"Well," said Peter uncertainly, "it looks a bit like a Balance of Judgment."
He glanced over at his new slave-servant to see whether he agreed. Andrew was kneeling on the floor, carefully rolling bits of clay and attaching clay crossbars to them so that they held a vague resemblance to the Sword of Vengeance.
For a moment, Peter thought Andrew would not reply. It was becoming increasingly hard to tell which comments the other boy would reply to. If asked a direct question, Andrew would of course respond; that was part of his training. But slaves were also trained not to speak to free-men unless spoken to, and Peter had not yet figured out a way to convey that he wanted to hold ordinary conversations with his slave.
Could any conversation be ordinary, when the other person had no choice but to speak if bidden to?
Andrew said, without looking up, "I suppose that we'd need an Arpeshian to tell us."
Peter laughed. "And I don't know any Arpeshians. Do you?"
"A couple. They were young children when your grandfather, the Chara Anthony, suppressed the first rebellion in the dominion of Arpesh."
Peter started to make some light-hearted remark about Andrew being well-versed in Emorian history; then he bit his lip. No doubt all of the inhabitants of the palace slave-quarters were well-versed in the parts of Emorian history that related to wars in which the Emorians had taken slaves. Andrew could almost certainly give a detailed account of the Border Wars between Emor and Koretia.
To cover his chagrin, Peter said, "The Balance is hard enough to make." He gave another doubtful look at the object in his hand, made up of scrap bits of metal joined together by sticky sap. "I don't know how we'll manage to make the Book."
"You needn't worry about that." Andrew reached over to gather a bit of clay, and as he did so, his back came into sight. He was wearing a slave's tunic, of course, which meant his back was bare . . . except for the bandages there. "I know how to make books."
"You do?" Peter asked, surprised. He had turned his eyes away; he still could not stand to look at Andrew's back, even though the bandages hid what Lord Carle had done to him, barely a week before.
If Peter had been beaten nearly to death, he thought he would have spent the next six months moaning in his bed. Instead, Andrew seemed determined to rise from his sickbed. Peter wondered whether Andrew believed that he would be sold back to Lord Carle if he did not immediately show his worth to his new master.
Peter would have as soon impaled himself on the Sword of Judgment as give Andrew back to the master who had ordered an eleven-year-old boy to be beaten so harshly. Lord Carle had meant well, no doubt, but Peter still could not imagine why the council lord had found it necessary to go to such measures. As far as Peter could tell, Andrew was an extremely obedient servant.
Perhaps too much so. Peter looked down once more at the pathetic little object in his hand that purported to be the Balance of Judgment. Judgment weighing vengeance and mercy.
"We've forgotten about the Heart of Mercy," he said suddenly.
"I know how to make that too," Andrew replied, inspecting the tip of the clay sword in his hand.
"You're a wonder," Peter said, setting the lopsided Balance aside and rolling over onto his stomach. They were in his chamber, of course, which meant that the only places to sit were some stiff-backed chairs, the bed, and the floor. Andrew seemed to prefer the floor, though Peter had invited him onto the bed each day since the younger boy became his slave. Peter supposed this was due to some Koretian custom; he resolved inwardly to ask Andrew about that. After all, Peter's ostensible reason for having Andrew as his slave was to familiarize himself with his empire's southern dominion of Koretia. Peter's father – who was legally Andrew's owner – had said that mastering Andrew would help Peter learn how to rule his subjects.
"How did you learn to make crafts?" he asked Andrew.
"From a friend."
Peter waited, but no further details emerged. Finally Peter said, "Was he a craftsman?"
"He was a boy. But he lived with the priests, and they trained him at artisan work, in case he should need such work when he grew up and—" Andrew shut his lips tightly. He bowed his head, as though concentrating all his thoughts on the clay he was flattening with his fingers.
Peter felt then that he deserved the beating Andrew had received. A friend. A boy whom Andrew had known in the Koretian capital. Probably the boy had been enslaved during the final battle there, if not killed outright. And Andrew had been forced to speak of him.
To Peter, Chara To Be, son of the ruler who had conquered Andrew's native land.
Peter said the first thing he could think of. "Did you make New Year ornaments in Koretia?"
"No." Andrew looked aside to the blades he had created. "In Koretia, we don't celebrate the giving of the Chara's law."
Peter stopped himself just in time from saying that they did now, in the three years since Koretia became a dominion of the Empire of Emor. Instead he replied, "But you have the same calendar as we do. Your New Year begins when ours does, just after midwinter. Don't you celebrate the New Year in any way?"
"Of course." Andrew carefully ordered the blades on the floor. "We celebrate the creation of the gods' law."
"Oh?" Peter wriggled forward on his belly in order to see Andrew better. The window shutters were closed, since the first snow of the season had arrived overnight. A hearth-fire burned cheerfully in the corner of the room, sending off the spicy smell of sap. Candles, scented with wall-vine juice, burned on the mantelpiece and on the small tables scattered throughout the chamber. Peter had placed a lantern close to the bed where he worked, and another lantern next to Andrew. He supposed that he really should have ordered Andrew to move the lanterns, but Andrew's hands had been full at the time with the materials they needed in order to make their New Year crafts, and it had seemed easier to Peter to move the lanterns himself.
Peter sometimes wondered whether he would ever be a proper noble-boy. It was not that he minded having servants. Different people had to be trained to do different types of work; he accepted that. But at age fourteen, he was just as likely as he had been as a small boy to jump up and help an overburdened servant who was carrying too many objects. His father's patience was close to reaching its limits, he knew. Peter just did not seem to be able to manage the trick of acting in the formal manner of the Chara's heir.
He emitted a little sigh, which Andrew seemed not to notice, for the slave spoke suddenly. He had been staring, all this while, at the shuttered windows, and his eye remained on them as he said, "We bring the outdoors indoors."
Peter looked at him blankly a moment before he retraced their conversation. "Flowers, you mean?"
"And leaves. Leaves and twigs and moss and vines and nuts and bark and berries and earth. We place them in a basket and make a little landscape out of them, using twigs as trees and moss as shrubs. We're creating a tiny Koretia, because the gods created Koretia on the day they gave us their law. Then we place the creation baskets on a table and sing songs. We throw nuts into the fire and make wishes, and then we have our feast."
"You feast on blackroot nuts?" said Peter, scraping his memory for long-ago lessons about the food that commoner Koretians ate.
"Oh, more than that on New Year. We eat meat on that day. My father used to go hunting—" Andrew stopped abruptly, his hand freezing upon the clay blade he was stroking. After a moment, he took his hand away.
"Yes?" prompted Peter. He was practically hanging off the bed now in his eagerness to hear the tale. Andrew was rarely so loquacious.
Andrew darted him a brief look that Peter could not read, then dropped his gaze. "That was before I was born. We never could afford meat when I was growing up. I went hunting one New Year on Capital Mountain with Joh— With another boy. But it started raining heavily, so I came home empty-handed."
Peter thought about this as the wind blew against the shutters, causing the candles to flicker. He knew that a vast feast awaited him tomorrow. His father would take him to the quarters of the Great Council; the council, appropriately enough, was in charge of the festivities on the day celebrating the giving of the law. He would eat suckling pig, roast crane with chicken's claws, hare boiled in raisin wine, baked pheasant, stuffed dormice, hazelnut custard, and (at Peter's request, which the High Lord had indulged for his own, devious reasons) honey cakes.
He wondered suddenly what Andrew would eat. "Do you have New Year celebrations in the slave-quarters?" he asked.
Andrew flicked another of his brief looks at Peter. "I think so."
"You think so? Don't you know?"
"I've never been invited to them."
Peter rested his chin onto the backs of his hands, watching as Andrew painstakingly rolled the remaining clay into a ball. Peter had gathered, from something Lord Carle's free-servant had said, that Andrew was not popular with the other slaves, but Peter had not realized that Andrew's isolation extended as far as ostracism. It seemed intolerable that Andrew should be exiled from his native land, only to find himself exiled from his fellow slaves as well.
"Well, then," said Peter, "we'll have our feast here."
Andrew's gaze flew up and stayed up, fastened upon Peter's face. Peter felt that strange mixture of joy and thrill he always felt when Andrew looked straight at him. It was forbidden for slaves to look directly at free-men. That Andrew was willing to break his training – was willing to trust Peter not to punish him – after he had been so badly punished by his last master . . .
Now fully immersed in the excitement of the moment, Peter said, "We'll do everything. We'll bring the outdoors indoors. We'll make baskets full of Koretia, and we'll toss nuts into the fire, and we'll sing, and we'll have a feast. We'll have a better celebration than they're having in the slave-quarters or the Great Council."
Andrew was breathing deeply now, his gaze still fastened on Peter. After a while he said, "I don't want to sing."
"All right," said Peter, puzzled but agreeable, "we don't have to sing. But the rest . . ."
He looked at the shuttered windows, and his spirits faded. He could not leave this room without his father's permission. And he could not imagine going to his father and saying, "Please let me go gather moss so that my slave can have a proper New Year for once."
But Andrew, it seemed, had already jumped ahead in his thoughts. He pulled himself up into a crouch, saying, "I'll get the materials. I can take them from the inner garden. With your permission," he added belatedly.
"And I'll get the basket and the meat." Peter had no idea how one obtained a basket in the palace, but no doubt his father's free-servant would know. And the meat could be easily obtained; Peter ate meat daily.
Andrew was already on his feet, wiping off the seat of his winter breeches with his hand, and reaching down to tuck his breeches into his winter boots. He had left the floor all a-mess with clay and tiny blades, which Peter supposed he ought to reprimand the slave for. But not for all the law books in the empire would he have destroyed Andrew's apparent eagerness to prepare their private festivities.
Andrew turned toward the door. He ought to have bowed before leaving. He ought to have bowed and asked permission to depart and awaited Peter's word of permission. "Andrew!" cried Peter.
Andrew stopped dead, as though a blade had plunged into his back. He turned. Peter caught a brief glimpse of the fierce, dark expression in his eyes before the slave lowered them. "Lord Peter?" he said formally; his voice was toneless.
"Here." Rising, Peter snatched what he needed off the hook next to his bed. He offered it to Andrew, who looked up. His eyes were now startled. "It's cold outside," Peter said softly.
Andrew reached out slowly, as though in a dream, and took Peter's cloak in his hand. For a moment, it seemed as though he would speak. Then he lowered his eyes, bowed, and left the chamber silently.
Meat, it turned out, was not so easy to obtain that day as Peter had anticipated.
His father's free-servant, upon being consulted, had coldly informed Peter that the cooking servants were busy preparing meals for the following day. But they would, of course, stop their work at once if the Chara's son asked them to. . . . Drogo's voice grew still colder.
"No, of course not," Peter said hastily as the free-servant refilled his water pitcher. "I will wait for supper. What is the dish today?" He could, he supposed, divide his meal with Andrew; he had done that more than once when Andrew was still bedridden from his beating.
"Date salad," said Drogo, snuffing out Peter's hopes. "Unless, of course, the Chara's son would prefer another dish? In between my duties to the Chara, I would be glad to make a special effort to—"
"No, not at all." Peter turned away before Drogo should give another of his self-sacrificial speeches. If it were Andrew, Peter could have asked the favor of him, but Andrew only had access to the slaves' kitchen, and slaves were not permitted meat except on feast-days. By tomorrow, it would be too late; Peter would be busy with his own duties as Chara To Be.
For a while after Drogo left, Peter sat on his bed, contemplating the situation. The only other person he could think to consult was his father, but his father had been busy talking all afternoon to Lord Carle, and now the two men had left together to visit the Map Room. Peter had hoped that Lord Carle would stop by to give his greetings, but the council lord had evidently been too busy for that. The council lord would not even be attending the New Year festivities of the Great Council tomorrow, the Chara had told Peter; Lord Carle was going to his country home for several days of rest before he resumed his onerous duties.
Peter frowned as he stared at his law books, which he had abandoned on the writing table when Andrew had brought in the scraps of metal and clay and asked, in his abrupt manner, whether Peter wanted to make New Year ornaments. Peter was used to free-servants giving him New Year gifts they bought with their small savings: winter flowers and dried tree-fruit and once, from Lord Carle's free-servant, an expensive bag of Daxion nuts, which Peter suspected had been paid for by Lord Carle himself. Peter was not used to a servant bringing him materials with which he was expected to make ornaments of his own, in the manner of the most lowly slave in the palace.
It was the best gift he had ever received in his life. It had taken all his effort to remember that Andrew's back was still healing from his beating; otherwise, Peter would have embraced him on the spot.
No doubt Peter would receive a reprimand from his father tomorrow or the day after, for neglecting his studies today. What worried Peter more was that he had no gift to give Andrew.
What could you give a slave who, by law, could own nothing? Traditionally, the Chara's gift to the palace servants at New Year was a day off from work, for the festivity celebrations were handled by specially hired free-servants. The palace servants also received permission to organize their own celebrations, using previously authorized food from the kitchens.
That was the Chara's gift, but the Chara's son had nothing to give his slave. Food, yes, time off from work, yes – but Peter was already giving as much of that to Andrew as he could possibly hope to hide from his father. And whatever he gave would be trifling compared to what Andrew had given him: a chance to act like a normal boy for an entire day.
He fingered the misshapen Balance in his lap. Something he had created with his own hands, without a servant at his elbow, offering to do the work for him. Andrew had not even passed him the sap until he asked for it. Peter was as proud of the handcrafted Balance as if it were his first proclamation as Chara.
He stood up, walked over to the hearth, and spent the next few minutes arranging the Balance and the clay blades on the mantelpiece. He had forgotten to ask Andrew how to make the Heart of Mercy, as well as miniature versions of the books in which the Chara's law was scribed. It was of no matter. The Balance and the Sword would do for now. And he had more to anticipate.
Grasping the tapestry on the wall in order to pull himself up, he stood upon a chair, opened one of the shutters, and gasped as the cold wind slapped against his face, accompanied by flakes of snow that stung and numbed his cheeks. The windows were near the ceiling, and were narrow in height, in order to prevent intruders from entering, but Peter could see into the inner garden through the murky afternoon light of the snow-laden sky.
The inner garden was a bare lawn, with shrubs and flowerbeds now heavy with snow. It was easy to sight Andrew in his black cloak; he was the only person in the chilly garden, other than the guards at the doorways leading from the garden to the rest of the palace. Andrew was on his knees, scraping away at the snow with his bare hand. Peter realized, with a stab of guilt, that he had sent his servant out to gather moss and twigs in a snowstorm.
There was nothing he could do, though; Andrew was too far away to hear if Peter shouted. Peter closed the shutter, climbed down from the chair, and returned his mind to his half of the tasks.
Meat . . . Perhaps Andrew could find a solution to that. The basket was another problem. Drogo had greeted Peter's enquiry by raising his eyebrow and saying that there were no doubt baskets somewhere in the palace "if the Chara's son should wish me to search for them." Peter had resisted an impulse to throw the water pitcher at Drogo. Instead, he now began searching his room, trying to find something that could be used as a basket. There was the water basin, of course, but it was made of silver, and silver came from deep in the mines. He needed something that was made of a material that could be found outdoors. Wood, perhaps? The chairs were made of solid wood, too thick to tear apart, and in any case, he could just imagine what the Chara would say if he found Peter dismembering a valuable chair.
His eye fell on the pieces of paper sitting next to the books on the table, where he had been scribing notes to himself.
It took him until the final trumpet of daylight to finish making the creation basket, partly because it had occurred to him that the basket would be more beautiful if it were decorated. So he had taken up his pen, dipped it in ink, and drawn a decoration that he hoped resembled the swirly vine patterns he had seen on the tunics of visiting lords from Koretia. At the last moment, on impulse, he had added masks on the borders of the paper. He and Andrew had held a conversation about masks just a few days before, at midwinter's eve, when he had happened across Andrew staring out a window that faced south. Peter seemed to recall that masks were connected in some way with the Koretian religion. He had no idea what Koretian masks looked like, so he inked them all in as solid black. Then he set about trying to paste the papers together with sap in such a way that they formed a basket.
He was not very successful. Part of the problem was that he had no blade with which to cut strips of paper. His father had promised that the Chara's heir would begin his lessons in bladeplay as soon as the weather grew warm, which would be not long after Peter's fifteenth birthday. But not until his coming of age at his sixteenth birthday, he knew, would he be permitted to actually own a free-man's blade. Every man in the palace wore a blade on ceremonial occasions, except for the slave-men and, of course, the eunuchs. But the eunuchs were not men at all – rather, they were half man, half woman. Peter avoided them as much as possible, not knowing what to say to such oddly mixed creatures.
His craftwork looked more like a very fat ship than a basket. It had a pointy bow and a long, flat stern. It looked utterly unseaworthy. Peter put his chin on his fist and contemplated the results. He supposed that, if he had more practice at this sort of thing, he would be better at it, but that did not change the fact that the basket looked ugly.
Not at all a decent present to give to Andrew. Peter sighed.
His head jerked up as he heard a sound in the corridor, but it was only his father, returning from the Map Room. His father paused to speak briefly to the guards outside the Chara's living quarters, and Peter waited, half hopeful and half dreading, to see whether the Chara would stop next door to check on his son. But a moment later came a familiar thud as the door to the Chara's living quarters closed.
Peter sighed again. There were times – many times – when he wished he had not been born as heir to an empire. If he had been any other boy, he could be spending this festal eve playing with children his age, rather than sitting alone in his chamber, feeling guilty because he had not read a law book in three hours. He looked again at the basket and wondered whether he should tear it up before Andrew arrived back.
The decision was taken from him as Andrew slid silently into the chamber. Peter was never quite sure how Andrew managed to get past the guards, who were supposed to challenge anyone entering Peter's quarters, even if only for form's sake. The guards were just a couple of spear-lengths away, guarding his father's quarters next door, so they ought to see anyone who approached Peter's chamber. Yet somehow, Andrew always managed to slip in, unheralded by even a knock.
Now he was holding something under the cloak. He produced it silently: a wooden bucket full of objects. Peter looked at the bucket, feeling his throat ache. A bucket – of course, he should have asked Drogo for a bucket made of wood. Why had he wasted his time making a useless, ugly basket out of paper?
Stepping to the side, in hopes that Andrew would not see the mess on the table, he asked, "How did you manage to find anything out there? Everything is buried under snow."
"In Emor, anything worth getting is buried." Andrew walked past Peter before Peter had the wits to realize that Andrew had just made a joke. He so rarely did that; his jokes would blossom unexpectedly like bright flowers in an otherwise arid desert.
"Like you," Peter said, trying to return the joke.
Andrew turned and gave him a look that was deeper than a well. "Like me," he agreed. "Buried, cold . . . dead."
Peter felt a shiver crawl over him, like wet slime. "Not dead," he responded in a voice that was almost an entreaty. "Alive and whole."
Andrew's gaze lingered on him for a moment; then the slave turned away. Kneeling down, Andrew began to inspect the contents of the bucket, asking, "Did you find a basket?"
Peter said hesitantly, "That bucket won't do?"
"It's too deep. We need something more shallow."
Peter looked again at his efforts. The basket was certainly shallow. It was falling to pieces, but it was shallow. He cleared his throat. "I have something we could use. It's not very good, though. It will probably crumple the moment we pour in the earth . . ."
His voice faded. Andrew had risen and turned and was staring at the basket. He walked slowly forward and gazed down at it. Peter tried to think of an apology he could make that would not sound like a plea for pity.
Andrew asked softly, "How did you know?"
"That the baskets are made of paper. That they're made the same shape as Koretia."
Now it was Peter's turn to stare at the basket. The basket sat there, waiting for him to notice the obvious. Not the shape of a fat ship, no – the basket was in the shape of the dominion of Koretia. The shape of a triangular mask.
"The baskets are made of paper?" he said finally.
"Yes, the ones made by the rich. If you're a commoner, you make the baskets of whatever is available: twigs, roots, grass, leaves . . . But the rich make their baskets from paper. I always wondered what the paper baskets looked like." He reached out, as though to touch the basket, then hastily drew his hand back. "Would you like me to make your creation basket, Lord Peter, or would you prefer to make it yourself?"
"You do it. I'll watch, so that I know how to do it next time." He tried to keep the disappointment from his voice. For a moment there, he had thought he had finally found the right gift for Andrew. But Andrew evidently believed that the basket could not be for him, since it was made of paper, and in a certain sense he was right. Whatever the basket was made of, it would have to stay in Peter's chamber, for Andrew would not be allowed to keep belongings in the slave-quarters.
No, Peter could not give Andrew an object for a gift. But if not an object, then what?
It was Andrew who found the solution to the problem of the paper falling apart, of course. He dug into the chest in which Peter kept all his most special treasures, and which even Drogo was not permitted to open. Peter had shown the contents of the chest to Andrew on the first day of his service in this chamber: Peter's copy of The Law-Structure and the Division of Powers, given to him by his much-beloved aunt before she and his not-so-agreeable uncle and cousin moved to the Central Provinces of Emor; a portrait of his mother, whom he had never known, because she had died when he was born; the royal emblem brooch that Lord Carle had given him just that month; and a glass bowl that one of Peter's ancestors, the Chara Lionel, had had commissioned hundreds of years before, after the Battle of Mountain Heights.
Peter had explained the origins of his treasures to Andrew – all except the brooch, which Andrew would not have understood, since he had not been there when Lord Carle had spoken so tenderly of his love for the Chara's law. It had not mattered; Andrew had been most interested, not in the brooch, but in the bowl, which Peter's father had once described as "one of the greatest treasures of the empire."
The craftsman who had created it had been a master at glass-blowing. There was scarcely a single air-bubble within the glass, and the bowl was smooth to the touch. What wavering occurred in the glass, right at the brim, captured colors from the air and trapped them. The colors shifted when you looked at the brim from different angles.
Carefully now, Andrew placed the paper basket within the bowl. The basket just fit, with the masked border running alongside the colorful brim of the bowl. Together they poured in the winter-hard earth that Andrew had managed to dig out of the garden, and which they had warmed and softened next to the fire. The fragile basket split its seams almost immediately, but the earth settled into the bowl, like mud at the bottom of an iridescent lake.
Andrew stared down at the remainder of what he had brought, his eyes fierce with concentration. He had a bit of dirt across his cheek, but it looked merely like a different tone of brown on his skin. Peter liked Andrew's dark skin, in the same way that he liked Andrew's dark hair and eyes, his soft vowels and slow consonants, and the way his hands moved when he grew excited while speaking. Peter's own hair was very ordinary yellow, and his skin was chalky white, just like the skin of most of the people he had met in his life. Andrew was far more interesting to look at.
"The twigs are too long," Andrew said finally. "I'll have to break them to the right size."
"I'll do that," said Peter quickly. "You just tell me what to do."
It was fun and amusing to be the servant for once, following Andrew's exacting instructions on the proper way to snap the twigs. Peter sat on the floor, which was made of cold marble, and set to work at the task, while Andrew stood next to the table, carefully arranging the other objects in the bowl.
After a while, it ceased to be fun and amusing to sit on a cold floor, snapping twigs, and Peter would have stood up to see how the younger boy was progressing if it had not occurred to him that Andrew and the other slave-servants did this sort of dull work all the time. So Peter stayed on the floor, and thought about the division of labor, so necessary to keep the empire running, but so very tedious for the men and women and children who were given the lower jobs.
After Peter had reached the end of his task, he sighed and began to stretch out his weary legs, but at that moment Andrew dumped a pile of moss next to him and told him that the moss needed to be cleaned of dirt.
Peter looked at the moss. There was a great deal of it to clean. He looked up at Andrew and asked, "How do you keep from screaming with boredom and running from the task?"
Andrew did not pretend to misunderstand. He never pretended to misunderstand. He said, "If you know that you're going to be beaten if you don't finish the job, that helps."
Peter felt heat flood into his cheeks. "Oh," was all he said, and turned his attention back to the moss.
Outside the corridor, the Chara's guards murmured to each other, the shaft-tips of their spears scraping against the floor as they shifted position. The scribes to the Chara's clerk, let free from work early on this special evening, emerged from the clerk's quarters, laughing and chattering. Peter could only recognize the voice of the newest scribe, who stammered badly; Peter had never been given the opportunity to speak more than a few words to the boys who worked daily across the corridor from himself. Nor had he spoken much with the noble-boys and noble-girls in the palace. He had only the one cousin, living far away from him, and all of the other boys and girls he met were very formal and respectful to him. It made him want to throw things at the wall sometimes.
It had occurred to him, more than once, that a boy who was training to be High Judge of a land and three dominions ought to be allowed to spend more time with the people he would be duty-bound to judge in court, should they commit crimes or offer witness. Of course, everything would change in just over a year. His law studies would reach their end, and he would emerge from his quarters, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. From that point forward, he would spend most of his time visiting the various portions of the palace, and the tents of the army headquarters nearby, and even journeying into faraway portions of the empire. He had taken one trip already, south to Koretia – but he was forbidden to return there by the Chara, because Peter had nearly been assassinated on that trip.
Peter tilted his head to look up at Andrew, who was moving a broken pebble with great concentration onto a pile of smooth pebbles. It remained a wonder to Peter that he had first met Andrew in Koretia, when Andrew was still free. Of course, he knew that such a thing was not impossible. Many of the Koretians who had been captured during the Emorians' conquest of the Koretian capital had been sent as slaves to the Chara's palace. Hundreds of slaves were needed to run the palace. But that Andrew should have been sold to a council lord, of all people, and that Peter should have happened to see Andrew in Lord Carle's quarters . . . Somehow, Peter was quite sure that they were meant to meet each other. Perhaps it was only so that the Chara To Be could become more familiar with the lives of his ordinary subjects.
But it was more than that; he knew that in his heart.
"I need the moss now," said Andrew, breaking into Peter's reverie.
Peter looked down. "It's only half done. I was daydreaming."
Andrew said nothing. Looking up, Peter saw that the slave had a darkly ironic look in his eye which he hid by ducking his head to stare down at the creation basket.
Peter felt suddenly sick. "What kind of beating would you have received if you didn't finish your work in time?" he asked.
"From Lord Carle? None at all. He would have lashed me with his tongue, which is far worse."
Peter nodded slowly. He had witnessed Lord Carle berating Andrew on the day that the council lord had sentenced his slave to a prolonged beating. Both the cutting words and the beating still puzzled Peter. He could not imagine how a man who so manifestly loved the Chara's law, and who acted with such generosity toward the Chara's son, could be needlessly strict with his slaves. Perhaps Andrew had simply allowed his temper to get the best of him in Lord Carle's presence. He had a temper; Peter knew that much about him, though the slave was still a stranger to Peter in many ways.
Andrew had come over to gather the moss; Peter quickly brushed the dirt off the rest, saying, "Can I see the basket now?"
"Not yet," replied Andrew imperturbably. Peter grinned. It was so very hard to find servants who would say no to him – even Drogo said yes when he really meant no.
"What else do we do besides make the creation basket?" asked Peter. "You said there were songs— No, I forgot, we're not singing songs. Nuts in the fire, you said? I have some shelled Daxion nuts by my bed."
He looked hopefully at the pile of nuts on the sideboard, but Andrew shook his head. "It has to be nuts still in their shells. The shells have to crack as they're tossed into the fire."
"Oh." Peter frowned. He was unlikely to receive nuts with his dinner; Daxion nuts were expensive and reserved for special treats. And if he asked Drogo for nuts that still had shells . . .
"Is there anything else you do?" he asked.
Andrew seemed at first not to hear him. Then he said, "There are vows."
"What kind of vows?"
Again, Andrew hesitated. Finally he said, "Blood vows."
Immediately, Peter regretted asking the question. He understood now why Andrew had been reluctant to reply. Blood vows . . . The Koretians vowed their blood on all sorts of matters, but the most common type of blood vow, before the arrival of the Emorians, had been blood vows to kill.
Peter stared down at the moss, brushing it lightly with his finger. It was soft and springy and looked surprisingly green for a winter plant. Koretia was green year-round. It was a hot land, filled with people with hot tempers, who had created the gods' law. Lord Carle had once described the gods' law as "a way to murder and be praised for it afterwards." Peter's father, not surprisingly, had abolished the gods' law once he had brought Koretia under the protection of the Chara's law, though he had been careful to point out that he was not forbidding the practice of the Koretian religion. The Koretians could still worship their gods, just as the people in Emor's northern dominions did; they simply would not be permitted to murder each other in the names of their gods.
Peter became suddenly aware, as he supposed he ought to have been aware before, that he was helping Andrew celebrate the founding of a bloody system of justice that the Chara had outlawed. He told himself he was being silly. Tossing nuts into a fire had nothing to do with creeping up on innocent strangers and slitting their throats in order to continue a blood feud. Nor was there any harm in a creation basket, a sign of life rather than death. Probably all these customs had existed long before the gods' law took shape, and no doubt they continued to exist now that the gods' law was abolished. He was quite sure that his father, who had courteously attended a service for the dead held by the Koretian priests after the battle at the Koretian capital, would not mind Peter cleaning a few bits of moss in order to make his homesick slave happy.
"There's drinking too," said Andrew unexpectedly.
"Oh? What kind of drinking?"
"Wild-berry wine," Andrew said firmly. He had very decided opinions on wine; he had established that on his first day of service, when Peter had made the mistake of inviting him to pour a cup of Emorian wall-vine wine for himself.
Now Peter was prepared. He leapt up and went over to the corner where he had stored the bottle of wild-berry wine he had asked his father for, as a New Year gift. His father, somewhat dubious of Peter's new, exotic tastes, had ordered a bottle from the vintners who sold wine to the palace.
"The version with honey added," the Chara had said when he presented the bottle to Peter. "You wouldn't like wild-berry wine in its native form, I assure you."
Now Peter struggled with the cork, wondering how the slaves, who were forbidden to touch anything that might be used as a weapon, managed to get wine bottles open. Andrew, after one curious glance, had gone back to arranging the basket. Beyond him, in the corridor, a woman giggled. A man responded, and Peter realized that the "woman" was actually Lord Sutton's latest slave-servant, Eugene.
Peter made a face. Eugene was a eunuch. All of Lord Sutton's slave-servants were eunuchs. Peter had been puzzled by this until he had overheard Drogo gossiping with another free-servant about Lord Sutton's taste. The conversation would not have meant much to Peter the previous year, but just this year, the Chara had decided that it was time that Peter understood his "marital duties." And so, with the air of a time-pressed man who must nonetheless clear his schedule for an important talk that only he can deliver, the Chara had explained what sort of duties Peter would be required to undertake when he married.
It had been an interesting talk. Peter's father and mother had loved each other very much, and so they had spent a good deal of the Chara's leisure hours undertaking these "duties." Peter was quite sure, by the end of the talk, that he would make a good showing on his wedding night, however far in the future that might be. The Chara had not married until he was nineteen; it was unlikely that Peter would marry earlier than that, since he was not yet Chara himself and therefore had no pressing need to beget heirs.
He had been shocked, though, when he had grasped what it was that Lord Sutton did with his eunuch servants. Of course, Peter knew that some of the unmarried lords made use of their female slaves in such a way, and he also had known, from a very early age, that eunuchs were not men. That was made clear in the Law of Inheritance, which forbade eunuchs from inheriting property and titles that were assigned only to men.
But Eugene looked like a man, even if he did not sound like one. The idea of Lord Sutton taking someone who looked like a man into bed with him . . . The thought made Peter's stomach churn, and he felt even more sick when Drogo suggested, with a laugh, that Lord Sutton was the sort of man who would sleep with true men if the law permitted it.
Peter had felt sorry for Eugene after that. Neither man nor woman, dressed as a man, yet forced to be used as a woman . . . Peter had resolved that the first thing he would do when he became Chara would be to forbid the bedding of eunuchs against their will. He had puzzled for some time as to how eunuchs could be willingly bedded, since they could not sleep with women. Perhaps, he thought, they could sleep with each other, and would not mind that.
It would provide them with companionship, at any rate. He remembered a long-ago dinner conversation with Lord Carle, in which his father's friend had told him that commoners usually slept on pallets rather than beds, and sometimes the commoners could not even afford pallets for everyone in the family, so the family members slept together.
"That sounds uncomfortable," Peter had said doubtfully.
Lord Carle had given him his quirk of a smile. "It has its benefits. When I was young – oh, older than you are now, but I was not so well off as I am today – I shared a pallet with a friend when we were staying in an inn. It was . . . companionable. Yes, that is the word." He stared off into the distance, his smile fading, and then, with an abruptness that was almost rude, he had turned the conversation.
Peter thought now of the pallets that the slaves slept on. The basement where the slave-quarters was located was very cold; the floor must be colder than in Peter's chamber. And punished slaves were not even permitted a pallet.
Peter frowned as he remembered the shock he had felt when he had found that Lord Carle's heavily beaten slave was lying naked on the floor of the punishment chamber. Andrew's legs had been modestly drawn up to hide his groin, so the slave had not been displayed in a shameless fashion. But the room had been winter-cold; it was amazing that Andrew had not died from the chill alone.
As Peter placed the still-corked bottle of Koretian wine on the sideboard next to his bed, he sighed, so heavily that Andrew looked up and stared enquiringly at him. Peter explained, "I have so much to do once I become Chara. It's hard to know where to start. There are so many injustices to right. It frustrates me."
"That," said Andrew, "is why you will be a good Chara. —Come see."
For a moment, Peter stayed motionless by the table, his heart thudding rapidly like a war-horse at full gallop. This was the first time Andrew had given any indication whatsoever that he respected the Chara's son, though Peter supposed the fact that Andrew trusted his new master not to punish him should be indication enough of his respect. Finally, picking up the bottle again, Peter came over to look at the finished basket.
It looked like Koretia. That was Peter's first thought as he stared down at it. Perhaps the resemblance came partly because of the shape of the basket, but mainly it was because of the trees. There were dozens of them: little bare twigs sticking up, as though the autumn leaves had fallen from them. Peter had never seen autumn tree-leaves himself, but he had looked at pictures of what Emor was like in the olden days, when the Charas were first given the law. The tiny trees were everywhere in the little creation basket: atop bright green moss that looked like meadowland, between cracks of pebble mountains, along trailing paths composed of vine tendrils, over hazelnut hills, next to bridges composed of bits of bark, surrounding blue-black berries that Peter supposed must represent houses, and around the earthen border surrounding a large leaf.
"What's that?" Peter asked, pointing at the leaf.
"A lake. It doesn't look much like a lake, I suppose. I've never seen lakes, only the moat around the capital, which was always muddy. But there are small lakes in Central Koretia, so I thought I should include one."
Peter stared at the brown leaf, trying to envision lake-water, but seeing only dry leaf. "It looks as though the lake has dried up in its bed."
"I suppose so."
Andrew's voice had turned toneless. Peter glanced at him. The younger boy was expressionless, as he had been when he spoke of his burial.
"Wait!" Putting down the wine bottle next to the basket, Peter hurried over to the sideboard and picked up the pitcher there. It was still full of the water that Drogo had delivered. Nearly spilling the heavy pitcher in his haste, he brought it over to the basket, then cautiously tipped it. A few drops landed where he had aimed them, upon the leaf. He set the pitcher aside, and he and Andrew leaned forward to look.
The water was as iridescent as the bowl, capturing the colors around it: brown and green and black and the undyed cream color of Andrew's slave-tunic. As Peter leaned further forward, the lake turned suddenly golden, as though sunlight had fallen upon it. It took Peter a moment to realize that it was reflecting the royal emblem brooch, which he had decided to wear today.
He straightened up and looked over at Andrew and then realized, startled, that Andrew was smiling faintly at him. That did not happen very often. In fact, it had happened only once: on midwinter's eve, shortly before Lord Carle had Andrew beaten for three days.
Peter smiled back. "It's very good. I like the trees."
Andrew turned his gaze back to the basket, his smile lingering at the corners of his mouth. "You don't have many trees near the palace, do you?"
Peter was surprised until he realized that, of course, Andrew would only have seen the small stretch of Emorian land between the black border mountains and the palace. "We don't have any trees in Emor," he replied. "Only in the dominions. It's fields here in Southern Emor, and then there are mountains with shrubs on them, and then come the plains of the Central Provinces of Emor. After that come the northern dominions, but the trees there are all evergreens. Or so my father said," he amended. "He saw them when he was young, before he became Chara."
"No broad-leafed trees?" Andrew's smile had sunk away during the speech. "But you have fruit trees, don't you?"
It was on the tip of Peter's tongue to say no. Then he remembered Lord Carle's orchard, on his country estate. Of course – Andrew must have assumed that, since Lord Carle had trees on his estate, trees were common in Emor.
"No," he replied. "There's only one orchard in Southern Emor. We have some vineyards, though, in the borderland," he added. Too late, he remembered that the vineyards grew wall-vine grapes.
"No trees," murmured Andrew, staring down at the tree-filled landscape he had created. The iridescent water was beginning to sink away, absorbed into the winter leaf.
Peter touched his arm. "Let's have the wine now," he said.
Andrew, without glancing at the label of the bottle, reached over, uncorked it with a practiced twist of the hand, and poured wine into one of the gold goblets at the end of the table. Peter's gaze had wandered past him to the fire. The logs there were burning fiercely; more logs were stacked nearby, placed there by Andrew the previous day. Peter wondered suddenly why his chamber had always been heated by wood, if trees were so scarce in Emor. Surely logs must be expensive, if they had to be carried all the way from the dominions?
He looked around his chamber again, seeing it with new eyes. Gilded furniture, an expensive tapestry on the wall, a bed . . . Andrew had probably never slept on a bed, even before he became a slave.
And a glass bowl. The most beautiful glass bowl in the world, and Peter could afford to fill it with earth. What must Andrew think of a boy who was spoiled with such riches?
He became aware that Andrew was holding out the goblet. Or rather, he was holding a gold tray, with the goblet upon it. It was not the first time he had served Peter this way, but for the first time Peter realized that Andrew would not serve himself unless Peter urged him to.
Of course he would not. He was Peter's slave.
Peter nearly choked on the wine, though it tasted very good: sweet, like cider. His father had said, over and over, that the gap between nobleman and servant was too wide to be bridged by friendship. Lord Carle had said the same. And Andrew . . . what did he think behind those inscrutable eyes, behind those carefully trained motions of service?
What could you give a slave who, by law, could own nothing? What would tell Andrew that Peter wanted more than service from him?
"Here." He thrust out his goblet suddenly, in Andrew's direction.
He had offered the gift impulsively, without thinking whether Andrew would even understand, but from the widening of Andrew's eyes, Peter guessed that the slave had this much familiarity with Emorian custom. Andrew stared at the goblet. Slowly he reached out to take the half-filled goblet in his hand. For a moment he stood there, as though he were a balance weighing the wine. Then he turned, refilled the goblet, and handed it back to Peter.
This time Peter could not even taste the wine; the bitterness in his mouth was too great. He could not tell whether Andrew had rejected the wine of friendship, or had misunderstood what Peter was offering, or simply was too cautious a servant to make assumptions. And not knowing, Peter could not ask.
"You can drink the wine too," he told Andrew.
Andrew silently poured some wine into one of the plainer cups, sipped from it, and began coughing. Peter remembered just in time not to pound him on the back. "What's wrong?" he asked the slave.
"It's sweet." From the way Andrew spoke, it was clear that he considered sweetness to be the greatest crime a vintage could commit. "What is it made of, some sort of Daxion fruit?"
Sighing inwardly at his continued inability to select the right gift, Peter was still composing a reply when a knock sounded on the door. Peter spun around, trying to figure out where to hide the creation basket from Drogo.
It was too late; following some previously given training, the servant opened the door. Andrew – seeing that the servant was overladen with a silver tray holding a serving platter, two plates, and eating knives – hurried forward to hold the door open. His gaze lingered on the servant.
So did Peter's. The food was quietly placed on the sideboard; then the servant carefully backed away. Head down, hands clasped together at the front, eyes looking up through thick lashes, waiting.
Peter managed to clear his throat. "Thank you, Laura. That will be all."
A shy, pleased smile; eyes lively with curiosity under the lashes; then the milkweed-pale hair shimmered as the servant ducked her head further and curtsied. She left the room without a word.
Peter went to the door, ostensibly to see that it was shut, but actually to watch as Laura went over to a handcart and began pushing it down the corridor, her hips swaying as she walked. After a few minutes, the girl turned the corner and disappeared from view.
As he slowly closed the door, Peter turned to see that Andrew's gaze was focussed, not on the Chara's son or on the chamber they stood in, but on the northern wall, as though he could see through it to watch Laura's progress. His eyes turned to meet Peter's.
Peter bit his lip. Smiling slightly, he said, almost apologetically, "She's very pretty."
Andrew gave a slight nod.
Peter took a deep breath and moved away from the door. "My father brought her into service this year; she was part of a shipment of slaves from the latest troubles up in Arpesh. The Chara told me that her father was involved in plots of rebellion . . . but she had been in free-service already, so the Chara decided she was trained well enough to serve his quarters. She usually cleans his sitting chamber . . . but sometimes, when all of my slaves are busy, she comes over and cleans my chamber." He kneaded the back of his neck, as though a pain were developing there. "It's rather hard to study when she's here."
"I imagine so."
There was no amusement in Andrew's voice, only sympathy. Peter flashed him a smile, relieved that there would be no need to explain further. "Well, you must have seen more of her than I have; you live in the same part of the slave-quarters together. Have you found that she—?"
The rest of his query was broken off as the door burst open.
Peter jumped in place as he turned to look at the door, startled by the sudden entrance. Andrew, snarling like a wildcat, skidded in front of Peter, placing his body between the Chara's son and the intruder. The intruder got no further than the threshold, though; immediately, guards were around him, pulling him back. Peter heard garbled voices from the struggle that followed: ". . . only want to see how he . . ." ". . . not without permission, sir. If you apply for entrance . . ." ". . . will be cold by then. Surely you would not spoil good food . . ."
Peter was still trying to peer round Andrew's body – Andrew, though three years younger, was as tall as his master – but the conversation, as much as the intruder's accent, told him who this must be. "It's all right, Emmett, Beorn," he called out. "Let him through."
The guards, with a doubtful look at Peter, let go the intruder. He shook his clothes into a semblance of order, glared at them, and immediately turned and beamed at the Chara's son. Then his gaze moved, and his face fell.
"Oh, it has been delivered already!" he cried, his palms embracing his face with dismay as he stepped forward and the guards unobtrusively closed the door. "I had hoped to see your expression upon its arrival!"
Peter turned to look at the platter. Amidst his concerns over its manner of delivery, he had not taken in what lay on the platter, next to the date salad: a piece of meat, bird-shaped, but far too small to be poultry.
"I thought we weren't having meat for dinner," he said blankly.
"Oh, so I am in time – thank the Song Spirit!" The cook flung his arms up in the general direction of the sky. "It is beautiful, is it not? It is the finest dish I have prepared in my twenty years of serving the Charas! It is my summary, it is my essence of all that I have done—"
Peter barely managed to stem the flow of words. "It looks appetizing. It will, er, make a good New Year meal."
The cook beamed again. "You understand! It is a meal fit to be served to the Spirit herself, should she come down to care for her children. And it took so little time to make: a roasting over the fire, with the drippings saved, and then the drippings were mixed with flour and goat's milk and just a touch of honey, and then I poured over it the dried apples I had saved from the harvest—"
Peter had seen Andrew flinch at the word "apples"; he hastily said, "It looks delicious. I'm sure I'm quite fortunate to have had you prepare it."
The cook clapped his hands together and held them to his breast, as though only manful effort kept his heart from springing forward. "Ah, but when I have such ingredients, how can I go wrong? Apples from the orchard of Lord Carle, goat's milk from your father's nearest estate, flour grown and milled in the finest farming country in the world – the Central Provinces – and then, as the crowning touch of it all, a songbird from the Chara's very own garden!"
Peter stared at the tiny little bird on the platter; then his gaze moved over to Andrew. The slave had ducked his head, and he was toeing the floor.
Peter cleared his throat. "Well, we don't want such a splendid meal to go cold."
These were, perhaps, the only words he could have spoken that would have persuaded the effusive cook to leave. "Of course, of course!" the cook said, bowing as he backed up. "And you will tell me, afterwards, if it was to your liking?"
"Certainly," said Peter firmly. "But I have no doubts that it will be a meal for . . . Well, a meal fit for the Chara To Be."
The cook kissed his palms and then turned the palms outward, as though flinging his kiss to the entire world. "It will be, Lord Peter, I promise you! Such ingredients! And on such a special day!"
"Do you celebrate the New Year in Daxis?" Peter asked, curious, as Andrew opened the door to let the cook out.
"But indeed!" The cook's smile shone brighter than the many candles in the room. "This is the day on which the Song Spirit sung her first lullaby to the Daxion people. May you and your servant" – here he gave a little bow to Andrew, so overwhelmed by the moment as to ignore the slave-tunic – "receive all the blessings and joy that the Spirit sends you. Such ingredients!" And with that final, ultimate summary, he disappeared from view.
Andrew closed the door. He looked at Peter. Peter looked at him. Then they both smiled.
"'Such ingredients!'" repeated Peter, keeping his voice low so that it could not be heard outside the chamber. "Andrew, you are a marvel. Where did you get the bird?"
Still smiling, Andrew came forward and began to meticulously carve the tiny feast-bird. "In the inner garden. He told you."
"But how? You didn't have time to set a trap, and you don't own a dagger."
Andrew's smile faded, and he was silent a minute, long enough for Peter to remember that Koretian boys his age had usually already received their daggers of manhood. Then the slave said, "It was trapped in a thorn bush. When I came upon it, it was fluttering its wings, trying to escape."
"And you captured and killed it?"
"Yes, of course." Andrew turned a puzzled gaze upon Peter. "What would you have done?"
"I'd have let it go free."
Andrew said nothing. He simply looked at Peter, a long look. Then he turned his attention back to carving the bird.
Peter realized then how rude his response had been. He added quickly, "But I'm too sentimental. My father often says so. He says I need to learn how to wield the Sword of Vengeance. Maybe I should take lessons from you."
"I didn't use a blade." Andrew kept his eye on the platter; he was moving the dried apples from the platter. "I wrung its neck."
"Oh." Peter felt faint at the words, which was foolish, for every day he ate meat that had been slaughtered for him. "I thought you didn't hunt when you lived in Koretia?"
"Killing poultry isn't hunting. My mother used to have me buy live pullets from the poulterer, kill them, pluck them, and resell them at a higher price to noblemen who couldn't be bothered to have their servants do the task. It brought us in a little extra money. —There." Andrew finished dividing the meat. He had placed all of the apples onto one of the plates, Peter noticed.
Peter came forward and, knowing which serving must be his, picked up the plate with the apples. "I suppose," he said, trying to keep envy out of his voice, "that you could have used a blade if you wanted. I mean, you would have been trained at bladeplay earlier than I'm being trained, wouldn't you?"
Andrew sent him an unreadable look. "Yes. But I couldn't wear a dagger of manhood now, you know, even if I were free."
"Oh?" Peter eyed him curiously, but decided not to pursue this particular line of enquiry. Andrew could get touchy sometimes, talking about what he could or could not do in the palace. "Did you own a blade once, though? And what kind of blade was it?" As he spoke, he moved over to the bed and sat down, preparing to be enlightened.
The discussion of blades went on for a long time; Andrew knew a good deal more about the subject than Peter did. He spoke about leaf-bladed swords, double-edged daggers, wasp-waisted blades, razor-sharp thigh-daggers. . .
Inevitably, they worked their way round to the topic of jokes about blades. And in this manner Peter was finally able to raise the subject that he had most wanted to talk about with Andrew.
"Girls," he said, "are more mysterious than a thousand Case volumes written in Railik."
He looked up and found that Andrew was giving his shadow-smile again. With much effort, Peter had managed to persuade Andrew that it would be better for them to eat on the bed than on the floor. Now Andrew was perched on the very edge of the bed, reaching forward to pick final bits of meat from his plate, while Peter, left with plenty of room, sprawled out on his stomach atop the blanket.
"I suppose it's because I never knew my mother," he said, staring down at the blanket as he ran his fingers over the yarn. "I don't remember my wet-nurse well, and I never had a dry-nurse; slave-servants looked after my needs as soon as I was old enough to be weaned. The people I've been around the most have all been men. But I give witness, I'm sure that I would have found girls mysterious even if I'd been surrounded by them all my life. I'll be talking to them, and they'll start giggling when I haven't made any jokes, and they'll get all teary-eyed when I haven't said anything sad, and they'll keep blinking, as though we were standing in sunlight—"
"They're trying to make you notice their eyelashes."
Peter looked up at his slave. "Are they?"
Andrew nodded, worldly-wise at age eleven.
"Well, then, why don't they just say, 'See what beautiful eyelashes I have'?"
Andrew laughed then. It was the first time Peter had ever heard him laugh; his chuckle was softer than the flames eating the logs nearby.
Peter smiled. "Oh, well, I suppose they couldn't say that. But girls really are like a book written in a foreign tongue. It will take me years to figure them out. The only part I'm sure about is that I'll like the mating."
Andrew suddenly stopped smiling. He looked down at his plate, picking at it with his knife, as though food remained there.
Peter hesitated, wondering whether he ought to change the subject. He knew what his father would think of him discussing this matter with a slave. But there were certain things he just couldn't ask his father – things that Andrew might know about, since he seemed to know quite a lot about different subjects.
Peter stared down at the blanket for a minute. Next to his treasures, the blanket was his favorite object in the room; it had been created by an Arpheshian weaver as a gift for the Chara To Be. The blanket showed the Chara's seal: the Balance of Judgment holding the Sword of Vengeance and the Heart of Mercy. The Heart – a fluttering bird with a bleeding breast – made Peter think of the bird that Andrew had trapped and killed. Peter traced his finger across one of the tiny, open-paged books woven around the seal, wishing that everything in life was as orderly as the Chara's law.
"Andrew," he said, "do you ever dream of girls?"
He looked up again. Andrew had abandoned his plate and was staring at the wall. After a minute, the slave said, "I used to dream of them at home."
"At home?" cried Peter, jerking up onto his elbows in astonishment. "But you were only eight then!" In his chest of treasures was the certificate of transfer of ownership for Andrew, made out to the Chara, since Peter's father was the official owner of the slave. The certificate was signed by Lord Carle, and it provided the date on which Lord Carle had bought the slave, as well as Andrew's date of birth.
Andrew looked at him sidelong. "My mother said I was precocious."
Peter laughed. After a minute, Andrew shadowed a smile. Reaching over, Peter refilled Andrew's water-cup and shoved it in his direction. "Eight years old. All I was thinking of when I was eight was whether I could be High Judge without having to memorize a dozen laws each day." He waited until Andrew had drained the cup and set it down again before adding, "I always thought you were mature for your age."
Andrew looked sidelong at him again. He said nothing. Peter tried to think of a way to get himself past the hurdle of asking the question he wanted to ask.
Andrew filled the gap by saying, his eyes now focussed once again at the wall, "The physician thought that would make a difference."
"Physician? You mean Woods? Or his assistant?" Woods was the palace physician, but he did not deign to tend the slaves; he left that work to one of his many assistants.
"No. A city physician. He never told me his name. He told me . . . he asked me questions. I didn't answer them, but he examined my body, and he seemed to know that I was old for my age. He said it was better for me. It was better that I was just beginning to mature when they did it."
Peter wondered whether his face was as blank as his mind. Glancing at him, Andrew said, "You don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"
"No." He was beginning to think that he had not paid careful enough attention to the talk his father had given him. Was Peter to be examined by a physician too, when he gave signs that he was maturing? Who were "they," and what had they done to Andrew? Would it be done to Peter as well?
Andrew wrapped his arms around his legs. His knuckles were bone-white as he gripped his hands together. Whatever it was that "they" had done, it had evidently not been pleasant. He said finally, "Suppose you own a horse."
"All right," Peter said, resigning himself to another long discussion of farmyard behavior. At the start of their conversation on marital duties, his father had spent quite a long time talking about farm animals before he had finally reached the point of his tale. Peter had been half convinced, before he figured out what the point of the conversation was, that his father was preparing to break the news that he did not consider Peter to be worthy to be his heir, so he had arranged for Peter to supervise of one of the Chara's country estates.
"And the previous owner wants to make the horse into a gelding." Andrew's gaze remained fixed on the wall.
"Yes?" Peter prompted, trying to follow the path of Andrew's thought.
"If he does it when the colt is quite young, the colt is just a gelding. The colt can't do anything. But if the owner waits till the horse is older, when the horse is starting to become a stallion, he . . . it's still a gelding. It can't mate. It can't . . . insert its blade into a mare. But it can . . . do other things. You see?"
"Oh, yes." Peter did not, in fact, have the least notion what Andrew was talking about, but it was hard to admit outright that he had paid so little attention to what the Chara had told him. Perhaps, somewhere in the law books, there was a passage that talked about colts and geldings and stallions, which would help him make sense of what Andrew had just said.
Working his way back to the last part of the conversation he had been able to understand, Peter asked, "So do you still dream about girls?"
Again that look out of the corner of the eye. "Occasionally." Then: "Quite a lot, actually."
Peter sighed as he rested his chin upon the back of his hands, which were flat against the blanket. "I only started dreaming about them this year. Do you . . ." He licked his lips in a nervous twitch before asking, "Do you dream about mating with them?"
"Sometimes." Andrew's voice was still cautious, but he was looking straight at Peter now.
"I dream about that a lot," Peter confessed. "I wondered whether anyone else did."
Andrew seemed absorbed in the conversation now; he turned his body to face Peter. "I suppose lots of people dream about things they can't have."
"Yes." Peter sighed. He would have to wait until he was married, and that might be years from now. Just getting the council's permission to marry would take him months, he had been told. "Well, at least there's the dreams. That's something. Do you ever . . . I mean, do you discover, after you've dreamt . . ." He hesitated again, and then, girding up his courage as though he were ordering his first execution, he asked the question he had not dared ask his father.
Thankfully, Andrew's reply was matter-of-fact. "No, but it doesn't signify in my case. It's different for me."
Peter nodded. He forgot sometimes that Andrew was three years younger than himself. Even being mature for his age, Andrew would not have yet reached that stage, Peter supposed. "But for me . . ." he prompted.
"For you, it means you're ready to beget children." Andrew, as always, had the information Peter needed.
"Oh." He thought about this. He had always assumed that he would not be ready to sire children until he came of age, but he supposed that was why his father had decided to hold the discussion now, rather than wait until Peter was sixteen. "I think I can manage that."
His voice must have sounded doubtful, for Andrew laughed. Peter grinned up at him. "You know what I mean. I don't mean giving my wife a child, but . . . all the rest of it. The mating part. It doesn't sound as though it would be difficult. Actually . . ." He felt his cheeks begin to grow warm. "I'm actually looking forward to it. Does that make me precocious too?"
"It makes you ready to marry." Andrew smiled at him.
"Oh, no." Peter shook his head. "No, not at all. Not till I can figure out what the pattern is to when girls giggle. I don't suppose there's a law which covers that, is there?"
Andrew laughed again, and Peter, relieved that the hard part of the conversation was over, sat up. He had other questions, but he no longer feared that Andrew would be scandalized by having the Chara To Be consult him on such matters. After all, Andrew must have thought about such matters himself, since he was a boy too. Placing both their plates onto the sideboard, Peter said, "I suppose that you'll marry as soon as you can?"
Andrew went rigid.
It was like seeing a soft clay ornament suddenly turn into the diamond-hard Sword of Vengeance. Every bone in his body, every piece of flesh, turned adamantine. All the laughter had fled from his face.
Peter remembered, too late, that slaves were not permitted to marry. "I meant . . . I didn't mean marry, of course. But I know that some of the slave-men mate with slave-women, so I thought, since you're dreaming about girls . . ."
Andrew's eyes were as dark now as a night-shadowed pit. Peter was just trying to figure out whether he had cast a slur on Andrew's honor by suggesting that the boy would sleep with a girl outside marriage when Andrew leapt up from the bed, so vigorously that the bed shook against the sideboard. Peter's goblet, still filled with the sugar-laden wild-berry wine, tipped over and spilled onto the blanket.
Peter was trying to determine where his face-cloth had gone, so that he could hastily wipe up the liquid, when he became aware that Andrew was no longer standing by the bed. The slave was backing up slowly, his eyes fastened upon Peter in the same horrified expression a man might show if faced with the Sword of Vengeance.
"Andrew!" Peter jumped up from the bed, the ruined blanket forgotten. "What's wrong?"
Andrew did not reply. He had reached the wall next to the hearth now, and he flattened himself against it, as though trying to hide from danger.
"Andrew, what—?" Peter had reached the other side of the room. On the point of stretching out to touch Andrew, he let his hand fall. His slave was staring at him, as dumb and aghast as a farmyard animal faced with some terrible fate.
"What is it?" whispered Peter.
"I thought you knew." Andrew's voice emerged faintly, as though he were being strangled.
"I'm a eunuch."
A bit of log fell, soft into the ashes, sending sparks of flame up the chimney. In the corridor, the guards talked quietly with one another. Beyond the shutters, a mockingbird trilled at the night sky.
"No," said Peter, hearing his own voice as from far away. "No, you couldn't be."
Andrew said nothing. The look of horror had gone; now his face was a mask, as blank as it had been on the evening when Peter had watched him serving Lord Carle.
"You couldn't be," Peter repeated. He looked again at Andrew, seeing nothing he had not seen before: a boy wearing a slave-tunic, dark-skinned, but otherwise no different from himself.
Still Andrew made no reply. Still the mask stayed in place, as though it had always been there.
"Who . . . ?" Peter had to stop to clear his throat. "Was it the soldier who enslaved you who did it?" They. Andrew had said they had done it. And there had been a physician from the city. From the Koretian capital?
"No. Lord Carle." Andrew's voice turned toneless.
Peter stared at him, willing away the words. Then he shouted, "No! It couldn't be! Not Lord Carle!"
Andrew said nothing. Peter tried to control the sickness that was overwhelming him. Lord Carle. . . . And he had spoken so lovingly of the Chara's law.. . . He had given Peter the brooch with the royal emblem upon it, the balance between judgment and mercy. . . .
"You could give me back."
Peter stared, trying to make sense of Andrew's words. "Give you back?"
"To Lord Carle. He would probably return all your money. You have only had use of me for a week."
The final, cold words, stiltedly formal, were like a blow. Peter asked, "Why should I want to do that?"
It took Andrew another minute to speak. Peter could see the struggle in him from the way in which his fists formed. Finally the slave said, in that same, dead voice, "Damaged goods."
"No!" Peter heard the anguish in his own voice and strove to take control of himself. "No, I don't see you that way. You're not damaged. You're .. . different. You've always been different from other people. I like you different. I . . . like you this way."
He tried tentatively to touch Andrew. Andrew flinched. Peter hastily drew his hand back. He could not think of the right thing to say. He supposed it was cruelty itself for him to have hinted that he preferred Andrew gelded. He heard Andrew's voice echoing in his head: "Buried, cold . . . dead."
Peter said, unable to think of the right way to phrase his thought, "I still want you."
Andrew made no reply. The terrible, blank mask that he always wore around other palace residents remained in place; it made him look like a complete stranger.
Feeling as though he were floundering in an ice-cold avalanche, Peter said, "'They' . . . you said they did it to you. Not Lord Carle."
"Not with his own hands." Something about the way Andrew spoke conveyed that the slave thought Lord Carle would gladly have wielded the gelding knife himself, if it had suited his fancy. "He gave me over to the dungeon torturers at the time he bought me. They brought in a city physician to advise them on how to do it."
Peter felt a cold sickness enter his stomach. The palace dungeon. An eight-year-old boy had been gelded in his own palace, and he had not even known.
He had been aware that men were sometimes gelded in the dungeon, of course. It was part of the so-called Slave's Death – the manner of execution for disobedient palace slaves and for treacherous free-men. Sometimes a pardon was given to the condemned prisoner before the full death had been exacted – hence the presence of eunuchs in the palace.
But gelding a young boy?
"What did you do?" Peter could not imagine what the crime had been. Even if Andrew had tried to kill Lord Carle, surely the lord – who was said to be the finest bladesman in the council – could easily have defended himself against a small boy.
Andrew had been looking Peter straight in the eye all this time. Now, as though recollecting his proper place, he dropped his eyes. He said in his dead voice, "I looked straight at him. I told him I was Koretian – that I did not wish to be an Emorian."
In the silence that followed, the palace trumpets called the half-hour warning before the midnight hour. Peter turned away, feeling the chill on his skin turn to clamminess. Lord Carle. Lord Carle, of all people. The man Peter had revered most, next to his father. Peter had even pleaded to his father that the council lord be assigned as his tutor.
Such a man had gelded an eight-year-old boy for a slight offense.
Peter stumbled his way over to the windows, seeking the freshness of the night air that was making its way through the cracks in the shutters. He felt a sudden urge to throw the royal emblem brooch in the fire. Lord Carle. How could Peter ever trust anything his new tutor would tell him about the Chara's law? Gripping the mantelpiece, Peter stared blindly at the misshapen Balance of Judgment.
It was some time before he realized that Andrew had left the chamber.
Peter sat on his bed, next to the wet spot where the wine had spilled, trying to think. He knew that he ought to be readying himself for bed; his father was quite strict about his bedtime. But images were whirling themselves too fast in his head: Lord Carle smiling as he spoke of the Chara's law. Andrew smiling at the creation basket. Andrew standing motionless against the wall, his face like that of a corpse.
A knock came at the door. Roused from his thoughts, Peter took an appalled glance at the floor. A bucket, moss, sap, bits of metal, clay . . . and worst of all, a valuable bowl filled with earth. If the Chara had come to bid his son good night, the interview would not be a pleasant one for Peter.
But it was not the Chara, Peter found when he opened the door; the man who had knocked was one of the Chara's guards, Emmett, whom Peter had always liked. "Your pardon, Lord Peter," he murmured. "Your slave-servant, Andrew, desires to know whether you wish him to complete the task you set for him, before he retires to bed."
Peter, having no idea what the "task" was, said immediately, "Yes, let him in now."
"He will need to be fetched," Emmett replied. Then, seeing Peter's frown of puzzlement, he explained, "The slave-quarters are currently being locked for the night. Lord Carle's free-servant delivered the message from your slave-servant, since Henry has just been checking on his master's own slaves, and the matter regarding your slave appeared to be urgent." There was a faintly querying note in Emmett's voice. Peter guessed that the underlying message was, "Merely say the word, and we'll have this troublesome slave beaten."
"He was quite right to deliver the message," Peter replied. "Please thank him for me. . . . And Emmett?"
"Yes, Lord Peter?"
Peter licked his lips. "I shall need Andrew for the rest of the night. Have Henry tell the slave-keeper that he may lock the quarters once he has released Andrew to my service."
An expression flicked across Emmett's face, too quick to be read. "Very well, Lord Peter. I shall see that you and your slave-servant are not disturbed."
He closed the door before Peter could think to ask what exactly Emmett envisioned he would be disturbing. Perhaps the guard had merely received a glimpse of what lay on the floor of the chamber of the Chara's son, and he envisioned a lengthy clean-up.
Peter bit his lip, wondering whether he had gone too far. His father had made clear to him that he must not interfere with how the slave-keeper handled the slaves. But Peter simply could not settle matters between Andrew and himself in the brief interval between now and the midnight trumpets.
He must find some way to make an apology. Thinking back on how he had handled the conversation, he was appalled at his cruelty. He had allowed himself to become so absorbed in worries over Lord Carle that he had turned his back on Andrew – had let the slave regard himself as dismissed from Peter's mind and heart. Andrew had been stripped of his virility, had been sold to a cruel master, had nonetheless trusted his new master enough to pull down his mask . . . and had had his new master turn against him.
What could you give a slave who, by law, could own nothing?
Another knock came at the door. It was Emmett, ushering in Andrew. Apparently Andrew did not even possess enough self-confidence now to enter unbidden. As the door closed, Andrew stood in the posture of an obedient slave: stiff-backed, with his eyes down. In his right hand was an iron bucket, filled with water, with rags tied to its handle. He said, "If it please the Chara's son, I would like to finish cleaning up after myself."
Peter cleared his throat. "Yes, of course. Andrew—"
But Andrew had taken his words as an order, not an invitation to conversation; he immediately fell to his knees and began scooping objects into the wooden bucket. Peter, retreating to the bed again, tried to think of what to say as Andrew cleared the clutter on the floor, took up a rag, and began cleaning the floor methodically. Peter could see the slave's bandaged back from where he sat.
He struggled to find the words he wanted, and then cried out wordlessly as Andrew, with not so much as a moment's hesitation, stood up, took the creation basket, and dumped its contents into the bucket, destroying the Koretian landscape he had created. Andrew glanced his way, then quickly lowered his eyes. "Have I failed to please the Chara To Be in some manner?"
Peter was beginning to realize why his slave had no friends in the slave-quarters; Andrew's voice was as cold and hard as a mainland ice-block. Peter made some strangled sound in his throat, which Andrew evidently read as a negative, for he turned and carried the glass bowl over to the pitcher, poured water into it, and began to carefully wash the remaining dirt from it.
"I'll help you with that," Peter said, stumbling in his eagerness to reach the sideboard.
"The Chara's son need not trouble himself."
A thigh-dagger cutting prisoners in the Marcadian ice-prisons could not have been as chillingly biting as Andrew's reply. Peter, who had just taken hold of the pitcher, stopped dead, feeling as though his life's blood had been severed. He stared at the slave, who was masked with his blank expression; then, without any conscious thought of what he was doing, Peter turned and dashed the pitcher onto the floor. "I hate being the Chara's son!" he cried, and then he fell to his knees amidst the broken pottery and covered his face with his hands.
Dimly, he heard the door open; dimly, he heard Emmett's voice, making an enquiry; dimly, he heard Andrew respond. Whatever Andrew said must have reassured the guard, for he withdrew quickly. The door shut again, leaving the chamber in silence.
The chamber was so still that Peter guessed that Andrew had left as well. He tried to gather himself together, but he found he was shaking. A full minute passed; the palace trumpets sounded in the new year. Finally, Peter managed to pull his hands from his face.
Andrew was kneeling beside him, mopping up the spilled water.
"I'm sorry," said the slave, without looking his way.
"Sorry?" Peter automatically reached forward to pick up one of the pieces of the broken pitcher.
"I'd forgotten that it's the same for you. That you have to wear a mask as well."
Peter's mind drifted back to the first conversation he had held with Andrew, concerning their shared burden of having to hide their true natures from other people. "My need isn't as great as yours. Andrew, I didn't mean to— I ought to have said—"
"It doesn't matter," Andrew replied. "At least you didn't break the glass bowl. . . . Some of the pitcher pieces have rolled under the bed."
"I'll get them." Peter dived down and squeezed under the bed. As he did so, it occurred to him that, just a week before, he never would have thought to help a slave-servant do so menial a task.
The Chara, he thought, had been more right than he knew. Andrew was helping Peter learn how to rule his subjects, for Peter was beginning to get a hazy sense of why the dominion of Koretia had caused so many troubles to Emor . . . and an even hazier sense of how he might be able to correct matters when he became Chara.
They finished cleaning the floor in silence, and then they worked together to clean the bowl and to place it back in the chest of treasures. Then they stood facing each other. Andrew appeared to be as much at a loss for words as Peter was.
Finally Peter asked, "Would you like to stay here tonight?"
And with those words, Andrew went rigid once more.
Feeling like a bladesman who has made a mortal mistake not once, but twice, Peter said quickly, "What is it?"
"You want me to sleep with you?" The mask, thankfully, had not returned yet, but what was there was nearly as bad: the same horror that had been in Andrew's face in the moment after he realized that Peter did not know what he was.
Peter, hearing his own statement reworded thus, felt the same horror enter him. He remembered now – too late for the memory to be of use to him – how he had touched Andrew after saying that he liked the slave as a eunuch, and how Andrew had flinched.
May the high doom fall upon himself – how could he have been so blind? He lived in the same palace as Lord Sutton; he should have known what it was that Andrew would fear most from his master. And Lord Carle—
But there his wildly darting speculation ran into a locked gate; he could not imagine Lord Carle in bed with a woman, much less with a eunuch. No, Peter was sure that could not have happened; he had heard Lord Carle speak with contempt concerning Lord Sutton's penchant for eunuchs. Whatever Lord Carle's motive might have been for gelding Andrew, it could not have been to obtain a bed-mate.
But there were other lords in the palace, and other dangers for a slave who was considered prime bedding material. Peter had once witnessed a lord pinch Laura's bottom when she was trying to serve the Chara's son at a public function. Peter had furiously made clear to the lord that he would not stand for such treatment of one of the Chara's slaves, and the Chara, thankfully, had backed his words. But would Lord Carle bother to protect the slave whom he had gelded?
And who could Andrew expect to protect him, if the Chara's son wanted him for such use?
Andrew said, his voice still rigid, "If you want me that way, I'll do it."
Peter wanted to cry then – to cry at Andrew's pain, to cry at the loyalty that forced Andrew to offer himself up to his new master for further pain. Furious at himself, he shouted, "No!" Then, seeing Andrew catch his breath at this evidence of his master's anger, Peter said quietly but fiercely, "No, I don't want you that way. You're a boy. I don't mate with boys."
Andrew seemed barely to be breathing now. Treading his way carefully, Peter said, "Don't you see? That's why it never occurred to me that you were a eunuch. You're a boy like me. Whatever Lord Carle may have done to your body, he hasn't changed what you are inside. You're still a boy, and one day you'll be a man."
Andrew had definitely stopped breathing. His eyes searched Peter's face, seeking something.
More sure of himself now, Peter said, "You know it's true, don't you?"
Andrew said, in a very soft voice, "I've always wanted . . ."
Peter waited; then, when Andrew did not speak further, he said, "But you didn't think anyone else wanted you to be a man?"
Andrew nodded slowly.
"Well, I do." Speaking firmly, Peter gripped Andrew's arm hard, as one grips a boy, not a girl or a eunuch. "So don't pay attention to what anyone else thinks. I'm the Chara To Be, and my opinion is the only one that matters."
He half expected Andrew to smile at this pompous speech, but instead the boy dipped his eyes. After a moment, Andrew nodded. After another moment, he looked up and said, "So . . . when you said you wanted me to stay here tonight . . . did you mean I should sleep on the floor?"
Peter hesitated. The idea that had formed itself in his mind before seemed absurd in retrospect; worse, it could easily be taken the wrong way. "It doesn't matter. I was being foolish."
All of Andrew's uncertainty vanished in an instant, and Peter had a second in which to feel uneasy. He knew what that sudden change of expression meant. Andrew had the most ghastly talent for being able to tell what people were thinking. There were times when Peter thought their roles should have been reversed, and that Andrew should be the one training to be High Judge.
"On the bed, you meant?" Andrew said. Then, as Peter started to stammer some protest, "But not mating. Just . . . sleeping?"
Peter sighed and wrapped his hands around the back of his neck, thoroughly embarrassed now. "I was just thinking . . . it was folly, but I was thinking about pallets."
"Pallets?" Andrew seemed interested now rather than concerned.
Peter gave a brief, somewhat garbled explanation, omitting only any mention of Lord Carle's name. "And so I thought it would be nice . . . Well, I was just curious as to what it would be like, sleeping with a frie— Sleeping with someone who was a companion."
"Such as one of your slave-servants." Andrew looked puzzled now, as well he might. Peter did not suppose this was the sort of proposal that most noble-boys made to their servants.
"Such as you. I mean, you're different from the others."
Comprehension entered Andrew's eyes. "You mean, because I'm— Because I'm not the sort of boy who might think you were twisted, because you'd asked another boy to sleep with you. You know I know it's not that."
Peter nodded. That aspect of his proposal had not even entered his head, though he felt his cheeks grow warm at the thought of the mistake he had nearly made. No doubt Lord Carle, who had slept with a friend in the days when poverty was sufficient excuse for sharing a pallet, had not thought to warn the Chara's son that a noble-boy's desire to sleep with another boy could be regarded in a very different fashion.
"It's for you to decide," Peter added. "It's not an order, you know. I just thought you might enjoy it. Sleeping in a bed for once, I mean."
Andrew ran the tip of his tongue across the corner of his mouth. "Would I need to undress?"
"No, of course not," Peter said immediately, understanding the reason why Andrew would not want to strip in front of him. "I always sleep in my breeches and undertunic in the winter. You could borrow one of my old undertunics – it's in a chest over there. And there's extra water there, near the mantelpiece . . ."
He gabbled on, knowing that Andrew knew as well as he did where the items of toiletry were, since Andrew had placed most of them in the chamber himself. But Andrew could not know, until Peter told him so, that he had permission to use the items.
"I'll go say goodnight to my father," Peter concluded, and left while Andrew was still contemplating the bed.
The spears were lowered before his father's door; the Chara, Emmett told him as he prepared to depart from his guard-shift, was closeted with the council's High Lord. Peter lingered in the corridor for a while, watching the sparse, late-night traffic of lords and ladies, until the newly arrived guards began to eye him. Knowing that he was not permitted to be in the corridor without his father's permission, Peter cautiously re-entered his own chamber.
The chamber was dark. The smell of scented wax lingered, even after the snuffing of the candles. Andrew had banked the fire; the logs glowed and shifted, sending down whispers of crumbling wood. The wind had died; cold moonlight slatted through the shutters, falling upon the bed.
Andrew was curled up in a ball under the blankets, facing the wall. Coming closer, Peter saw that the other boy had replaced the wet blanket with a new one. Peter supposed that he should be heartsick with the loss of his favorite blanket, but it seemed appropriate, somehow, that he should sleep under a plain blanket hereafter. He slipped off his belt and tunic and winter boots, laying them aside; then, shivering, he slipped under the covers.
Andrew did not move. Peter could see his hair, striped by the moonlight. Reaching out tentatively, Peter touched his back.
Andrew jerked, letting out a hiss. Hastily, Peter drew his hand back. He had forgotten about the bandages protecting the raw flesh. "Did I hurt you?" he asked.
"I'm fine." Andrew's voice was muffled. Peter, knowing that Andrew's answer was no answer at all, edged away from him.
For a moment, all was still. Peter lay with his eyes open, trying to figure out what part of this process Lord Carle had found companionable. Probably, he thought, the episode had never even happened to the council lord. Probably Lord Carle had lied about this, as he had about so many other things.
Andrew shifted, moving back. Peter, remembering the other boy's wound, shifted too, in order to allow Andrew more room. Andrew froze. Then he shifted back again.
Peter moved further back, puzzled. He was almost at the edge of the bed now – did Andrew know that? Was the younger boy trying to push him off?
Andrew paused; then, once again, he moved back. His legs touched Peter's legs, folding round the front of them like a sheath that protects a blade.
Then Peter understood. Carefully avoiding contact with Andrew's back, he wriggled forward and placed his arm round Andrew's side and chest, embracing the other boy. For a moment, Andrew did not move, and Peter wondered whether he had guessed correctly what the other boy wanted, or whether Andrew was fearfully trying to calculate at what point the Chara's son would begin removing his clothes. Then, groping like a blind puppy, Andrew moved his hand till it lay lightly over Peter's.
Peter shifted his head and rested his cheek against Andrew's bowed neck. He could hear the other boy's even breathing, and could smell his scent. Andrew's skin was warm.
For a long time, they lay like that, while Peter's mind wandered back through the events of the afternoon: The broken pitcher. The mask hiding pain. Andrew's dreams in Koretia. Andrew smiling at the creation basket. Andrew digging in the snow-covered garden for signs of green. Andrew's voice saying, "Buried, cold . . . dead."
Peter said in his memory, "Not dead. Alive and whole." Andrew stared at him in disbelief, as he had stared disbelieving when Peter spoke of how he would have treated the trapped bird.
And then, like the shock of fire, a memory of Andrew in Lord Carle's quarters, staring with longing toward the south. Toward Koretia.
"Andrew," said Peter.
For a moment, Peter thought the other boy was asleep, but then Andrew murmured an acknowledgment.
"Andrew, would you like to go back to Koretia?"
Andrew's breath caught for the second time that night. His hand tightened on Peter's. His voice was higher than usual as he said, "You'd take me there with you?"
Such a thought had never entered Peter's mind. His father, he knew, would never allow the Chara's heir to return to the land where he had nearly been assassinated, and once Peter himself became Chara, he would be forbidden, by law, from leaving the palace except in wartime. Chances were good that he would never go to Koretia again.
But Andrew could.
What could you give a slave who, by law, could own nothing?
You gave him his freedom.
"At what time of the year would you like to go back?" Peter asked, avoiding a direct answer to Andrew's question. "Spring?"
Andrew's breath was quick now, and heavy. After a while he said, "Summer. That's the best time of the year."
"Summer, then," Peter promised. "The trees will be very green then, and the lakes will sparkle with color. The mountains will shine under the sun. The jackals will be hunting for food. . ."
He continued on, painting a portrait based on his single glimpse of the Koretian summer – a glimpse that had lasted roughly half a minute before the assassin's attack forced him to retreat back over the border. In his mind, he could see Andrew walking under the green coolness of the trees, his skin warmed by summer's rays, his head high and his smile bright and unshadowed as he stared at the leaves and twigs and moss and vines and nuts and bark and berries and earth. He would be happy—
He would be happy, and Peter would be miserably alone again, because Andrew was different from everyone else. No one else could serve as Peter's companion in the way that Andrew did. But that was what made Peter's promise a gift: the fact that he wanted Andrew to stay with him forever, but he would give Andrew back his freedom, so that the other boy could be happy.
He said nothing of the emancipation to Andrew. Chances were that years would pass before Peter became Chara and inherited his father's slaves; there would be time enough to speak of the matter once Peter acquired the power to keep his promise. But he had made the promise to himself, and he knew that he would keep the promise, just as surely as if it had been an oath he took on the Pendant of Judgment.
Andrew had fallen asleep, lulled into relaxation by images of what he thought would be a brief visit to Koretia. Peter, still holding him, lay awake for a while in the still moonlight, thinking of the gods' law, and the Chara's law, and a law that was higher than both.
Then he slept, and while he slept, he dreamt of a new tree growing in a sunny garden, and of Andrew lying beneath it, fast asleep.