patrol is like. We also found a copybook filled with Fenton's handwriting, which stung my heart.

Carle was just pulling an old tunic out of a chest when I heard a barking from under the window. Looking out, Carle said sharply, "Home! Go home, girl!"

There was a puzzled whimper from the dog, but Carle's tone of voice evidently permitted no disobedience, for when I looked out the window, the red-furred dog was gone. "Couldn't you have let her come inside?" I asked.

Carle shook his head. "She's Myles's dog now. Besides, my father never allowed my dogs inside the house. —Ah, I'd been thinking about this tunic." He held it up to the firelight. "I wore this in the last year I lived at home. I'd guess that it still fits me . . ." He glanced over toward me, then back down at the tunic again.

I quickly rose and voiced a desire to use the lavatory. (So luxurious is Carle's house that it even has a chamber that is filled with nothing other than a chamber-pot and washbasin.) In actuality, I simply wanted to give Carle the opportunity to undress in private. He is still modest about his body, even in my presence.

When I returned, he was gazing with satisfaction at the most peculiar tunic I have ever seen anyone wear. The cloth is made all of one piece and wraps around him; the belt too is attached to the tunic, so that when it is untied, it remains with the tunic rather than separating.

"I wanted to show this to Quentin," said Carle, tying his belt. The belt was naked of weapons; here in Emor, I've learned, even soldiers and nobles walk unarmed when they're at home. I can't imagine what men here do when they're challenged to a duel.

"I had an idea that a uniform made in this style might come in handy during the summer months," Carle continued. "Patrol custom is to sleep in one's uniform, in case a danger whistle is emitted, which means that we sweat like dogs in that closed-in hut during the summer months. This tunic, though, can be quickly donned."

As he spoke, he unclasped his honor brooch, unfastened the belt, and swung the cloth open for me to see. He had not bothered to put on his winter breeches underneath or even to retain his breech-cloth, which surprised me, given what I knew of his shyness about showing his body.

He turned so that I could see how the cloth wrapped around the back. I asked, "Where did you find such a tunic?"

"Oh, I asked my mother to make it; I designed it myself. I got tired as a child of taking my tunic on and off several times a day. I decided that I might as well make matters easy for myself."

I was going to ask him then about the swimming basins at Peaktop – for that is what I assumed he was referring to – but we were called to the table then. I did mention the tunic to Verne at supper, and I've never seen him smile so deeply. I think he must be very proud of Carle's inventiveness. If only I could make Carle recognize how warmly Verne loves him.

o—o—o

The fifth day of January in the 941st year a.g.l.

Trouble has arisen, but not from Carle or his father. During my exploring today, I stepped into a dark corridor and discovered Alaric and Erlina in the shadows, kissing each other.

As instinctively as though I had sighted a breacher, I stepped back into the doorway through which I had entered. The kiss was evidently not long, for Erlina soon walked down the corridor, past where I was hiding. She was looking from side to side, as though worrying that someone might see her – as well she might. I waited until she was beyond sight, and then I stepped into the corridor.

Alaric sighted me at once. For a moment he stood frozen, reading from my expression what I had seen. After a bit, he came forward, a smile across his painted face. "Ah," he says, "we are discovered. I had expected that it would happen eventually."

His easiness about what he had done made me uncomfortable. How do you explain to a barbarian the notion of honor? "Sir," I said, falling back on my patrol politeness, "I know that you are merely visiting this land and cannot be expected to adopt the customs of the people here. But surely, even in your own kingdom . . . I mean, your wife . . ."

"Ah, yes, my wife." Alaric's smile did not waver, though his voice was discreetly low. "I have been interested during my travels through the Great Peninsula to learn of your customs of marriage. You come from the south originally – tell me, do they practice divorce there?"

"It's not as common as in Emor," I said. "It's against the gods' law, actually, but sometimes a priest will give a dispensation—" I took in suddenly what he had asked and said, "Do you mean . . . ?"

He shook his head. "Divorce is a custom that we mainlanders find – I pray you to forgive how I express this – barbaric. The idea that I, after joining my body and life with a woman and sowing children upon her, should discard her and say that she is no longer my wife . . . That is hard for me to understand." He smiled at my puzzlement and added, "Yet I find it hard also to understand the view in the Three Lands that if a man and woman marry too young and discover that they do not love each other as a husband and wife should, their only other choice is to keep up the pretense that their marriage is fulfilling, so that they continue to live a loveless existence. Surely the gods within us would not be so cruel as to demand this."

I have my own views on what gods, Koretian or barbarian, might demand, but I confined myself to asking, "But what other choice is there? If you are divorced, you may decide to take a second love, yet if you are married—" I stopped, abruptly seeing the gulf between civilized life and barbarian life.

"You see how much wiser our gods are," said Alaric, his smile growing bright. "My wife and I live apart now, though we retain affection for each other. I have even allowed my wife to take a lover, which many husbands would not permit. Yet I think it is only fair that she should be allowed a love, since she has urged me so strongly to seek a second wife for myself. 'Go to the Great Peninsula,' she tells me. 'You are not drawn to shy women such as me; bold-speaking women are who you desire.' She knows me best, you see, since we are married. And so I have travelled many miles through the Great Peninsula, and I have sought far for my heart's desire. Finally, when I am close to giving up hope, I find my desire – but she is already promised to another man. And so I must return alone to the mainland, for I know now that I will never find another woman like her. Yet, though it pains me further to stay here and know that she will never be mine, I cannot help but desire to bring her happiness in this period before her marriage, for I fear that this is the only chance she will have to know what it is like to find happiness and love in the company of a man."

I had no notion what to say. Alaric, I was sure, could not recognize the full harm of what he was doing. Raised with romantic barbarian views of love, he did not see how even an arranged marriage, such as Titus and Chloris had enjoyed in my old village, could be blessed with happiness if the husband and wife gave love to each other – and such love, I am now sure, Erlina will receive from any man selected by her father. Yet it really wasn't my place to offer Alaric lectures on his conduct. The only question that arose was where my own duties lay.

Alaric must have sensed this, for concern finally entered his face. "You will not tell him?" he said. "For Erlina's sake, you will remain silent?"

"Carle is my partner," I said, struggling to make the barbarian understand. "I can't keep this from him—"

"Oh, Carle." The lines of worry in Alaric's face disappeared, leaving only the swirling paint. "Carle you most certainly must tell, but not our host? You will not leave Carle's sister naked to her father's hand?"

o—o—o

"Yes, I knew," Carle said that night when I told him. "I'd guessed, from the way that she avoided speaking to him during meals. That's not Erlina's usual manner of treating guests."

"And you don't mind?" I said with surprise. We were standing next to the window in Carle's main bed-chamber – Emorian windows are too small to sit on – and were feeling the winter wind scurry over our skins. Beside us, though, blazed a generous fire that frightened away the cold.

Carle shrugged his hands. "It's as Alaric said: this is Erlina's last chance for happiness before her marriage. Alaric strikes me as an honorable man, for a barbarian – and what is more important, he strikes me as a man with too much desire for self-preservation to risk impregnating the daughter of his host. I'm sure he'll be careful not to take matters too far with Erlina."

"But Carle," I said, "surely any man honored by your father with your sister's care—"

Carle turned abruptly away from the window. "It's cold tonight," he said. "I'd best go see that the slave-servants are well supplied with fuel." And he left the room without saying farewell.

How I wish that Fenton were here. Carle's hatred of his father is so great that it is poisoning his most elementary judgment. I'm tempted to go directly to Verne with this problem, but I suppose that I shouldn't give up so easily on awakening Carle to how blind he is being.

Fenton, I'm sure, would have found a way to show Carle his father's true character.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

The sixth day of January in the 941st year a.g.l.

This will be a long entry, for much has happened since I wrote last – all of it my fault, alas. I suspect, though, that it would have happened sooner or later, no matter how innocent any of us were.

It started in Verne's study chamber.

"I can't resist showing you this, though my father will tear us apart if he finds us in here." Carle tilted his head back to look at the bookcase before us. "He won't even let anyone except his personal free-servant clean this room, and then only under his watchful eye. I remember it being a great privilege when I was a boy to be able to watch my father take a book off that shelf and read passages aloud to me."

I scarcely heard what he was saying. My mouth was agape as I stared up at the row upon row of books, all bound in creamy leather, all shining golden under the afternoon light. "I didn't realize there were so many," I said in a hushed voice.

"You may find this hard to believe, but my father only owns about half the law books." Carle smiled serenely with his half-raised lips. "He'd have to possess the income of a council lord to be able to afford the full set. Most of these books my father inherited; a few he was able to buy from the profits of our orchard."

A smell of aging paper was hovering in the room, as delicious to me as the scent of a fine feast. I reached out and touched the soft hairs of the binding. "May I look at one?" I asked, continuing to speak in a low, reverent tone.

For the first time, Carle's smile disappeared. He stood silent for a moment, biting the tip of his thumb, then said, "We really shouldn't, but I can't resist showing you the passage on the Chara's burdens. The volume on the Great Three is all the way at the top of the case; he'll never notice if we've touched it."

"But can we get it down?" I asked, feeling uneasy about this subterfuge, but not enough to resist Carle's suggestions. Already I could imagine what it would be like standing in front of the open law book, staring down at the curve of the neat scribe's hand, smelling the ink, hearing the terrible words of sacrifice as Carle spoke them in a soft voice . . .

Carle glanced around the room with the quick movements he used when trying to track one of the hunted, then said, "Young!" A slave-servant was passing the doorway, holding a chamber basin. He stopped and peered nervously into the room at us. "Young, fetch us a ladder, please – and be as quick as you can about it. . . . Now," he added as the slave dashed away, "this will be tricky. My father usually uses a special stepladder to reach the top shelf, but I have no idea where he hides that; it's probably locked away in the chest. So we will have to use the regular ladder."

This turned out to be as difficult a task as Carle had predicted, even with the assistance of the slave; the room was narrow, and raising the ladder required us to guide it past valuable vases on the mantelpiece. Finally, though, we managed to put the ladder in its place, and Carle scrambled up to the top rungs. He had just pulled the volume carefully from the shelf when a cough came from behind us.

Carle nearly tumbled from the ladder, which caused Erlina to grin. "Do fall," she said sweetly. "Father is only a few chambers away, and I'm sure he'd love to see you topple to the floor with one of his treasured books."

"'A spoiled pear scolds a rotten apple.'" Carle's gaze travelled down toward Erlina. "If you want to give our father something to comment on, try walking like that past his door."

Erlina blushed and let go of Alaric's hand. "What's so important about the book that you'd risk your health?" she asked.

Carle sighed as he reached the bottom of the steps. "If you stay, you might learn. Sometimes, Erlina, I think you have as much law-love as an ignorant barbari— I beg your pardon, sir."

Alaric bowed, as though he had received a compliment. "I am indeed quite ignorant of your laws but am eager to be schooled. This is the book in which they are scribed?"

"One of the books," said Carle, controlling his expression. "No, leave the ladder, Adrian; I don't think—"

It was too late; as he spoke, I swung the ladder down, breaking one of the vases in the process.

The slave, who had been standing silently in the corner next to the chest, turned as pale as new-fallen snow. Alaric looked as though a barbarian warrior fiercer than himself had walked into the room. Carle and Erlina, on the other hand, wasted no time.

"Bucket and brush," said Carle to his sister, and then turned as she fled from the room. "Put the ladder back, then return," he told the slave, who departed, ladder in hand, with as much urgency as though he were responding to a danger whistle. Carle was already on his knees, picking up the shattered pieces of vase.

"May I assist?" asked Alaric, for once abandoning his flowery etiquette in favor of quick communication.

"No, I think that you'd best— Thank you, Erlina; where's the bucket, though?" He reached up to take the brush from her hand.

"Missing," said Erlina, gulping for breath. "One of the servants must have moved it."

"My room has a basin; I will fetch that." Alaric turned on his heel. Barbarians, I learned then, are well trained in speed.

Erlina was already on her knees, locating fragments of vase under the table. I began to stoop but was forestalled by Carle's hand.

"If my father didn't hear that crash, it will be the first time in his life he hasn't heard so much as a leaf fall in his house," he said. "Adrian, could you—?"

"Yes, of course," I said, and dashed from the chamber.

I was barely in time; Verne was indeed walking in his silent way down the corridor, toward the study chamber. I had just enough leisure to fix myself in front of the tapestry bearing Carle's family tree; then I froze, pretending that I did not see the man walking toward me.

It seemed at first that my lure would not work. Finally the steps behind me paused, and I heard Verne say, "My family is of interest to you?"

"Is that what it shows?" I said in as ignorant a manner as possible. "I was wondering about the seal in the middle – the sword and the balance."

"Ah, yes." Verne stepped beside me, forcing me to look toward him, in the direction of the study chamber. Just beyond him, I saw a flicker of movement that might have been Alaric. It took all my effort to keep my gaze from jumping away.

"The seal is easy enough to explain," said Verne, pointing toward the bottom of the tapestry. The sunlight flickered off his seal-ring, whose design matched that of the seal on the tapestry. "There, you see, are my son and daughter at the bottom, and above them, my wife and me. If you will look closely at the name of my father—" He looked over at me to be sure that I was paying attention, and stopped speaking suddenly. His eyes narrowed.

For a heartbeat, his expression stayed that way. Then his smile slowly rose from one side of his lips. "But come," he said softly, "I can explain it much better from a book I have in my study chamber." And he gently placed his arm over my shoulders and pulled me toward the study.

I drew breath to speak further, then held back. Already I was feeling guilty about luring Verne; it would be unforgivable to lie to my generous host. Surely the best thing to do would be to explain honestly what I had done, and bear the burden of Verne's look of disappointment. Yet if Carle wanted me to act otherwise . . .

I was still trying to figure out what to do when the slave ducked out of the doorway, bearing a covered basin. Verne's lips tightened as he watched the slave depart, and his smile disappeared. Releasing me, he strode through the doorway to the chamber.

The afternoon had turned dark; little light came now through the window, though a fire burned in the hearth. Erlina sat on a cushion in the corner near the chest, her face turned toward the window, as though she were idly watching passing birds. Carle was standing behind the desk; as I watched, he carefully turned a page in the book before him, then raised his head to gaze blandly at Verne.

Verne said nothing; he simply walked forward. Carle vacated the spot where he had been standing, backing up toward me. Verne took his place and stared down at the volume for a long moment. Then he carefully closed the book and looked at Carle, waiting.

In a voice as level as the flat pasture of Peaktop, Carle said, "Sir, I apologize. I know that I ought not to have consulted your books without your permission."

Verne said nothing; he simply gazed at Carle. From the corner of the chamber, there was a stirring of bright cloth. Erlina said, "Father, it's my fault. I asked him to look up for me—"

"Leave." Verne's voice was very soft, and he did not turn his gaze from Carle.

"Father, please—!"

"Leave," said Verne, even more softly. "I will deal with you presently."

I heard a sob from the corner, and then a bright bundle hurried past me. I did not turn my head to watch Erlina leave; I was frozen in my spot like a breacher not knowing which way to run.

Verne turned away, not suddenly, but in a steady manner, as though he were undertaking a task long familiar. He went to the corner of the room, pulled a key from his belt-purse, and used it to open the chest. When he turned again, he was holding in his hand a long, sleek, Jackal-black whip.

I looked at Carle; his face might have been made of mountain stone. "Sir, I am of age," he said stiffly.

"I had forgotten." Verne placed the whip carefully on his desk. "Of course, you are a man, and are no longer under my discipline. Will you call in your sister, please?"

For a moment more, Carle stood motionless. Then his hand went to his throat, and he removed his honor brooch.

Turning to me, he placed the brooch in my hand and said quietly, "Adrian, will take this to my chamber, please?"

I looked at him with uncertainty for a moment, wondering whether I should tell Verne now that I bore the guilt for this episode. Something in Carle's expression warned me that I should trust his judgment in this matter. I nodded and turned away; Carle's hand was already untying his belt before I turned.

At the last moment, something made me turn at the doorway. I looked back in time to see Carle slip off his tunic – the tunic he had removed several times a day as a child, he'd told me – and there, for the first time, I saw his back. And thus I discovered what it was that he had shamefully hidden from his fellow guards.

I felt my throat close in tight. Verne was stepping toward Carle slowly, running the knotted lash of the whip through his palm and smiling at his son a dark smile I had seen several months before, though then it had been on the face of a different man. "Let us see," Verne said softly, "whether the army has taught you how to be a man. . . ."

I forced myself to turn then and to stumble down the corridor. The last thing I remember, before my eyes darkened with tears, was the sight of Erlina crying in the arms of Alaric, as behind us the first of the lashes cut into Carle's flesh.

o—o—o

I wrote all of the above while waiting for Carle to return to the bed-chamber where I have been staying. It seemed a more constructive deed to do than to weep with anger at myself. Finally, though, I grew restless, and I stepped into the corridors to search for Carle.

Cowardly-fashion, I avoided the study chamber, instead peering into room after empty room. Finally giving up hope that I would locate Carle by chance, I hailed a passing slave and asked him where I might find his master's son.

"It is possible that he is in his chamber, sir," said the slave, stepping out of the shadows where I had met him.

"Where—?" I stopped then, for I had recognized the slave. He was the one whose face I mended two days past. All along his forehead I could see the jagged reminder of the blow he had received.

His gaze, which until now had been respectfully lowered, flicked up toward me, and I saw his expression change as he realized that I now understood. Then his gaze dropped, and in the monotone that all of Verne's slaves seem to hold as a common language, he told me how to find Carle's extra chamber.

I have never visited slave-quarters before. I don't even know how Koretian slaves are kept; perhaps they are housed worse than in the dank, dark, putrid chambers where Verne houses his slaves. The last chamber on the corridor was deepest in the dark, so I had to take a lamp with me to light the way. I was shivering by the time I reached it; the chamber had no hearth, nor any slit of a window to let in fresh air. I felt as though I were breathing cold earth.

Very little lay in the chamber: Carle's back-sling, his pallet on the floor, a chamber-basin, and a few pieces of clothing. One of these was the tunic Carle had been wearing before. I turned it over, then had to bite my lip to keep from crying out.

Carle had told me the virtues of the tunic he designed, but he had not told me its foremost virtue. Whereas any bodily moisture that touches the patrol uniform immediately soaks through to the surface, Carle's tunic was sewn in a double layer, with the inner cloth made of the same waterproof material that is used for army tents. From the outside, Carle's tunic looked fresh and little worn; on the inside, in the portion of cloth that lay against the back, I could see the blackness of many old blood stains.

Some of the blood was fresh. I let the tunic fall and stood up, feeling my stomach churn; then I heard a step behind me and turned.

Carle had changed into his patrol uniform, but for the brooch; otherwise, he was as I had seen him last. His eyes rested on me without surprise. He said, "I was about to come see you."

I stared at him, speechless. After a moment I stepped forward and handed him his brooch. He looked at it, smiling humorlessly, then gestured toward the pallet. "Seat yourself," he said. "I'm sorry I can't offer you better."

"Carle . . ." My voice shook as I sat down on the pallet next to him. "Did you sleep in this chamber throughout your childhood?"

"Only when guests came." Carle brushed the bloodstained tunic aside with a casual gesture. "Gervais would have hammered down our door with a summons for neglect of an heir if I had been given this as my main chamber, but having guests visit periodically was sufficient excuse to allow my father to house me with the slaves. . . . I used to wish I was a slave when I was a child," he added, drawing up his knee between his locked hands. "My father pays less attention to them than to his family."

I blinked away the hot moisture trickling across my lashes. "Carle, why didn't you tell me?"

Carle sighed and moved the lamp so that it cast more light upon us. "Family pride, I suppose. I'd hoped that my father would behave properly while you were here – he often does, when we have guests."

"You're a man," I said, my voice trembling once more. "You're not a child any more; you're a soldier in the Chara's armies. How could you let him treat you that way?"

Carle gave another of his humorless smiles and waited. After a moment I said, in a voice of resignation, "Erlina."

Carle nodded. "It's a game he played all through my childhood. If I rebelled against his punishments, he'd turn upon Erlina – or upon Fenton when he was my tutor. Not that my father ever needed any extra excuse to beat Fenton. If Erlina rebels against his punishments, my father turns next to my mother." Carle gave a small sigh and looked down at the dirt floor beneath us. "I wish I could feel more pity for my mother than I do," he said quietly. "When I was a child, she never spoke a word against what my father was doing. She only tended my wounds afterwards, and then only if my father wasn't watching."

He rose suddenly and put out his hand to help me to my feet. "It's Erlina I'm worried about right now. I just searched the house for her, but I can't find her anywhere. I saw Alaric talking to my mother; I didn't want to bother him to ask if he knew where Erlina was. But if my father finds her before I do . . ."

"I'll help you search," I said, and we started on our hunt.

We tried the slave-quarters first – the dark rooms being a handy hiding place – and then the top floor, where Erlina's bed-chamber is located. Alaric hadn't yet returned to his guest chamber at the far end of the top floor, though Carle knocked there in passing and checked the door, which proved to be locked.

"One thing I don't understand," I said. "Why is Alaric here? I thought that your father was being charitable in hosting a barbarian, but now . . ."

"My father," murmured Carle, peering into a wardrobe, "would gladly cut the throat of every foreigner in the world if he had the opportunity. No, Alaric's presence is Gervais's doing. Our baron can do little, in terms of the law, to prevent my father from mistreating his household, so he takes the only actions he can: he invites Erlina and me to his house as much as possible, and he requires my father to host guests to the village, so that my father will be restrained in his behavior by their presence." Carle closed the wardrobe door and began to check behind the floor-length curtains. "The fact that such hosting irritates my father may be part of Gervais's motives. He has hated my father for as long as I can remember."

We stepped out into the corridor. Reaching the stairway, Carle said, "Let's split our hunt here. You patrol the middle two floors, and I'll patrol the ground floor."

I couldn't help but smile then, knowing Carle's motive for saying this. "Sublieutenant," I said, "I know that you're eager to practice for the future the lieutenant's privilege to sacrifice himself for the sake of the unit. Even so—" And without any further words, I slipped ahead of Carle on the stairway, leaving him cursing behind me.

Since there was no longer any way to avoid it, I headed straight for the study chamber. The first person I met was the slave who had assisted us with the ladder; he was leaving the chamber as I arrived. His clothes were rumpled, and he was sobbing into his hands. Feeling the same chill that embraced me whenever I faced a dangerous border-breacher, I peered into the study.

Verne was turned partly away from me; he was contemplating in his hand a piece of broken vase. As I watched, he turned his back and threw open the shutter. At the same moment, perhaps encouraged by this sign of life from the house, a dog barked out eagerly. With no hesitation, Verne hurled the fragment of vase down from the window.

The dog's bark ended on a yelp, followed by a prolonged whimper, fading gradually into the distance. Verne stood at the window for as long as the dog remained within hearing; then he turned. On his face was a smile.

He sighted me at once, rooted at the entrance like a bird-chick watching an approaching viper. "Ah, there you are," he said softly, his smile deepening. "I was hoping to talk with you further."

I came to myself then, and began to slide backwards. "I am sorry, sir. I did not meant to disturb you—"

"Nonsense." Verne moved surprisingly fast, catching hold of me as I was about to reach safety. His hand clamped into my arm so hard that I had to bite my lip to keep from crying out. "Do come in and sit. I have been a poor host during your stay, spending so little time with you."

I had no choice but to enter, though I declined the chair he offered me. He went over to stand behind the desk. The law book that Carle had been showing me was now replaced by another, slimmer volume.

"I have been thinking about the sad story you told me the other evening," Verne said, "and have been growing more concerned, the more I think about it. It seems to me, young man, that by leaving your family as you did, you have placed yourself in grave danger. Why, only this afternoon, as I was looking around this chamber, I came across a volume written by an early Emorian visitor to Koretia. He describes in it how men who have broken their blood vows are executed." Picking up the volume so that it hid his face, Verne began to recite: "'The man they consider to be cursed by their gods is brought to the village square, bound both in body and, as the Koretians consider it, in spirit. Before his coming, wood has been placed in the center of the square. Now the man who is doomed is placed in irons and laid across the wood. The fire is lit—'"

I had been trying since the beginning of the narrative to break in. Now I said rapidly, "Sir, I know what is done to the god-cursed—"

I stopped. Verne had lowered the book so that I could see his smile. He continued to smile at me for a long moment; then he continued: "'The fire is lit. The wood is wetted beforehand, though, so that the man's agony may last all the longer . . .'"

And so he went on, recounting all the details of the fire-execution, while I stood there wishing I was wearing Carle's waterproof tunic, for the sweat was causing my uniform to stick to my body.

When he had finished, Verne lowered the book and said softly, "It occurred to me when reading this that even coming to this land may not have saved you from such a terrible end. Suppose, for example, that someone you had harmed decided to send word to your family that you were a patrol guard. It would be easy, would it not, for one of your blood kin to locate you in the mountains and bring you back to your village for execution? I really do think, young man, that you must be careful not to make any enemies in this land." And his smile was so dark that it seemed to swallow the light from the hearth.

I stood where I was, barely breathing, feeling moisture trickle down my face. Verne said softly, "Do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir," I whispered.

"Good," he said gently. "I wanted to be sure that you were aware of your danger."

o—o—o

Carle found me half of an hour later in the stables. I was trying to smother my sobs against the flank of my horse. He had the story out of me within two minutes. Then he sighed and handed me his face-cloth, saying, "My father always turns my own mind into the consistency of Koretian mud, so I don't blame you for missing the flaws in his tale."

"What flaws?" I gulped down a hard sob. "Carle, he will tell my family—"

"No, he won't, and for three excellent reasons. The first is that my father doesn't have any contacts in Koretia. He hates Koretians with a passion, and he wouldn't have the slightest notion of how to go about sending a message to your family. The second reason is that if he did such a thing, he knows that I'd be in the village court within the day, requesting his summons on a charge of murder." Carle guided me away from the horse, which was shifting uneasily, and placed his arm around my shoulders. "The third reason . . . Let me see if I can recite my father's tale correctly. According to him, a member of your family is supposed to enter the patrol grounds, sneak up behind you and me, render me unconscious – for I suppose my father wouldn't go so far as to arrange the death of his own heir – and then disarm you, bind you, and gag you, before dragging you back over the border." Carle raised his eyebrows at me. "How likely do you think it is that this kidnapping will take place without the lieutenant hearing?"

I thought about that for a brief moment before bursting into laughter. Carle grinned and said, "Come, let's to bed. We've had a hard day."

"But Erlina—"

"Is hiding in Alaric's chamber. Oh, Alaric claims he hasn't seen her, but barbarians, I am happy to say, are poor liars." Carle sighed as we reached the door of the stable; he swept the sweat off his brow. "A fine sort of brother I am, permitting my unmarried sister to spend the night with a man who is courting her. Well, if Erlina loses her maidenhead by morning, it will be a lesser loss than what she would lose if she left that room." And I saw once more the look of patience that both Carle and Fenton forged out of their years of pain under Verne's care.

o—o—o

The seventh day of January in the 941st year a.g.l.

I awoke this morning to the sound of shouts.

They came from the study chamber but were so loud that they reverberated throughout the house. As I walked down the corridors, hastily tugging on my uniform, I could see slaves cringing in the corners. I thought I caught a fleeting glimpse of Carle's mother, cringing with them.

By the time I'd reached the corridor outside the study chamber, I had identified the voices. I hesitated before slipping up to the entrance.

Both voices were quiet now, one so soft that my hair stood sentrywise against my skin. The other voice belonged to Carle. As I pressed myself against the wall, he said in a cold voice, "Sir, the decision is yours. I have given you the conditions under which I will conduct the hunt. It is for you to say whether those conditions are acceptable."

I did not hear the reply, but I heard the smile in the voice that replied; sweat began to trickle down my back. There was a long pause, and then Carle said, so softly that I had to strain to hear him, "Very well, sir, we will settle this matter through the court. And when you provide your witness for the charge, I will provide my own about a certain lengthy trip our baron took to the Central Provinces twenty years ago, and about how you occupied your time while he was on that trip."

There was a silence at the other end of the room. Carle did not wait long, but said in the same soft voice, "Do not hurry yourself, sir. I can find my own way to Gervais's house." And in the next moment, he walked out the door.

He saw me at once. For a moment, the dark, sickening smile on his face lingered; then it dropped away, like a weapon hastily discarded. For a moment I saw Carle as he must have looked as a child – naked and vulnerable – and then he nodded at me as though I had spoken and re-entered the room.

In a voice that was quiet but was no longer silky, Carle said, "Sir, I ask that you forgive me. I should not have spoken as I did before."

The soft voice spoke. I peered round the doorway in time to see Carle stiffen in his place. His face, always pale, was drained of the last remnants of color. "Sir," he said in a level voice, "I would ask that you reconsider. I will apologize again—"

"Out!" the voice at the other end of the chamber suddenly roared. "Get out! And take your brown-skinned friend with you!"

I found myself cringing against the doorpost as the slaves had done. For a moment, Carle said nothing. Then he whispered, "Yes, sir," and left the chamber swiftly.

He took hold of my arm lightly and steered me toward the entrance of the slave-quarters. "Carle, what has happened?" I asked in a low voice.

Carle waited until we were beyond the knot of slaves clogging the slave-quarters entrance before he said, "Erlina has run away with Alaric."

I looked over at Carle, but I could not see his expression in the dark corridor we were traversing. "Are you sure?"

Carle nodded. "Alaric left a note for me – for me, not my father, which made my father furious. My father found the note first, but I made him all the more furious by refusing to translate the note, and by burning it after I'd read it."

"Translate it?" I said. "You mean that it was written in a mainland language?"

"No, it was written in Emorian – you taught Alaric his letters, remember? His spelling is so dreadful, though, that my father assumed that the note was in a foreign tongue."

"What did Alaric say?" I asked as Carle picked up a lamp in the corridor and led the way to his extra chamber.

"He said that he had asked my mother for permission to marry Erlina, and that she had voiced no objection; from my mother, that's the closest one can get to a blessing. He said that it grieved him greatly that he could not likewise ask my father for his permission, but that he had dreamt during the night that a snow leopard had mauled Erlina while he stood by watching. He took this as a sign that his gods wanted him to protect Erlina against her father. He swore to me that his intentions toward Erlina were entirely honorable. And he ended the letter with a one-sentence apology to me that covered three pages. Among other things, he apologized to my future wives." As we ducked through the doorway to the chamber, Carle handed me the lamp, then went over to the other end of the room and pulled open his back-sling.

Watching as he tossed his clothing in it, I said, "It might be true. Perhaps he really does want to marry her."

"Oh, I've no doubt he intends to grant Erlina honor – whatever honor may mean on the mainland. But the idea of Erlina living the life of a barbarian . . . The only fate worse would be living with a man my father had chosen." Carle knotted the tie of the back-sling, saying, "I told my father that I would find Erlina and fetch her back only if he permitted her final say over which man she married. —No, leave that," he added as I tried to hand him the bloodstained tunic. "I won't be needing that again."

"What was his reply?" I asked as we moved back into the corridor, squeezing past curious slaves. "You said something about the court . . ."

Carle nodded as he laid his hand briefly on the arm of a slave he was passing. "Helping a woman to elope is a crime in Emor. My father threatened to request a charge against me that I'd assisted Alaric. —No, I am sorry," he said in response to a whispered question by one of the slaves. He gave her hand a squeeze before passing on.

"I feel as though I'm leaving them to their doom," he said as we raced our way up the stairs. "There's nothing I can do for them, though, or for my mother. My presence wouldn't help them in any way."

"Carle, you said something in reply to your father's threat, something about a trip Gervais took—"

"My father's had better slaves than he deserves," said Carle as though I hadn't spoken. "Not just Fenton, who never spoke an unkind word against my father in all the time he lived here. Most of the slaves we've owned have tried to serve my father well. I remember an older slave who was my father's body-servant when I was quite young. He would take pains to provide my father with comfort only minutes after my father had smashed him to the ground." Carle swung open the door to his main bed-chamber, waited until I was inside, and barred the door.

I was already on the other side of the chamber, packing my back-sling, but I looked up as Carle, with a voice suddenly low, said, "So loyal was this slave that when my father decided, twenty years ago, to seduce the Baron of Peaktop's wife, the slave assisted in the arrangements for the seduction."

My hands stilled on the sling; I was calculating ages in my mind. Breathlessly I said, "Do you mean Myles . . . ?"

Carle nodded as he reached my side and began handing me clothing. "Gervais knows, I believe; there's no other way to account for the depth of his hatred for my father. His honor is shown by the fact that he has never spoken publicly on this matter. Nor has he taken his anger out on his wife and her son."

"Your threat was just a feint, wasn't it?" I asked anxiously.

"Naturally." Carle took from my hand the flask that I was about to pack and sipped from it briefly. "I'd cut my throat before saying anything that might reveal to Myles who his true father is. I must confess, though, that as a child I found comfort in knowing that I had a half-brother, and that he was safe from my father."

"Carle, how do you know all this? You weren't even born yet—"

"I know because my father promised to reward his body-servant's loyalty by freeing him. Several years after the affair, the slave was foolish enough to remind my father, in a tentative manner, of this promise. My father responded by selling him to the mines."

I felt my heart beat at my throat. "The mines . . ."

Carle nodded and handed me the flask. "That's where Fenton would have died if I hadn't been able to persuade him to flee Emor. In some households, loyal slave-servants are rewarded with money or freedom; my father has his own custom. The body-servant was to be taken swiftly from our house before he could talk, but he managed to slip away for a few minutes. He came to me and told me the story. He said that I might need it some day as a defense against my father." Carle watched as I drank from the flask; then he said, "I was six at the time, too young to understand fully what the slave was telling me. Only later did I realize that the body-servant could have used those few minutes to go to Gervais with his story. As I said, my father has owned servants more loyal than he deserves." He turned away and unbarred the door as I rushed to catch up with him.

"Carle," I said, "what did your father say at the end? Before he shouted?"

For a minute, I thought that Carle would not reply. Finally, he turned his gaze toward me and said, "We are bonded by more than wine now."

It took me a moment to determine what he meant. Then my breath drew swiftly in, like a spear meeting its mark.

Carle nodded. "He has disowned me," he said quietly. "Come, let's fetch our horses. We can do nothing more here."

o—o—o

The eighth day of January in the 941st year a.g.l.

We stopped at the inn on the way home, and once again Carle arranged for us to have separate sleeping chambers. This time, when I awoke to hear Carle crying out in pain, I did not even have to listen to know the name of his torturer.

He had locked the door again. I thought for a while, and then, returning to my own chamber, I checked the window. Its sill jutted out perhaps a finger's length, as did Carle's sill, which was half a spear-length from mine. His shutters, I was grateful to see, were open, and so mild was the weather so far this winter that the landlord had not yet tacked on any waxed paper, so the windows proved no barrier.

Our chambers were on the second storey, and going from his sill to mine was tricky, because the only hand-holds were the frames of the window. I expect that any border mountain patrol guard could have done it in his sleep. After half a minute, I dropped down into Carle's chamber. I had been as silent as I could, but of course he was now awake, his thigh-dagger glinting in the moonlight.

He slipped his dagger back into his thigh-pocket when he saw who his intruder was, but said nothing as I came forward. He turned his back as I reached the broad bed he slept in. I slipped under the covers, laying my hands lightly upon his scarred back. Within minutes, I had fallen asleep.

He did not cry out again during the night.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

The fourth day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.

It's a beautiful summer day, with a glowing sun and with air just the right temperature – or so it seems to me. Everyone else in the patrol is praying for the autumn cool to arrive. Levander says that if I make one more remark about how much hotter it is in Koretia at this time of year, I may find myself being accidentally thrown off a cliff.

Levander is my new patrolling partner, and he comes eagerly to me for advice. It feels odd to be an old-timer now. But of course there are very few of us old-timers left, even fewer than there were at the beginning of our leave last winter.

Hoel is retired from army service; he gave a plausible reason for his departure, but we all know that he left because of Chatwin. Teague and Sewell were placed on trial in the court of the subcommander of the Emorian army; they faced the possibility of Dismissal with High Dishonor from the Chara's armies. Teague received a lesser sentence of Dismissal with Dishonor, and Sewell was found innocent since we all testified – those of us who were left – that he was in too much pain from his broken leg to realize that Wystan's letter about the approaching snow had gone undelivered. Sewell requested a transfer, though, since he couldn't face the thought of going back to the unit where four men died because of his injury. He is serving now as Wystan's orderly.

That leaves Quentin, Carle, Devin, Payne, and me to train the new men – plus Fowler, Carle's old partner, who has returned to duty. I was initially nervous at dealing with him; I not only stabbed him, but I took away his partner. Carle hasn't been my partner, though, since we returned to the mountains in April. Quentin split up all the old partnerships so that we could be paired with the new soldiers. In the day patrol are me and Levander, Carle and Manasseh, and Payne and Nahum, while in the night patrol are Quentin and Oro, Devin and Whittlsey, and Fowler and Sacheverell. Levander holds a double title: he is also a royal messenger, and he keeps his horse here to ride to the army headquarters, should there be any need for sending an immediate message – such as that supplies are low.

All of this has delayed the training I would normally have received by now in night patrolling, so Quentin has decided to transfer me into his half of the patrol next week. I'll be paired with Fowler. That will be the true test of whether Fowler has forgiven me.

o—o—o

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

I suppose that it simply took Fowler four months to get me alone so that he could reconcile us in the proper manner. It wasn't until today that he served out his insults.

We were close to the northern limits of our patrolling area, and I was concentrating all my efforts on keeping myself from sliding off the side of a mountain. Eight months have passed since I last spent an entire night on the mountains, and though we have a full moon at the moment, I am out of practice in the slide step that is required to negotiate the night-black slopes. Because of this, it took me some time to realize what Fowler was implying.

We had started with a polite conversation about the Koretian borderland, comparing it to the Emorian borderland, which Fowler has visited on a couple of occasions. Then we talked about intermarriage, and how this affects the range of skin colors that you find in both halves of the borderland, and then about the fact that Hamar had light skin, as do my sisters, since they all inherited my father's coloring.

"And what about you?" asked Fowler, grabbing me to keep me from slipping down a slope.

"Well, I look like my mother, obviously," I replied. "Oh, I could have inherited it from my father's side as well – his father was quite dark – but it's hard to say, really. I don't think my parents ever talked about it."

"No, I do not imagine that they did."

Something about Fowler's tone made me look up. We had reached a dip in the mountains and were close to the pass, so our voices were very soft, but whatever I had read in Fowler's whisper was also reflected in his face as he assiduously avoided my gaze.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, look," said Fowler. "I visited the Northern Port once – the port is located in the Daxion borderland, where the black border mountains touch the border between Daxis and Emor. It is a cosmopolitan city: you get people visiting there from Daxis, Koretia, Emor, and on up to the barbarian nations of the mainland. So naturally, the brothels there have to please all sorts of patrons, dark and light. I spent an afternoon in one of those brothels once, not for any sport of my own, but just out of curiosity to see what sort of girls the visitors picked. And after a while, I noticed a trend: nearly every light-skinned man who entered the brothel picked a light-skinned woman, and nearly every dark-skinned man who came there picked a dark-skinned woman. It was the same in reverse, too – the women were trying to attract the attention of the men who shared their color."

"But I don't understand what this has to do with—"

"Well, you see, it led me to conclude that any brown-skinned woman, given a choice, will pick a brown-skinned man. It stands to reason. Of course, she may find herself married to a light-skinned man for reasons of family matchmaking and so on, but if temptation should come her way . . . Well, who is to blame her, after all? It is in her nature."

I have been in Emor long enough now to know that, while dark-skinned is a neutral word, brown-skinned is considered offensive. It seemed to me, in the one part of me that remained calm, that Fowler need hardly have embellished his suggestion with such obvious abuse.

I placed my hand slowly upon my sword hilt and said, "Say that again."

Fowler grinned cheerfully at sight of this challenge. "Do not be so sensitive. This sort of thing happens a lot more than we would guess, I am sure. It is only in the borderland that we have proof that it occurs."

Well, I'd given him his chance. I pulled out my sword and started forward, saying, "You'll swallow those words before I'm through with you."

I stopped just short of Fowler, the reason being that he had not drawn his sword. He was looking at me with wariness and even, it appeared, astonishment, though for what reason I could not imagine; I had given him clear indication of what my intentions were if he didn't apologize. He said in a whisper that barely carried to me, "Put up your blade. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone this happened if you sheathe your sword now."

"Don't be such a coward!" Forgetting to keep my voice low, I heard my words bounce off the mountains opposite. "I gave you my challenge, and you accepted it. You can't back away now."

"Sheathe . . . your . . . sword." The intensity of Fowler's whisper puzzled me. In any case, I could hardly duel him if he were going to be such a coward as to refuse to fight. I was still trying to figure out what to do when I heard a long, high whistle from the mountain opposite us. It came from Devin, who was patrolling the area next to ours.

I whirled and was preparing to leap across the pass toward Devin, when I felt myself pulled short by Fowler, whose hand was holding me as a leash holds a dog. "Later," I said tersely. "Didn't you hear? That's the Immediate Danger whistle."

"By the law-structure, man, sheathe your sword!" said Fowler in a desperate whisper. "If you come near the lieutenant now with a naked blade, he'll cut your dagger-arm to shreds."

I stared at Fowler in bewilderment. Faintly I could hear Carle's whistle acknowledging the response of the day patrol, then Quentin's whistle requesting the location and source of danger. As I heard Devin whistle the hunted's name, I felt a chill across my back. Now I understood: Devin had seen me draw my sword against Fowler and thought that I was trying to murder him.

Quickly I sheathed my sword as Fowler sent out the Danger Past whistle. The full patrol would still respond, having been called, but at least they would not immediately attack the hunted. "Let me take care of this," Fowler whispered. "You just keep quiet."

"All we have to do is explain that we were duelling," I said, trying to remind myself that I was not really in trouble.

"Heart of Mercy, Adrian, are you longing to visit the Land Beyond? Keep your mouth shut."

There was a whistle so low that it could barely be heard. I braced myself but still jumped as ten men suddenly descended upon us, their swords all pointed toward me. I caught a quick glimpse of Carle's face – his eyes were cold and his expression hard – and then the moon slid under a cloud, and when it emerged again, I found myself facing the lieutenant. His sword-point was resting just below my breastbone.

There was a moment of silence that probably lasted no more than a heartbeat, but felt to me as though it stretched through the entire period of the Middle Charas. Without shifting his eyes from me, Quentin said softly, "Report, Fowler."

"I regret to report that it is a false warning, sir. Adrian and I had been talking about Koretian customs, and I asked Adrian to show me how Koretians challenge each other to duels. It was a thoughtless request; I apologize, lieutenant."

Quentin did not move his sword; nor did he signal the others to lower theirs. He said quietly, "Is this true, Adrian?"

I was thinking to myself that I ought to explain the real story, which was no worse than Fowler's tale and which was more likely to convince the keen-eyed soldier before me. But if I did so, Fowler would be punished for issuing a false report, so I said, "Yes, sir. I was showing him how Koretians duel."

The pause this time was definitely longer. Carle shifted his position slightly; he was already holding in his hand the strap to bind me. Then the lieutenant emitted a soft series of notes, and the swords lifted. As Quentin looked down to sheathe his sword, he said, "Fowler ought to have warned you, Adrian, that since Emorian duellers are charged with attempted murder, your demonstration might have been misinterpreted. I trust that you will be more careful in the future."

I felt my throat grow drier than the wind, only now understanding what danger I had escaped in the moment that Fowler sent his Danger Past signal. I managed to say, "Yes, sir. It won't happen again."

The other guards had already started to leave. Quentin exchanged a final, lingering look with Fowler; said, "Good hunting"; and slipped away.

o—o—o

The eleventh day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.

I didn't actually escape from a reprimand. Carle took me aside yesterday morning when I returned from my patrol and gave me a lengthy and singeing account of what he thought of my actions.

"You're just lucky that the lieutenant was willing to turn a blind eye to this," he said. "He doesn't do that very often, I can assure you."

"But I didn't know, Carle," I said miserably. "Everyone duels in Koretia – how could I know that it's unlawful in Emor?"

"You might have used the wits you were born with. Private vengeance is forbidden in Emor – after all these months, hasn't that penetrated your spirit yet? If someone has hurt you, you don't kill him; you enter a charge against him."

"What sort of charge?" I said angrily. "That he insulted me?"

Carle sighed. "If you must know, there's a law against insulting a free-man, though I wouldn't recommend that you invoke it against a fellow guard. Quentin would feel obliged to dismiss from the patrol whichever guard was found to be in the wrong. He can't have these types of enmities smoldering – not when our lives depend on each other. By the Sword, Adrian, I know that you come from a land where people burn one another alive over disputes that started with a dead chicken, but can't you control yourself better? You have to learn how to settle these matters without violence, or you'll never be an Emorian."

"So I'm supposed to let him say that I'm a bastard and my mother's a whore?"

"Better that, than that you should bring dishonor upon the patrol by drawing your sword against a fellow soldier."

Carle's voice had grown dark and stern. I stared down at my feet for a moment, trying to swallow back the sickness in my mouth, until Carle finally said in a voice filled with gentle exasperation, "Did it ever occur to you to encourage Fowler to repeat those remarks some place where Quentin would overhear them? I can tell you plain that there's a second man in this unit who would not care to hear it implied that a certain light-skinned soldier wasn't his true father."

I looked over at Carle; he was smiling now. I said, "If the lieutenant could make Fowler swallow his insults without duelling with him, than so can I. I just have to figure out how."

"When you find out, tell me," Carle responded. "I spent sixteen years living with a foul-minded man. Some men you can't reform; you just have to endure them. Think of it as one of the sacrifices you make for the Chara: you're helping keep peace in this land by not giving Fowler what he deserves."

As it happens, though, I didn't need Carle's advice in the end. Fowler was very pleasant to me during our patrol last night. I think the act of saving my life purged him of his resentment toward me. (Also, the weather has turned cooler, and everyone is in a better mood now.) He even apologized for his remarks, an apology I was quite ready to match with my own for threatening him. As Carle says, you can't afford to be enemies with a man who may be your only defense against a violent border-breacher.

o—o—o

The fourteenth day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.

I suppose that it has taken me this long to grasp what nearly happened to me last week. At any rate, I have started to have my old nightmares about being prey to my blood kin.

In a way, what happened the other night feels like a death shadow to me, showing what my life's last moments would be like if I returned to Mountside. The idea of dying no longer panics me – it can't, when I face death nearly every day – but the idea of being killed by those I love still makes me feel as though I'm trapped by blizzard winds. I can't expel from my mind the images I saw last week: Carle watching me with cold eyes, Quentin placing the sword against my chest, the other guards waiting in silence. And now those images are mingled with images of my blood kin hunting me, binding me, and cutting my throat – or delivering me over to the execution-fire. It is so much easier, somehow, to die at the hands of strangers.

I confessed all of this to Carle, and he says that he doesn't blame me for being scared – that he can't think of a worse fate than having a kinsman or friend proclaim your death.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

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

I'm going tomorrow with Quentin and Carle when they travel to meet the Koretian border guards. The patrol's lieutenant and sublieutenant do this once a year, I'm told, to discuss areas of mutual cooperation with the Koretians. "We do have a handful of those," Carle said with a grin. We're bringing with us Levander and his horse, in case we need to send messages back to the patrol quickly. Though it's a three-day journey by foot to Koretia, royal messengers can travel that far and back in the space of just a few hours.

I don't think Quentin had originally planned to include me in the party, but I overheard Carle tell him that I could use a change of scene. My nightmares haven't stopped. They say in Koretia that dreams are sent by the gods, as a message to mortals. The only realization that my recent dreaming has brought me is that I cannot – or rather, I will not – kill any of my family in order to protect myself against them. I would rather die a bladeless Emorian than protect my life at the cost of the lives of any of the men to whom I am bound by my old blood vow.

So in that respect, I suppose that my nightmares have brought me some wisdom.

Our excuse for going to Koretia now, before the busy summer hunts are over, is that we've caught a Koretian, by the name of Knox, whom the Chara has asked us to return to Koretia. Our prisoner is wanted there for attempting to assassinate a member of the royal family.

This is how the Emorians describe the charge, but Carle and I received the true story from Knox, who, like many a condemned man, is facing death with a loosened tongue.

"Assassinate!" It took Knox a long time to recover from his laughter. Carle meanwhile exchanged glances with me; we were escorting the hand-bound prisoner while Quentin and Levander walked further ahead.

"Well, I suppose that you could describe Rawdon's fifth cousin twice removed as royal family – I don't know what his real relationship is, but it's somewhere along those lines," said Knox.

"One of the new nobility, then?" I said.

"That's right." Knox cast a curious glance at me, but I did not enlighten him as to my origins. The lieutenant thought it best that Koretian border-breachers not bring my story back to Koretia. "That was months ago, of course, when it was still single killings. Now that it has reached the point of whole families being wiped out overnight, I wonder that the King is still interested in me. But you know what the new noblemen are like. Once they consider themselves wronged, they never let go of a grievance."

I didn't particularly want to be reminded of this fact, so I was grateful when Carle took over the conversation, saying, "You admit that you are one of the rebels against the King?"

Knox's mouth quirked; it was clear that he was amused at learning the Emorian perspective. "Again, it's all a matter of terminology. I've heard you Emorians call it a civil war; to us, it's just a blood feud. The King is the man who started it all, by demanding the death of a nobleman – one of the old nobility, of course. If it had been one of his own kinsmen, he would have been harassing the priests day and night to interpret the gods' law his way. But Blackwood wasn't going to stand for having one of his kinsmen fed up to the King's blood-thirst."

"Blackwood?" said Carle.

"Baron of Blackpass," I explained. "So Blackwood took a blood vow to murder the King and his kinsmen?"

"Heart of Mercy," said Carle. "Why did not the King send his soldiers to arrest the lot of them?"

Knox stared at Carle as though contemplating an exotic plant. I said, "There's no law against killing the King. He can be murdered in a blood feud like anyone else. As a matter of fact, that's how King Rawdon's grandfather gained the throne: he killed the last king of the old royal line in a blood feud. Besides, the King doesn't have any more soldiers than are required to keep order in the capital."

"He didn't at the beginning of the year," Knox amended, "but this feud has flamed up beyond all previous ones. It's no longer a case of one person being killed, then another, then another. The King sends soldiers out to kill whole sections of villages. Then Blackwood does the same with the villages held by the new noblemen; his kinsmen have formed an army just as large as the King's. The priests are ready to tear their robes to shreds. They don't know how to stop this."

"They should have stopped this with the first blood feud," Carle said grimly. "This is what will happen in a land where you resolve grievances by murder." And he exchanged another look with me.

o—o—o

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

Carle asked me last night to explain the difference between the old nobility and the new nobility. He has heard the terms many times before, of course, but he says that he learned most of what he knows about Koretia from other Emorians, and he now suspects that the Koretian perspective is very different.

"The old nobility are just like the Emorian noblemen," I said. "Each village and town is run by a baron, who is sometimes the head councilman as well—"

"And is the baron also a judge, as in Emorian villages?" asked Carle. "No, I'm not thinking; the Koretians don't have judges."

"The village or town priest is the judge; he interprets the gods' law. At any rate, the baron's title is handed down to the nearest male heir. The King can persuade the priests to declare the baron god-cursed, but he can't keep the title from being passed on to the baron's heir."

"That's one of the limits on the Chara's power," said Carle. "He can help appoint his council lords, but he can't appoint the other noblemen of the land."

"Yes, but in Koretia, where the King's power is already so weak, it has always meant that the King was just one nobleman among many others. It's as though the land was one giant council, with the King as head councilman. Most Koretians approve of that arrangement, but when Rawdon's grandfather won the throne – that's King Boyce – he started gathering power for himself. He influenced the priests to make changes in the gods' law – Fenton told me that that's when some of the worst atrocities entered the gods' law – and he developed a way to appoint new noblemen."

Carle was lying on his side, with one elbow propping him up as he gnawed on the end of a lamb bone. Near us, Quentin was securing Knox's chains to a rock for the night, and Levander was practicing his code-whistles.

"I'm not sure who to support in this story," said Carle. "A strong central government is what makes Emor great, but this Boyce sounds like a law-hating rascal. Tell me about his scheme with the new noblemen."

"He only managed it because Koretia was growing a great deal during that time, sprouting new villages and towns. In the past, barons to new villages and towns were always second sons to the old barons. Since the barons were blood kin all the way back to the beginning, this meant that a single family ruled the land. But Boyce, who wasn't a nobleman before he became king, began appointing his own kinsmen as the new barons. And he did so in such a way as to ensure that they were allowed little independence. Oh, some of the new barons went their own way despite that, but for the most part Boyce controlled what decisions his kinsmen made. So he had a great deal more power than the old kings, who allowed the old nobility as much independence as a High Lord allows his councilmen."

"May the high doom fall upon them all," said Carle crossly, tossing the bone away to an awaiting carrion crow. "They all sound like villains or incompetents to me. So how does this result in a blood feud?"

"Why, because blood feuds are carried out between rival families, and now Koretia is divided between two families of noblemen. Even the King's Council is divided that way, except for a few lesser free-men who were appointed to the council."

"Lesser free-men are occasionally appointed to the Emorian council as well," said Carle. "They have to be exceptionally well-qualified, though. Only noblemen really have the time to devote all their lives to learning the law, and you can't expect anything less from men who direct a great empire. —But I'm still not sure I see where the rivalry lies between the old and new nobility."

"There isn't any reason behind the rivalry. It just flares up out of small arguments, like any other feud." I thought for a moment, pausing as I wiped my sword clean of a few drops of black blood that had lodged between the blade and the hilt. "Take Mountside and Cold Run, for example. They're close neighbors, and their families intermarry a lot, but they're still rivals, partly because of who their barons are. Cold Run's baron is Griffith – you remember; it was his brother that I nearly killed. His family is old nobility; their line goes all the way back to the beginning of Koretia, as far as anyone knows. But Mountside is one of the villages that grew up during Boyce's reign, and so its barons have been new nobility. That's why some people don't consider my father a real baron, and—"

"Consider who?"

I closed my mouth, but it was too late.

So then it all came out, about my noble blood, and I could tell immediately that my instinct to stay quiet about this matter had been the correct one.

"By all the laws, why in the name of the dead Charas did you not you tell me that you are a nobleman?" Carle asked. He was sitting stiffly upright now; he looked at me as though I were the High Lord, and I was beginning to fear that he would stand and bow toward me.

I said uneasily, "Well, I wasn't, not until my brother died; he was my father's heir. And now I'm Emorian. I can't hold a Koretian nobleman's title when I've taken a loyalty oath to the Chara."

"That's true," Carle said. He relaxed and reached over casually to fling the bone at a further distance from us, since the gathering crows were beginning to become a nuisance.

I felt as though Carle had just whistled Danger Past, and that I was still trying to wrestle with the idea of there being danger at all. "Would it have made any difference if I were a nobleman?" I asked in a low voice. "You know how it is in villages, Carle. One of your childhood playmates was your baron's son."

"That was when I was small," replied Carle, pulling open a flask of wine. "I don't believe in friendships between the ranks."

I made no reply. After a while, Carle paused from his sipping and said quietly, "I think I'd have made one exception to that rule, though." He offered to me his wine. I took it, feeling that the civil war that had threatened the two of us had been averted, not by my lack of a title, but by Carle's final gesture.

o—o—o

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

Carle and I fell into a conversation earlier today with Quentin about the Koretian civil war. Quentin said that he'd been discussing it with Abiah – that's one of the Chara's spies who does missions to Koretia. Only a handful of high army officials and palace officials and their assistants know which Emorians are the Chara's spies, but the patrol has to be told as well, or we'd be stopping the spies every time they went through the mountains. Even the Chara's spies can't slip past us.

"Abiah says that the Chara can't decide which side to support as long as he remains ignorant of how the war started," Quentin said. "It wouldn't do any good to ask the King directly – the Chara would only receive one side of the story – so he has sent his spies out to discover the full story."

"It probably started with a dead chicken," I said with a half-smile.

Meanwhile, Carle has spent the past day slowly finding a way to handle my revelation yesterday and to bring us back into equal relations. He eventually found a solution, much to my relief.

"So you're kin to the King," he said as we walked over the final dip in the pass before the ridge that overlooks Koretia.

"Distant kin," I murmured, not wanting to dwell any more on my noble blood.

"We have that much in common, then. I'm kin to the Chara."

I looked over at Carle. His eyes were fixed on the rock-strewn path before us, but there was the suggestion of a smile to his expression.

"Carle son of Verne," I said slowly, "why did you not tell me that you are of noble blood?"

Carle laughed. "I suppose that we've both been keeping secrets. Actually, you're lucky that you weren't treated last winter to one of my father's long discourses on our family heritage. He's the reason why I don't talk much about my kinship to the Chara, though I'm incurably proud of the connection."

"How many cousins once removed is he to you?"

"It's actually a fairly close relationship. My father is the Chara's cousin and is a member of the royal family as defined by the Law of Succession. The Chara's uncle, the second son of the Chara Purvis, was my grandfather Carle, for whom I'm named."

"Is that where your father got his wealth?" I asked.

Carle shook his head. "That came from my mother's side of the family. My father was Carle's fourth son; he grew up in the Chara's palace and could have stayed on as a palace guest once he came of age since he was part of the royal family. But he had sense enough to see that his children would fall outside the line of succession and would not be entitled to live a nobleman's life in the palace, once they came of age. So rather than let his future children struggle with the problem – I give my father credit for his foresight in this matter – he married the only offspring of a rich orchard farmer, so that he would have an inheritance to leave us." There was a pause in the conversation as we both thought of the inheritance that was no longer Carle's. Then Carle said, "No, as far as I'm aware, my father's sole inheritance from the royal family is a brooch—"

He stopped, having realized that I was no longer listening. We had reached the top of the ridge, and before us spread, like the dark green waters of an ocean, the Sea of Koretia: the forest of trees that spreads from the black border mountains down to the capital city, broken only by towns and villages and occasional patches of farmland.

After a while, I became aware that Carle's arm had made its way around my shoulders. "Do you miss it?" he asked quietly.

"I'd miss Emor a good deal more if I had to leave it," I replied.

"But it's still your native land," Carle said simply. Then he added briskly, "We'd better catch up. The others are nearly to the border, and the lieutenant may need our help if the Koretian border guards decide to capture us."

I laughed, turning my eyes away from the landscape to the path before us. "That won't happen. The lieutenant could cross the border, singing at the top of his lungs, and the Koretian guards wouldn't notice."

o—o—o

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

"And they say that we Emorians are obsessed with rank," Carle remarked with disgust this evening, as we returned to the Koretian border guards' hut.

The hut was empty. Unlike the mountain patrol, the Koretian border guard doesn't sleep near its work-ground. The subcaptain of the night guard, and the bottom-ranked soldiers who assist him, live in houses in Blackpass, as do the day guards: a lieutenant and his bottom-ranked soldiers. We had been introduced to all of them when we arrived yesterday, then had spent the remainder of the daytime sleeping in the hut, which was furnished with pallets for the wounded, as well as chests where the guards kept their uniforms when off-duty, exchanging them for their civilian clothes when they came on duty.

No guards or breachers have been wounded recently, so Carle and I had the hut to ourselves as we spoke together this evening. Except that we ought not to have been here at all. We ought to have been alongside Quentin as he held discussions with the subcaptain at the Koretians' guard-point.

"Maybe the subcaptain just didn't want us to distract him from his duty," I suggested.

"Then why call for a meeting while he was on-duty?" Carle pointed out as he paced restlessly back and forth in the tiny hut, as though he were a mountain cat trapped in a cage. "He said at the start that he wanted us to see his guardsmen at work. Most cursedly useless exercise I've ever undertaken. Our own patrol is polite to any man it stops, and it never lets a man past the border unless he has proper business crossing the border. The Koretian guards, on the other hand, are foul-mouthed toward every man they stop, yet they allow endless numbers of border-breachers past them—"

"Yes, I know," I said mildly. "And the subcaptain knows too, now that you've told him. Has it occurred to you that this might be why Quentin sent us back to the hut? Because the subcaptain was on the point of duelling you?"

Carle stopped his pacing suddenly. "Was he?"

"Carle, don't you even know the signals for a duel?"

"How could I? Most of what I know about Koretia, I learned from Fenton, and what he knew, he learned from books. I don't suppose that any Emorian who was challenged to a duel lived long enough to write about the experience." Carle flashed me a smile, his ill humor vanished. "Well, yes, I admit I did notice that the subcaptain went a bit red in the face when I told him how many breachers reach our patrol from the south, as opposed to the breachers that arrive from the north. He seems to think that we don't know about the ones coming from the north that have slipped past us. Do you suppose that's true?" A genuine note of concern touched Carle's voice.

I laughed. "If it is, then the Koretian border guard would hardly know. Any breacher skilled enough to slip past the patrol could certainly slip past the Koretians."

"You seem very sure of that." Carle frowned.

"I could be the Jackal God, howling at the top of my lungs, and the Koretian guards wouldn't think to stop me."

I had spoken lightly, but Carle's frown deepened, and I realized that he was still worried that the activities of the man calling himself the Jackal would spill over the border. The bottom-ranked Koretian soldiers, exchanging harmless gossip with us over their meal, had told us that the Jackal was vigorously gathering followers to himself throughout the borderland.

"The Chara's spies will learn the truth about the Jackal," I assured Carle.

"I wish I could be sure of that." His brows low over his eyes, Carle turned and rested his arms upon the broad window-ledge. The time was an hour past dusk; an early evening breeze brought the smell of fresh-scythed hay from one of the fields in a farm just over the border. Beyond that, everything was hidden by the rustling leaves of the forest.

"Frustrating to be so close," Carle said, his eye on something besides the forest. Coming up next to him, I saw that he was watching a group of figures at the border ahead of us: our lieutenant and the Koretian guards. Levander was nowhere in sight; when we had first arrived at the border, the guards there had been in heated debate with a group of the King's men, over whether the guards or the King's men had the right to take charge of the breacher who was being returned to Koretia. Levander, mistaking the cause of the quarrel, had volunteered to go with the King's men to their captain, in order to assure the captain that Knox had been well treated while in Emorian custody.

I hoped that the King's captain would have enough sense to wait until Levander had left before slitting Knox's throat.

Now, as I watched, Quentin suddenly raised his head and said something to the subcaptain. The subcaptain shrugged off his remark. A moment later, I raised my head too. Carle, his hand shifting to his sword-hilt, said, "I wonder whether we should stop him."

"Them." I kept my voice quiet, listening with half an ear to the soft sound of pebbles rattling down the mountainside nearby. "There are two of them. . . . It's not really our business, is it? They're travelling so loudly that our patrol is sure to notice and stop them when they reach that far. And the guards here—"

"Ignored Quentin's warning that their border was being breached." Carle snorted as he let go of his sword. "I'm beginning to see why so many breachers reach us from the south. The arrogance of Koretians— Sorry."

I smiled at him. "For offending my kin?"

He grinned then. "You really don't think of yourself as Koretian any more, do you?"

I shrugged. "I'm Koretian in blood. I don't deny that. A man can't help where he's born, but I've made my choice about where to pledge my loyalty. Still . . ." I leaned out the window, smelling what I had not smelled for a full year: the scent of blackroot trees, their boughs heavy with nuts ready to harvest. "It's a shame I'll never be able to visit it again."

"Why not ask permission to cross the border?" Carle suggested.

Now it was my turn to snort. "Carle, haven't you been paying attention to how the Koretian border guard works? Any man of Koretian blood who crosses the border has to give his name and lineage. The name Adrian is common enough to excite no notice, but how am I going to explain why I, the son of the Baron of Mountside, am working as a border patrol guard? And for all I know, one of those guards has taken a blood vow against the King's kin. They're all Blackwood's men, you know."

"Are they?" Carle looked at me with curiosity. "So Blackwood controls the border between Koretia and Emor? I wonder whether the Chara knows that. If Blackwood is at war with the King—"

"—he could prevent the King's men from passing through. Yes, I know; it's been tried in previous feuds involving the King and the Baron of Blackpass, when Blackwood's father and grandfather were alive. But it doesn't work. The King merely sends his men up north by way of Daxis." I waved my hand to the west, where, many miles away, lies the land west and southwest of Koretia. "Anyway," I added, "the guards here are so poorly trained that a horde of the King's men could breach the border, and the guard would never notice."

"Yes," said Carle in a reflective voice, "they are poorly trained, aren't they?"

For a moment, the only sound was of a moth, fluttering through the window and circling our lamp. Then I said, "We couldn't. It would be a crime."

"We're not Koretian," Carle pointed out. "We're not subject to the gods' law."

"Yes, but— Carle, the lieutenant sent us back to this hut to stay. We can't just leave here without permission."

"Who's speaking of leaving? We'll be back in a short time. And Quentin wants us to gather information regarding the Koretian border guard, doesn't he? That's what he told us before we arrived here. How better to gather information than to try to slip past the Koretian border guard?"

For a moment, my heart thumped; then I sobered, saying, "The lieutenant will hear us breaching the border."

"Will he?" Carle's smile quirked as he waved his hand toward the border.

I looked, and then I stared. Quentin was gone; so was the subcaptain. The only men left were the bottom-ranked soldiers, who looked very bored.

Carle laughed at my expression. "It's the custom for the subcaptain of the Koretian border patrol to treat visiting guards to an hours-long dinner on their first night here. If the lieutenant hadn't sent us back, we'd be having dinner with him and the subcaptain now, at a small inn that's only a spear's throw from the border, and no doubt we'd spend the night at the inn. As it is . . ."

"You know," I said, beginning to smile, "I'm sure that the subcaptain's failure to invite us was simply an oversight. That being the case, he certainly wouldn't mind if we dined ourselves."

"At a Koretian place of dining," Carle suggested.

"Of course. And since we are, as the subcaptain recently reminded us, below the rank of lieutenancy and therefore ill-qualified to take part in high-level discussions—"

"—then we really must not disturb the subcaptain and the lieutenant at their high-ranking discussion," Carle concluded. "We need to find a place to eat on our own."

"Over the border."

"Over the border, in Koretia. Purely to fulfill the subcaptain's promise of hospitality, of course."

We grinned at each other. Far away, to the south, I could hear the sound of the Koretian border-breachers, making their blithe way toward the border mountain patrol. For a brief moment, I pitied them.

o—o—o

We delayed only long enough to find disguises for ourselves.

"Make yourself free of anything you want here," the subcaptain had said in an expansive manner when we first arrived at the hut, before the subcaptain had learned of Carle's skill in asking pointed, uncomfortable questions about the Koretian border guard's techniques. Now we made good the subcaptain's promise by rummaging through the chests where the civilian clothes of the on-duty guards were kept. After a few minutes of trying on this and that, Carle and I managed to find Koretian tunics that fit us. We could do nothing about our boots, but Emorian-style boots are not uncommon in the Koretian borderland, and it was easy enough to set our swords aside in favor of the Koretian daggers we found in the chests. Without bothering to discuss the matter, we kept our thigh-pockets strapped underneath our tunics, hiding our thigh-daggers.

Then we breached the border. It was no harder than convincing my mother to forgive my cousin Emlyn after he placed goldfish in her fresh vat of lime juice.

Half of an hour later, we were strolling along a woody path, chatting about how I had conceived a desire for Daxion nuts on my previous birthday. The path we had chosen leads to Blackpass, which lies only a mile from the border. The moon was up, laying a snail-silver trail for us through the dark leaves. I kept a careful watch on the bushes we passed, but if any bandits were lurking there, Carle and I evidently looked too young to be holding any wealth upon us, for we arrived at the town gates unmolested.

These were just being closed for the night, and all visitors were being carefully questioned, but we managed to slip past the guards by hiding amidst a group of young men who were returning from an evening of country revelry. Carle made a manful effort to pretend that he had visited this town dozens of times, though he kept glancing at the moat surrounding the town wall, as we walked over the bridge to the gate.

"Fire barrier," I explained when we had travelled beyond the town guards, who all bore black-and-forest-green badges, showing they were Blackwood's men. "The King is particularly skilled in fire feuds."

Carle muttered something under his breath, but made no other comment, for now we were amidst the early evening crowd gathered in the square by the prison next the gate – a thinning crowd, for with the sun down, people were beginning to make their way home. I spared no glance for the town prison, where Blackpass's apprehended criminals were housed briefly before their branding or beating or death or – in the worst cases – enslavement. If Carle and I were arrested as foreign border-breachers, it was far more likely that we would be taken to the army prison, which was at the other end of town. The army prison, unlike the town prison, was run by men who were trained to question prisoners.

This unhappy thought of mine was raised by the sight of a group of soldiers, making their way slowly through the crowd and stopping men occasionally to quiz them. No doubt they were seeking kin of the King's bloodline, in case such men had come to fulfill their blood vows against the baron's kin, but since I held the wrong lineage, I was no more eager to be questioned by the soldiers than if they had suspected that Carle and I had breached the border.

Without needing to be told any of this, Carle steered us out of the square, into one of the dark alleys. This, I could have told Carle, was no safer a place at night than the square had been. I pulled my belt-dagger from its sheath.

Carle, raising his eyebrows, did the same, and we made our way cautiously to the end of the alley, my gaze flicking back and forth between the dark doorways we were passing. I had only been foolish enough to enter a Blackpass alley once after dark, when I was young, and on that occasion, Hamar, who had just been taught his blade skills, had bravely held off our attacker while I ran for my father, who had settled the matter by sword-skewering our attacker. That a seven-year-old boy had been able to hold back a grown man did not say much about the blade-skills of Blackpass's thieves, but I did not want to chance the possibility of meeting a thief whose manner of greeting us would be to stab us in the back.

We made it safely to the end of the alley. Carle and I had no sooner slid our daggers back into our sheaths than, stepping out of the alley, Carle bumped into a Koretian carrying an armful of crates.

Without a word, I spun and thrust Carle back into the alley. I heard him sputter, but I had no time to explain. By the time the Koretian recovered from his near fall, I was the only man standing in front of him.

The Koretian carefully placed the crates on the ground and stood looking at me. We did nothing but eye each other for a moment. He was perhaps ten years older than me, and not hot-tempered, for he was watching me with due consideration. But he was frowning, which was not a good sign.

Finally, delicately, he placed his fingers over the tip of his sheath. "You should have watched where you were going."

I copied his gesture, keeping my gaze fixed on his. "I took a wrong turn. I am not familiar with the pattern of this town."

"Then you should have learned it before you came here." As he spoke, he slid his hand up toward the top of the sheath.

"Blackpass is known for its welcome of strangers. Is that reputation undeserved, then?" I asked. This time I went beyond his gesture, sliding my hand straight up onto my hilt.

His eyes flickered, but he did not hesitate to move his own hand onto his dagger hilt. "That depends on the behavior of the stranger."

"And if the stranger were to apologize?" I kept my hand unmoving on the hilt, waiting, my heart beating.

For a long moment, we both stood there, hands on hilt, while I tried to calculate my chances if he drew his blade. Then, with a smile, he let his hand fall from his dagger. "No need. I should have been more alert. May I give you directions to your destiny?"

"The market," I replied as I gratefully took my hand from my dagger. It was the first thought that came to my head; many people visited Blackpass merely to see its market.

"Ah, of course. Well, to avoid the alleys, you need only turn here, make your way to the end of the street . . ."

Within a short time we had exchanged first names and promises to host each other for dinner, and I had received a delicate suggestion from the Koretian that he had a younger female cousin who would be not unwilling to meet a handsome young man like me. This offer made me laugh so much that the Koretian's mouth quirked. "Don't tell me," he said. "You're of the wrong lineage."

"Very much so. —Not," I added, as I saw his brows rise, "that I'm here to cause trouble. It's just a friendly visit."

"Sneaking in to see forbidden territory?" he suggested with a smile. "How I remember that impulse. I was not so much younger than you when— Ah, well, the older one gets, the fewer opportunities one has to play pranks. I miss them sometimes. . . . By the way, you can tell your friend to come out of the alley. He's likely to be robbed of the tunic on his back if he stays in there much longer." And with a wave of the hand, he gave me the free-man's greeting and departed.

Carle, staring at the Koretian's back, waited until he was beyond hearing distance before saying, "The Chara should recruit him as a spy. I'd swear that he didn't have time to see me before you shoved me in there."

"I'm sorry," I said.

Carle turned to me with a smile. "I'm not. I've always wanted to see how Koretians duel."

"We weren't duelling," I explained as he and I began to walk down the street in the direction that the Koretian had pointed us. "We were trying to keep from duelling."

"Why not apologize at once, then?" Carle asked. His gaze started to drift toward a masked slave who was passing us; I quickly took hold of his arm and pulled him past this danger.

"Because he might have regarded that as a weakness," I said, trying to distract Carle from the slave. "You're expected to protect your manhood against challenge here."

"Mm." Carle mused on this a moment, then said unexpectedly, "I can understand that, to a certain extent. It's how Emor treats foreign powers: we show them we're strong before we negotiate for peace. Even so . . . Am I miscounting, Adrian, or have our lives been in danger four times since we arrived in this town a quarter of an hour ago? How do Koretians manage to survive to adulthood?"

We were still laughing – a rather dark laughter that released us from our earlier tension – when we reached the market.

I don't suppose that, back in the days when I was writing this journal for my imaginary Emorian reader, I ever bothered to explain about the market in Blackpass. It's the only market of its kind in the world: it is located underground. It was built that way because it's the northernmost of Koretia's town markets; occasionally the winter will grow so chill that it's warmer to be undercover in Blackpass than to be outside. The earliest inhabitants of the borderland, realizing this, dug a tunnel right through a hill in the village that grew to be the town of Blackpass. The town market is thought to be older than Koretia itself – older even than the man-built caves in Capital Mountain, for the borderland was settled many years before southern Koretia was.

The market walls, which are made of quarried stone, have been rebuilt countless times; I could see, as we entered into their shelter, that the walls had recently been renovated by Blackpass's energetic baron. The market shone bright with lamplight, and its stalls were still filled with food and goods, even at this late hour. His eyes lively with curiosity, Carle led us from stall to stall, unnoticed by any but the boys hired by some merchants to prevent thieves from taking goods.

Before long, my stomach was snarling. With a grin at me, Carle launched without preliminary into a long, fiery negotiation with a cheese merchant. I watched the passersby somewhat nervously, but no soldiers walked by, and Carle's Border Koretian was good enough to pass with the merchant, who – his accent and his taciturn manner clearly told – was a native of central Koretia.

"Done!" said Carle finally, having driven down the price for a wedge of cheese and two hunks of bread to the four coppers that were, in fact, all the Koretian money we carried in our thigh-pockets. "Now, you will, of course, grant us the courtesy of a flask of water . . ."

The second negotiation was even more fiery than the first, but Carle emerged triumphant, while I offered a bland, reassuring smile to a couple of soldiers who glanced our way as they passed us.

"Five," said Carle, his mouth full of cheese as we walked.

"Five?" I replied, looking left and right for a place to sit.

"Those soldiers represent our fifth brush with death. Unless you count my atrocious attempts to speak Border Koretian."

"You'd pass as a borderlander to a central Koretian," I assured him.

"But not to a borderlander? I was afraid of that. Quentin has helped me to brush up my skills over the years, but since Fenton knew the tongue only from book-learning when I was a child— Ah, here's a place."

We had reached the far end of the market, an area that had evidently only recently been added to the underground tunnel, for there were tree stumps on the floor. We made our way to a trio of stumps and sat down on two of them. For a while, there was no sound as Carle and I eagerly filled our stomachs with the good country cheese and fresh-baked bread and clear well-water.

The area where we sat was surrounded on all sides by stalls. Dimly, far beyond us, I could see the whitewashed stone blocks that held the earth back from smothering us, but the looming presence of these blocks was less obvious than the bright lamps, the cheerful calls of stall-hawkers, and the laughter of men and women and children who were fetching their meals after their day's work. Soldiers passed by from time to time, but most of them were off-duty, their hands filled with food or goods.

One of them, after glancing round the stumps, came over to stand beside us. "Mind if I join you, sirs?" he said.

I hesitated, thinking of Carle's not-quite-perfect Border Koretian, but Carle filled the silence. "By all means," he said in Common Koretian that sounded as though he had learned that dialect in his cradle. "I was just telling my new acquaintance here" – he nodded toward me – "that we have nothing like this in the south."

"Oh?" said the soldier blankly as he sat himself down on the third stump and began spreading out his meal on his lap: some cornbread and beans. "Well, I suppose there aren't many markets this big, are there?" He squinted uncertainly at the stalls.

A mud-footed soldier, I thought, relaxing. We had nothing to fear from him.

Judging from the slight twitch at the edge of Carle's mouth, he shared my judgment, but all that he said was, "The King himself would envy the way your baron keeps his town in such splendor."

The soldier shrugged as he unsheathed his dagger in order to stab at his bread. "I suppose so. If the King wasn't busy trying to cut Blackwood's throat."

This gave me the opening I needed. "This gentleman" – I waved my remaining crust of bread vaguely in Carle's direction – "was asking me how the feud started. I had to confess I have never heard the tale, not being a soldier."

The soldier straightened his spine. Mud-footed and vain, I thought. The perfect combination.

"Oh, certainly, we know all about it in the army," said the soldier. "It started with a dead chicken."

Carle and I exchanged looks. "A . . . dead chicken?" I said.

"Yes, run over by a cart, or something like that," the soldier replied as he munched on a mouthful of beans. Bits of beans were already sticking, in an unappetizing fashion, to his beard. Carle silently handed him a face-cloth, which the soldier took with a word of thanks. Then he used it to wipe off the mud from his boots before handing the filthy cloth back to Carle.

Carle made no remark on this; he merely slipped the cloth back into his belt-purse, saying, "A chicken? Nothing more than that?"

"Yes, just an ordinary feud." The soldier was now cramming more cornbread into his mouth. "Didn't look as though it was going to be anything important. Then a priest got killed."

I jumped in my place. His voice as casual as though we were comparing the quality of daisies in Koretia and Emor, Carle said, "Accidentally, I assume?"

"Oh, accidentally, certainly." The soldier took the flask of water Carle proffered, poured it over his head, and then shook his head, sending water scattering upon both Carle and me. The soldier appeared not to notice. "Ah, it's good to be out of the heat. . . . The baron of the village whose hunter had made the mistake even offered up his own life in compensation. Very generous, he was. But the rival baron, he was of the new stock – wouldn't accept a gift from the gods if he was in the wrong mood. You know the type I mean. He sent his own hunter to avenge the killing. His son, they say. When his son didn't come back, the baron demanded to know whether the young man had been killed. Nobody in the other village had seen the hunter; the village's priest questioned everyone. Finally, placed under oath, the younger brother of the baron – not the rival baron, you understand, but the one in the village that had made the mistake about the priest – he confessed he'd seen the hunter. He said that the hunter had told him that he – the hunter, that is – didn't wish to fight in the feud anymore. So he – I mean the hunter – broke his blood vow and ran off somewhere." The soldier shrugged. "Lots of shouting back and forth after that between the two villages. The baron of the new nobility said that the hunter was no longer his son, was no longer a member of his village, so their village ought to have the chance to send another hunter in his place. The baron of the other village – the baron of the old nobility – said that the hunter's breaking of his oath ended the feud. That baron wasn't even demanding final blood, for love of the gods! But the new baron, the stubborn one, wanted to continue the feud till he had won victory. So he appealed the matter to the King, and the other baron appealed the matter to Blackwood . . . and you've heard how matters have gone since then, I'm sure."

The cluster of townsfolk was beginning to thin away. Nearby, a stall-keeper removed his remaining goods from the display crates. Another stall-keeper pulled down the flap at the front of his tent. The rest of the townsfolk wandered toward the door leading out of the market.

It was Carle who finally broke the silence. "Blood for blood – yes, we know how these matters go. And the King demanded the blood of Cold Run's baron's brother, someone told me recently. Is Blackwood demanding the blood of Mountside's baron's son?"

The soldier shrugged as he wiped his greasy dagger on his tunic. "I doubt anyone except the original villagers cares about the fate of that hunter any more. There've been too many deaths on both sides since that time."

"And the original villagers?" My voice sounded hollow but calm. "Has Mountside's baron said anything more about his son?"

The soldier shrugged again. The events in that village, understandably, seemed to be of no further interest to him. Carle, smelling the scent on this track begin to fade, switched to a new path. "And amidst this all, the Jackal appears. I have been wondering about that, you know. Why the Jackal should have made his first appearance so close to the villages where the feud began. Do you think it is a coincidence?"

I stared at Carle, at awe once more at his mind's quickness. In the short interval after the time that the soldier told his startling tale, I could not have possibly made the connection between that and Malise's announcement, many months ago, that the Jackal's first appearance in the borderland had been in a village near Mountside.

The soldier smiled. "A jackal always scents the blood of the dead, I suppose? Your guess is as likely to be true as mine. Though my roommate might know."

"Your roommate?" Carle peered down at his flask, now empty of all water.

"Yes, I room with a soldier who's from Borderknoll, originally. He wasn't there when the Jackal appeared, but of course he has family in the village. He might know whether the Jackal said anything about these other villages."

"Really?" Carle's tone was idle as he continued to stare at his flask. "Is your roommate home now?"

"Him?" The soldier roared with laughter. "Not him. He's as much a night-carouser as those decadent Emorians."

"Indeed?" Carle flashed him a smile. "Out all night, sampling the fleshpots, is he?"

"That's him. A girl in each arm, and a cup of wine in each hand. He'll stumble home sated and drunk some time in the night. How he manages to wake himself each morning . . ." The soldier shook his head as he rose to his feet. "Me, I'm for an early night. But if you want to meet him, I could bring him by here tomorrow. . . ." He was eyeing Carle's flask, obviously hoping for an offer of more than water the next day.

"That is very kind of you," said Carle, not moving his eye from the flask. "But I have come to Blackpass on business, and I fear I will be leaving for home tomorrow. Adrian, would you refill this?"

I took the water flask from him without a word. The soldier, disappointed from hopes of free wine, began to rise, but was forestalled as Carle said, "There is one other thing I have always wondered, and only a soldier such as you can tell me. . . ."

I did not hear the rest of the conversation. I had gone back to the cheese-seller's stall and was beckoning to the merchant there while keeping one eye on Carle and the soldier.

o—o—o

By the time I returned to the market, it was closed for the night. Carle was waiting outside for me, standing in the shadow of a tree. He was as dark as a breacher on a moonless night.

I joined him in his hideaway. "Well?" he said in a low voice.

"He boards just down the road. I looked through the window while he was readying himself for bed. He lives in a single room with two cots; the second cot was empty."

"That was good hunting." Carle squeezed my shoulder briefly, and I felt the warmth of his approval enter me. He gestured – the old, familiar gesture of a sublieutenant ordering his partner to take the lead – and I began walking with him down the street. The street was nearly empty now, since, as the soldier had put it in his rude manner, most Koretians retire to bed at an earlier hour than Emorians.

"No hope of tracking this roommate down at one of the aforementioned fleshpots, I suppose?" Carle enquired quietly.

"None," I said. "Officially, no brothels exist in Koretia; prostitution is against the gods' law. The unofficial brothels take time to track down . . . or so I've heard."

"Never been to one yourself?" Carle enquired.

"Never." I glanced his way. "And you?"

"No, I received many a lecture from my father on the necessity of reserving one's seed for one's properly wedded wife." Carle pushed aside the bough of a tree that was growing in the middle of the street.

"But your father . . ." I said awkwardly.

"Was an adulterer. I learned more lessons from his ill behavior than from any lecture he gave me. I've no intention of treating any woman in such a filthy manner. I'll wait until I can bed a wife, though I don't plan to marry till I'm retired from army service." He glanced my way.

I was grateful to him for his chatter on light matters; it had given me the time I needed to recover from what the soldier had told us. I said, "I'm sorry."

"Is your confession to me or to the Chara?" As usual, Carle didn't pretend to misunderstand what I meant. "Adrian, you can't take the burdens of the world into your arms. You refused to murder, and other men used that as an excuse to murder further. It's their folly that has created this war, not anything you did."

I swallowed. "If I had allowed Griffith to sight and kill me, the feud would have ended."

"And Griffith would have become a murderer, which would have done his spirit no good." Carle squeezed my shoulder again as we passed under the hearth-light spilling out from someone's upstairs dwelling. "Griffith is Cold Run's baron – am I right in remembering that? Truth to tell, he's the only one besides yourself and Fenton and your intended victim that I respect in this story. At least Griffith made an attempt to end the feud peacefully."

I nodded as I stared down at the dirt of the street. "He has always been honorable; that's why my cousin Emlyn chose him as his blood brother. But now that the feud has spread beyond the original villages . . ."

"This land," Carle said carefully, "has been dry tinder, waiting for a spark that would create a conflagration. The spark could have been anything. You're not to blame yourself for this, Adrian."

His voice had turned stern. I forced myself to move my attention back to my duties. The streets had turned very quiet; nobody would be about now except soldiers . . . and the criminals whom the soldiers sought to apprehend. Seeing a flicker of movement down the street, I took hold of Carle's sleeve, and he and I melted into the recess of a doorway.

"There," I whispered, pointing. "That house on the corner. You can see the door from here?"

Carle shaded his eyes against the moonlight. "Is that the only door?"

"Yes. If the roommate comes home tonight, he'll have to enter there. Do you think he's likely to have any useful information?"

Carle shrugged. "Who's to say? But we already know much more than we knew at the beginning of the night. And if we could send information to the Chara about any connection that the Jackal might have to this feud . . ."

I knew what he was thinking. Not only would we be providing service to the Chara, but I would be able to make partial recompense to the Chara for the trouble that I had started at his border. Silently, I handed Carle the flask.

He took a swig from it and nearly choked in surprise. "Adrian, this is wall-vine wine. Where did you get it?"

"From the cheese-merchant," I replied. "I told him that you needed a bit of wine to see you through your sentry-duty tonight because you were born in the south, and like all southern Koretians, you were very frail, unable to cope with the chill night air of the north—" I jerked away, laughing, as Carle made a mock punch at me.

"'Very frail.'" He grinned as he handed me back the flask. "Next time we do sword-practice, I'll show you how 'very frail' I am. Don't you think it's dangerous to make a remark like that to me in Koretia? Aren't you afraid I'll duel you?"

"No." I smiled at him as I sipped from the flask.

"No," Carle agreed, and taking the flask from me, he settled back in the recess of the doorway, his eye on the house where we awaited the hunted. I took my journal out of my back-sling and began to write.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Law Links 5
GOD OF JUDGMENT
 

CHAPTER ONE

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

A whole week has passed since Carle and I became spies for the Chara, and we haven't yet begun our training, though we have memorized the Law of Disclosure, and Wystan has spent several hours each day explaining our duties to us. I had thought that we would be trained by one of the other spies, but Wystan says that we cannot be allowed to come into contact with any other of the Chara's spies from this time on.

"The trouble with you two," he said, "is that you know too much. Generally, the spies I send out know nothing beyond what I have told them myself and what they have learned from their own investigations. That way, if a spy is caught and questioned, he can reveal little to our enemies. But you two have been patrol guards. That means you know the identities of every Emorian spy who works in Koretia, and you have spoken to many of them about their work."

"I thought that we were allowed to do that, sir," I said.

Wystan nodded. We were standing in his tent – he had not offered us seats because we were supposed to be mere laborers, but out of courtesy he had remained standing himself. "I have always allowed the Chara's spies to exchange information with the patrol, because the more that the patrol knows about what is going on in Koretia, the better it can do its job. You were right to question the spies about their work – when you were guards. But that creates a cursed dilemma for me now. If either of you is captured and speaks under questioning, every Emorian spy in Koretia may be arrested."

Carle began to speak, then stopped himself. Like me, he was dressed in a peasant-brown tunic that was covered with mud, since we had spent the morning struggling to raise and secure a badly-made army tent that was consonant with our status as the bottom-ranked men in the headquarters. Not long afterwards, we had passed Neville, and he had carefully slid his gaze away from us, pretending that we weren't there. To my relief, Carle had seemed almost satisfied by this. "Our highly dishonorable dismissals wouldn't make a difference to someone who held us in real friendship," he told me. "As a result of this experience, we'll be able to tell who our true friends are."

Now Wystan said, "I am taking a great risk in sending you to Koretia, but I think the information you are likely to obtain will be worth the risk. This means, though, that you will need to be doubly on your guard against capture, and you will need to be prepared for the consequences if that happens."

So then he told us what would be done to us if we were captured, and afterwards he sent us to the city prison to watch a suspected murderer being interrogated, since our torturers use the same methods as do the Koretian torturers. Then we returned to Wystan and he asked us whether we were sure that we wanted to take on this duty, and we both said yes, though I was feeling quite sick by that point.

I told Carle afterwards that I wasn't sure I could hold out against such methods. He replied, "The man who requested an extra twenty lashes? The man who broke his left wrist on patrol and didn't tell anyone about it for four hours?"

"We were hunting a tricky breacher that day," I murmured.

"I could cite a dozen other examples. No, if anyone breaks under questioning, it will be me. The only thing I can think of to do if I'm captured is to keep reciting to myself the Justification of the Law of Vengeance. If I hold in mind all of the burdens that the Chara undergoes for this land, it may help me to bear my own better."

Incidentally, Wystan said he would have sent us to visit the palace dungeon for our lesson about torture, if our dishonorable dismissals had not prevented that. Carle and I have talked about how much fun it would be to sneak into the palace, but with no serious intent. We've been in enough trouble recently as it is.

o—o—o

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

We finally have a tutor: Hylas, one of the royal messengers.

I'd known, of course, that the royal messengers are members of the Division of Disclosure, since they carry both official and unofficial messages throughout the Three Lands. I didn't realize, though, that they carry, not only messages from high army officials and council lords, but also reports from spies who want to send information back to Wystan quickly. Nor did I realize that most of the royal messengers are former spies and that they are occasionally called upon to resume their old duties.

"It is the best of two worlds," said Hylas, as he checked over our tent to assure himself that we kept nothing there that would reveal our true rank. "Royal messengers receive the privilege of meeting noblemen and high officials, but we also have occasional fun tracking the enemy. And our work is vitally important to the empire: we bring the first news of anything that happens in the Three Lands, whether it be of war or peace, plague or celebration. —What in the name of the dead Charas are you keeping this here for?" Hylas held up my copper honor brooch, which he had removed from under my sleeping pallet. I received the brooch last spring for an episode not worth recording here; any patrol guard would have done the same, and I was embarrassed at the way Carle kept thanking me for days afterwards.

"I didn't know where else to put it," I said.

"Give it to a friend to keep or toss it in a well – do you want to lose your life over a piece of metal? Koretian spies swarm these headquarters during the daytime. They have little luck overhearing conversations through the thick tent-cloth – guards will move them on if they linger too long in one spot – but they do succeed in taking note of movements, and they'll occasionally rifle through tents when the owners are absent. One of their jobs is to discover if any man visiting Wystan regularly is what he claims to be."

He tossed the brooch to me, and Carle took it from me with a grin. He had already handed his own belongings over to Sewell and had suggested that I do the same, but I hadn't understood the reason for his suggestion until now.

"How does one become a royal messenger?" I asked to cover my embarrassment.

"We must pass a strenuous test – riding speed is most important, next to an ability to keep our mouths shut. We generally know what the letters we carry contain, so only the most trustworthy men in the empire can become messengers. If you are really ambitious, you could try for the highest-ranked post in the espionage division: private messenger to the Chara. That is an honor worth working for. You'd carry only messages from the Chara, and their replies, and you'd report only to him. . . . You're keeping your sword?" This last remark was addressed to Carle, for Hylas was now inspecting our outfits.

Carle nodded. "I have no great skill with a dagger, I fear."

"You shouldn't have to use your sword either. Spies don't fight – remember that. Only if you're on the point of capture should you defend yourself, and then I would suggest using your thigh-dagger. Spies can't afford to be honorable in their methods of killing." Hylas twirled Carle unceremoniously around to look at his back. "Hmm. Straight, formal posture. If you're carrying a sword, we might disguise you as a nobleman."

"A nobleman?" said Carle in consternation.

And so, despite Carle's protests, Carle is now the heir to a Koretian village baron, and I am his blood brother who travels with him wherever he goes. I thought that Carle would simply nick himself with a dagger to create the vow mark, but he said that he had better know how such a ceremony is performed, so we underwent the mixing of blood, except that we made our vows to the Chara rather than to a god. I know that this blood vow makes no difference to us – we were bound from the moment that he offered me his wine – but still it pleases me that we have been linked by the customs of both our native lands, as though creating a double chain-link of friendship.

o—o—o

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

Last night, Carle and I discussed what Hylas had said about becoming a royal messenger. I had thought that Carle would be excited at the idea of being able to work with council lords and perhaps even the Chara, but he said, "Tell me, have you heard Hylas speak a single word about the law?"

I thought a bit and realized that I hadn't; nor had I heard most of the soldiers in these headquarters discussing the subject.

"My father wanted me to work for a town council," said Carle, scratching his legs. The section of the headquarters where we are now located is filled with fleas, so we've resigned ourselves to waking up each morning with red marks on our skin. "He said that the only talent I had was in book-learning, and so he had me memorizing languages and laws from an early age – that's why I know as many laws as I do. But I wanted to join the border mountain patrol, and the only reason I learned those laws was because I knew that patrol guards were law-lovers, and I wanted to be one too."

"You are a law-lover," I said. "Quentin told me that you know more law than any other soldier he'd met."

"That's a compliment in the patrol, but it hardly says much in the regular army. High officials like Wystan know the law well, but how many lower-ranked soldiers do you think are interested in the law? They believe that, if you're fighting battles or spying on Koretians or carrying messages, you don't need to care about the law."

I was silent a while, biting at my knuckles. It was late night, and our tent was lit with the faint light of a brazier fire. We had the tent flap closed, since it was cool outside, and through the thick cloth I could hear nothing except the sound of several palace guards making the rounds in the headquarters.

"So do you think we made a mistake in taking up this work?" I asked finally.

"Oh, I didn't say that. One of the troubles with us Emorians is that we don't know enough about our southern neighbors. When I joined the mountain patrol, I was surprised to find out how little even the patrol guards know about Koretia. Think on Quentin. He's a borderlander, he's the lieutenant of a patrol that deals daily with Koretians, yet I doubt that he knows a single Koretian religious rite, other than the funeral rite that I taught him. And the less that Emorians know about Koretia, the more likely we are to have trouble with that land."

Carle reached over to a bag near him, bit into the blackroot nut he found there, and made a sour face. In conformity with our image as ground-poor peasants, we are now eating a steady diet of peasant food. I thought that I knew what poverty was, having come from a poor village and having lived the harsh life of patrol guard, but I'm beginning to realize how desperately hard most men's lives are. I will be glad when we travel to Koretia, and I become a nobleman's blood brother, with a style of living to match.

Carle said, "No, I'm glad that I'll have a chance to see for myself the land I spent so many years learning about, and that you'll be my guide for what I see. A few years spent in Koretia could be of great help to me in the future. But I'm beginning to think that my father is right. Perhaps my destiny does lie in a town council in the end."

"So you want to become a town councilman?" I said.

Carle laughed as he slapped a flea with the sheath of his sword. "That's being overambitious, don't you think? I'll be satisfied if I can find a position as a council clerk or porter. More likely the only position I'll be able to find is as a scribe to some village council that can't afford to hire real talent."

"Don't be foolish!" I said heatedly. "You're far better at the law than that. You know that you could be a town councilman if you tried."

Carle looked over at me then, the right side of his mouth crooking up. "Well, I'll confess that I do have a secret plot that will allow me to obtain a very honorable office."

"What is that?" I asked and undid my belt in preparation for bed.

"I have a friend whom I expect will be a council lord some day, and when that happens, I plan to see whether he can find me a job as a bottom-ranked official of the Great Council."

"Have I met this friend?" I asked curiously, pulling my tunic over my head.

"In a manner of speaking."

I froze in the ridiculous position of having my arms straight over my head, pulling up the tunic. Carle was sitting on his bed, leaning back against one of the tent posts; the shadow of my arms and tunic was just touching his bare feet. He looked back at me steadily, and after a moment I remembered to move again. Pulling the tunic off, I said, "You and Quentin. Quentin thought that I would be a mighty soldier, and look what happened to me: I nearly caused a war."

"That's the only question in my mind – whether you'll end up a captain or a council lord. You'd be equally good at both, so you mustn't let my plight influence your choice."

"Stop making silly jokes." I reached down to unlace the leather shoe-straps binding my legs. "When was the last time a lesser free-man was appointed to the Great Council?"

"Sixty-five years ago."

"There, you see? You knew the answer in an instant, just as you know the answer to any law question. If anyone's destined to become a council lord, it's you."

"May the high doom fall upon you, man . . ." Carle followed this up with a colorful string of oaths and concluded by saying, "Why should I have impossible ambitions like that when I have you as my friend? Believe me, I'm quite content to follow in your wake, wherever your talents take you. —Never mind, never mind, there's no point in arguing about the hypothetical all night. All I meant to say was that I'd like to do council work some day – if I survive a few years as a spy. That may be ambition enough."

And that remark brought us out of our dreams and back to reality.

o—o—o

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

We received a letter from Quentin today, by way of Hylas. Since Carle and I are not accepted as spies until we have completed our training, the patrol hasn't yet heard of our new assignment, but Neville wrote to the patrol and let everyone know of our disgrace.

Quentin wanted to know whether he could be of any help in finding us better jobs.

"I told you we'd find out who our true friends are," crowed Carle, waving the letter. "Heart of Mercy, was there ever such a man as that? We bring grave dishonor upon his patrol – or so he thinks – and he breaks the great taboo against communicating with us, in order to offer his assistance. By the law-structure itself, I can't wait to see him again. Cursed be his reticence. I'm the same rank now as he is; he's going to hear what I think of him, whether he likes it or not."

o—o—o

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

Any illusions I had about the life of a spy being full of excitement are now gone. Carle and I just spent a week in training, gathering information about the width of farm fields. Hylas says we'll be lucky if we receive such an interesting assignment when we go to Koretia.

We were sent to the Emorian borderland as an experiment to see whether Carle could pass as a Koretian. We were nearly required to spy on Quentin's home village, which would have been amusing, but Carle explained to Hylas that we had both met Quentin's grandfather. So I missed my chance to meet Quentin's grandfather again and to understand better why Quentin is so reluctant to be in contact with his family.

Carle and I have decided not to respond to the lieutenant's letter. Anything we wrote now would have to be a lie; we'll be able to give him the truth soon enough.

Last night, as we were sorting through the information we'd gathered and trying to decide whether the Chara needed to know which fields were covered with weeds, Carle said, "The one I feel sorry for in all this is Quentin. He was planning to retire at the end of this year, but now he'll have to wait a year or two while he trains your successor."

I was busy checking to ensure that our tent was closed tight against eavesdroppers, and so it took me a moment to realize what Carle had said. Then I replied, "What are you talking about? You were the sublieutenant; you were going to take Quentin's place when he left."

Carle was stretched along his low cot, tracing circles around the numbers we had drawn in the dirt and were trying to commit to memory in true spy fashion. He gave me one of his crooked smiles. "I told you last year that elevation of rank doesn't work that way. You're a better soldier than I am; I knew that from the moment you disarmed me. Quentin was only waiting for you to resolve matters with Fowler before he made you his partner and began training you to lead the unit."

I looked quickly down at the ground and began digging at the dust with the tip of my boot. I too had long known that I was a better soldier than anyone in the unit except Quentin, but I had not allowed myself to think about this, so confident was I that Carle would always be above my rank. Now I wasn't sure what lay behind Carle's smile, and I was afraid to ask.

Softly as the breeze whistling against the tent cover, Carle said, "No, I take it back. It's not Quentin I feel sorriest for; it's you. You could have held the most honored lieutenancy in the Chara's armies if it hadn't been for my foolishness, and I— Well, I've lost the great joy I would have had in serving under you. I suppose that I couldn't have had any worse punishment than that."

And as I looked up, I saw that he was still smiling. With a brush of the hand, he swept away the figures we had written down, and for the next hour we quizzed each other on our information.

We proved to be equally poor at our work.

o—o—o

The twenty-first day of October in the 941st year a.g.l.

I've had no time to write for the past month, so busy have we been in our training. In light of what I wrote in my previous entry, I should add that I'm relieved to discover that Carle is a better spy than I am. At least, he's better at lying. I asked him once how he learned so well to lie, and he replied, "From living with my father." I quickly switched the subject.

He's also a master at being able to tell when other people are lying, and he can't explain how he acquired that talent. It did occur to me that his father has the same skill, but of course I knew better than to mention that to Carle. The only task I have any real skill at is hunting, and so Carle and I divide our duties the way we did in the beginning: he talks with people, and if there's a need to track anyone, I do the hunting. I feel as though we've become even closer partners than we were in the patrol.

It felt odd, then, when Wystan called me into his tent alone. He wanted to question me about how much danger I was placing myself in by returning to Koretia. I explained to him how my kinsmen would never visit Blackpass, and he seemed satisfied, but he said, "This war in Koretia has become so ferocious that I fear you might be in danger even if you are recognized by someone who is not kin to you. You will discover as a spy that one temptation you are constantly facing is to confess your true identity to sympathetic listeners. Any man of honor sickens of having to tell lies week after week, and you will reach a point where you think, 'What harm could it do to tell this one person?' For that reason, whenever possible I send Koretian-born spies back under their own identities. In your case, though, the possible harm of disclosure is double, since your life could be forfeit due to your broken blood vow, as well as due to your spying. Because of that, I am going to give you a command: You are not to reveal your identity to any Koretian. Do you understand my order?"

I nodded. I did not think it was necessary to add that I have no desire for any Koretian to know the truth of who I am. When I think of all the years I spent worshipping the gods, I am filled with shame, and no Koretian would ever understand that.

o—o—o

The twenty-eighth day of October in the 941st a.g.l.

Carle and I have finished our training. No one has told us otherwise, so I suppose we are spies now. We're awaiting our first assignment, and in the meantime we're quizzing each other so that we are sure to know our new identities if anyone should ask us.

Hylas decided in the end that it would be too dangerous to have Carle try to pass as a noble's heir; someone might know the village he came from. Instead, Carle is Calder son of Victor. His father and elder brothers were all killed in a blood feud, so he was heir to his village's barony for a short time when he was seven. But he was so ill after the murders that he went to live with another noble family, and when it became clear that he would not recover from his illness, he gave the King permission to appoint a new baron to his village. Calder stayed with the other noble family until he came of age, but because the village baron was new nobility and his father had been of the old nobility, Calder was unwilling to remain there. Since that time, he has spent his life travelling. As the former heir to a village baron, he is entitled to wear a sword.

Calder really exists; he came to live with my family when he was seven and I was four. He killed himself, though. I still remember Emlyn's face when he came to tell us that he had found Calder hanging from one of the rafters of our hall.

It was so shameful an incident that no one knows it happened except my family and the King and Calder's mother, who told everyone that she had given my father guardianship of Calder. As far as anyone else knows, Calder is still alive.

I'm my cousin Emlyn. Oh, I'm not using his name, but I based my new identity on him: blood brother to one of the old nobility, not important in my own right, but worthy of courtesy and attention. If Carle and I ask questions, the person we're talking with will feel compelled to answer two august persons such as ourselves. At least, I hope that is the case; our mission depends upon it.

o—o—o

The thirtieth day of October in the 941st year a.g.l.

Hylas brought us another letter from Quentin today. It was sealed, but of course Hylas knew what it said, since patrol guards are required to disclose the contents of their personal letters to the messengers who carry them. Hylas said that he heard from another royal messenger that Quentin has been sending out large batches of letters to a wide variety of people in Southern Emor for the past month, and that the letters were all aimed at securing the enclosed.

We broke the seal and looked at Quentin's message. It was a short note telling us that his grandfather had heard of our present situation and was pleased to offer us a house in his village, as well as jobs on his farm.

Carle didn't crow this time. Instead, he handed me the letter and walked rapidly out of the tent. I found him an hour later, leaning against the exterior side of the inner palace wall. He was gazing from his hilltop perch at the border mountains as he softly practiced his patrol whistles. I pretended not to notice the wet face-cloth that was thrust under his belt.

o—o—o

The fourth day of November in the 941st year a.g.l.

Carle and I are breaking our night fast in the patrol hut while everyone here eagerly plies us with questions. I think they are trying to make up for our initial reception.

We arrived at the patrol points just before dawn, and Carle whistle-signalled Quentin, rather than wait for the patrol to sight us, as we knew how duty would require Quentin to capture two men of our supposed status. The lieutenant came down alone, with his sword still in its sheath, and Carle silently handed him the sealed letter from Captain Wystan. By the time Quentin finished reading the letter, he was wearing a broad smile; I don't think I've ever seen him smile so greatly before. Then he called down the full patrol. I could see Carle watching as the guards came forward, judging each man by how he reacted to our presence. When Quentin announced our new titles, everyone cheered without hesitation, so Carle is inclined to forgive the guards who avoided looking at us; I won't even record their names here. But as Carle pointed out to me in a whisper, Quentin is the only one we can really trust now.

We will sleep here with the night patrol today so that we can arrive at the Koretian border after dark. Tomorrow we will change into the Koretian clothes we have brought with us; we will leave our Emorian clothes here. Quentin is also allowing me to leave my journal here. Usually I keep the book in Sewell's tent, which is heavily guarded since it is in the area belonging to the high army officials. But I plan to take some extra pieces of paper with me and write journal entries while I'm in Koretia. I have Wystan's permission to do this, since I will be carrying other incriminating documents in my thigh-pocket anyway. When I return to the patrol hut, I can bind the entries into my journal.

Carle has Quentin in one corner of the hut now, and from the look on Quentin's face, I take it that Carle is carrying out his promise to tell Quentin what he thinks of him. I hope Quentin recovers from this trauma.

o—o—o

The fifth day of November in the 941st year a.g.l.

Carle was yawning all through our walk last night. He and Quentin stayed up talking almost till dusk. I asked Carle what they discussed, and he said, "Our families, mainly. Quentin told me more about his grandfather. It appears that he is a very loving and solicitous man who has bullied Quentin all his life. The lieutenant as much as said that the only reason he joined the patrol was because his grandfather forced him to do so. Apparently – and again, I'm reading behind the lines here – Quentin's grandfather said that Quentin would dishonor his father's spirit if he didn't become a patrol guard. Quentin despises the work; that much he told me outright."

"But he's so good at it!" I said. "He's the best guard in the patrol."

"Possibly one of the best patrol guards of all time," said Carle, wrapping his cloak tighter against the wind that was penetrating the cave we will be sleeping in this morning. "It just goes to show how little connection there can be between enjoying your duty and doing it well. Quentin says that every time he has to wound a breacher in order to capture him, he just tells himself that his own suffering is bringing good to Emor."

I wish that I had the courage to talk to the lieutenant about such matters, but I don't think I would ever have the nerve to start such a conversation. And perhaps that's a weakness on my part, because Quentin may have always wanted somebody to talk to. Well, he has Carle now.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

The twenty-seventh day of November in the 941st year a.g.l.

Carle and I have been in Blackpass for the past three weeks, in a certain inn I won't name, in case these entries are confiscated from me at a later date. In any case, the inn-keeper knows only the names we gave him when we asked for a room: Calder and his blood brother Adrian.

We've spent the past week trying to fulfill our assignment, which is to determine what the Jackal is doing and whether he poses any threat to Emor. To fulfill the first part of the assignment, all that we've had to do is sit in the hall of the inn and listen to the rumors whistle endlessly through the room like mountain wind. We haven't even needed to check the rumors, for they all agree: the Jackal is playing tricks.

"This is absurd!" stormed Carle when we were alone in our room tonight. "Listen to this report: The man who calls himself the Jackal appeared in the hall of the Baron of Blackpass. All of the reports agree on this; there were multiple witnesses. The baron ordered him arrested immediately, without listening to what the masked invader had to say. The Jackal somehow managed to elude arrest – just how, the reports can't agree upon. But then the next night, the Jackal sneaked into the baron's bedroom while he was sleeping and put mud in his boots." Carle looked up at me from the report that he had written for Captain Wystan. "Put mud in his boots? He could have slit the baron's throat! What kind of childish prankster are we dealing with here?"

I bit my lip; it was not the moment for laughter, but I was still remembering the account by Blackwood's free-servant of how the baron had awoken the next morning and sleepily slipped his feet into his boots, then howled with such outrage that his entire household had awoken. "The trickster god," I murmured.

"What?" Carle looked at me blankly.

I glanced through the cracks in our shuttered window, which looked out upon the courtyard of the inn, empty except for the horses stabled there, under an overhang. Behind us, there was no sound. Carle had carefully chosen an inn which backed straight up against a rocky boulder – one of the boulders flung by the Jackal at his enemies, the old tales said. The inn corridor ends at the room next to ours, which we have also hired, under the excuse that Carle, being a nobleman, requires a separate room from his blood brother. In actual fact, Carle and I have been using that room as a buffer between us and any eavesdroppers; all of our sleep and conversations take place in my room.

Even so, our conversations have been in Daxion, which Carle has been spending the last few weeks teaching me, since that language is less likely to raise suspicion than if we conversed in Emorian – there are many Daxion bankers living in this town – and is less likely to be understood by the King's spies than if we conversed in Border Koretian or Common Koretian.

"If my accent is a bit off," Carle had said when we first arrived, "you can blame Fenton. He might have saved me the trouble by tutoring you in Daxion as well."

Now, three weeks later, I switched over to Border Koretian. "The Jackal is the trickster god. That's what the old tales call him. He played tricks on his enemies."

"What sort of tricks?" Carle had just come in from a day eavesdropping upon gossip in the marketplace; he laid his sword aside, frowning.

I thought a moment, then switched back to the Daxion tongue. "The first King of Koretia wanted to take power away from the Jackal, who was High Priest in those days. The King wanted to listen to the confessions of all his subjects, so that he, rather than the priests, could know what secret crimes his subjects had committed. The Jackal did not even bother to argue the matter with the King. Instead, he began appearing in many different guises before the King. On one occasion, he was a boy who had come to confess that he had skinned his little sister's knee. On another occasion, he was a housewife who had burnt her husband's meal. On yet another occasion, he was a soldier who had forgotten to whet his blade. . . . Soon the King had no time left in which to do anything except take confessions on such trivial matters. At last he realized that all these subjects must be the Jackal in disguise, and he understood the message that the Jackal was giving him. And so the King gave back to the Jackal the power to hear confessions and make judgments, so that the King could devote his time to defending his subjects in other ways." I looked over at Carle, who was still frowning, and I smiled. "Yes, I know. It wasn't the best decision the Jackal ever made; if the King had become High Judge, as the Chara is, perhaps Koretia would have developed a true law system rather than the gods' law."

Carle waved his hand, as though swatting at one of the blood-flies that was darting around the room. "It doesn't matter. It's only a tale. But this Jackal-man – you're saying he's imitating the Jackal of the old tales in order to try to prove that he's a god?"

"Or to send a message," I suggested. "'Mud-booted soldier' – that's a Koretian phrase for a soldier who acts without thinking; he puts on his boots without checking whether any of his fellow soldiers have smeared mud in them, as a prank. There's an old tale about the Jackal—"

"All right, I understand. So he's made himself into a trickster. Where does that bring us in understanding his goals? The Jackal in the tales tricked the King; will this new Jackal try to trick the Chara?"

I flicked away a blood-fly that had been trying to drink my blood. "The old tales never tell of the Jackal bothering the Emorians. The tales never speak of the Emorians at all."

Carle sighed as he wiped sweat from his forehead. To me, it was a cool autumn day, but Carle still suffers from the heat. "You put a lot of faith in these old tales. What if the new Jackal decides that, being a god, he can do whatever he wants?"

"But what does he want?" I took up again the pen I had been using to write my own report. "Carle, there must be some pattern to what the Jackal is doing. He wouldn't just be acting at random. Why didn't he attack the priests when he had the chance? And why did he try to speak to the baron, the most powerful of the old nobles? Why didn't he kill Blackwood when the baron was asleep? It's as though the Jackal is trying to draw allies to some great battle – but who is the battle against?"

"You know," said Carle, cocking his head at me, "you've forgotten the most likely theory of all."

"Which is?"

"The Jackal could be a madman." Carle's voice was flat. He frowned down at his report, adding, "We're getting nowhere here. It's time I went looking to the source of all this."

"You mean 'we,'" I suggested.

"No, 'I.' You're staying here." His voice was flat again – the voice of a lieutenant issuing orders to his sublieutenant.

"Yes, sir," I said meekly, and Carle laughed.

"I'm taking a visit to Borderknoll," he explained.

"Ah!" Enlightened, I smiled at him in relief. "Thank you. I'd rather not come that close to Mountside."

And so Carle will set off tomorrow to spy in the village where the Jackal first made his appearance. I'm a bit doubtful, myself, that he will learn anything; villagers tend to be close-mouthed around strangers. But if anyone could pull secrets out of them, it is Carle.

o—o—o

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

I've had a message from Carle, sent by way of Hylas, who knew from my reports to Wystan where Carle was, and went to Borderknoll out of his own curiosity to learn how Carle was doing.

Alas, Carle has learned no more than we learned many months ago from Malise, so he has sent word that he will be returning to the inn tomorrow. Hylas, disappointed that he would not be one of the first to learn of the Jackal's secrets, has continued south, promising to deliver our reports when he returns north, as well as any additional reports we may have prepared in the meantime. After this first time, he will no longer make contact with us in person; we will leave our reports in a pre-arranged spot that he will check each time he passes through this town.

And so Carle and I are now truly alone, for we dare not contact the other spies that the Chara has working in this land. Until Hylas returns from the south in a month's time, no one will know of our fate on this mission.

In the pre-dawn hour when Carle prepared to leave the inn, I sat in front of the fire in our hearth, which Carle had prepared for my sake, since the evening felt cool to me. He glanced at me as he was packing his bag. "What are you thinking?" he asked.

"About whether the Jackal knows that you're going alone to Borderknoll," I replied.

Carle raised his eyebrows. "You think his thieves are that good?" "Thieves" is the word that people are now using for the Jackal's followers, since the Jackal is the thief god, and since some of the tricks played by the Jackal and his followers have involved thefts.

I hesitated, but Carle was still watching me, his eyes dark in the dark room. Finally I said, "Fenton had certain talents . . . I'm not saying he was a god. But he knew sometimes what was going to happen to him, before it happened. I've been thinking about that letter he wrote to my cousin Emlyn – it was like a farewell letter, as though he expected to meet Emlyn in the Land Beyond. He couldn't have possibly guessed that the hunter would kill him, a priest, yet somehow Fenton sensed that some great change would take place in his life." I looked at Carle again, hoping I would not have to explain further.

"Mm." Carle carefully checked his thigh-dagger before strapping the thigh-pocket back on. "So you think that the Jackal might have . . . special powers? And that this is why he thinks he's a god?" Though he strove to hide it, I could hear the skepticism in Carle's voice.

"A god-man," I corrected quickly. "All of the reports agree about that: he calls himself a god-man. That's a way of admitting his powers are limited, isn't it? If he were claiming limitless powers, he'd simply call himself a god."

Carle leaned against the wall, gazing upwards, as though staring up at the Chara's throne. "Adrian, you may have something there. If this man has some sort of special talent – a sort of extra-sharp intuition – then he may have convinced himself that he's the embodiment of a god." Carle broke his gaze from the ceiling and shook his head as he turned to close his bag. "That would make him all the more dangerous, to my mind. A deceiver is easier to deal with than a religious fanatic."

I thought back to the Jackal creeping into the baron's bedchamber, quiet, undetected. "Oh, he's dangerous," I said. "There's no doubt of that."

Carle saw me shiver; out of kindness, he disguised the cause. "For love of the Chara, Adrian, put your cloak on if you're cold. We managed to keep you alive through a mountain snowstorm; I don't want you dying of chill-fever in the Koretian heat." He slung his sling over his back. "I'll be back at week's end. Try not to get yourself killed before then." His voice was light.

"And you." I raised my head. "It's not just the King and Blackwood we have to worry about now, you know. The Jackal may be our enemy as well."

"If he is," said Carle, with his quirk of a smile, "he'll soon regret ever having tangled with the Chara's spies."

For a long time after Carle left, I stared into the fire, watching it eat the black logs. Finally I whispered to the fire, "Jackal, if you have come to this world in order to play your tricks on my people, be warned: I won't let you past the border. I won't let you destroy my new homeland, the way you and the other gods have destroyed my native land."

With the words spoken, I felt better. I went back to bed then and slept until mid-morning, in a sleep untroubled by dreams of my murderous kin.

o—o—o

The thirtieth day of November in the 941st year a.g.l.

To Hylas:

I am leaving this note for you so that you will know, in case I do not come back. Carle has been placed under arrest. I have gone to try to secure his release.

Adrian

o—o—o

I have time in which to relate what happened, though I am beginning to shake now from the thought of what I did.

After a day spent following rumors in the square next to the prison, I arrived back at the Blackpass inn while the guests there were still talking of the arrest of a red-haired man who had engaged in suspicious behavior, so that the innkeeper had hailed down some passing soldiers. The soldiers had questioned the man, had not been satisfied with his answers, and had taken him to the army headquarters for further questioning.

I lingered only long enough to ascertain that the man arrested was indeed Carle. Then I wrote a note to Hylas, placed it in our message spot, and hurried to find the army headquarters.

Of course I wondered whether I was doing the right thing. But it was not only my bond to Carle that caused me to run down the street; it was the thought of what Wystan had said about the dangers if we were captured. Carle knew far too much information about the members of the Division of Disclosure. If he broke under questioning, the lives of every spy in Koretia would be at risk.

I found the army headquarters easily, by questioning a passing soldier. It was located in a part of town I vaguely remembered from early childhood visits, and it consisted of a cluster of buildings. Some soldiers were milling around in the courtyard when I arrived, but the guards at the main gate let me through without trouble, once I had stated my business.

Once I had entered the courtyard, however, I had a great deal of difficulty gaining access to the captain in charge of the Blackpass divisions. I could not remember his name, and my entry to him was blocked by a very loyal orderly who seemed to feel that his captain's time was far too precious to spend with a man petitioning for the release of his blood brother. Finally, grudgingly, the orderly entered a chamber nearby and returned with the news that his captain would see me. He ushered me into the chamber.

My first thought was that the room I was entering looked, not like a chamber devoted to army business, but like my family's home. It was a raftered hall, with a dais at the end of the chamber, similar to the dais where the baron and anyone he chose might stand to speak when issuing commands. This being Koretia, the dais was quite small in comparison to the remainder of the hall, where the lesser free-man would stand and discuss amongst themselves whether the baron's commands had any merit to them.

Against the wooden wall behind the dais hung the ancient banner of the old kings of Koretia, showing the masks of the seven gods and goddesses surrounding a gold scepter. Underneath this was a banner woven with the family seal of the Baron of Blackpass, which was not much different from the ancient royal seal. I looked around the hall for some sign that this place was used for army purposes, but could find nothing beyond some swords on the wall that looked as though they dated back to the early centuries of Koretia. A few table-tops and their trestles lay against the wall, as well as a wine-table that the orderly now stood beside. At the end of the hall nearest me, under a high window from which light streamed, sat the captain, wearing the black-and-forest-green uniform of the Blackpass army, and carefully scribing a letter upon a writing table.

The whole scene looked familiar, much too familiar. I was still trying to figure out where I had seen this hall before when the captain looked up at me, and I felt my heart plummet.

The captain was Blackwood, Baron of Blackpass.

In the silence that followed, I had time to curse myself for forgetting the customs of my native land. Of course Blackwood was captain of Blackpass's army, just as the King was Commander of his own army. Quentin had spoken a few weeks before of "the Koretian army," but no such entity existed, except during periods of truce, when the new nobility and the old nobility condescended to ally with one another. At times of feuding, there were two armies, and only a portion of their duty lay in preventing innocents from falling victim to crimes and preventing invasions from foreigners. Their main duty was to serve as murderers in blood feuds between Blackwood and the King. As Knox had said, these soldiers had been busy since the present feud began, and no doubt Blackwood had bloodied his own sword on a number of occasions against the King's noble kin.

I was the King's noble kin, and I had just walked into the hall of a baron who had taken a blood vow to kill me and my relatives.

I knew now why the hall looked familiar. I had been here before, at age seven, during one of the periods of truce between King Rawdon and Blackwood. During such truce times, my father owed loyalty, not only to the King, but also to Blackwood, the highest-ranked noble in the borderland. It was in this hall that Blackwood had announced certain changes that the King had commanded to the gods' law, while taking the opportunity to present his fierce opposition to the King's policy. It was here also that King Rawdon's grandfather had killed the last king of the old royal line and claimed the throne of Koretia. I did not need a genealogical tree in front of me to know that the only man alive whose blood permitted him to challenge Rawdon's claim to the throne was Blackwood himself.

Little wonder that the old nobility had turned this blood feud into a civil war. They must be hoping that Blackwood would claim the throne that had belonged to his great-grandfather. All that stood between Blackwood and such victory was the King and his noble kin. If he killed them all . . .

Still sitting in his chair, Blackwood said, "You wished to speak to me about your blood brother. You say your name is Adrian. Of what lineage?"

I took a deep breath. Evidently Blackwood did not recognize me; that wasn't surprising, on reflection. I had been young when we last met, and I wasn't my father's heir at that time. "Sir, I have no bloodline," I said truthfully. "My father has disowned me, and I do not take part in the present feud." It seemed important to emphasize this fact. "However, I am related, through his mother, to Emlyn son of Maddock, blood brother of Griffith, Baron of Cold Run."

Since this was perfectly true, it seemed the safest story to tell. Emlyn had lived in the south for so long now that it was unlikely that Blackwood had ever met him or that Griffith would have mentioned him to Blackwood. But my appearance would convince Blackwood that I was telling the truth. As I had informed Fowler, I had my mother's looks, and this meant that I looked much more like Emlyn and members of his bloodline than I did like my father. No doubt Blackwood had met some of my distant kin and would have noticed the resemblance in any case.

Any reply that Blackwood might have made was interrupted at that moment by a rap on the door behind me. I moved out of the way as the orderly went to answer the door. Presently he opened it wide to admit a subcaptain.

I had a small, jagged moment of fear that the newcomer would prove to be the subcaptain in charge of the Koretian border guards, but this was a man I had never met before. Without a word to me, Blackwood beckoned the subcaptain and orderly over to his desk while I backed away to give them privacy. The baron murmured something to the orderly. The orderly nodded, and then came over to stand by me. He did not draw his blade – no man draws his blade during a feud unless he intends to use it – but he watched my blade-hand in so pointed a manner that I felt my heart sink. For whatever reason, the baron had not accepted my story; I was still under suspicion.

I turned my attention back to Blackwood. He was talking softly with the subcaptain, so softly that I should not have been able to hear what he was saying – but I had been in the border mountain patrol, and Carle and I had communicated during our patrols in whispers that were softer than this. Between that and the training I had received as a spy in reading men's lips, I could follow the conversation as clearly as though it had been shouted.

Blackwood spent a moment scanning a piece of paper that the subcaptain had handed him, and then pointed to something written on it. "Him."

The subcaptain leaned over to look. He raised his eyebrows. "He's noted for his bladesmanship."

"That's for me to worry about. Your concern is to ensure that none of the men in his village with whom he has blood ties are left alive to avenge his death." Blackwood scribbled on the paper for a moment, and then handed the page to the subcaptain. "See that men are assigned to each of them."

The subcaptain glanced at the page before pointing at the list himself and saying, "This one is blood brother to a member of the next village. If we kill him, the feud will spread to that village."

Blackwood sighed heavily as he leaned back in his chair. "And what are my alternatives? Every village in the land of Koretia has men with blood ties to other villages. How do you think it is that the feud has spread this far?"

"It never used to be that way in the old days. Feuds were confined to the two villages involved, unless higher-ranked nobles chose to involve themselves."

"These aren't the old days." Blackwood waved a hand, dismissing him. "Bring me the soldiers tonight, and I'll exchange blood oaths with them."

I expected the subcaptain to salute and leave. I forgot that this was Koretia. He stood in his place, unmoved, until Blackwood said, "You have a better notion?"

The subcaptain shrugged. "Well, sir, we just don't seem to be progressing anywhere in this feud. The King wipes out a bloodline; you wipe one out in return. At the rate we're going, soon no Koretians will be left alive, other than the women and children and others who take no part in the feud."

Blackwood raised his eyebrows. "You know I've indicated to the King my willingness to exchange a peace oath with him. You know he has refused. What is your point?"

"Just that this may be the time to change tactics. Have you thought of the possibility of hostages?"

Blackwood was silent for a long moment as I felt coldness enter my belly. Then he smiled. "Thank you," he said, so softly that I knew the words only from the movement of his lips. "Yes, hostages may indeed be the way to victory. Not this one, though." He gestured dismissively toward the paper. "The King wouldn't exert himself to save that baron. We need someone who is closer to his heart."

"Perhaps that young noble who has caused all this trouble," suggested the subcaptain.

Blackwood gave a short laugh. "That would be an unconventional hostage. It can hardly be said that his family values his life."

"They value his death, though. If you told them that you held him in your custody . . ."

The snowbound cave had felt warmer than this. I crossed my arms across my chest in an attempt to keep from shivering. The orderly watched me with narrowed eyes, suspicious of what this apparent show of defiance meant.

Blackwood leaned back in his chair, appearing to consider this suggestion. "Mountside's heir . . ." he said. "I'd gladly burn him myself for the trouble he has caused to this land. Unfortunately, he's nowhere to be found. Perhaps this man who claims to be the Jackal is hiding him." The twist of his mouth told, more eloquently than words, what he thought of the claims of that man. "No, I think it's time we took this feud south."

The subcaptain shook his head. "Sir, the King has anticipated that possibility. The capital is well-guarded by his army."

"I know that. I had in mind Valouse."

The subcaptain shook his head again. "With the King's brother dead, the Baron of Valouse is now heir apparent, sir. The King will no doubt be keeping guard over the baron as well. He won't want to risk having you murder another of his heirs."

"The Baron of Valouse is well guarded," Blackwood said. "His heir is not."

The silence that followed lasted so long that the orderly flicked a glance over at Blackwood, before returning his attention to me. The subcaptain seemed incapable of speech. Finally he said, "He's only eleven."

"All the more reason that the baron will not think to guard his son."

"Sir, Tristan is a child," the subcaptain said, as though he thought Blackwood hadn't heard his words before. "The gods' law forbids the murder of children."

"Yes, I recall the King reminding us of this when he spoke in the name of the absent High Priest at the beginning of this year." Blackwood continued to lean back in the chair, his hands relaxed on the arms. "How many weeks was that, do you recall, before he killed Cole?"

The orderly, hearing the name, looked again at the baron. This time his look lingered, as though he thought his services might be needed. The subcaptain made no reply. Blackwood leaned forward in his chair. In a voice gone taut, like a bard's harp-string that has suddenly been tightened, he said, "My son was not much older than Tristan when he was abducted this spring. You know what the King's soldiers did to him before they killed him. Can you give me any reason why I should follow a law put forth by a man who orders such things? Or why I should show more mercy to the son of the King's heir than the King showed to my heir?"

The subcaptain let out his breath slowly. "No, sir. But I will have to discuss this with my men. I can't say whether they'll follow your order."

To this quintessentially Koretian statement – which would have resulted in a mass trial in the subcommander's court if such words had been spoken in the Emorian army – the Baron of Blackpass simply nodded. "Let me know what they decide. And tell them I have no intention of harming young Tristan if the King agrees to my proposed truce for peace negotiations. If he does not . . ." Blackwood shrugged. "The King, not I, will answer to the gods for my shedding of the boy's blood." He waved his hand, and this time the subcaptain took the hint, saluting Blackwood with his sword before leaving the chamber.

Blackwood was still a while, his eyes travelling over the banners showing his noble lineage. Then he seemed to recollect I was there; he beckoned to me. I went forward, while the orderly busied himself with some papers near the entrance.

"Now," said Blackwood, "tell me about your blood brother."

I went as quickly as I could through the tale of Carle's arrest. I was eager to be gone from this place before Blackwood looked too closely at my face and noticed my resemblance to certain feud enemies of his. When I was finished, the baron said, "Your blood brother Calder was arrested for suspicious behavior. He refused to give way to another man when they were both passing through the same doorway, even though the other man was burdened with heavy objects. The only excuse that your blood brother offered was that he was of higher rank than the other man."

I could have groaned then. Of course Carle would refuse to give way to a man who was of lower rank than Carle was supposed to be. To have given way in Emor would have been a suspicious act in itself, alerting everyone to the fact that Carle was not actually a noble.

Blackwood continued, "Some soldiers who were passing tried to reason with him. When he answered them gruffly, they took hold of him to try to pull him out of the way, since he was still blocking the doorway. At that point, he began to lecture them on the importance of showing respect toward their betters."

Blackwood raised his eyebrows, and I struggled with the odd impulse to laugh. I could envision the scene: Carle delivering his finest lecture on Emorian notions of rank, and the soldiers exchanging looks, wondering what in the names of all the gods this had to do with the civility of giving way to a burdened man.

"It all seemed very strange to the soldiers, so they brought him back here for questioning," Blackwood concluded. "Since his arrival, your blood brother has refused to answer any questions put to him, which of course has raised our curiosity as to the reason for his resistance."

The implication was delicately phrased. I took a deep breath. Thanks to his ignorance of Koretian life, Carle had steered us into a marsh as deep as any in southwest Daxis, but I had always known that something like this might happen, and I had a story prepared. "Sir, my blood brother is . . . Well, he had a hard childhood, sir, and so he sometimes acts a bit strangely."

I told the story then of Carle's imaginary background, which was the background of the real noble-boy I had once known. I finished by saying, "So you see, sir, though Calder is still a noble, he has lost the barony he might have held, and because of this, he is somewhat sensitive on matters of rank. And being arrested and imprisoned . . . well, that would merely make him too frightened to respond to questions. He's a bit simple, you see." I breathed up a silent apology for the slander I was placing upon my wine-friend's keen intelligence.

"Mm." Blackwood's eye was on the banners once more. "I seem to remember the story you tell. Borderhollow, was it?"

"No, sir, the village he came from was Borderknoll. Just a few miles east of Cold Run."

"Ah, yes. Hard to forget, that village. Well, your story is a plausible one. Are you prepared to swear an oath to its truthfulness?"

I hesitated. I knew what form a truth-swearing before a baron took, and that was not the sort of oath I wanted to take.

"Come, come," said Blackwood impatiently. "Either you are telling the truth, or you are lying. If you are lying—"

"I'm telling the truth, sir." Quickly I pulled my belt-dagger from its sheath, holding my left palm up in the peace position to show that I meant Blackwood no harm. He made no move to stop me, and so I carefully drew a line of blood across my left palm as I said, "I, Adrian, do swear unto my god and the god of the Baron of Blackpass that I will answer truthfully any questions the baron shall ask me concerning the matter I have brought before him. I bind myself with this vow until the questioning shall be completed today."

The traditional oath of truth-telling to a noble is carefully worded to prevent nobles from misusing their powers to ferret out secrets they have no right to, but even so, a clever baron could use the vow to learn about matters unrelated to the petition being presented.

I had no doubt that this was a clever baron.

Blackwood put out his hand, and I gave him the dagger so that he could inspect it and my palm. Some forswearers are clever enough that they never actually cut their palms. As he checked that the blood on my palm matched the blood on the blade, he asked, "Is your blood brother a spy?"

"Sir?" I tried to sound startled. It was the worst question imaginable, the one I had feared most.

"Is your blood brother a spy for the King or his kin?" Blackwood persisted.

I nearly exploded with a sigh of relief. "No, sir."

"Is he involved in the present feud?"

"No, sir."

"Is he in any way my enemy?"

"No, sir." The answer was true enough. The Chara was not at war with Koretia; he merely was seeking information in the traditional manner by which rulers sought information in foreign lands, namely through their spies.

Blackwood nodded, and for a moment I thought he would give back my dagger. Then he asked, "And who are you?"

My breath stopped at the back of my throat. Blackwood's gaze rose from the palm to meet mine, straight and dark. "You are clever," he said, "but you have the misfortune to have woven your tale around the wrong lineage. Griffith, baron of Cold Run, is my second cousin once removed, so I know that his blood brother's lineage was wiped out during a feud between Cold Run and the neighboring village. Emlyn son of Maddock has no remaining kin . . . except those who are kin to my enemy. Now tell me the name of your father."

I hesitated. I was not thinking of the gods; I would gladly be forsworn to the gods. And Wystan had made clear his orders in this matter. But I had vowed my blood, and Carle had considered the mixing of our blood to be as high a matter as our wine-friendship. What would he think if he knew I had forsworn yet another blood vow?

"Be careful," warned Blackwood. "If you lie – and I think I shall know if you lie – then I will know that the rest of what you said to me was a lie as well. Your blood brother's life hangs in balance."

And that, of course, decided the matter. I stared over the baron's shoulder at the banners: generation after generation of men who had fought and killed my kin. I closed my eyes and then opened them again and looked squarely at Blackwood. "I am Adrian son of Berenger," I said, "and I am – I was – heir of Mountside."

A long pause followed. The orderly, who had been trying all this while to pretend that his only interest lay in the papers he was sorting, was now staring open-mouthed at me. The baron stood very still; my blood glistened on the blade he held.

"Tabb," he said, without moving his eyes from me.

"Yes, sir?" The orderly stiffened.

"See to his blood brother's release. And Tabb . . . not a word of what you've heard to anyone."

"Certainly not, sir." The orderly sounded aggrieved that the baron should even consider that possibility.

Blackwood waited until he was gone before saying, "I know you, of course. You're the reason for this cursed feud."

"Yes, sir." I kept my voice quiet. I was wondering whether he planned to kill me himself, or whether I would be of more use to him as a hostage, to be returned to my father. Either way, my hands were bound. Until Carle was released, I could do nothing that might threaten Carle's freedom, and by the time I was sure of Carle's release, no doubt the baron would have me securely bound or dead. I only wondered that he had sent off the orderly.

Unexpectedly, the baron turned away, as though I was no threat to him. "Well," he said, "I suppose that, by this point in the feud, some of us understand a little of why you acted as you did. Your blood brother knows that you broke your blood vow?"

I hesitated, but the baron did not turn back toward me, and it was unclear which answer would be safest. So I told the truth. "Yes, sir. He hates blood feuds, so he has been protecting me from harm."

The baron nodded as he turned back. "And that explains why he refused to speak to my soldiers. He feared that he might give away information that would endanger you."

Since this must certainly be part of the truth, I nodded. My eye was still on the blade in Blackwood's hand, its tip slick with blood.

He followed my gaze. "You overheard the plans I made earlier for you?"

I swallowed. "Yes, sir."

His eyes rose slowly. "No doubt you have a poor opinion of me now."

After a minute in which I struggled for an appropriate response, I finally settled for a conventional reply: "It is not for me to judge, sir. Your god will judge your actions."

He nodded and contemplated the blade. "I think," he said quietly, "that such a thought has not been enough in my mind of late." With one swift motion, he thrust forward the dagger.

I took the proffered dagger from him slowly, wiped the blood off, and sheathed my blade. My heart was drumming in a way that it had not done when I had thought I was about to die. The baron, turning away again, went over to his table. Bending over, he began to scribble on a piece of paper.

The door opened; the orderly stood there. "Sir, did you want the prisoner brought up here?"

"Yes, of course. Why have you not done so?" The baron, turning to a second piece of paper, remained absorbed in his writing.

The orderly glanced at me uneasily, then back at the baron. "Well, sir, he can't walk."

I was not even aware that my vision had begun to swim until I felt the baron's hand hard on my arm, cutting through the sickness with its sharpness. "Steady," he said. "Stay here."

I did as he ordered, watching numbly as he walked over to the orderly and exchanged low words with him. At the end of the conversation, Blackwood returned to my side.

"It's not as bad as it sounds," he said. "I'll have a priest tend to him. Where are you staying?"

I told him in an automatic manner, and he nodded. "I'll see that he's escorted to your inn in . . . an hour?" He looked at the orderly, who shook his head. "Three hours," the baron amended. "Don't worry; nothing was done to him that won't mend in time. I will give him my apologies. To you—" He handed me the papers he had been writing. "I give these. A poor gift in compensation for the injury I have done your blood brother, but these will allow both of you free passage in my town. Should you encounter any future trouble with my soldiers, you need only show them my letters of passage."

I managed to mumble some sort of thanks, and Blackwood gestured to his orderly, who opened the door wide for me. The baron himself escorted me to the door. "As for what happened in your village's feud," he said, "the gods will judge you as well. No doubt they have keener insight into the rights and wrongs of all this than I do. I do my best, and I'm always glad to meet a man who shows me when I have been about to take the wrong path. May the gods go with you."

He gave me the free-man's greeting, and I returned it, which saved me from having to make any spoken reply. Released from his care, I hurried across the courtyard to the gate leading out to the town.

Then something made me pause. I looked back at the doorway, where the Baron of Blackpass was still in conversation with his orderly.

". . . passed the word on to his men yet?" Blackwood asked, his lips as clear to my understanding as before.

"I don't believe so, sir. He said something about discussing the matter with them after supper."

"Good. Tell the subcaptain that I am rescinding my order concerning Valouse's heir. Just because the King and most of his kin have turned their faces from the gods does not mean that we need follow their example. We'll fight a clean feud, and set an example for our heirs . . . or whatever heirs are left by the time this is all over."

At that moment, the soldiers behind the gate took notice of me and opened the entrance. I turned away from Blackwood. That was the last I saw of my kinsmen's greatest enemy.

So now I wait, and I would pray if I had any gods to pray to. Four hours have passed, and Carle is still not returned.

o—o—o

Carle arrived a short time ago; he walked into the room on his own two feet.

"It made me feel more kindly toward my father, I can tell you that," he said in answer to my question about what they had done to him. "I decided that his beatings weren't as bad as I'd always thought."

"God of Mercy, Carle . . ." We were being careful to speak Border Koretian, in keeping with what I had told Blackwood, though I had checked to be sure that Carle hadn't been followed. Carle had refused to let me examine his wounds, saying that the army priest had done as much for them as needed to be done, but he had collapsed almost immediately onto his bed, stomach-down.

Now he waved away the rest of my remark. "Actually, the fear was the worst part of it, the fear of what would happen next – especially as they were so courteous as to describe what they would do to me if I didn't talk."

"But you didn't," I said flatly.

"No, I recited to myself the Law of Vengeance, just as I'd planned – though I was beginning to wish that I'd memorized the whole thirty pages of the Justification."

I was sitting next to him on the bed, and I moved slightly to take a closer look at the back of his tunic. Despite the fact that his back had been bandaged by the priest, the tunic was soaked with blood. As I moved, he let out a gasp, then bit his lip shut.

"How many lashes did they give you?" I asked miserably.

"Enough," he replied. "I was glad that you rescued me."

That was all he would tell me about what happened, so I gave him drugged wine, and now he's sleeping, though he keeps moaning every few minutes. My mind is divided now between thoughts of Carle and thoughts of what Wystan will say when I tell him that I disobeyed his command.

o—o—o

The fifteenth day of December in the 941st year a.g.l.

We arrived back at the headquarters today, having stayed in Blackpass for two weeks, both to dull the interest of any spies that Blackwood might conceivably have set on us and to give Carle a chance to heal before the long walk back. Fortunately, the mountain pass is not yet snowbound.

I told Carle that I thought we ought to make our reports separately, and he made no protest at this. At first I thought he had guessed how it was that I was able to obtain his release – I had given him only a vague explanation – but then I realized that he must be feeling just as guilty over having been captured as I was at having disobeyed orders. So the first thing I told Wystan after I entered his tent was that I thought Carle should receive a silver honor brooch for refusing to speak under torture.

Wystan said that tortured soldiers are generally honored in some manner and that he planned to speak to the subcommander about Carle's action; then he listened as I told him what I had done. When I was through, he said, reassuringly, "A vow is a serious matter, whether taken on a blade or in blood. From what you say, you did not place Emor in any danger by revealing your identity under oath; in fact, I will feel even more secure about sending you and Carle back to Blackpass, since you have evidently won Blackwood's confidence."

I said uncertainly, "But I shouldn't have disobeyed your order."

Wystan leaned against the tent pole. As usual, he was standing in my presence. "It is a difficult choice to balance, as I remember from my days as a low-ranked soldier. My belief is that the only way to decide such matters is to determine what would be of the greatest benefit to Emor. You made the decision that the danger of having Carle break under torture was of greater importance than your own life, and I think you made the right choice. If I had been there in Koretia with you, I would certainly have advised you to come to me and ask me what to do, but the Chara's spies sometimes have to make important decisions on the spot, and on rare occasions that may require them to disobey orders." He smiled and added, "The important thing, you know, is to serve the Chara, not me, and you and Carle certainly served the Chara by what you did."

He then asked me to give Carle a more thorough explanation of the behavior appropriate to a Koretian nobleman, after which he sent me back to my tent. And I was left to muse on the complicated subject of obedience.

o—o—o

The twentieth day of December in the 941st year a.g.l.

Carle and I were summoned to Wystan's tent late last night. Wystan pinned Carle's neck-flap closed with a silver honor brooch. Then he did the same to me.

"I told Wystan that you deserved a silver brooch for risking your life for me by revealing your identity," Carle explained afterwards.

"How did you know about that?" I asked.

"Blackwood told me before he released me. He said I ought to know that I have a very brave and loyal blood brother. I told him I knew that already." Grinning, Carle reached over to take my brooch from me so that he could give both brooches to Sewell in the morning.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

The first day of September in the 942nd year a.g.l.

I was sleeping at dawn when Carle woke me by placing his hand over my mouth.

I am used to this, though danger usually comes when we're on a mission, rather than when we're safe in the Emorian army camp. I lay still, trying to ascertain the source of the danger. Carle leaned forward and whispered in my ear, "Get dressed. Be as quiet as you can."

I reached for my tunic at the bottom of the bed, then paused. The tunic was black. On its sleeve was the familiar sign of a mountain shielded by a sword. I looked at Carle, who was still crouched inches from me, dim in the moonlight, but not so dim that I could mistake the color of his uniform. He merely raised his eyebrows at me.

I scrambled into my clothes, trying to think through the haze of my sleepiness. No point in asking how Carle had been able to get hold of our old uniforms; he had contacts everywhere in the camp. The question was why we were disguising ourselves this time as border mountain patrol guards.

I checked that my thigh-blade was secure in its pocket, then took my belt from Carle's hand and knotted it round my waist. He had a sheathed sword awaiting me to hook to the belt. As he opened the flap of the tent, I saw that he too was openly armed, as though we had never been made spies.

The army camp was asleep. Only a few scattered guards remained awake; Carle, who knew the patterns of their patrolling, deftly guided us around them. We were headed, I saw, toward the northern inner gate of the palace.

Suddenly I had the feeling that this was not a mission I should be on. "Carle," I whispered, "I really don't think we should—"

"Don't you trust me?" he whispered back, arching one eyebrow.

There was only one answer to that question, of course, so I shut my mouth. We reached the guard-post of the inner gate, whose guards were watching our approach oh-so-idly, with their hands not-so-idly resting on their sword-hilts. Two of the guards, I noticed with a sinking heart, had spears.

However, those guards allowed us to come within speaking distance before they lowered their spears crosswise to bar our way through the gate. Carle said not a word; he merely held up a piece of paper, folded four times in the manner of Emorian letters. As he did so, I caught a glimpse of it: it was blank of everything but a seal impressed upon black wax.

The lieutenant of the watch glanced at the seal no more than a second before shouting an order. The spears were raised, and we walked through the gate. The lieutenant asked, "Would you like an honor escort, sublieutenant?" He looked at Carle rather at me; the colored hems of our old tunics showed our former ranks.

Carle declined with a courteous word, and we continued on our way, climbing the hill toward the palace. I waited until we were well out of earshot before I said furiously, "Carle, that was nothing but Quentin's latest letter to us. It must be a death-sentence crime to lie your way past the palace guards like that."

"Did I lie?" Carle looked cheerful. "It's not my fault if other men make incorrect assumptions. Anyway, you needn't worry – it's only a flogging offense for you, and then only once you've entered the palace."

He had not, I noticed, indicated what the penalty would be for him if we were discovered. I opened my mouth to protest further, and then let it hang open. I had just seen what we were approaching.

Even in the dawn hours, the palace was brightly lit from the flames that shone upon it. The light danced upon what I had never seen from outside the wall: carvings in the marble. Carvings of men fighting, judging, embracing, feasting, drinking, gambling, dancing, and, I swear, sitting down to play Law Links. All of the glories of Emor's peace were there, etched in figures so real that it seemed they would walk out of the palace's marble at any moment.

I did not realize that I had stopped until I felt Carle's hand on my shoulder. "Happy birthday, Adrian," he said.

I could not speak, nor even turn my eyes from the carvings. After a moment, Carle added, "Arpeshian artists. Enslaved, no doubt, but they served their art nonetheless. I hope they were granted their freedom afterwards. . . . Well, come. We need to be inside before the day's first hour."

He did not say why. I continued forward, trailing behind Carle now, thinking more and more that, all other considerations aside, I did not deserve to enter this place. Besides, I told myself with some relief, it was doubtful I would be able to enter. Carle had managed to fool the lieutenant of the watch at the northern inner gate, but there would be more stringent scrutiny of us at the northern entrance to the palace, which lay ahead.

But Carle did not go that way. Instead, he veered to the left, following along the side of the palace as we made our way past the carved figures. They were growing more archaic in tone now, and as I scrutinized them, I realized that the artists had set out to tell the tale of Emor's history. Here was the Battle of Mountain Heights, which had widened the empire. Here was the civil war of Emor's early history. And here, at the very beginning—

But I did not see how the artists had chosen to depict the first Chara, for just before that point in the carvings came a set of steps leading down to a dark doorway that I might easily have missed if I had not still been following Carle. There were no guards at the door; I wondered whether the door led to one of the underground furnaces that were said to heat the palace.

Carle tried the door, found that it was unlocked, and swept it open with one arm. He stepped inside—

—and stopped immediately. A blade touched his throat.

A sword was at my heart, and a second one had slid between my hand and my sheathed sword, though I had barely made it over the threshold. A voice, cool and dark with humor, said, "Visitors, gentlemen? Or have you come to stay with us?"

Whatever this place was, I gathered that it was not the sort of place which normally received visitors. Carle cleared his throat, which was rather brave of him, considering that a dagger tip still lay upon it. "Our apologies," he said. "We were told to come in by way of the north entrance. I take it we have entered through the wrong door?"

The passageway beyond the door was as black as the Jackal's fur. All I could see in the wavering torchlight was my captors – two young guards with determined looks on their faces – and the speaker: a lieutenant who held his blade against Carle with such ease that I guessed he was not unfamiliar with the use of sharp instruments. I glanced round at the darkness again, feeling my uneasiness increase.

The lieutenant, for his part, was taking in our appearances. He snapped the fingers of his free hand, and the guards lowered their swords, though they remained watchful. The lieutenant lowered his own blade but did not sheathe it. "Credentials," he said crisply.

Carle silently showed the letter, and then, at the lieutenant's gesture, handed it over. The lieutenant held it up to the light and scrutinized it for a long moment as I felt sweat trickle down the back of my neck. I could hear the faint sound of moans now, further down in the dark passage, and my nose was twitching from unpleasant smells.

"Well," said the lieutenant finally, "if you are a forger, then you are a good one. And I dare not break this particular seal to check the contents of the letter. My congratulations, sir. If you are a spy, you are a spy of high skill."

Carle bowed silently, as though he had been granted a genuine compliment, as indeed he had.

"I suppose," said the lieutenant, still with that dark humor that seemed to characterize his profession, "that you have an urgent need to see the Chara." He cocked his head at Carle, and I found myself wondering which of the cells beyond us were reserved for potential assassins.

"No, sir," said Carle firmly. "Basil son of Orson."

"Indeed? You are creative in your pursuits. —Innis. Cedron." The lieutenant turned his attention to the guards. "Give these men an honor escort to the council chamber. Stay until they are received by the council. You will forgive me," he added, "if I do not escort you there myself. I have work to do this morning." He fingered his dagger.

Carle cleared his throat. I did not think he did so this time out of acting. "My thanks," he said briefly.

The lieutenant gave him a brief smile. "Perhaps we shall meet again."

"Perhaps not." Carle's voice was expressionless.

The torturer laughed then and waved us past, escorted by the guards. As we left, I looked back and saw that the torturer was watching us, as though memorizing our appearances.

That is how we managed to break into the Chara's palace, the most heavily guarded building in all the world.

o—o—o

The main guard at the door of the council chamber was a subcaptain, but he barely glanced at the letter Carle held up before saying, "I fear that the High Lord's clerk is not available this morning, sublieutenant. He has been called into an early-morning meeting of the council."

"Oh?" replied Carle in so bland a voice that it took all my training not to look sharply at him. "We will wait for him in his office, then."

I held my breath, but the subcaptain, who was standing in front of two copper doors that reached halfway to the sky, merely barked an order at a guard in front of a much smaller door to the left of the council chamber's entrance; this door was so dull-looking in appearance that I had missed seeing it. Our escort guards from the dungeon, relieved of their burden, turned away, and I felt something that had been tight around my throat loosen somewhat.

I took a final glance down the corridor we had been walking. It was filled with people and sunlight, being lit from above by windows high in the wall, next to the arched ceiling. Nobody seemed to be taking notice of us. Why should they, when this corridor was filled with high-ranked army officials? It was a mercy that we hadn't stepped into the path of Captain Radley.

The corridor made the palace look like an extension of the army camp. I wondered where the civilian palace officials dwelled.

I discovered the answer in the next moment, as Carle and I entered the narrow passage running alongside the council chamber. We had to squeeze our way past a man carrying a large stack of books, another man carrying a map so large that it threatened to drown us, a third man juggling various papers in his hands as though deciding which ones to drop, and a large group of boys, all with ink-stained hands, standing in a group and discussing loudly the probable reasons for today's council chamber meeting.

I wonder how the Great Council managed to think amidst all this chaos. Then I realized that the passage did not run immediately next to the chamber; a set of rooms separated the corridor from the chamber. I caught a glimpse of one such room as someone slipped through its doorway: it was filled with men sitting at desks, making calculations with abacuses and occasionally jotting down the results on slates or paper. None of the men spoke a word as they worked.

"Carle," I whispered, "how are we going to find the clerk's office?"

Carle looked at me the same way he had the first time he tried to teach me to memorize the complex clauses of the Law of Grave Iniquity. "The clerk's office? Don't be silly. That will soon be filled with those chattering boys we just passed. Undergoing an inquisition by a trained torturer is easy in comparison to being quizzed by a room full of boys. They'd have our names, ranks, and lineages within half a minute. —Ah, here we are."

Without pausing, he swept open a door that was ajar. I stepped in and found myself in a cubbyhole of a chamber, barely large enough to accommodate a desk and chair that were set against the far wall. Light poured in from the skylight above, onto a stack of books on the desk. An inkwell, papers, and pen stood ready at hand. I went over to inspect them.

"These have recently been used," I reported as Carle closed the door to the corridor. "The ink is barely dry."

"If its owner returns, we can easily explain our presence," Carle said serenely. "This is one of several study chambers, used by any palace official or guest who visits the council for research purposes. We, of course, are here to research the origins of the border mountain patrol, and we were accidentally assigned the wrong room." He was busy moving back the chair to the middle of the chamber. I saw him inspect the corridor door as he did so, obviously wondering whether he could block the entrance, but the door was so old-fashioned that it had a hinged panel toward the top. The panel had no latch we could tie closed, and it was too high up to block with the chair, so there was no point in trying to block the rest of the door.

As I came forward to help Carle move the desk, I said, "You do the best pre-mission scouting of anyone I know."

Carle flashed me a smile. "Pre-mission scouting of the Chara's palace? Don't be ridiculous. The army officials and palace officials are as closed-mouthed as a Koretian god about the layout of the palace. They wouldn't have told me anything about this place."

"But then . . ."

"I had Myles write to Neville and ask. Myles told Neville that he was planning a visit to the Great Council – he was vague about when. There are advantages to having a baron's heir as one's childhood friend. Myles says that he hopes you have a very exciting birthday, and that if you're caught and flogged, he'll never forgive me."

Evidently, Carle had not revealed to Myles that his own punishment if we were caught was likely to be far worse. I opened my mouth to voice my misgivings, and then closed it again as Carle stepped toward to what had been half-hidden behind the desk we had just moved: a door.

He opened it a crack. Light laughter entered the room like a scented breeze. The laughter subsided quickly, and I heard a man speak, authority cloaking his tone. I could not quite catch the words that he spoke.

Carle was peering through the crack in the doorway with as much concentration as though he had just sighted the Jackal. I silently made my way up to him and tapped his arm to remind him that I still existed.

He took his gaze away from the scene long enough to whisper in my ear: "They're all there. All thirty council members. The High Lord is closest to us, at the head of the table. He's the one speaking." He peered at the scene again, widening the door's gap so that he could look further down the chamber. I saw the moment when the blood drained from his face.

"The Chara?" It took all my effort to speak the words.

Carle nodded but did not move. I remembered my wine oath and did not draw my dagger to force him out of the way.

Perhaps he remembered his own oath, for after a moment, he shook his head, like a man who has been stunned and is returning to his senses. "You watch now," he whispered to me. "The Chara is at the far end of the table, next to the lowest-ranking lords. He looks quite ordinary in appearance; I wouldn't have recognized him if I hadn't given my oath to him when I became a patrol guard." He stepped back, and I began to step forward, my heart beating a rhythm through my entire body.

Then Carle abruptly shut the door. Before I could scream in anguish, I heard Carle say, in a voice of forced cheerfulness, "Well, fancy meeting you here."

I turned to look. Neville stood in the doorway to the passage.

o—o—o

I could have cursed myself then – cursed myself and Carle too, for not thinking of this possibility. "This is one of several study chambers, used by any palace official or guest who visits the council for research purposes," Carle had said. Any palace official – such as Neville, of course. Neville had told Myles about the chamber he himself worked in when he visited the council.

For a moment, Neville merely stared at us. He was holding a book, the book he had no doubt gone to fetch for his work. He looked very much like the summoners' clerk that he was. Then his face cleared. He stepped inside, closed the doors, and said sharply, "What are you doing here?"

"Spying," Carle replied blandly.

Neville responded by groaning. "You fools. Don't you two know that it's a death offense for men such as yourselves to enter the palace? Even if you were still an army official, Carle, it would be death for you to persuade Adrian to enter here, since he was under your care."

Carle said nothing. I could not say what he was thinking. Myself, I was wondering whether the dark torturer we had met in the dungeon below the palace would be brought into such matters.

Neville groaned again and laid his book down. "Fools," he repeated. "How did you sneak in here, anyway?"

"Through the dungeon," Carle replied. "It is a weak point in the palace's defense. You should alert the captain of the palace guard to that fact."

"I should— For love of the Chara, will you listen to yourself? Your trial will be all the alert that the palace guard needs. And once you made your way through the dungeon, how did you find this place?"

This time Carle kept quiet. After a minute, Neville's mouth twisted. "I see. So I'm as much a fool as you are. I should have remembered your Peaktop connections. Did Myles know that you—? No, never mind." He waved away the question. "You have to get out of here quickly – and it won't be through the dungeon. It's not as easy to leave there as it is to enter." He sighed heavily. "I'll have to try to smuggle you out through the east entrance, I suppose. If you walk behind me, the guards may assume that you're my guests."

"That is kind of you." Carle's voice was grave. "And it is generous of you to be speaking to us."

For the first time, Neville hesitated. His eyes slid away, and he cleared his throat. "Yes. Well. Whatever you've done in the past, you don't deserve to receive a Slave's Death for a mere prank – and since the world hasn't ended, I'll assume that you have not sold your loyalty to one of Emor's enemies. Therefore, this must be a prank." His voice was firm, but his gaze flicked toward Carle as he spoke.

"It is Adrian's birthday," Carle explained. "I wanted him to have a chance to see the Great Council."

"Ah." Neville's voice lost its harshness. "That I can believe. Unfortunately, there's no provision in the Chara's law to allow for breaking into the palace for the sake of granting a birthday wish. We had better get both of you out now."

Carle cleared his throat. "Perhaps," he said, "it would be best if you helped us leave one at a time. We'd be less conspicuous that way."

Let it be recorded here: Carle is the most manipulative spy that the Chara has ever possessed the good fortune to have working under him. Five minutes later, I was alone in the chamber.

I waited until I was sure that Neville wouldn't nip back to retrieve his book, and then I cautiously opened the door.

The Council Chamber was a vast room, bigger than any I had ever seen in my life. Much of my village could have been housed in it. Like the side chambers and the corridor, it was lit by a skylight. Now that the sun was well above the horizon, the blue sky shone over the chamber, with a patch of sunlight falling upon the head of the table, where a book lay open.

The chamber was empty.

Slowly, as though drawn by an invisible chain, I walked over to the head of the table and looked down at the volume lying open there. My hand reached out to touch the neatly scribed words:
 

For though the Chara is the Embodiment of the Law, he is also a man, and unless there is a private man willing to undertake the burdens of becoming High Judge, there can be no High Judgment in this land. And if there is no High Judgment, this land ceases to exist, for its peace is the peace of the Lawmaker and the laws which he gave to the Emorian people. It is the Chara's duty to proclaim those laws, and it is his foremost duty to place thoughts of others before his own needs. Yet, lest his duties become so burdensome that he be broken in spirit and body—


"I hope, young man, that you are not a spy."

I flinched back, not only out of guilt at being noticed, but also out of an awareness that if I allowed myself to be caught this easily while in Koretia, I wouldn't live long.

The man beside me looked to be between fifty and sixty years of age; he was dressed in a gold-edged tunic and had a finely gilded sword clipped to his belt, but it wasn't clear whether he was a lord or a town baron. He was smiling, but there was a stern undertone to his words that told me he wasn't joking.

"A spy, sir?" I tried to sound as though such an ambition had never occurred to me.

The man pointed wordlessly to the table. Only then did I notice the pen, inkwell, and wax box sitting next to the paper scribbled with words.

Innocence and fear caused me to stammer, "I didn't see— That is, I didn't notice the paper, sir. It was the book – I've never read a law book before. I wanted to know what the laws look like when they are scribed on paper."

"I see." The man's voice relaxed. "Well, that is just as well. You are better occupied in reading the law than in reading my poor interpretation of what it means."

I stared at him with helpless awe for a moment; then I remembered to bow.

"A lover of the law, are you?" he said.

"I try to be, High Lord." I felt myself growing warm with embarrassment.

The High Lord reached over and closed the book to reveal the title stamped on the spine. "This is the volume dedicated to the Great Three. Have you heard of the Great Three?"

My mind was still so much on the volume that I promptly picked up where I had left off reading and said, "'Yet, lest his duties become so burdensome that he be broken in spirit and body, the people must be willing to respect the manhood of the Chara and take on whatever burdens they can for his sake. For the Law is like a golden chain which binds all people together, freeing each man through this binding to pursue his individual duties and joys. Each link of the chain is of equal worth, and the failure of a single man to follow his duty can cause the chain to break and the land to fall into war and chaos. Yet by the same token, any man who goes beyond the normal bounds of his duty and undertakes extra suffering for the sake of the Law can relink the broken chain and bring peace once more. Though no one but the Lawgiver may know of his sacrifice—'"

I stopped in confusion, realizing that I had been reciting for far too long and that the High Lord had no intention of interrupting me. His smile deepened as he said, "Not many men can recite by heart the Justification to the Law of Vengeance. What caused you to memorize that section?"

"I used to be a border mountain patrol guard, High Lord," I said. I hesitated, but the High Lord was nodding as though this were explanation enough, so I was emboldened to add, "A friend of mine taught me the law. He knew more about the law than anyone else in the patrol."

"Ah, then you two must be the soldiers who brought my clerk the message from Lieutenant Quentin; the subcaptain of the watch told me that you were here. May I see the letter, please? I expect that it is a response to a matter that the clerk and I have been discussing."

I felt the same sickening of the stomach I had experienced when the Baron of Blackpass came close to finding out my secret. I had been able to deceive Blackwood, but I could not lie to the High Lord. "There is no letter for you, High Lord," I replied in a low voice. "We just implied that in order to be able to sneak in here."

The High Lord's smile disappeared. His forehead was now creased with lines of concern that dipped low like his eyebrows. "Well, then," he said quietly, "I fear that I must ask for your name and division."

This was a question I was never supposed to answer truthfully, but again I could not imagine lying to the High Lord. "My name is Adrian son of Berenger, High Lord," I said. "I am a sublieutenant in the Division of Disclosure."

After a moment, the side of the High Lord's mouth quirked up. "I identified you correctly, it seems. What caused you and your companion— Who is he, by the way, and where is he?"

I said reluctantly, "He is Lieutenant Carle of the same division, High Lord. He is trying to sneak back out of the palace right now."

"Good luck to him, then; we will see how skilled the Chara's spies really are. What caused the two of you to slip your way in here?"

I stared down at my toes as I answered. "We have long wanted to see the palace, High Lord. Lieutenant Carle has often told me about this chamber. He hopes to work for a town council some day, and we both love the law. I suppose," I added miserably, "that it makes no sense for me to say that, since we have both just broken the law."

When I finally looked up again, I saw that the High Lord was still smiling. "No, but to witness the truth, I probably would have done the same when I was your age. Tell me about yourself. You are a borderlander, are you not?"

"Yes, High Lord, I am from the Koretian borderland."

"Does Koretia have a borderland? I had not realized that."

I suppose that my face must have reflected what I thought, for the High Lord laughed as he said, "One of my notorious failures as a council lord is that I have little knowledge of affairs in other lands – which can be a great disadvantage at moments like the present, when a war is bubbling at our borders. But I have no fear that Koretia's civil war will affect Emor in any serious way, so I would rather devote my time to studying the law, since that is a hard enough duty as it is."

I bit my tongue to keep myself from commenting on what the High Lord had said. Perhaps my silence came across as shyness, for the High Lord gently added, "I wish I could spend more time with you, learning about your native land, but I must meet privately with the Chara in a short while. Do you have any questions about the council before I go?"

I was encouraged by this indication that he would not order the council guards to arrest me, so I said boldly, "Lieutenant Carle told me that the Chara was here earlier, and that he sat at the very bottom of the table, next to the junior-most lord. Why is that?"

"A good question," said the High Lord. "Tell me, do you know the law-structure and the division of powers?"

"Of course, High Lord," I replied rather blankly. "Doesn't everybody? I memorized that at the beginning of my studies."

"Perhaps in the border mountain patrol that sort of knowledge is common, but you would be surprised how few Emorians actually understand what the Great Council does. I need not tell you, then, that the council has independent duties with which the Chara may not interfere; the council is servant only to the law where those duties are concerned. Thus, the Chara may not even speak in this chamber except with my permission, and he attends meetings here only as the council's guest, not as the master that he is to us at all other times."

"So you are like the Chara to the council," I said, musing aloud. "In a way, that makes you an embodiment of the law."

After a while, I realized that the High Lord had not replied. When I looked at him, I saw that he was scanning my face.

"In a way," he said slowly, "though my duties are not so burdensome as those of the Chara. Tell me, do you plan to stay in the army long?"

I found this question ominous, and was opening my mouth to deliver an extended apology for breaking into his council quarters when my attention was caught by a figure nearby, gesturing desperately at me.

The High Lord caught sight of him at the same moment. "Is that your companion?"

"No, High Lord," I said hastily as Neville unhappily complied with the High Lord's gesture to join us. "He is just a palace dweller I know. He did not help me to sneak in here."

The High Lord made no reply. He had opened the inkwell on the table and was leaning over to write something on a fresh piece of paper. Neville took the opportunity to frown at me and mouth questions, but I ignored him as the High Lord finished scribing his words, took a ball of wax from the box, and sealed it with his ring. As he handed me the paper, he said, "This will allow you to leave the palace without being stopped by the guards, but I would like your word that you will not enter here unlawfully again. I suspect that you will have lawful opportunities to visit the palace in the future."

I could not interpret his smile, so I said, "You have my word, High Lord. I am grateful to you for your mercy and your kindness."

"Not at all," said the High Lord. "I always enjoy talking with another law-lover. You never answered my question, though. Had you thought of doing council work in the future?"

I was aware of Neville standing at my elbow and gazing at me with suspicion, no doubt wondering what lies I had been telling the High Lord, so I phrased my reply carefully. "I have no idea whether I would ever have such an opportunity, High Lord, though I would like to do some sort of work with the law. It is really my friend, though, who deserves to do council work. He is quite learned, and everything I know about the law comes from him."

"I wish that I had had a chance to meet Lieutenant Carle," said the High Lord, blithely unaware that he was destroying my cover, "but talking with you, sublieutenant, has certainly given me a new perspective on what the Chara's spies are like. Perhaps our paths will cross again some day."

He left then, and I bowed. When I straightened again, I found that Neville was staring at me, his mouth hanging open with shock.

o—o—o

The second day of September in the 942nd year a.g.l.

The scene after the High Lord left me yesterday was an unpleasant one, with Neville asking me over and over whether what I'd told the High Lord was true, and me urging him for love of the Chara to keep his voice down. In the end, to hold him quiet, I had to admit that Carle and I are spies – whereupon matters grew worse, with Neville apologizing repeatedly for his error while council officials and other passersby looked our way in curiosity.

Because of this, it was some time before Neville reached the point of telling me the important news, which was that Carle had been caught and arrested while trying to leave the palace.

I would have flown at once to Carle's defense, but Neville, showing more sense than he had during the past minutes, pointed out to me the folly of such an act. As yet, Carle was charged only with entering the palace unlawfully. If it became known that I, his student, had entered the palace with him, the charges against him would likely double. For Carle's sake, I must pretend that I knew nothing of what had happened.

Thanks to Neville and a misuse of his powers as clerk to the Chara's summoners, I was soon able to ascertain that the army court, to which Carle had been taken, had placed Carle back under the care of Captain Radley. After that, all I could do was go back to the tent I usually shared with Carle and spend a sleepless night staring into the air.

In the morning, I received a command to visit the captain.

Carle was already there when I arrived. He glanced briefly my way before turning his attention back to Radley, who was flipping through a bound book.

"Ah, sublieutenant," Radley said when he finally deigned to take notice of me. "I have been reading through your records, and I see that you have been a sublieutenant for a year now. Given your excellent work on the field" – he gave me a thin smile – "it seems time that you were elevated." He cut off my stammered thanks with a wave of the hand. "I trust that your work on your next mission will be in keeping with the privilege you have received. Report to me tomorrow morning for your assignment." And he returned to his work. After a while, Carle and I surmised that we'd been dismissed.

I could scarcely hold myself back until we had reached the security of our tent and could talk freely. "It doesn't make sense; I thought for sure Radley hated me! And yet he gives me such a wonderful gift— Carle, what's wrong?"

"Nothing at all." Carle made a reasonable attempt at a smile. "Your elevation is indeed well-deserved. You ought to have been made lieutenant months ago."

I caught hold of him. Faintly through the tent cloth came the sound of army life: the clash of swords, shouts from lieutenants drilling their men, horses snorting as they were led forward. "What is it?" I asked in a low voice. "Did Radley punish you?"

"As much as he could, short of arranging my dismissal," Carle replied, turning away to pick up a wine flask. "You witnessed the punishment yourself."

I was silent a minute, then began to curse Radley methodically in every language I knew: Border Koretian, Common Koretian, Emorian, Daxion, and even smatterings of Marcadian I'd learned from Sewell. Finally Carle laughed as he raised the wine to his lips.

I was in no mood for laughter. "That god-cursed demon— Carle, he can't do this to us."

"Of course he can," Carle replied calmly. "If Radley, your high official, judges that you are deserving of honors – which you are, even if he thinks otherwise – then he can elevate you to the lieutenancy, and once elevated, you are no longer my student. So our next missions will be separate ones." He cut off my further flow of curses by handing the flask to me.

The wine steadied me somewhat, but I found myself saying, as though it could change matters, "We work much better paired than we do alone."

"Of course we do, and no doubt our records show that." Carle sat down next to me on my pallet and took the flask back from me. "Adrian, we're under the care of a man who would position the vanguard's back to the enemy if he thought it would help him take petty revenge. There's no use weeping ourselves dry about it. Fortunately, Radley doesn't know the finer points of the law." Carle grinned.

What Carle knew – what he had discovered months before, when memorizing minor laws related to our work – was only a small compensation, a very small one. According to army law, a spy who believes that his life will be endangered during a mission can, without prior permission from his high official, request another spy to assist him on that mission. Carle and I both had a lengthy laugh about this law, which was obviously created by someone who knew nothing about spying. Our lives are always in danger when we go out on the field. But we agreed that some time in the future – just once, because Radley would ensure that we never did this again – we could take advantage of this law to work together again.

I suppose this is the point at which I truly begin to sacrifice my happiness for the sake of the Chara. I only wish that the sacrifice was freely given.