Cathany rounds her horse to a halt when we're maybe a mile out from our destination - close enough to see the old watchtower, but not close enough for our enemies to see us. She dismounts and almost stumbles, not used to handling a mere horse on dry ground, and she beckons for me and the other three to dismount. We assemble, ready for her to check over us, and I slip a hand in my belt-pouch as I meet all their eyes in turn.
The petals of the rose I'd found by my bed wilted while the Council were still arguing about my intentions, but I kept the thorns. A hooked reminder, scratching on my curled knuckles like a pen writing a coded message, reminding me that there's someone who believes in me even if my own delegation of protectors aren't yet sure what they even think of me for doing this. I wish I could thank these four people for being willing to be here - the gods know that most soldiers wouldn't be, and I don't know how kindly those behind the lines will treat them on their return. If there is a return. We could all be dead as soon as we've crossed that last mile, and that's not even the main reason they might have baulked at the duty.
No, that would be that I'm here to make peace. With the fanatics who've spent most of thirty years laying waste to our southern border in the name of their god.
Five bodies is about as large as a peace delegation can get without looking too much like a hit squad. And I'm one of them, which makes us seem a good deal less threatening. We're dressed identically - no uniforms, no indications of rank, though I'm sure reputations and spying will allow them to discern whatever they please about our respective identities. We promised no Heralds, and I hope the Karsites would appreciate our good faith if they knew that we only brought two, and without their Companions - Donavrey, an excellent Mindspeaker who can contact Treven whenever it's necessary, and Cathany, an experienced front-line commander and strategist, too important to risk but too important to leave out of this either.
The others are the first two soldiers from Treven's personal guard who volunteered; Sergeants Harrow and Ascott. Harrow's been with Treven for years now and we've spoken before - he's missing three fingers and damn proud of it, and I think he's been on the front lines for most of the last decade; he collects war stories and feeds them to me avidly. I think he may have taken a dislike to Ascott - she's a clear ten years younger than him and ranks the same, and she's still got that swaggering bravado that you see in a lot of teenage soldiers who think that seeing a few fights and a promotion without nicking their hide means that they've lived through everything. She's not highborn - not even rightborn - so I don't know what in hells she did to get jumped up so fast, but Treven approved her presence here without blinking.
I'm going to need their support and advice, Cath's especially, and merely having the backup will make the Karsites less likely to jump me, but I almost told Trev I was going alone. I could have, and I hate putting other people at risk, especially for a purpose they've cause to doubt. And I'm saving my words and energy to convince Karse, not them. But truly, I could have ridden to Karse alone and unarmed.
It's not like they're going to kill me. Nothing ever does.
Cathany's circling the rest of us, building shields against Mind-magic. Shielding is what she does best; she's made a rare study of it and I've been assured that her work is very, very thorough, but she just nods as she passes me and says, "You're fine." She glances at me as she sometimes does, with the look of an artist admiring someone else's masterwork. She did touch them up once, a few gentle brushstrokes when we first met five years ago, but they've seen me through things I would have sooner had kill me and I've never doubted in the sanctuary they offer to my body. The rest of me, not so much.
The person who shielded me knew what he was doing, and built them to last, I gather. Didn't want to ever have to wonder if he hadn't done his best, if he could have done more to keep me safe than he did. There's a little love in any shield someone makes for another, and Cath, thin-faced pessimistic old Cath, has more to give than she'd ever let most people know; but she recognises that she can't match the greater love that set my protections.
She stays by Donavrey for a few minutes, eyes closed, and then moves on to Ascott. She frowns slightly, then nods. "You're fine too." Ascott shrugs, slouching out of attention.
"Ready?" I ask Cath, and she signals for us to remount. It's the last command she's likely to give for a while, because from now on I have to pretend that I'm the ranking leader of our group, not that she'll let me forget how much of a farce that is. I swing onto Rhapsody's saddle, sigh quietly, and pull a large handkerchief from my pocket. All the others are watching me and the last thing I can afford is to wonder what they think of me for doing this.
I tuck it into Rhapsody's bridle, under one of her ears. It's white.
Talking Treven and his Council into this was hard enough. Talking Karse into it had been truly delicate; we started by declaring a ceasefire during one of their holy festivals, and then after three days of good faith on both sides we sent a further message telling them we wanted to talk. I still don't know why they agreed to it - maybe they wouldn't if they'd had more money, or if we'd not killed the last of their miracle-working Adepts last summer; I feared it was true that they'd fight to the last, so I can only assume that they've nothing left to throw at us. There were weeks of wrangling about numbers, ground rules, empty threats of retaliation against equally empty threats of attack, before we even got this far. To neutral ground. A watchtower, abandoned between our front lines.
It's smaller than I thought it would be from a distance. It's in disrepair, too, because it changed hands three times during the war and both sides appear to have given up on it by now; the valley is no-man's land, strategically hopeless. The tower's fine for our purposes; a landmark, not a shelter, a little privacy for closed negotiations but no safety implied by its crumbling walls.
I slide off Rhapsody's back, and reach for the handkerchief - I'm surprised she put up with it flapping around her face, but she's remarkably good-tempered as warhorses go. I'm not even sure what to do with it, really, I've never made truce with anyone before. I hear Cath stepping up behind me, taking her reins, and I walk towards the Karsite envoy without betraying a hint of nerves.
I'm absolutely terrified. The stakes alone are boggling my mind. If I can't do this it's never going to happen, I'm sure.
I would bow, but Treven ordered me not to. We can't diplomatically recognise their religious government, or its officials, until we've signed something declaring that we recognise their religious government, which we'll only agree to do if they abandon their claim to White Foal Pass. Or something equally ridiculous. I have it all written down somewhere. One of the dark-robed Karsites steps forward - they're all dressed identically, no signs of rank at all - and gives a curious glance to the handkerchief in my curled hand.
"I greet you in the name of the Sunlord."
His voice is clear and deep, without much of a Karsite accent - clearly a man with much experience of dealing in Valdemaran. He's older than me, his long, thin beard threaded with a white that's not evident in his close-cropped black hair. He seems less nakedly hostile than the rest; the stares I'm getting from their delegation heavies make me very glad that I have mine at my back. When they told us they wouldn't talk to Heralds - who as a policy matter, they regard to be demons in human form - we retaliated by refusing to talk to priests, and while I expect that they're treating that directive the same way we did ours, he doesn't have the look of the godtouched. He looks far too clever for that. Perhaps the Prophet sent a very tricky man indeed.
That's what Treven did.
"I greet you in the name of our King," I reply, sticking to Valdemaran because if he wants me to have the verbal advantage here I'll take it. And I offer my hand - like a man, not a courtier - and he clasps it gracefully, his dry fingers brushing the thorn-scratches. "My name is Bard Stefen."
He pauses, and drops my hand. "I have heard of you." There's a hitch in his smooth voice - I'm not sure of my reputation behind the Karsite lines, but the stories I've got circulating about me in Valdemar are colourful enough. What did I do this time? "My name is Qi Nar," he continues.
I have to fight not to gasp. "I've heard of you too," I reply, and regret it almost immediately. His expression is blankly polite, doubtless hiding murder. Hell with it. Playing the naïf would get us nowhere fast. I'm not going to pretend I don't know the name of Karse's chief spymaster, or that I don't take him seriously - he wouldn't appreciate it if I did. We're at war, of course we've not heard anything good of each other. "But hearing of someone and meeting them are two very different things," I add, as if I'm prepared to politely agree that none of the assassinations ever happened.
He smiles slightly, and it doesn't even look fake. I'm impressed. I should have known he'd be good at this. I should have known he'd be here. "Would you step inside with me? I prefer to retire from the midday sun."
"Gladly," I reply, and Ascott steps up to my shoulder like some prearranged dance date, one of Qi Nar's flunkies mirroring her position on the other side. They wait either side of the front step as we step inside, silent but with stances that speak volumes. Behind them, I hear Cath and the rest moving off to make their camp.
We made very clear rules for this; one man from each side, no weapons, no observers, no minutes kept, one bodyguard within earshot. Notes are allowed, and consultation is expected, but we're required to vet each other's messages to our superiors to be sure there's no falsehoods told and no signals for a surprise attack. And that's why Donavrey's here, and why the Karsites will be sending a silent foot-messenger back to their main camp every night, and why we both have a lexicon of memorised verbal signals that we could easily slip into a completely bland and approved-of note. It's all clear, and fair, and we both know all the rules, and that means we can cheat on an evenhanded and transparent basis. My sleeves are virtuously empty, but if there's a knife hidden in his I trust Ascott will be fast enough to take both Qi Nar and his bodyguard while I thrash around not-dying on the creaking floor, clutching my pouch of thorns.
The interior is in better shape than I'd dared to hope. The looters were thorough and didn't stay long enough to make a mess, and though the wooden outer stairs appear to be mostly missing, the single round inner room has been left structurally intact. The window's covered in cobwebs, and I'm thankful it's been too dry here for the smell of rot to settle in. I've lived in many worse places - it feels like I've done so more often than not, but it's easy to forget one's good days after having slept on the ground for most of the last year. I doubt the Karsites were expecting any better of our discussion venue, either.
"I admit, I am not sure who I expected your king to send to meet me but it would not have been you."
I look at him levelly. Qi Nar is clasping his hands together in front of him, one gripping the wrist of the other, examining the ceiling for signs of wear, pretending that the comment was offhand and uncalculated; but his fingers are curling and he sounds genuinely angered by my presence, and I'm not sure for which possible reason why. "I have some experience of negotiations, and I speak your language passably," I explain, not adding that I wasn't expecting him either. He's always been a hidden adversary, a shadow behind a clutch of other shadows; and I'd done my best to purge myself of that anger I knew I'd find here, the feeling of looking someone in the eye and knowing that his people killed my people, but I feel oddly at a loss with this one case where I know so many of those people's names and assignments. I hoped to have less to forgive.
If I'm honest, I'd hoped I'd be up against someone less tricky than me. Some Karsite theatre cliché who ran on instinct and fury, feelings I could work on and transform the same way I've been doing when I've seen them in my own people - not a finely-barbed intellect who appears to already be disappointed in me. "You speak modestly, for a man of so many stories," he replies, without appreciation.
"Stories can say little in many words," I reply gracefully. Which stories, you bastard? What are you getting at?
"Says a storyteller." He smiles without mirth, and begins to circle the room with slow steps, hands clasped. "But sometimes, all a story has to do to is to tie one name unto another."
And there I went assuming that the chief spy of Karse would be referring to my more recent crimes. I should have fallen back on my general rule that if a stranger says he knows my name, what he knows of me is that I once had a frustrating, exhausting six-month romance that ended in a manner so brutal that I was not even able to bury the man who I love more than I love the air that I breathe. I often wonder why in hells Vanyel ever tried to keep it a secret; everybody knows now, and I'm standing here having a frostily polite conversation about it with the master of all Karsite spies, who I imagine would have been top of the list of people he would prefer not to know who he slept with.
Qi Nar watches me coldly, and speaks in a voice still entirely cordial. "So you see, you are not a man I ever thought would come here in the name of peace."
"I didn't know I could surprise you so easily." Even I am not sure if that's a compliment or an insult. "Whyever not?"
"You were lifebonded to a butcherer."
"Who was killed in combat fourteen winters ago," I continue, and it's too easy to slip a dose of pain into the softly-spoken words - it would be far harder not to. And he must know it's the worst hurt that ever befell me, and above all things I came here to lay that wound bare. "Now I'm just another man who lost something that mattered in a war."
I can almost feel the words strike their mark, threads unravelling in his heart, but his steps pause and he looks at me with more pain than I'd thought to see meeting mine in return. "And I'm just another man whose father was killed by Vanyel Demonspawn."
Doesn't matter how good you are at the game - sometimes you just miss the one move that matters. There's only one thing left that I can say, but I mean it, truly, I want him to hear it and know it. "I'm sorry." He turns to me in naked anger and I press gently onwards. "Whyever it happened, it wasn't worth it. It wasn't worth making a whole generation of people who just want more bloodshed and more lost ones and more pain."
"Sing it to the dead -"
"If the dead could reply they wouldn't speak for more war." It's more than blind conviction, I know this, and I hope I sound as haunted by it as I feel. "I came here for them. For the peace they never found." It's a prerehearsed stab in the dark; I know the Karsites believe that their dead do no rest easy on enemy ground, and all I want is to ask them to not be our enemies. And with good faith on both sides, it's not impossible. "If you'll not have peace, what did you come here for?"
He gives me a long and silent examination, a display of both his ingrained fury and his steady calculation. I know before he answers what a fool I've been, why I should never have hoped to get my mind hooked around someone with simple ideas who could be be led by a few shades of feeling from me. "I came because I didn't trust anyone else against to keep their minds from Valdemaran witchery."
I could admit he has a point; I had planned to make use of my odd flavour of mind-magic. Self-belief or no, I doubt he'd be shielded against it, but making an agreement in writing with someone who's unwillingly under my influence would be worse than useless. I wanted someone I could really convince that the time of magical warfare was over. I knew it would be hard; I knew I might get a zealot or a would-be martyr or even someone reasonable and tired of war like myself, but why did I have to get Qi Nar? Even when he gave me his name I still thought I had a chance. I had no idea about his father, after all - none of our spies ever told me he was riding a family vendetta.
Which perhaps means that very few people know. I'm honoured to be in his confidence, really.
"I'm not here to bewitch you, or to ask you to forget the people you've lost," I try, because I have to start somewhere, but I can see he doesn't believe me and why should he? I can, at least, admit that I've already lost this hand. "Do you require me to tell his majesty that you don't wish to negotiate with me?"
His voice is suddenly, dangerously quiet. "No, Stefen, I wish to negotiate with you very much. Don't assume my conclusions. Don't overstate what you know of the dead."
The formal niceties were easy; we adjourn and will return in a candlemark with our lists of initial requests. A Karsite candlemark, as they're slightly longer than ours. He leaves first, now seemingly willing to face the distasteful sun (it is rumoured that Qi Nar never sleeps, but I'm now wondering if he's merely the only man in Karse who prefers to be nocturnal); I catch Ascott's eye as they walk away, and we set off on the half-mile climb to the place where our compatriots have made camp on our side of the valley. She's walking with a bodyguard's sideways step, getting a good thirty paces clear before she drops back to my side so we can talk. "Good show, Bard," she murmurs.
I sigh. I guess she got me pegged fast in the stress kettle of the king's camp, too fast to learn to tell when I'm not faking something; or she's just assuming that any Bard always is. I raise an eyebrow at her and reply equally softly. "Was your Karsite friend eavesdropping too?"
"He's not my friend and I think so." It was a low joke; she's got something of a Southlands look to her, dark hair and eyes and a deep tan, but she doesn't have the distinctive lilting accent. Half, maybe. She reminds me of Jisa in some indefinable way; could be because Shavri was from not so far from here. "Gotta hunch he knows some Valdemaran."
"Probably a trained spy. Assume they all are." Her eyes twitch and I find myself wondering if she's something of the sort herself; too brash for an undercover operative, but she might have been promoted up from a real hit squad. Would explain why she never mentions what she's done in the war. "Any idea what he made of it?"
"Not a clue."
Spoken like someone who doesn't care for reading people, or hasn't yet realised that it's the most important skill in the world. No matter. "Truth, I'm just glad someone other than Qi Nar heard it all. If this all falls through, it might get about on their side that I'm a person they can deal with."
"You think it's going to fall through," she said flatly.
I slip my fingers in the pouch of thorns, reaching for the reminder that this was always going to hurt. "If I hadn't upset him so much I might have been able to get a feel for what he wants from me. At least he's offered me a chance to show him our fineprint before tearing it up in my face." Why did I ever assume that making this personal might help? I'd try to calculate a rough percentage of serving Karsite military who'd lost a friend or relative at the hands of my beloved, but the numbers are all burned and lost and the answer would only make me feel worse than I already do.
Yet someone left a white rose where I slept in the desert to tell me this peace was worth my attempting to bring it, even though I'm a complete idiot.
Ascott eyes the camp. "Least they got the horses settled down."
I nod absently, and see an avenue for venting my curiosity. "You always been a cavalier? What's your usual division, anyway?"
"Classified," she replies stonily.
At least I was right about something. "Not from me - I have top-tier clearance, straight from the Queen. Want to see my seal?"
She raises an eyebrow. In normal circumstances I'm pretty happy that almost no one knows exactly how deeply involved I am in military secrets, but I think the seriousness of the situation demands acknowledging it, and I'd like to know a little about the person who has my back. "I was in the Ninth Anti-Mage Corps - until they got disbanded."
I'm not sure whether to be impressed or terrified. "That's hazard duty." I'm not up enough on gossip to know why what got disbanded when, but with Anti-Mage specials it's often because there's not enough of them left to call a unit. I've heard other soldiers refer to them as kindling. As a strategy, it works - throw enough highly-trained people at the Karsite miracle-workers and they'll prove that godly might isn't proof against cold steel. I'll say whenever I've the chance that we don't need mages, but gods, are our alternatives ugly.
Her expression is coldly reminding me exactly how ugly, but she shrugs it off, evidently not wanting to think on it. "So they say. Didn't pick up any interesting scars yet."
"That's what they train you for, right? Not being where they're going to hit you?"
Her steps falter, and I fear that I've just trodden mud over those who were less fortunate than her. I shouldn't have said that. I've seen magical combat, it's all-or-nothing, you get out in one piece or several thousand; often, there's nothing to be said for what saves some of us except luck. And she's staring at the dry earth, brown eyes inhuman and haunted; I dither beside her, the healer in me wanting to ease her pain, the bard in me needing to ask for her testimony so I can shape it into the words we remember of war. I know damn well that it's not the time or place for me to be either.
Harrow hails us from fifty paces away, and Ascott carries on like I never said anything.
It is, apparently, the time and place to tell Don what to tell Trev and ask Cath what to ask for first, and I'm sure the Karsites are doing the same things by different means, and I tell myself I'll apologise to Ascott later if I get a chance, which I won't. I can't afford to be on such awful form today, but at least offending my hitherto unflappable bodyguard isn't going to get anyone killed.