The Daxion palace slaves like to sing the tale that on the night on which I was begotten, my father took my mother to a dark, hidden passage where no man or woman could find them. There, before he lay with her, the Song Spirit bid him sing to my mother his marriage vow, which he did, as no one could hear them in that place. The song echoed down the empty passage, and none but my mother and the Song Spirit heard him, and so my father was married to my mother in the eyes of the Spirit but not in the eyes of the law.
This is the sort of tale that nurses tell bastard children in order to comfort their pain, and indeed, I first heard the story from my dry-nurse. From an early age, though, I wondered whether there was any truth to what was said. For my father might indeed have taken my mother to some hidden place, since he was the King and she a mere slave-woman. And I thought I knew where that place must be: a place where no man or woman could hear the song echoing down the passage. This being the case, I was sure that the Song Spirit had been with my father that night, for it sometimes seemed to me, lying in the same passage, that I could hear the echoes of that song.
It was not until the time of which I write that I began to realize what song had been initiated that night of my begetting, and that the same song would lead me to the man who was at once my enemy and my deliverer. Not long ago I stood in a similar passage and sang in this man's presence a song that tied me in bonds of marriage – not a marriage to him, but a marriage to Daxis, the land which the Song Spirit has guided since its beginnings.
Songs echo backward as well as forward, as the King's Bard once told me. I can find the beginning echo of this later song in the night seven years ago that I visited the Bard in her quarters.
You may be sure that I did not go up and knock on her door. Though my position as the King's bastard daughter brought me privileges, these did not extend to making visits to the King's Bard. In the ordinary way of things, I would not have been allowed to speak to the Bard, but I had been careless once as a child. Rosetta the Bard had caught me climbing into her sitting chamber from the palace's hidden passage.
I still do not know why the passage was originally made. Perhaps it was built to permit the slave-servants a way to travel from one area of the palace to another, albeit on their hands and knees. Some King or Queen must have sealed it up after realizing that the passage also gave the slaves an opportunity to eavesdrop. At any rate, by my father's time it was forgotten in the memory of all but himself and his Bard. After I stumbled across its existence, I learned, through patient exploration, that it was still open in half a dozen places, one of these being the Bard's quarters. Boldly I had crawled into the sitting chamber one day when I was nine and found myself facing the great Rosetta herself.
She kept my secret, and even encouraged me to visit her. This I did, even after I grew to an age to realize I must be more of an annoyance to her than a pleasure.
I only visited her on nights when she was up late, singing songs to the Spirit alone. On this night, I crawled through the hidden hole to her quarters and found her practicing a song I had never heard. I waited until she was finished, moving far enough forward so that she would know I was there, but not so far forward that I would distract her. For a minute after she completed her tale, she continued to sit motionless, bending over the harp in such a way that her silver hair trailed down beside the gut-strings. Then she turned her head and smiled at me, motioning me to come sit next to her.
I took my place beside her on the cushions. "What was that? The melody is beautiful."
"A song I learned recently from a bard who lives near the Border Port. I remembered it tonight for some reason, perhaps because of the news I've heard."
"News has arrived?" I leaned forward eagerly. Besides songs and much else, news was what drew me to Rosetta, since she heard stories around the palace that did not reach even the slaves.
She laid the harp carefully to one side and then leaned back against the cushions, stretching out of the rigid pose of a singer. "Two pieces of news have arrived. One is that your father has been delayed on his return from Koretia. Rumors are flying that Koretia and Emor are beginning to quarrel about a court case that took place recently. Your father wishes to discover whether this is true."
I could well imagine that he did. Our land had been Koretia's hated enemy since the day when Daxis gave passage to the vanguard of the Emorian army and allowed it to attack the Koretian capital through our neighbor's back door. This had been during the summer that I was eight, twenty-four years before. As a result, the Koretian capital was burned to the ground, and Koretia had surrendered to Emor. For fifteen years after that, Emor had controlled Koretia as one of its dominions, but then Koretia had regained its independence through a rebellion. Ever since then Daxis, feared that Koretia would take its revenge. If Emor and Koretia were quarrelling once more, there was hope that Koretia would go to war and lose its independence to Emor again.
"Do you think that Emor and Koretia really will go to war?" I asked Rosetta.
"It's hard to say. The Chara of Emor is great friends with the Jackal of Koretia, but the two rulers have not always seen eye to eye on matters, and this may be a case where they will fall to quarrelling."
If I had been a palace official, Rosetta would not have had to say any of this to me, but I was as ignorant of high matters as slaves usually are. Slave-servants are less interested in who is going to war with whom than they are in finding out which slave-boy has been beaten and which slave-girl has been forced into bed with a freeman. What little I knew of the outside world came from Rosetta and the conversations I heard in the passage. That knowledge was slight indeed. So I asked, in my ignorance, "But why is the Chara friends with the Jackal? Didn't the Jackal lead Koretia's rebellion against Emor?"
"That is a song in itself," replied Rosetta, which was her way of saying that it was not a matter that concerned her. "In any case, you may be more interested in my second piece of news, which is that a Koretian spy has been arrested."
I smiled. "Rosetta, I have never asked you: How did you find out that I visit the prisoners in the dungeon? Only Sandy knows, and he wouldn't tell anyone."
"Perhaps the Spirit whispered it to me through this song I was just singing. It tells of a princess who happened upon a wounded man who was her father's mortal enemy. She took pity on the man and nursed him, and then for the rest of her life she feared that her father would meet his death at this man's hand."
"The song is only a fragment. I never learned the ending."
I was silent a while before saying, "The song doesn't apply to me in any case. Sandy calls me Princess out of affection, and the Prince calls me that in mockery, but you and I both know that I'm a princess only in name."
"Names can be powerful . . . but I doubt that the Spirit sent me this song as a way to warn you against going to the dungeon. I suppose that you must find some reward in doing so."
It was a question. Rosetta was too polite to ever ask me directly about what I did when I wasn't with her. I leaned forward to touch the tassel on the cushion I was seated on. Perhaps sensing that I needed to be alone with my thoughts, Rosetta rose and extinguished all but one of the candles that lit the room. I watched her as she did so: her skin was stretched across her high cheekbones with a smoothness that belied her real age, but creases next to her eyes told the true tale: this was a bard who had served two kings. Not since my great-grandmother's day had there been a need for a Queen's Bard.
I said, "I suppose that I do like the idea of being a princess for at least a short period. When I was little, my father treated me with such kindness that I always thought of myself that way. It was a shock when I left my dry-nurse and came to work among the other slaves, and found I was no better than them. I would have been happy to be just another slave, but they wouldn't allow me even that, since the King had shown me his favor."
"So you feel like a princess in the dungeon?" Rosetta sat down once more, easing herself slowly into her position.
"Sometimes I do. I don't lie to the prisoners about who I am; they wouldn't talk to me if they thought I was a real princess. But I suppose that you can go no lower than being what they are, and even a slave is above a prisoner. At least, they seem to see it that way."
"Prison is a place of great lies; you bring them truth. So you are a princess, since it is the role of Daxion's ruler to bring truth to the people through song."
"I never sing to the prisoners."
"Nor does your father sing to his subjects; that is my role. But it is he who chooses the songs I sing, and it is you who choose what the prisoners should know about the world outside the dungeon. So keep your eye out for that wounded man of the song I sang tonight. He may visit at any time."
I thought about this a while. Besides Rosetta breathing softly beside me, I could hear nothing. The quarters of the King's Bard was located far from other chambers, so that nobody would overhear Rosetta practicing one of the Forbidden Songs. As far as I knew, nobody ever had, except me.
"What about this Koretian?" I asked. "What is he like?"
"Well, now, my information on him comes from Lady Felicia, who, as you know likes to embellish her song with fancy. She says that the man is as handsome as a prince, and acts like one as well, for when Prince Richard came to visit him, the Koretian gave him the free-man's greeting as though he were the Prince's equal. As a result, the Koretian nearly had his head knocked off by Prince Richard's guard. But Richard stayed the guard's hand, saying that he found the man's behavior amusing. In any case, Felicia adds that the Koretian is certainly not of royal blood, just weak in the mind, for he spoke to a slave with the same courtesy that he used toward the Prince."
"What an odd man. Has he been here long?"
"Only since this morning. Apparently, the King's Torturer was so thunderstruck by the man's appearance that he refused to lay a hand against him. That is the way that Felicia tells the tale. What is certain is that the Koretian has not been tortured."
"He can't be my wounded man, then."
"Perhaps he is your Song Twin."
"A Koretian?" I laughed, but my eye drifted over toward Rosetta's harp.
She noticed and said, "No, no, you have heard my singing for the night. I would rather hear you sing the tale and see whether you still remember the words. Every time I have you sing for me, you seem to have forgotten more."
"My memory is poor, and I'll never be a bard in any case."
"You certainly are not a bard, but it is good to have these songs stored in your heart. I will not be here to sing them to you forever."
She had touched on my worst fear: of the day when she would die, and I would no longer have either her songs or her friendship. I reached over quickly and picked up her harp. It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, holly wood inlaid with blackroot wood. Even in the years before I realized its sacredness, I had always gazed upon it with awe. I touched the notes one by one, though I knew that Rosetta kept the strings in tune, and then I began to sing the tale of the woman who finds her Song Twin.
I did not have the voice of a bard, but I finished the song creditably, without forgetting too much of it. Rosetta had taught me the tricks bards use to remember these long tales: the key words, the phrases that are repeated over and over, and the passages that bards may vary to add what they like. If anything, I found the inventions as hard as the memorizations, and if I had ever had any illusions as a child that I would grow up to be a bard, they had long since been dispelled.
After I was through, Rosetta showed me how to position my hands better on the strings, and then asked abruptly, "Will you go to visit the Koretian tonight?"
I shook my head. "I ought not even to have come to see you. The Prince works the slaves extra hard when the King is gone, so I must be up before dawn. I'll try to visit the Koretian in a few days, but it is in the Spirit's hands whether I do so. I need all of the sleep I can get."
"Well, you can depend on the Spirit to send you the song you need to decide the matter. Don't bother to visit me till your father returns. The Prince has me busy composing a bawdy tale as a present for the King; you know how your father likes that sort of thing. I have begun to reach the limits of my imagination to figure out what to have the characters in my song do; I've been composing such tales for the King for the past thirty years. But I doubt that he'll notice if I repeat myself. After all, he has been repeating himself for the past forty years."
I laughed at this reference to my father's sleeping-chamber habits. I was far from the only bastard to the King in the palace, though I was the only one in whom he had shown any interest, which had led me to wonder whether he had indeed secretly married my mother. But the answer to that tale was known only to the passage I now re-entered, leaving Rosetta plucking the strings of her harp in apparently aimless fashion.
The passage I called it, but really it was a labyrinth of passages that were located between the floors and ceilings of each palace storey, or against the outer walls. Sandy had gone as an honor guard once to the Jackal's palace, which was built during the time of Emorian rule. He said that it was a long, broad building, with only a main floor and a cellar. The Daxion palace was the opposite: tall and narrow like the mountain that loomed behind it. The passages never went far before they reached one of the outer walls, which was fortunate, because while the vertical passages were easy enough to climb down through iron ladders attached to the walls, the horizontal passages were filled with fallen wood beams and were treacherous to crawl through. I usually took the long way back to the slave-quarters from Rosetta's room to avoid one of these beams, but tonight, by some fancy, I took the short way and so passed under the Prince's chamber in time to hear him speak my name.
I could overhear discussions in a few of the chambers above the passage, but early on I had decided that it was best not to eavesdrop, lest I unwittingly say something later that revealed my spying. To be able to wander the passage at will during the night was a freedom more precious to me than the news I might have gleaned from listening. I usually took special care not to listen at the Prince's room, both because I could understand little of the high matters that he spoke about and also because his very voice was hateful to me.
But when you are a slave, you do not pass up the chance to learn what plans your masters have for you. I paused to listen.
". . . nothing to worry about there," the Prince was saying. "I told you, she has pleaded with her father to be able to keep her maidenhood. She is over thirty years old now, so I doubt that she will be struck suddenly lovesick, as though she were a young girl."
"She could still be used," insisted his companion. I recognized the voice: it belonged to a subcaptain whom the Prince invited to his quarters frequently, despite the gap between their ranks. The man had a moon brand across the side of his cheek, the sign of a murderer who has been let off easy. I suspected that his viciousness had not been burned off during the branding.
"By whom? The Jackal? He guards his virginity as well as she does." The Prince added a coarse joke, and then said, "We're as likely to see him marry her as we are to see his blood brother marry."
The subcaptain laughed. "I will take your word on it. But the King could ease matters much if he named you his heir. A legitimate nephew has clearer rights to the crown than the husband of a bastard daughter."
"By custom, yes. But I can't take the throne without a confirmation from the council, and my uncle knows his council well enough not to present me while there's any chance that they will refuse again to confirm me. Still, I have no doubt that Leofwin's death will leave my rights unchallenged."
"You could arrange that those rights went unchallenged now."
Lying on my stomach in the passage – much of the passage was only a few feet high, too low to sit up in – I held my breath. Knowing the man who spoke, I had no doubts as to what he was suggesting.
The Prince replied smoothly, with a trace of amusement in his voice, "Derek, you are always overeager. The King serves me better with his life than with his death; he cares little about the people, and treats them harshly. When he dies, the people will be so weary of his tyranny that they'll turn to me as their savior. You notice that I take great care always to side with the oppressed when we are in public. It makes the King seem all the more villainous."
"If they are his proclamations, they are his villainies."
"Oh, yes, I haven't forgotten the law. He is answerable to the Spirit for the way in which he has manipulated her Songs. So much the better for me. The Spirit will have plenteous grievances with me once I take the throne, but for now, the King is responsible for misruling, not I."
"Are you serious? Do you really believe there is such a Spirit?" The subcaptain's voice was thick with blasphemous scorn.
"I am sure of it. And I take care to serve the Spirit, in my own way; it is not a good idea to stir up unduly the anger of the bards' goddess. Some day, the Spirit may be willing to help me with my kingdom. That is why I never tell the King what to do. He has enough corruption in him to think of these matters himself, without help from me."
"Is that also why you refused to accept the royal seal when he offered it to you before he left for Koretia?"
"That is why." The board above me creaked as the Prince walked from one end of the chamber to the other. "Have another drink, Derek. Yes, it's inconvenient not having the power to issue commands in his absence. There is this matter of the Koretian spy, for example."
"You can have him tortured in the King's absence."
"Warton advised against it. He said that ninety-nine out of a hundred men he can force to betray their own mothers. This, he said, is the hundredth man."
"Do you think he was being soft?" asked the subcaptain.
"Warton? You must be joking." The board creaked again as the Prince paced back to where he had stood before. "He has enough to do without wasting his time on an inconsequential spy who could probably tell us no more than the previous spies we've captured. The Jackal is too clever to entrust his thieves with much information. No, all that we can do is hang the man, and that will have to await the King's return."
"I doubt that the Jackal will be troubling Daxis in any case, if these rumors are true. Emor is likely to keep him busy for a while."
"If the Chara goes to war against the Jackal, then Daxis will certainly be secure; our greatest ally will be warring with our greatest enemy. The best we can do is hope for war."
"And hope that the Jackal doesn't sneak over the border to snatch the slave-girl for his marriage bed."
"No danger of that, I told you. Come, I'll see you to the gate." The Prince walked toward the door, and I could not catch the fading question of the subcaptain. But the Prince's voice came clear in reply. "No, the Princess serves me with her life as well. Besides, she is an attractive woman, and you know how much I hate to waste attractive women."
I heard the subcaptain's throaty laugh. The door shut. I stayed where I was for several minutes, and then began crawling back the way I had come, toward the dungeon.
The dungeon was filled with the smell of death.
I had been visiting there since I was a child, but I had never ceased to be sickened by the smell of human waste, sweat, blood, and rotting flesh. All of these odors welled out of the darkness as though the dungeon were one giant tomb, trapping live men in its pit.
In stark contrast to this was Sandy, the dungeon-keeper, who was cheerfully prosaic about his work and forever eager to hear about the actions of the living, while he himself worked among the near-dead. He had a solid base of pragmatism that had enabled him to stay balanced through years of witnessing horrors, and also prevented him from ever asking how I entered the forbidden confines of the dungeon. The other guards, who rarely visited the palace above, assumed that I was his niece, and he certainly treated me with an affection normally reserved for kin. I returned the love. I think that either of us would have died for the other.
On this night, I passed unchallenged by the many patrols that circled the dungeon in an ever-changing routine known only to Sandy. I found him finally at his usual central post, supervising the distribution of bread and water.
I waited until the other guards had stepped away before walking over to him. He identified my step before seeing me, and when he raised his head, he was already smiling.
"Hello, Princess," he said. "How is life in the world above?"
I leaned against one of the stone walls, which was bone cold with winter. "Ella has had her baby. Lord Rupert actually came to see it, and now Ella is claiming that he will make the boy his heir."
"Stranger things have happened. Well, what else? Did they catch that runaway slave?"
"They brought back his body." There was no hesitation in my response. I had witnessed too many escape attempts over the years to have expected any result besides capture or death.
"He must have offended the Fates." Sandy fingered one of the many charms at his neck. Sandy was taking no chances of encountering supernatural wrath. He worshipped the gods of every land that he had ever heard of, and took care not to offend any of them. I supposed he knew from his work how much of men's lives lay in the hands of the gods. He asked me, "What Fate has brought you my way tonight?"
"I heard that you have a Koretian spy now."
Sandy raised his eyebrows. "You must keep your ear permanently attached to the floor to hear the footsteps of news so quickly."
"May I visit him? Or is he dangerous?"
"You may certainly visit him. Would you like to do so now?"
"Please. Is one of these for him?" I waved my hand at the remaining hunks of bread and mugs of water.
"No, he has had his already. Help me with these, and I'll take you to his cell."
I bundled the bread into my arms and trotted obediently alongside Sandy as he stooped to slide the food through the slat at the bottom of the iron doors. "Is this all the dinner that the prisoners are given?"
"This is all that they receive for the entire day. Now, don't be tender-hearted, Princess." This as Sandy straightened and saw my expression. "Many of these men are vicious; some are murderers. We don't want them in a condition where they can break out and slit our throats. We give them enough to keep them alive, no more, and some of them don't deserve even that. —Here's where the Koretian spy is." He stopped before a door like all of the others along the damp, chilly passage. "Give me a shout when you're finished in here, Princess."
He unlocked the door, drawing his sword first, lest the prisoner be crouched in waiting. After a swift look into the cell, he waved me inside and closed the door behind me. I heard his footsteps fade away.
Much of the cell was bathed in moonlight from the barred windows near the ceiling, but it took me a moment to locate the Koretian, for he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his right hand stretched out, palm-up. He did not look my way; his concentration was on something at the edge of the cell. As I watched, a large, rough-haired rat darted out – dungeon vermin have little fear – and snatched something from the man's hand before darting back to its home under a crumbling wall-stone.
He looked up then, staring at me expressionlessly as though I were another rat who had come to feed. I said, "You gave part of your meal to a rat?"
"I had a sudden wave of sympathy for my fellow prisoner." He rose to his feet, and as he did so, he touched his heart and then his forehead with his fingers.
It was the free-man's greeting, exchanged only among equals, and, as its name suggested, only among free-men. I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. "Sir, I'm a slave," I said stiffly, recovering, in that moment, my memory of what type of speech was proper between a slave and a free-man.
"I greet everyone that way," he replied.
"Even noblemen, sir?"
"Even them." For a moment I almost thought I saw amusement enter his eyes, but if it appeared, it was gone again immediately, like a death shadow barely noted. "And lay aside the honorific, please. It does not seem appropriate for this setting."
He stood easily, his eyes shifting up and down as he took in my appearance. His own appearance was interesting, though Lady Felicia had clearly exaggerated his beauty. In fact, his expression had a certain repulsive coldness to it that made it seem unlikely any bard would ever choose him as the model for a love-stalked hero in a song.
He was tall, and he had the dark hair and skin that Koretians share with Daxions; it makes it easy for us to spy on each other. He was dressed in a dusky tunic, which must also have been handy for spying. He was only a youth – or so I thought at first, but as I looked again at his steady eyes, I revised my estimate of his age. He might have been as old as me, though it was hard to tell, as his face was shaved in Emorian fashion. Along his bare cheek was the thin red gash of a blade, and he had a second fresh cut along his dagger arm. He spoke good Daxion, using formal, uncontracted speech. His tenor voice possessed an oddly clipped that suggested he kept himself in continual control against something hidden.
"What is your name?" I asked, dropping the "sir," as he had requested.
He considered this question for a while before saying, "Do you wish the truth?"
"I don't want a lie."
"Then you had better call me what you like. Spies don't give their true names."
I had visited a few imprisoned spies over the years. All of them had told me fabricated stories, though a few had recited these tales with a merry look in their eyes that suggested they did not really expect me to believe them. I had never before met a spy who actually admitted to his calling. This one asked, "May I know your name?"
"Meaning 'slave.' Did your mother give you that name?"
"My mother died of childbed-fever. The wet-nurse gave me my name."
"So you prefer the name of Princess?"
He must have heard Sandy talking at the door. I said stiffly, "It's not a real name. Some people call me that because I'm the King's bastard daughter."
"Give your father my compliments when you meet him next. I prefer his accommodations to those of the Chara's palace dungeon."
There was not a trace of irony in his voice. He waved his hand toward the floor, as though offering me a fine chair. Once I was sitting on the filthy straw, he reseated himself. He was still at the opposite end of the room from me; he was taking care not to frighten me by coming too close.
"What brings you to visit, Princess?" he asked.
"I thought you might want someone to talk to."
He had one knee raised, with his arm slung over it. He looked at me steadily before replying, "That depends on the conversation."
"It sounds as though you're bargaining with me."
"That is appropriate, since I came to this land in the guise of a trader. But the goods I have to offer you are not of fine quality. You can offer me truth; I can only offer you half-truths. And you do not strike me as the sort of person to be satisfied with anything less than the full truth."
"When you're a slave, truth is the only belonging you can possess. But give me whatever damaged goods you like. I'll give you the truth back in any case."
"Will you then tell me how it is that a palace slave comes to visit my cell?"
"The guard let me in."
"I heard him. I also heard him say that you had asked for me. How did you know that I was here before you came to the dungeon?"
I felt my heart thumping. I had made careless promises before in my life, and had later felt myself obliged to keep my word. Perhaps it was because of the lectures I had received from my father about the importance of honor. Honor is a difficult lover to accommodate, especially when you are a slave and your very existence may depend on your willingness to discard honor. But I, who had once seen myself as a princess, had always preferred honor over safety.
So I told him the full truth rather than the half-truth that I could have given him. "Somebody told me that you had been arrested. And later I overheard the Prince talking about you."
"Do you normally spend your days among royalty, or did you slip into his chamber as you slipped into mine?"
Again his question came direct. I supposed that he did not expect me to reply truthfully, which made me all the more eager to do so. "I have a place where I can eavesdrop on him. I don't do so very often."
"Princess, you are generous with your secrets, considering that I am a stranger."
His voice was quiet, his face still revealing nothing. I said, "Some of the slaves I know never trust anyone. I'd feel like a corpse if I were to live that kind of life. There have to be some people you are willing to trust."
"I agree with you there, though my beliefs on that subject are precisely what brought me here, since I trusted the wrong person. I must say that I am impressed by the efficiency of you Daxions. I had thought that the Emorians were swift in their justice, but events move even quicker in this land. It took me two minutes to introduce myself to the wrong person, five minutes for her to summon the soldiers, and fifteen minutes for the King's Torturer to wash his hands of me. I hate to think of how long it would take your people to destroy Koretia."
"The Prince said that Warton believed you wouldn't give out any secrets under torture."
"It is hard for me to judge the matter myself, but I am relieved that Warton reached such a conclusion. We settled that issue during the first five minutes of conversation, and then spent the remaining ten minutes having a pleasant debate about whether suffering brings good to men's lives. We were agreed that the gods can use suffering to their own ends, but we disagreed about how eagerly men should offer their services to promote such suffering."
I could not help it; I burst into laughter. The Koretian did not smile, but there was a slight crease around his eyes suggesting amusement. It was his only movement; since we had seated ourselves, he had not stirred. Because slaves do not often speak freely to one another, I had grown used to reading people's thoughts from their expressions and poses, but the Koretian's stillness revealed nothing to me except that he had tremendous control. Warton had probably judged him well.
I said, "You remind me of a song that Sandy taught me; he's the dungeon-keeper, the one who let me in here. It's a dark song, but very funny, about a man who is being tortured to death, and about all the witty things he says as each part of his body is being cut up. I've heard the guards singing it to each other, but I've never learned the ending, because they always dissolve into laughter before they reach that point."
This was a gruesome anecdote to tell a prisoner, and I said it chiefly to see what his reaction would be. Still he did not move, and still his face did not change. All that he said was, "I have yet to meet a Daxion who was unable to make a song out of tragedy. This seems to be a land filled with songs."
"The Song Spirit created it that way. If she took away our songs, she would take away everything that keeps us alive. We are begotten in song, and live in it, and die in it. The Spirit is always there to give us the songs and to tell us when to sing."
"Does the Spirit speak to everyone, or just to the bards?" he asked.
"She speaks to everyone, but the bards know best how to voice the feelings and thoughts she bids them to express."
"Then of what use is the King?"
His question came from nowhere. I cocked my head to one side. "You must know the answer if you know the question. Why are you asking me this?"
"Because the man who first told me about the Song Spirit is a Koretian, and you may be able to tell me things he did not know. How does the King serve the Song Spirit?"
"By using the Spirit's guidance to determine his judgment of the people. Here, I'll show you." I rose and walked over to stand beside him. He raised his gaze toward me, but he did not move, and I saw that his eyes had suddenly become guarded. It made me wonder whether he had stayed far from me less to keep from frightening me than because I frightened him. But I could see no reason why a man who had discussed philosophy with his torturer should be scared of me, so I placed my right hand lightly on his shoulder. He did not stir.
"If someone brought a matter to the King to judge, this is what he would do," I said. "His Bard would kneel before him, and he would touch the Bard so that the two of them were one. All of the other bards of the land choose what they will sing to the people, or rather, the Spirit tells them what to sing. But in the case of the King's Bard, she awaits the King's bidding. The King in turn awaits the Spirit's bidding, to tell him which song he should command the Bard to sing. Then, once he has given his command, he steps back." I did so, and continued to walk backwards until I was standing at the other end of the cell. The Koretian's gaze followed my progress.
"The Bard stands and sings the song, and in that song is the answer to the King's question of how he should judge the matter," I said. "After she has finished, he gives his judgment, but the law is to be found in the song, not in law books, such as Emor uses. Daxis has no other law than its songs." I sat down and added, "My father told me that he never knows why he has chosen the songs until after the Bard sings them. So the King and his Bard are both needed to hand down the judgment."
I paused, and as I did so, the Koretian made his first movement, reaching forward to touch a piece of straw on the floor. This triumph of my story-telling – I could see it in no other way – emboldened me to ask, "Who was it that told you about the Song Spirit?"
The Koretian continued to play with the piece of straw, as though my spoken song had freed him from the prison of his control. He said, "The Jackal told me when he sent me on my mission. The Jackal knows much about the religions of other lands."
I longed to ask him more, since he was now being so candid, but I knew little about the Jackal, other than his name. I said finally, "Is it true that he's a virgin?"
The Koretian had been staring at the straw. Now his gazed shifted up, and I could guess that he was assessing me to discover my motives for the question. I supposed that many people, like the Prince, looked upon the Jackal's chastity with contempt.
The Koretian finally replied, "As far as anyone knows. He was dedicated to the Unknowable God when he was a baby, and he has said that he wishes his dedication to be entire."
"That's a hard promise to make. I know of few men who are chaste."
"Few women either, after a certain age. Are you married?"
I shook my head. "I suppose you could say that I dedicated myself to chastity, too, though for a different reason. My father has always shown special favor toward me, and because of that, the other slaves despise me. If I were to marry, I would always be something above the man that I married, which might sour his feelings toward me. Even if my father freed me, I doubt that I could find a free-man who had respect for a former slave. I seem doomed to be half princess, half slave. I would rather suffer through that on my own than try to pretend that half of me doesn't exist."
The Koretian had a new and peculiar look on his face. I identified it, with some difficulty, as a faint smile. "It is hard having loyalties to more than one world," he said. "Do you want to be free?"
It was a strange question to ask a slave. "I'm not sure," I replied. "If the King freed me, I might want to explore beyond the confines of this palace, where I've lived all of my life, but I feel as though it would be disloyal to abandon my father, when he has done so much for me. He has allowed me to visit him from time to time since I was a child. It was he who taught me my first songs."
"Which songs did he teach you?"
I searched in my mind for a moment, seeking a trifling ditty, but I felt myself being pulled another way. I knew better than to defy the bidding of the Spirit, so I let the matter rest with her. I began singing "The Song of the Lost Boy."
It was a long tale, quite unsuitable to sing to a nursery child, but if my father had cared about suitability, I suppose that he would not have been entertaining his bastard. As I sang it, I remembered his voice, husky and uneven like my own, not a bard's voice, but filled with the passion that seems to overcome every Daxion when he or she is filled with the Spirit.
It tells the story of a boy who wandered from home one day and found that he could not trace his way back. After many dangerous adventures in foreign lands, he succeeded in returning to his home. But he had been away for so long that his parents thought him dead and would not believe that he was who he said he was. The song tells of the many painful trials he endured to show his parents that he was their true and loyal son, but none of his sufferings convinced his mother and father to take him back. And so, racked with grief, he left his home once more, and for the rest of his life wandered the world because he had lost the right to call any place home.
I had not proceeded far in my singing before the Koretian rose, walked over to within a body's length of me, and seated himself once more. I had seen this sort of thing happen on the few occasions I had witnessed Rosetta sing; she drew the people to her like a mother draws her children. It was pleasing to learn that I shared that much of the Bard's power, but I was absorbed in my singing and did not realize until I was done that the Koretian had once more slung his arm over his upright knee. His head was buried in that arm.
I sat there in awe, wondering what power the Spirit was showing this night, so as to cause the man who could not be tortured in body to be humbled by a song. After a while he looked up, and his face was just as it had been before, dispassionate and revealing nothing. He said quietly, "You Daxions are fortunate, to be able to hear songs like that. We have no tradition of such singing in Koretia."
"Anyone can sing, if the Spirit calls to him," I said. "I could teach you some songs to sing."
He was sitting without moving, so I suppose that his eyes must have been what told me that he had suddenly gone rigid. He said, his voice clipped shorter than before, "Thank you, but no. I never sing."
"Not even when you're alone?"
"Not even then."
Being Daxion, this was a great puzzlement to me, that anyone should be afraid of songs. I said, "I would wither away and die if I couldn't sing. I'm surrounded by so many lies and secrets in the palace; almost the only place I can find truth is in songs. Here in Daxis, if the King wishes a bard to make sworn testimony, he requires the bard to sing. It is said that the Spirit will not allow anyone to lie through his singing."
Finally an expression came to his face. I looked at it, and looked at it twice and thrice, but there was no denying what it was: it was anger.
The Koretian said, "I suppose this was the same Spirit who composed the song about the man being cut, the song that made the guards laugh. Some truths are better left unvoiced." He rose then, and moved back to where he had been before.
I stood up uncertainly, gazing at his angry face. "I must go. Would you like me to come again?"
For a moment more the anger lingered, and then it disappeared into his passionless face, like water into the cold earth. He said calmly, "I would appreciate it if you did."
I called to Sandy, and he came to let me out. As I turned to go, I stopped to look back at the Koretian. His face was as it had been when I first entered the cell, but now I wondered what dark emotions it hid.
I arrived back at the slave-quarters well after midnight; "The Song of the Lost Boy" takes a long time to tell. I sneaked over to my bed, closing my eyes gratefully the moment my head touched the pallet on the floor. Only minutes later I felt something touch my arm. I looked up to find Joan crouching over me.
"It's the funeral," she whispered.
I felt the urge to close my eyes and ignore her. By the time the funeral was through, it would be time for me to undertake my duties for the day. But it had been kindness on Joan's part to wake me, for most of the slaves would not have bothered. I pulled myself up and joined the small group of women who were being allowed out of the slave-women's quarters by the palace slave-keeper.
He took careful note of which of us were leaving, and then led us up to the locked door of the slave-quarters, which he knocked at. The door opened. Beyond it were a couple of palace guards, who gave us a stern look of warning before leading us forward. We went silently, in single file, as we wound our way up the turret staircase toward the top floor of the palace.
In the old days, when a slave died after an escape, the soldiers would simply discard the body in the countryside, to be consumed by jackals and ravens. But during the reign of Queen Saba, my great-grandmother, the palace officials had decided that it would strike more fear into the palace slaves if they were to see the results of disobedience. This policy was undertaken in the guise of compassion, since a funeral allowed friends and relatives to give the slave's body over to the Spirit. Now a half dozen of us women were brought into the room where the runaway slave-boy lay on the floor, captured in his last moments only by death.
Two living men stood there. The washing of the body was usually undertaken by women, but a couple of slave-men proved to have the gift for this rite and were allowed to attend as well. Without speaking to anyone – there was no one in the room who would have been interested in speaking to me – I took up a basin and sponge and went over to kneel beside the corpse.
It was covered with wounds from the face to the torso. This was not the normal way of things, for punishment was usually reserved for the slave's return, but Timothy had resisted capture like a wild animal that had found its freedom. I began to wash his face but was stopped by a look from Joan. She gestured with her head, and I saw, kneeling opposite to me, Timothy's sister, sitting in mute agony, unable even to touch her brother. I bowed my head so that I would not have to see her expression, and then began washing the boy's left arm.
All around me was the sound of humming, each washer droning a different song as bidden by the Spirit. Only Timothy's sister was silent, though she had finally found the strength to reach forward and clean her brother's face. As she finished, the door behind us opened again and the other men came in.
They were joined by one of the women who had stood apart during the washing. Together they walked forward and raised Timothy from the floor, each singing quietly his own song. They placed the boy on the funeral pyre, covered him with a white sheet, and poured oil upon him. A guard handed one of the men a torch he had carried as he led us up the staircase. The slave rested the flame on the oil-smothered wood around the corpse, and then stepped back.
I watched from the edge of the room. My arms clutching my chest as I sought to cloak myself from the chill of winter. The ceiling above held a hole, allowing the night air in and the funeral smoke out. Sandy had once told me that some of the city slaves would watch the palace rooftop for smoke on the nights after a palace slave had been captured, in order to discover whether the slave had been allowed to live.
Timothy's sister stepped forward now, her eyes red and her face pale. She began to sing in a tremulous voice the Funeral Song. This is the tale of a man who abandoned his beloved in order to seek adventure in the world. Each year he thought of going home, and each year he continued to stay away. Finally he returned to find that his lover had died of grief. At her funeral, he decided to fling himself upon the flames, but was prevented from doing so by the Spirit, who told him that he must endure the greater punishment of being parted from his love.
I was thinking of little besides how chilly it was and how hard it must be for Timothy's sister to sing such a song, when suddenly I felt something touch my spine that was as hard and sharp and cold as an icicle. I looked around, but nothing stood behind me. Then I began to shiver, not from the cold, but from the knowledge that I had been sent a sign by the Spirit. What it meant I did not know, but standing here, witnessing the fate of the runaway slave, I felt my chest grow tight.
For the next four days I received little rest, though I failed to visit the Koretian during that time. I was busy enough running from chamber to chamber in the palace, carrying out my duties or else trying to hide the fact that I had been running.
Slave-servants must not run; that was the first lesson I had been taught after I left the freedom of my nursery and was taken to live in the slave-quarters. Slaves must walk swiftly but steadily, they must remain silent unless spoken to, and they must not look into the eyes of a free-man. All of these rules I had broken many times, but the one about running I broke the most, for I simply had no time in which to finish all of my chores unless I raced between the different parts of the palace.
I was one of the King's slave-servants, assigned to clean his chambers, which would have been an easy enough task if his chambers had not been scattered like sown seeds throughout the palace. I spent most of the afternoon of the fourth day cleaning the King's sleeping chamber. I was the only slave entrusted with this task, and so I allowed myself to linger there, touching the gilded mirror frame, the emerald-decked cup, and, most precious of all to me, the tiny iron amulet which my mother had given him and which he still kept in a box, along with the gifts given to him by his other favorite lovers. Another box contained items left by his late wife, who had striven without success to give him an heir, but this box I did not touch.
Not until I had left the windowless sleeping chamber and saw the sun through the window in the corridor did I realize how little time I had left to finish the other chambers. I waited until I was beyond the sight of the King's guards, and then raced like a mad dog down the empty corridor. Only the King and the Prince lived in this part of the palace; I was in no fear of running into a palace official or some lord or lady.
Instead, I ran into the Prince.
I crashed into him as I was rounding a corner. He held me off from his body with his hands and said, "Steady, Princess. You'll kill somebody one of these days, running like that."
I stared up at him. We had known each other so long that I had always felt that it would be mere pretense to avoid looking into his eyes. To his credit, he had never commanded me to do so. He had thin eyebrows that slanted over narrow eyes, and his lips were always twisted in mockery when he addressed me. I would have stepped back, but he held my arms tight. "You're just the woman I need right now. Come with me."
He pointed the way to his sleeping chamber. For a moment I resisted his touch. Like my father, the Prince rarely kept an empty bed, and I had no interest in becoming his latest conquest. But remembering that I had no choice in such matters, I reluctantly allowed him to guide me into the room.
He must have known why I had resisted, for I could see his eyes dancing with amusement as he offered me a seat on his bed. Looming over me, he looked down at me for a moment as I perched myself on the very edge of the mattress. Then he walked forward, and for one frantic moment I thought he would touch me. Instead he turned to one side, took hold of a chair, and pulled it back next to a writing table that stood at the side of the room. He seated himself there and said, "I have received a letter from the King, saying that he has decided to spend a few days in the countryside in order to pursue some hunting before his return to the palace. He has asked me to continue to deal with matters here until then."
I felt myself beginning to slide off the edge of the bed and hastily pulled myself up further. The Prince's look grew more taunting, but he merely said, "I have also received a letter from the Jackal about you."
He waited, but I made no reply. Silence in the presence of my masters was something I had always found easy to practice with the Prince. He continued, "The King apparently mentioned you in passing while visiting the Jackal. The Jackal says that, since then, he has begun to wonder about your welfare, for he himself has known the difficulty of growing up without one or more parents. He has written to your father, suggesting that you come to stay at his palace for a time as a gesture of friendliness between our lands."
One of my hands was touching my rough woollen tunic, while the other touched the soft satin sheets of the Prince's bed. I was thinking to myself that if the Jackal wanted me to come to his palace, it was not likely that he would treat me as a slave. Perhaps he regarded me as something close to a princess. Perhaps he would treat me with the same respect that I had received, at rare intervals, from my father. I asked, "Do you think he means it?"
"Oh, I imagine he means it today. By next week he will have forgotten the matter. That is why I thought it best to send a reply to his letter now, before the King returns."
"And what will you reply, Prince?"
The Prince leaned back in his chair, the top of the high back barely touching the wall. "Why, I am not your father, Princess, only your cousin. I will let you reply to the letter yourself."
I was glad now that I had listened to his conversation the night before. I knew what he was judging me for as his gaze rested lightly on mine. I said, "I am only a slave."
"I did not mean that you had to write the letter with your own hand; I know that you cannot do that. Even the King doesn't write his own letters, for he has others to do that for him. See, I will humble myself so much as to act as your scribe." He picked up a pen.
"I meant that I am a slave, so I do as my masters wish. I will tell the Jackal whatever you want me to say."
The Prince leaned forward then, allowing the front legs of his chair to thump upon the imported wolf-skin rug. He stared at me steadily for a moment before saying, "Princess, the King ought to have raised you as a diplomat. I see that I need not cloak my thoughts from you as though you were a simple slave rather than your father's daughter."
"So tell me what you want me to write, Prince."
"If all I needed to do was to write a letter in my own words and under your name, I could have done so long ago. The Jackal is not a fool, Princess; he knows my writing style like one bard knows the singing of another. Your song is the one he wants to hear."
"A singer cannot lie," I said, thinking back to my conversation with the Koretian.
"True enough, but I am not asking you to lie. To make it easier for you, let me explain why I think that it would be in your best interests for you to stay in Daxis."
He leaned across to the writing desk and searched around it for a while, shuffling the documents there before snatching up a small object and tossing it my way. I caught it without thinking, and then turned it in my hand. It was my father's seal-ring, marked with the royal emblem: a double-pronged plectrum, which tests whether the notes of a harp are true.
"I haven't used it," said the Prince, "nor will I use it, while the King is alive. The King is generous to offer it to me, but I know better than to usurp his role with the Spirit. At least, I will not do so unless circumstances force me to."
I was still looking at the ring in my palm; thus I jumped when I suddenly felt the Prince's hand close over my palm. I discovered that he had silently made his way over to crouch in front of me.
He did not remove his hand, but said softly, "Princess, you and I were born in the same year, and raised by the same nurses. We fought each other like young fox cubs from the day that we were old enough to know that we were rivals for the King's attention. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses. You know that I am covetous and ruthless and willing to manipulate the hearts of those around me. You may not realize that you are the same. We share kinship in this matter. I know your strengths and weaknesses better than you do; that is why I won victory in the nursery, and I am today Prince, while you are still a slave."
His voice was the strange blend of gentleness and viciousness that had always repelled me, and I was repulsed also by the touch of his hand. I tried to pull back, but he grasped my hand firmly in his, so that the seal-ring was crushed between our two palms. He said, "But while I have courage enough to disobey the Spirit when necessary, I always take care to discover her wishes. I may break her commands in defiance, but I never break her commands in ignorance – that would be unwise. You might want to take a lesson from me in that respect. Can you truly tell me that you wish to go to Koretia, not from your own desire to escape here, but because the Spirit has told you to leave your father's side and abandon him to his enemies in his old age?"
I said, my voice shaking, "And if she has?"
He released my hand then, plucked the ring from my palm, and went over to stand by the writing-table. Holding the ring between his fingers, he turned it this way and that, staring at it as he said, "Why, then, I would have to find some way to convince you to go against the Spirit's wishes. I hadn't thought that far ahead; I was hoping you would save me the trouble."
I remained silent, watching the Prince play with the ring I had always seen on my father's hand. It had been there the day that the King showed me how to pluck a harp, and on the night that he first led me to the slave-quarters. He had held my hand so that I would not be afraid.
I said, "How do I begin the letter?"
The Prince smiled and laid aside the ring. Swinging himself down into the seat, he dipped the quill in some ink, and poised the pen over a piece of paper. He read aloud as he wrote the first few words on the page: "'To the Jackal, Master of the Koretian Land . . .' Anyone might have told you how to address the Jackal. The rest of the letter is up to you."
I hesitated, and then recited, "'My cousin the Prince has told me of your kind offer and has left it for me to decide how to answer. I thank you, sir, but I do not wish to leave my father, who has many enemies in this land, even in this palace. He needs what help I can give him.'"
"Direct and plain," said the Prince as he finished writing the words. "The Jackal will like this letter; he is a straightforward man. Now, I know that the King taught you to sign your name." He held out the pen to me.
I came over, took the pen from his hand, and wrote my shaky, unpracticed signature. As I finished, my eye drifted over to a letter that lay facedown, its seal still intact but torn from the other end of the sheet. It featured a shield-shaped face with slanting eyes and a snarling grin.
The Prince followed my gaze. "That's the royal seal of Koretia: the mask of the Jackal. The ruler is just as frightening as his emblem; I don't think that you would have enjoyed your visit there in any case. . . . Since you have no seal, I will loan you mine." He pulled off his ring bearing his late father's emblem, and showed me how to press the wax down with the ring.
When I had finished, he said, "Now, I will send this with haste to Koretia. . . though I suspect that it would reach there sooner if I simply left it on this table. The Jackal has his thieves thick as May gnats in this land."
"His thieves?" I asked, merely as something to say to cover my thoughts.
"His spies – that's what he calls them. We caught one the other day, but the Jackal will find him easy to replace. Koretia is a land where the children are bred on deception. Never trust a Koretian – that is my cousinly advice to you. The sorts of duplicities I work hard to achieve are child's play to the Jackal's thieves."
Defiance of these words is what caused me to visit the Koretian that night.
Even in the short time that I had been away he had undergone a change. His bare cheeks were more sunken, his eye sockets more hollow. I wondered whether he was still sharing his meals with the rat. As he offered the floor to me with a courteous wave, I saw his hand shake. As I sat, he eased himself carefully down onto the cold flagstones, and I realized that the shiver had come, not from weakness caused by hunger, but from coldness. The weather had grown more chilly during the past day; we felt it in the slave-quarters, and I was now wearing a shawl. I did not offer it to him, however. Even if I had had an extra shawl to share, I doubt that he would have taken it. He did not strike me as the type of man to wear women's garb.
As though his thoughts were running in the same direction, he said, "I like the tunics that you Daxion slave-women wear. They are much less cumbersome than the long gowns that Koretian women adopted from the Emorians."
"Were the gowns adopted because of the Emorian rule?"
"I think their origins are older than that, but during Koretia's rebellion many of the Jackal's female thieves did wear tunics when they were working at night."
I propped my knee up and rested my chin on it, as though I were listening to a bard sing. "The Jackal has female spies?"
"Not at the moment. He has very few thieves now in comparison to the time of the rebellion, when he had followers in every town and village in Koretia. The thieves were not only spies but tricksters and pranksters, making life difficult for the Emorians who lived in the land."
"Is that the sort of work you did?"
"I was working in Emor at the time."
His voice had changed slightly, as though we had imperceptibly traversed a border into more treacherous territory, so that he was taking more care in where he placed his foot. I asked, "Is that how you ended up in the Chara's dungeon? Because you were spying for the Jackal?"
There was a pause this time, a moment of reflection for careful phrasing. Then he said, "I was not imprisoned for spying. I was arrested for attempted murder."
Outside the cell I could hear various faint sounds: shouts from defiant prisoners, songs from the Daxion prisoners, and the reassuring sound of Sandy's voice as he conversed with a fellow guard. Thinking back to Sandy's assessment of the Koretian, I said, "I wouldn't have guessed that you'd try to murder someone."
"I lost my temper in a fight; it was foolish of me. Fortunately I had the sense to throw away my dagger before I did any great harm, and because of that I was tried on a lesser charge. I spent a frightening night in the Chara's dungeon, though."
I hesitated before asking, "Because you thought that you were going to be executed?"
"That too, of course. But I was just as frightened to discover that I was capable of murder. I stopped carrying a weapon after that."
I saw another shiver go through him, and then he bent forward, brushed aside some straw, and began touching the cold floor, as a man who is going to be burned may touch the fire in defiance. After a moment I said, "I killed a man once."
His gaze flew up toward me. He said quietly, "You surprise me, Princess, and I am not easily surprised. How did it happen?"
"I was defending myself against one of the guards. I killed him with a dagger."
"Customs must be very different in Daxis if palace slaves here are allowed weapons."
I suppose I could not have hoped to escape with a short explanation, when I had just been quizzing him about his murder charge. "There've been many rapes over the years in the women's quarters," I said. "We're locked in at night, but that doesn't prevent our guards from opening the doors. When Sandy heard of this, he gave me a blade to hide under my mattress, and I ended up using it on one occasion." I added in a low voice, "I had nightmares for months after that. It seemed terrible to me that I had taken a man's life merely in order to save my honor."
"You did right." A sharpness entered the Koretian's voice that I had not heard before. "If that man had taken your honor and forced you to wear a badge of shame for the rest of your life, he would have been worse than a murderer." He swept his hand suddenly and covered the bare floor with the straw once more.
I needed something to say to get us past this perilous pass, so I said, "I suppose you find it odd that a slave would be concerned with honor."
"Not so odd as that." Amusement shimmered in his voice, and once again his faint smile appeared.
I had one of those moments when light suddenly shines into a dark chamber and illuminates all. "Are you a slave?"
"I was once. A palace slave, like yourself. I suppose that I never stopped being a slave in certain ways."
"Were you born a slave?"
His answer was abrupt, coming almost before I had finished my question, and I held my breath. But when he spoke again, he said in an even voice, "The beginning of my enslavement is not a subject I enjoy discussing, Princess. I say that so that you will not unwittingly stray into forbidden territory and be startled when I snarl at you like a watchdog."
"As you did last time?"
"As I did last time," he acknowledged calmly. "Now, I have given you knowledge of me; it is your turn to return the barter. How does your father treat you? Has he acknowledged you as his own?"
"He is very kind to me." I leaned back, relieved to have returned from the treacherous territory of the Koretian's past. "I have my duties now, of course, and I only see him on rare occasions, but when I was little he used to visit my nursery often, and he taught me many things."
"Oh, how to sing and how to harp and little bits of knowledge that amused him. He taught me Emorian – and Koretian." I switched over to the latter language and said, stumbling somewhat, "It's easier for me to understand than for me to speak. The faster I talk, the more I forget."
"You speak it well," said the Koretian, replying in the same tongue. "The problem I find with Daxion is that so many of its words cannot be translated into Koretian, because they are ideas that exist only in this land. You understand what I am saying?" I nodded, and he switched back to Daxion, asking, "What else did your father do for you when you were young?"
"He used to let me tag along with him throughout the day as he went around the palace and the surrounding grounds. I think he sometimes forgot about me; my nurse was often horrified to discover where I had been. I would watch the guards practicing swordplay in the courtyard and the judgments being given in the court and the criminals—"
I stopped, and for a moment there was silence. Then the Koretian said calmly, "And the criminals being hanged."
I nodded. His gaze drifted slowly down from mine, like a large snowflake adrift in the wind. By the time it reached the floor, some time had passed since I had spoken. I wondered whether he was going to ask me to help him to escape. So many prisoners had asked me this that I had developed the habit of telling them at the start that I could not do so, but I had forgotten to say this to the Koretian.
He finally said in a low voice, without looking up, "Princess, if this is something you can tell me, I would very much like to know when I am to be executed."
"I don't know," I said. "It will be when the King returns, but I'm not sure when he is scheduled to return. I could find out for you."
"Thank you." His voice had grown very quiet, barely more than a whisper. So complete had been his illusion of confidence that I had forgotten, what I would not have forgotten with a lesser man, that he was awaiting his death. I had forgotten, and so I had stayed away from him for four days, and on the occasions when I did come I had plagued him with questions about his dark past. I had even sung to him "The Song of the Lost Boy," who died in a foreign land.
Only a song can cure a song. I opened my mouth and began to sing him "The Tale of the Dying King."
The King was sick and destined to die, and so he set out in search of a potion that would allow him to live, if not forever, at least until the end of his normal life. His quest took him to Emorian doctors and Koretian priests and Daxion bards, but nowhere could he find the answers he needed. And so he returned home to wait out the remaining months of his life, for even these few months were precious to him. But as he reached the gate of his palace, he saw that a murderer was about to strike down a woman. Without hesitation he placed his body in front of the sword and took the death blow. As he did, he felt the Spirit sing in his ear, and in the next moment he was alive again and cured of his mortal illness. And so, because he had given his life for another, he received life back at the Spirit's hands.
This time when I finished, the Koretian was still sitting as he had been when I started, but he did not look up. Finally I stood and went over to the door to call Sandy to let me out. As I reached the door, I looked back. The Koretian raised his eyes and said, "If I must die, it will be worth it to have heard songs like that."
He said this as though it were no figure of speech but a simple statement. And I gave no reply but a nod, for any Daxion would have felt the same.
I had planned to return to the dungeon the following night, but I ended up spending the next evening helping some of the other slave-servants prepare a guest chamber for the High Lady.
Lady Elizabeth had led the Daxion council for only twelve years, but she had long been famous among the palace slaves for her love of foreign trinkets, which she brought back from her travels. On this occasion, her free-servant had been sent ahead to fill the guest chamber with god-masks and badges and Koretian-style swords. All of this work had taken us until well past midnight to accomplish, though there were five of us slaves, as well as Lady Elizabeth's free-servant Paula.
Paula was herself little more than a slave, having received her freedom only three months before. She had not yet acquired the sense of dignity and distance that inevitably separates the free-servants from the slave-servants. Since she had not yet voluntarily broken ties with the world of the slave-quarters, the rest of us treated her as one of our own, even to the point of cajoling her into passing out some of her own ale, once we had finished our tasks. Soon our exhaustion and drinking had done their work, and our tongues were loosened.
We were sitting in the presence of a servant who had access to many of the high matters of Daxis, such as war and diplomacy. Naturally, though, the conversation turned to subjects that were far more important to the slaves.
"He shouldn't have tried to fight the soldiers," said Joan. "It's madness to think that you can still escape, once you've been found."
"It's madness to escape in the first place," said Emil. Emil was an elderly slave, fond of dwelling with relish on the sadness of a slave's lot. "I've never known a palace slave to get beyond the city walls, not without the help of someone outside. And what can you do once you're gone? Seek out a position as a free-servant, though you have no references and no manumission paper? We're not trained for any work except service."
"Go to Koretia," suggested Norvin, full of eagerness to change his position in life. "The Jackal doesn't allow slavery in his land, so no one asks to see your manumission paper. The people there have a great need for servants, since they can't buy one from the slave-sellers."
"If Koretia went to war against Daxis and won, then the Jackal would abolish slavery here as well," said Paula, revealing her newfound interest in high matters.
"If Koretia won a war against Daxis, who would serve the Spirit?" asked Maura quietly. "Can you imagine the Jackal appointing a bard and bidding her to sing? He has probably never heard any of the Spirit's Songs."
"He heard songs at his enthronement nine years ago," stated Pernella. She had once been slave-servant to a bard and had travelled further than the rest of us. "My master played some songs at his court."
"Was the Jackal moved by the Spirit when he heard them?" asked Maura.
"My master didn't say. But he said that most of the Koretians have no ear for a good song. They are polite and say that the songs are pretty or charming or pleasant."
"Did your master play to them the Song of Succession?" asked Joan. Everyone laughed, for the Song of Succession relates how the Queens and Kings of Daxis destroyed their enemies.
"The Jackal actually requested that he do so, and my master had to explain that no one except the King's Bard knows the song," replied Pernella. "Another example of the Koretian ignorance of song-telling. I did meet a Koretian, though, who showed some interest in the subject. He came up to me at the enthronement celebrations held by the palace servants and asked me a great many questions about what it's like being servant to a bard. He said that he had heard my master playing for the Jackal and that it had made him want to visit Daxis."
"He was making a fool of you," said Emil. "How likely is it that a servant would hear a bard playing to the Jackal?"
"That was what I wondered, so I pointed him out to my master later and asked him who the man was. He said that this man was no servant but the Jackal's blood brother – as high in rank as a council lord, my master said. I can't imagine what he was doing among the servants when the noblemen had their own celebrations that same night. But if any Koretian could understand songs, I think it would be him."
"The Emorians are no better at understanding songs," said Maura. "I've heard some of the Emorian slaves who visit here talking, and they say that they are actually forbidden from singing in Emor."
This statement shocked everyone into silence for a minute before Paula said, "The Emorians treat their slaves worse than beasts. I went with my mistress to Emor a few years ago, and I've never seen such evidence of cruelty. The Chara's palace was filled with branded and mutilated slaves, eunuchs who minced and giggled in a manner that would have been shameful in a woman, and a great many slaves who seemed to regard their lives as a punishment greater than death."
"All that the Emorians care about is discipline and order," said Joan. "When the High Lord of Emor visited last year, he was served by Lady Felicia's free-servant, Veta. I heard her tell another free-servant that she made the mistake of informing Lord Carle that he would have to kneel in the King's presence. She was then treated to a lengthy lecture from the High Lord – a tirade it was, really – about the difference between discipline appropriate for a slave and discipline appropriate for a free-man. His description of the discipline was quite terrible, she said. Lord Carle appeared to feel that no punishment was too great for a servant, slave or free, who disobeyed his master."
"The Emorians are the same with their women," said Maura. "The Emorian slaves told me that none of the palace officials are women, and that the few free-women who live in the Chara's palace are given only menial tasks to do."
"Oh, that's true in every land outside ours," said Paula. "I suppose only a land that serves the bards' goddess can appreciate the gifts of women. When my mistress visited Koretia two years ago, she went to watch the Jackal in judgment one day and was stopped at the court doors. The guards told her that women aren't allowed into the court. Can you believe that they would say that to the High Lady?"
Emil evidently felt that we were straying from the subject at hand, for he said sourly, "I can't feel sorry for a noblewoman being given the same treatment that every slave in this land receives. When was the last time any of us visited the King's court?"
A few heads swivelled my way, but Norvin was already saying, "That may change. I was talking to Hildred, the Prince's slave-servant, and he says that the Prince has many plans for alterations when he comes to power. He wants to make life better for the palace slaves."
"It's easy to talk of change when you're out of power," grumbled Emil. "His uncle the King said the same thing when he was a prince, and I don't remember any great changes happening once he was enthroned."
"But the Prince has shown that he means it," insisted Norvin. "Haven't you noticed all the times he has intervened with the King on behalf of a slave who was going to be punished? He really cares about what happens to slaves. Our lives will be different when he becomes King."
"If he becomes King," said Paula. "Lady Elizabeth isn't so sure that he will be confirmed by the council."
Norvin said, "If he has the support of the palace servants—"
"Support?" said Emil. "Don't talk nonsense. The Prince won't be looking at the throne for years. The King isn't that old."
Norvin lowered his voice. "But if the King should meet with an untimely death—"
Joan hissed in warning, looking my way. I was sitting in a corner, set apart even from Paula, the privileged free-servant. Now I set down my mug of ale, rose from my place, and stepped carefully over the other slaves sitting on the floor. I gave a reassuring smile to Norvin, who was looking nervous at the timing of my exit. Then, as he relaxed, I left the guest chamber and returned to the slave-quarters, allowing the other slaves to continue their treasonous talk.
Not until the following evening was I able to visit the passage again. I did not head immediately for the dungeon, but instead went to listen underneath the Prince's chamber to learn when the King would return.
I was in luck; the Prince was there, talking again with the subcaptain. They were not discussing the King's return, though, but Lady Elizabeth's arrival the next day.
". . . has a mind as sharp as a blade and is willing to slice into her opponents without mercy," said the Prince. "You wouldn't guess it, to see her fragile exterior. If the council refuses to give me the throne after the King's death, though, it will be because of her."
"What choice do they have?" asked the subcaptain lightly. I knew why he was in so cheery a mood; I had seen him supervising the flogging of a disobedient soldier that afternoon.
"Quite a range of choices. The King has deposited his seed in nearly every slave-woman in this palace."
"He is a man of great virility," said the subcaptain, with admiration plain in his voice. "But your power is just as great. I hear that you have succeeded where twenty offers of marriage songs from the highest lords of the land did not succeed."
The Prince replied, the smile plain in his voice, "Lady Felicia was a long but pleasurable conquest. I like to think that I inherit a few of my uncle's talents in that respect. Sleeping-chamber power, though, is not the type that interests me most; seduction will not gain me the throne."
"You have power in other respects as well. None of the King's bastards can match you in authority; even a hostile council will be forced to admit that. You have no rivals in this land."
"I may have rivals outside it."
"You mean the Jackal? Richard, I can't believe that the council would give the throne over to a Koretian, or to any other person with loyalties to another land. Lady Elizabeth would surely not allow that. Her allegiance to the Spirit is well known."
"No, the council wouldn't give the throne to a person with other land-loyalties. But they might give it to a person with no land-loyalties."
The subcaptain had been pacing up and down, sending small bits of sawdust down onto me; I had pressed my nose against my arm to keep from sneezing. Now the pacing stopped. The subcaptain said, "You mean the Jackal's blood brother?"
"He is the most powerful man in the Three Lands, Derek – more powerful even than the Jackal or the Chara, because he is advisor to them both. He has taken no oath of loyalty to either Koretia or Emor, yet the rulers of both lands make all of their major decrees based on his word alone. The council knows his abilities. They may believe, and they may be right, that he could hold the Daxion throne with greater authority than I."
"At least you don't have to worry that he'll marry the Princess."
"No, that is one trouble that is lifted from me. Nonetheless, he's a dangerous rival."
"I've heard many stories about him." The subcaptain's voice became more hushed. "They say that he learned little swordplay as a child, yet he's as skilled with a blade as the Jackal himself. They say that he has more knowledge of the law than the Chara, and that he has helped the Chara to plan his military campaigns in the dominions. They say that the Koretian gods speak to him as clearly as they do to the Jackal."
"I've heard the stories. There's a good deal of truth to them."
But the subcaptain was not finished. "They say that all the women of Emor and Koretia grovel at his feet, though of course they have no hope of interesting him, and that he is able to charm his enemies into becoming his friends." The subcaptain lowered his voice to a point where I had to strain to listen. "They say that he need only speak the word, and he could have the throne of either Koretia or Emor."
"I told you he is dangerous," said the Prince. "I doubt that he will try for those thrones in the near future, however, for he has blood ties to both rulers."
"He is blood brother to the Jackal, but what is his tie to the Chara?"
"Lady Ursula, the Chara's Consort, is his half-sister – and keep your mouth shut about that. It is not information that Daxis is supposed to know. But you see the problem. A man of his power isn't going to remain content with acting as a mere advisor to rulers. Since he has loyalties of friendship to the Jackal and the Chara, it's likely that he plans to steal the Daxion throne from me."
"Then why not eliminate that threat? I would take care of him myself." The subcaptain's voice was smooth with viciousness.
"Because I fear him, Derek. . . . You need not look so surprised; I am capable of fearing at least one man. This is the one. Many people have attempted to kill this man, and all who did so are now either his allies or they are dead. He is not a man who tolerates anything in between. I've no wish to be his ally, and I won't press my luck by trying to have him killed. The best I can do is keep my eye on him, but even the Jackal doesn't always know where his blood-brother is to be found. It is like trying to shadow the Spirit herself, to find such a man."
"Has he been to Daxis?" asked the subcaptain.
"As far as I know he hasn't, except several years ago when he came as an ambassador from the Jackal."
"I don't remember that."
"It was when you and I were off fighting in the southwest against those rebels. It's just as well; I would rather that he not know you. If ever I find that this man has been making secret visits to our land, I may ask you to pay a call on him after all."
The subcaptain gave a deep chuckle. "You can depend on my help in that matter. But your immediate problems, I take it, are to control the Princess and to try to win Lady Elizabeth's support."
"Yes, and I may be able to receive assistance in both matters from the King. I have had another letter from him—"
I lifted my head, but at that moment, a dull series of thuds occurred that I knew were knocks at the Prince's sleeping-chamber door. I heard the Prince answer the door, converse in a low tone with the person there, and then say, "It's no good, Derek; I will have to deal with this myself. Will you come by tomorrow?"
Derek said something; then the chamber was empty, leaving me with my questions.
Not long afterwards, I entered the Koretian's cell and found him sitting cross-legged once more on the floor. This time he was holding in his hands a golden figure.
I came over and sat by him, and he presented the figure to me for my inspection. It was a bird made of straw. I saw that the Koretian had carefully sorted through the strands of floor covering until he found the ones that were still untouched by dirt. The extra pieces of straw lay in a pile by his side. Looking at the filth on the floor around me, I realized that the Koretian must have spent all his time since my last departure in a hunt for golden straw.
I touched the smooth wings of the bird with my finger before handing the figure back to the Koretian. "Where did you learn to do that?" I asked.
He picked up another piece of straw and began weaving it onto the breast of the bird. "In Arpesh. The Jackal sent me on a mission to Emor's northern dominions last spring. I remember that time vividly because it was one of the most painful missions I ever undertook."
I asked hesitantly, "Did you run into trouble there?"
"Only in the sense that I nearly took my own life rather than face another day of boredom." He picked up a second piece of straw and began braiding it into the first. The sharp end of the straw cut his finger and started it bleeding, but he took no notice. I saw that his hands, dry in the winter air, already had many scratches upon them.
"The life of a spy holds no glamour, Princess," he said. "Most of the information that the Jackal requires me to gather is trivial and tedious enough to make me weep with weariness. On this particular trip, the Jackal asked me to attend all of the village councils in that land to find out what the people there were saying about high matters. There are a great many villages in Arpesh, and the council meetings there are all very long. For four months I was privileged to listen to discussions about which type of stone to use in mending the village walls, who should be selected to make next week's trip to the town market, and whether the village baron's decision to buy a second cow was evidence of overweening ambition."
The Koretian added a third straw, interweaving it seamlessly with the first two, as three bards may join their voices together into one song. He continued, "Finally, I had an evening of self-piteous confession to one of my contacts, and he suggested that I find a way to occupy my hands during the meetings. Since many village councils take place in stables, he taught me to make these straw figures."
I was silent as he finished the braid and attached it to the breast with a few short straws. The bird's breast now contained a heart, golden except where it was touched by the Koretian's blood.
"The Heart of Mercy," the Koretian explained, placing the bird to one side.
"What is that?"
"Part of the Emorian royal emblem. It is a wounded bird, representing the power of the Chara to bestow mercy upon those found guilty of a crime." He picked up a piece of straw. "Would you like to learn how to make a straw figure?"
"Does it take long?" I asked, looking doubtfully at the complex weavings of the bird.
"I'll show you an easy one, a chain link. You can make one half, and I'll make the other."
He demonstrated to me how to interweave the straw into golden links, and then he picked up some pieces of straw for himself. I fumbled my way through the pattern, looking over at his neat work now and then.
I skipped back past his last remark, since I could think of no reply to make there, and asked, "How did you become a spy?"
"By accident. I offered my service to the Jackal, and this is what he bade me do. I've often wished that he had selected a more pleasant task for me, but a servant must follow the wishes of his master, as you and I both know."
He reached over suddenly, stilling my hand. His own hand was as cold as the floor we sat on. Then he unraveled the straw where I had gone wrong. Once I had begun again, I asked, "Has the Jackal ever punished you for disobeying him?"
"The Jackal's anger is punishment enough. He is normally a quiet and gentle man, but when his anger is roused, strong men run for cover. The Jackal is named after a Koretian god, you see, and at times he speaks with the god's voice and raises the god's blade in vengeance. There are not many Koretians who are willing to risk angering a god-man."
"Not even his blood brother?" I stumbled over the Koretian word.
The Koretian reached over to his side to pick up another piece of straw. It took him a moment to find a straw of the proper length; then he said, "Princess, there is not even a word in your language for such a relationship. Where did you learn about blood brothers?"
"I overheard the Prince talking about the Jackal's blood brother. I don't know what the word means."
"It's a promise of friendship, as strong as an oath of marriage or of loyalty to a ruler. Many Koretians have one or more blood brothers. They take a vow to the gods, sworn on blood, as all Koretian vows are sworn."
"Have you taken this vow?"
"Oh, yes. My oldest blood vow was sworn when I was a boy; a friend and I pricked our wrists with a dagger, mixed our blood, and swore our loyalty to each other and to our god, the Unknowable God."
I paused, staring over at his arms. He had scars here and there, as soldiers do, but amidst them all I could see a small white scar on his left wrist. I asked, "What is this Unknowable God like?"
"He is all the gods, from all the lands, joined in one. The Spirit is one of the faces the god bears, so you and I share the same loyalty. Like the Spirit, the Unknowable God sings songs of great mystery and power."
Puzzling this over, I reached past the Koretian to retrieve a piece of straw. He leaned away to allow me passage. As I pulled back, he asked, "What was it that you heard the Prince saying?"
I recounted to him the description that Derek and the Prince had given of the Jackal's blood brother. By the time I was through, I could see the Koretian's faint smile breaking to the surface. "What is it?" I asked.
"I think that the Spirit ought to have called the subcaptain to her service. I have heard bards who can take a story about a slingshot fight between two small boys and recount it in such a way that it turns into a battle between two mighty lands."
"Doesn't such a man exist?"
"Not by that description. The Jackal does have a blood brother, but I doubt that the Jackal would tolerate a rival for his throne."
"Have you met his blood brother?"
"He rarely visits the palace – so much for the Prince's belief that the man writes all the Jackal's decrees. At any rate, if he is even half of what the subcaptain describes, he would hardly speak to a common spy such as myself."
My fingers halted their work for a moment, and I stared instead at my slave-tunic. "I know what you mean," I said. "There's a slave in this palace who just became a free-servant. She still speaks with us slaves, but in a few months she'll have grown above that. It's always that way. A slave can win his freedom, as you did, but free-men don't talk to slaves, noblemen don't befriend free-servants – it's as though every rank in this land lives in a separate world, not caring what happens to people of another rank. Some of the slave-servants were saying today that it was so important that Daxion slaves be free that they would even welcome an invasion by Koretia—"
I stopped, suddenly aware who my listener was. But he asked me no questions about how the slaves would support Koretia. Instead he said, "It must be difficult for you, since you live in two different worlds."
"Yes, it's like being the Lost Boy, who wandered from land to land without finding a home. Often I'll become accustomed to being a slave, and then I'll be thrust back into the role of a princess. I wish that I could do as you have – just cease being a slave and live the life of a free-man. But I don't think I could stay in one world even if I were given my freedom."
"Is there anyone who treats you as though you belong to two worlds?" asked the Koretian.
I considered this for a while, and then said, "My father, sometimes. Often his Bard does. And oddly enough, the Prince always does."
"Why do you say 'oddly'?"
"Because we hate each other." I became aware that I had allowed my weaving to lapse, and that the Koretian was far ahead of me in his portion of the work. I bent over the straw. "We've never liked each other, not since we lived in the same nursery together."
"Is he your brother, then?"
"No, my cousin. He's my father's sister's son. Since my father has no legitimate sons, the Prince will probably inherit the throne."
The conversation paused. I looked over at the Koretian and saw that he had created a minor flaw in his weaving – so tiny that it was not worth mentioning. The Koretian was weaving blindly; his eyes were staring at the wall opposite as though he could see through to the rest of the palace. He said, "I seem to recall that women can inherit the Daxion throne. Does the King have no legitimate daughters?"
Now it was my turn to hesitate, until the Koretian's head turned. I was caught by the look of his passionless eyes; as often before, I could not read through to what he was thinking. I said finally, "Not according to the law."
"But in some other way?"
I bent over my work once more and said, "In order to be married by Daxion law, a man and woman must sing together a marriage song in the presence of a witness. But there is another kind of marriage, recognized only by the Spirit, in which the man and woman exchange vows in private. I've heard that my father and mother were married that way."
"Yet you are not the heir."
"The law doesn't allow it in such cases."
The Koretian had stopped staring at the wall. Now his head was turned away from me as he sorted the pieces of straw into different lengths. "Somebody once described to me the Emorian law concerning succession. I found that trying to understand the law was like learning a new language. But from what you said on the first occasion we met, I take it that the Daxion law of succession must be found in its songs."
"Only one song: the Song of Succession. Its beginning portions are the oldest song in the land, as old as Daxis itself, and only two bards know it. It used to be that only the King's Bard or Queen's Bard knew the song, but the song is so long that it was decided that it would be better to have an apprentice to the royal bard memorize it as well, lest part of the song be forgotten if the royal bard should die unexpectedly."
"And the song says that you cannot inherit the throne."
"The prologue to the song says that the heir must be 'born within the law,' as it says. The rest of the song tells how each Daxion King or Queen inherited his or her throne, and what battles took place during that ruler's reign."
"The gods have mercy – how many generations does it take to recite this tale?"
I laughed. "It takes three days; usually it's only sung at the enthronement. I've never heard it. My father says that it would make his head ache to hear such a song from his Bard. But I've been told that the song reveals there has never been a time when the throne has been inherited by someone such as myself – the product of a marriage witnessed only by the Spirit. The Prince used to point this out to me quite a lot when we were young."
"So the throne will go to him," said the Koretian.
"If the council ladies and lords allow it. They have the power to give the throne to someone else if they feel that the heir is ill-suited to the task."
"It would be convenient if the same rule applied in Emor," said the Koretian. He had finished sorting the straw, and now he returned to his weaving. "I hear that the council there is becoming nervous because the Chara Peter has not produced an heir. The Emorian lords have refused the throne to the only kinsman who qualifies by law, and neither the Chara nor the council know how to correct matters. It seems probable that, if the Chara dies, Emor will fall into civil war."
"Is the Chara likely to die?" I asked.
"That is always possible during battle, and I hear that Koretia and Emor may be fighting again soon. That would be a tragedy indeed."
I had promised myself that I would ask the Koretian no more questions about his past, but I found myself saying, "Did you fight in the Border Wars, back before Koretia became a dominion of Emor?"
A quirk of a smile appeared on the Koretian's face. "I was eight years old when the Border Wars ended." He paused for a moment, and the faint smile faded like mist. He added in a detached voice, "I was in the Koretian capital when it burned. That is why I do not want to see war come; I never again want to witness the destruction which happened that night. I saw a soldier strike down a woman whom he had just taken with his body, and a young boy fall to the ground with his face sliced open. But more terrible than that was the fire which ate the living bodies of men."
The dungeon had grown quiet; prisoners were settling down for the night, and I knew that I should leave. But I found myself hanging as much onto the unemotional tone of the Koretian as though he were singing in a bard's passionate voice. "Those are images that could haunt one forever," I said.
The Koretian snapped the straw he was weaving with. He reached over to find another piece of straw. Again his face was hidden from me. "The first time I spoke to a friend of mine who was also in the fire, he said that he couldn't understand how the Chara could allow such a thing to happen. I told him I couldn't understand how the god could allow such a thing to happen. I couldn't understand why a merciful god would allow death and destruction."
"Do you still wonder that?"
"Occasionally." The Koretian turned back to his work, but instead of weaving further he stared down at the braid, slowly tracing with his finger the work he had done. "Most of the time, though, I try to trust the god. I have come to believe that even death has a purpose, in the god's eyes." His fingers moved again, unweaving half of the work he had done until he reached the small error he had created earlier.
"You're very patient," I said, watching him begin to reweave the portion he had previously done.
"A spy has to be. I remember that when I started, I thought that my life would consist of eavesdropping on exciting intrigues. Nobody told me that those exciting intrigues would be preceded by my lying on my stomach on the cold ground for half the night, praying that the sniffles I was acquiring would not get so bad that I would betray my presence with a sneeze."
I had been so busy looking at his hands that I had taken only slight notice of his face. Now I looked over and saw that his bare cheeks were flushed red. There was moisture around his nose and eyes.
I reached into the crevice of my tunic neckline and pulled out a face-cloth. He took it with a nod of thanks, wiped his face, and handed back the cloth. He resumed his braiding. I asked, "Do you have much of a fever?"
"It doesn't matter. It won't be bothering me for long."
My hand curled around the chain. I forced myself to release the fist before it crushed my work. I said, without looking his way, "I wasn't able to discover when the King is returning."
"I assumed that you would have said something before this if you had. Tell me, Princess, isn't there a Daxion tradition of singing while working?"
I looked over at him. He was still undertaking the slow, painstaking weaving as before. I had a sudden image of Sandy arriving to take him to the executioner, and being forced to wait a minute as the Koretian finished one last beautiful figure.
My stomach contracted. To cover my thoughts, I asked, "What would you like to hear? I can sing a work-song, war-song, love-song – whatever you would like."
"Doesn't the Spirit tell the bard what to sing?"
"I'm not a bard. Tell me what sort of song you would like."
"Well, then, there is a song that I heard at a tavern here. I only heard a fragment of it, because I was on my way elsewhere, but I'd be interested in hearing the whole song. It was about the weaving of a tapestry."
So I weaved my chain and weaved my tale, "The Song of the Three Friends."
One friend came walking on a fine evening and met with a second friend, who hurried away to tell a third friend of the meeting. The third friend came and led the first friend to a meeting place, but had to depart briefly. . . And so the song continued. It was a song without tension or climax to carry it along; its attraction lay in the melody, which wove up and down through the words. The best way to hear it is to have it sung by three bards, each singing in harmony to the other, first one holding the melody, then another, until, in the end, the three join together in a single concord of beauty.
When I was through, I looked over at the Koretian. As I had sung, he had taken from my hands the part of the chain I had made, and now he looked down at it, his face shining with a faint but unmistakably serene smile. He fingered the place where he had joined the chains in a large and intricate knot. Then he reached over and placed the chain around my neck.
"This is an Arpeshian amulet," he said. "A friend gives it to another friend to protect him from danger."
My hand touched the golden charm as I craned my neck to look down at it. "You ought to keep it," I said.
"I am placed under the care of the Unknowable God; I obey his commands, wherever they take me. But you may have need of the amulet to protect you against the Prince."
I looked over at him. His smile had disappeared, and once again his face was unrevealing. I swallowed before saying, "The Prince won't harm me; I overheard him say so. How did you know that I was in danger?"
"You forget. I am one of the Jackal's thieves." He leaned back against the wall behind him, his back meeting the icy stones without hesitation. "The Jackal allows me to pursue matters that come to my notice, even if they are not connected with my missions. When I learned of your existence during this visit, I sent a message to the Jackal telling him about you, and I told him that I was going to see whether there was anything I could do to save you from the unsavory plots of your cousin."
I thought of the letter that the Jackal had sent to the King. "Why should either you or your master be concerned with the fate of a Daxion slave?"
The Koretian took into his hands once more the golden bird. "The Jackal has never cared for dealing with rulers who usurp power from the gods and murder anyone who inconveniences them. As for myself, I had little incentive to start with except a severe dislike of your cousin, based on what I had heard of him. Now, of course, I owe a debt to you."
"For coming to visit me. I don't imagine that you receive any more leisure time than I did as a slave. Only a woman who had shouldered the burdensome duties of a princess would take the trouble you have taken with me."
I was thinking two things. One was that the Koretian was holding the Heart of Mercy in his hands with great gentleness. The other was that the Prince had said that the Koretians were naturally deceptive, and the Koretian spy had certainly deceived me well in not revealing what he knew of me. The two thoughts lay side by side; I could not figure out at what point they joined.
So, since it was late in the night, I left the Koretian to curl up on the stone floor and secure what sleep he could in his cold cell.
Two voices hummed their way through their work in the stillness of the Daxion council's dining chamber: one was rough and irregular like the bark of a cypress tree, while the other was smooth like the bark of a fig tree. Both voices filled the room, from its tapestry-hung walls to its bay windows, but try as I might, I could not succeed in joining my voice with Joan's voice. Every time it began to do so, her tune skipped away like a nervous fawn.
It was the day after my weaving session with the Koretian, and the late afternoon sun sent a rosy glow onto the wet tiles of the council chamber. The tiles were wet because Joan and I had been sent to scrub them. It seemed likely that they would still be wet long after the sun set. The council chamber was a large room.
I looked over my shoulder at Joan, who had placed herself at the opposite end of the room from me. She was a dozen years younger than I, twenty years of age. She wore her shoulder-length hair in a tightly braided bun against the back of her neck, which gave her a severe appearance. She was slave-born and had lived all her life in the palace. Her father had died many years back, during one of those winters that periodically carried off even strong slaves. The slave-quarters were cold and dank, and slave-servants were not allowed to laze about in sick-beds unless they were on the point of death. Her mother had been crippled by the same illness. In a decision combining generosity with the practical knowledge that a crippled slave is of little use, my father had given Joan's mother her freedom and arranged for her to marry a lesser free-man. I remembered the moment of parting between mother and daughter, and how Joan's mother had wept and promised that she would somehow earn the money to buy her daughter's freedom.
Joan had never referred to this matter during the ten years since then, nor had she given any indication that she still hoped for her freedom. The only sign she gave that she was dissatisfied with her life was the occasional tendency to defy her masters in small ways – defiances which often went unnoticed and which were in any case not unusual even amongst obedient slaves such as myself.
She never rebelled against the conventions of the slave-quarters, though, and one of these conventions was that I was a person set apart from the other slaves. It was hard for the other slaves, I knew: one moment they were expected to treat me like any other slave-servant, and the next moment I would be summoned away from my work to chat with the King. Toft, the palace slave-keeper, regarded me as a demon who had taken the shape of a woman, placed under his care to make his life miserable. The other slaves simply treated me in as distant a manner as normal courtesy permitted.
Now I let my own humming dissipate like smoke as I listened to the music coming from the other end of the room. I had never heard this song before – Joan was one of those people who had a gift for creating her own tunes – but I thought there was something somber and dark about the melody. I pushed myself back into a kneeling position and stared at the ruddy tiles, trying to ignore the aching in my back. Behind me, Joan's wordless song continued to throw forth its shadow on the sun-drenched room.
I moved finally, picking up my cloth and the basin of water beside me. Carrying them around the great council table that I would eventually need to crouch beneath in order to scrub the floor underneath, I reached the other end of the room. I placed my water basin close to Joan's and knelt down on hands and knees to start cleaning the cobweb-clogged corner. As I did so, I began humming again, this time in a manner more dark and dreary.
After a while, I noticed that Joan's music had stopped. Straightening myself again, and biting my lip against the pain that accompanied this action, I swept my hair back with the back of my arm, since my hands were dark with dirty water. Then I looked over at Joan.
She was kneeling on the stone hearth, digging at a particularly stubborn piece of sap that had attached itself to the floor. After a minute, she said, "I'm being sent to Emor. As a gift."
"Oh," I said, understanding flooding forward. Then, feeling that my reply had been inadequate, I asked, "Who are you being given to?"
"They haven't told me. A nobleman, I suppose. They simply told me to be ready to leave at the end of this week." The sap had long since detached itself, but Joan continued to dig at the spot where it had been, as though scrubbing away some great blot.
I thought back to our conversation in the High Lady's quarters, and to Joan's remarks there about the Emorians. "The stories about the Emorians are probably exaggerated," I said. "Perhaps your new master will be kind."
Joan energetically scoured the floor as wisps of hair escaped from her bun. Without looking my way, she said, "I just hope I won't have to sleep with him."
There was no reply I could make to that, not in words anyway, and so I leaned over to clean the floor while I hummed the tune that palace slaves take up when their masters have done something particularly heinous. Needless to say, it is not a tune whose meaning the palace slaves have ever revealed to free-men. Indeed, it is a tune that circumspect slaves never sing. But after a moment, I heard a second voice join mine, and together our voices wove in harmony as the tiles grew blood-red and the shadows grew longer.
Presently, Joan's humming cut off abruptly, and I looked up to see Toft glaring down at us. My heart skipped a beat, but he merely said sourly, "Aren't you two finished yet?"
Since he had only started us on this chore a short time before, there was nothing we could do except murmur, "No, sir," and concentrate our gazes on the floor before us.
Toft continued to survey us for a long minute until finally, with the voice of a man who is conceding mercy where none is deserved, he said to us, "Dinner has started downstairs. One of you can go and get food for the both of you. You can do your work at the same time you're eating."
As he stepped away, Joan glanced over at me. I knew that she was thinking, as I was, that whoever went downstairs would be able to take a break from her work and stretch her legs. I said, without looking up, "Would you mind getting the food? I've been going up and down stairs all day, and my feet will fall off if I have to make another such trip."
I caught only a glimpse of Joan's smile before she caught herself and returned to the sober expression she usually showed around me. But as she rose, she said, "Leave that other corner for me. You've already done three corners as it is." Then she was gone, and I was left alone with the dirty water and the ache in my back.
I bent forward again and tried to concentrate my mind on the sounds around me rather than on the cutting pain. Through the unshuttered window nearby I could hear clattering from the army headquarters, which was located between the palace and Capital Mountain, serving as a shield between us and the Koretians, should our neighbors attack. Fainter than the sound of clashing swords came the voice of the steward, directing the preparation of meals in the outer kitchen. And faintest of all, as delicate as a snowflake falling on bare skin, came the sound of music.
I raised my head. The music continued: it arose from no human voice, and no harp string or flute was ever so sweet. It drifted into the room like the smell of spring flowers, bringing with it a peace that my own singing only hinted at.
I hastily wiped my hands dry on my filthy tunic, darted out of the council chamber, and rushed down to the corridor between the main palace entrance and the Great Hall.
They were strolling along the corridor in a leisurely manner: a cluster of lords, ladies, palace officials, and other free-men. I saw Gridley, the King's free-servant, who always treated me with the sort of disdain he might have shown if the King had chosen to favor a wanton mistress. The High Lady was there as well, deep in conversation with a kinswoman and with the royal clerk. And leading them all, separated somewhat from the rest, came two men.
One was the Prince. I would have known him even without raising my eyes, for he wore his customary gold-edged white tunic, which made him stand out from the other noblemen in their tapestry-bright reds and blues and greens. He had his head bowed slightly as he listened to the man beside him. This caused his thin royal circlet to flash in the afternoon sun. It was the circlet of the heir presumptive, which he had worn since first being presented to the council at age eight, but it lacked the gold filigree that would have marked him as the heir confirmed.
The man beside him was wearing a far more impressive diadem that shimmered like wind-swept water against his silver-streaked hair. He was soft in muscle, having spent most of his life in the palace, but his skin had sun-darkened from light brown to dark brown from his occasional trips to the countryside nearby in order to hunt or rest or simply see what was happening in the land. He had a firm jaw under his beard, and his hair was swept back from his forehead in an impatient manner. Emanating from him, like rays from the sun, were the final notes of the music I had heard moments before.
The Prince's voice, which he did not trouble to lower, carried to where I was standing. ". . . But there are not very many papers for you to sign, my lord King – just a few matters that you may want to settle before morning. Most of them are documents that your clerk is sending to the Chara's clerk. I prepared them myself because the Chara's clerk had been sending us nasty notes about your clerk's handwriting."
"I didn't give Vasily his post for his handwriting," said the King shortly.
"Naturally not, but I thought that it wasn't a matter worth fighting over with the Emorians, given the fact that our alliance is so strong these days. There are also a few court documents, and an execution order for a spy."
"Another one?" The King frowned. "That is just like the Jackal, assuring me of his peaceful intentions at the very moment that his thieves are prowling my land. It is a Koretian spy, I take it?"
"Part Emorian, I'd judge from his accent; he's probably a borderlander. But yes, my lord, the Jackal sent him. The papers are in my room, if you'd care to stop there before dinner. . . ."
They were abreast of me now and had not noticed me. Once they had entered the royal residence, I would not be able to follow them, for slaves were not permitted in that area at this time of night. With a fearlessness brought about by lack of forethought, I stepped into my father's path and dropped to one knee before him.
There was a sudden silence, not only from the Prince and the King, but from the cluster of people who had halted behind them. I knelt with my head bowed and my heart racing with uncertainty. There was no knowing how my father would treat this dangerously impertinent act. Based on past experience, I could expect anything from a hug to a beating.
I heard a word cut off short; it came from the Prince, who had begun to speak but had thought better of it. Then the King made his decision. I heard him say, "Those papers will keep until later, won't they?"
"If you wish, my lord King," the Prince replied in a colorless voice. "There is nothing timely amongst them except the execution, and that can wait until morning."
"The rest of you go on to the hall, then. I'll be with you shortly."
I was still staring at the diamond-shaped tiles of the corridor, so I did not see the reaction of the others to this announcement, only heard the murmur of their voices as they swept past me, led by the Prince. The High Lady was continuing her conversation with her kinswoman, seemingly oblivious of the interruption, while the Prince spoke softly to one of the council ladies. The King waited until they were out of sight before reaching down to pull me up with one hand.
"Well, slave," he said with mock ferociousness, "what is so urgent that you could not wait until we saw each other next?"
I tipped my head to look up at him. He was close to sixty years of age now, but the men and women of the Daxion royal line are long-lived, and he was likely to remain alive for another generation or so. At moments like now, when the lines around his eyes were creased with amusement, he looked no older than myself. "I was wondering whether you had a pleasant trip, my lord King," I replied.
My father gave a roar of laughter and swung his arm around my back to squeeze me tight. "Spoken like a true daughter of mine," he said. "I swear, you have more diplomatic sense in that head of yours than any official in this palace – including that silly clerk of mine. You couldn't wait to welcome me back, is that what you're trying to tease me into believing? Well, come up with me while I get changed, and we can talk before dinner."
He leaped onto the steps nearby and held out his hand to me, and then he threaded his way around the newel of the spiral staircase, leading me as though I were still a small child. His quarters were close to the top of the staircase; he flung the door open, calling out, "Gridley! Curse it, where is the man?"
"You told the others to continue on to the hall," I reminded him, dropping his title since we were now alone.
"So I did, and Gridley was perverse enough to take me at my word. He knew perfectly well that I need to change out of these travel clothes." As he spoke, he absent-mindedly scratched his right thigh through the cloth of his tunic.
"Allow me," I said as I dropped to my knee once more. Pulling up the edge of the tunic, I encountered the leather thong-knot and tugged at it. The lace came loose, and the thigh-pocket that had been strapped around my father's leg fell into my hands. As I laid it aside, I glimpsed the hilt of the palm-sized thigh-dagger sticking out from one of the pockets.
As I rose again, I saw that my father was smiling at me. "You're a privileged girl, do you know that? You're one of only three people that I'd trust to take that from me."
"Gridley is the second one; who is the third?" I asked as I reached forward to unbuckle his sword-belt.
"Your cousin, of course. —By the Spirit, it's good to have that tourniquet off of my leg. It's all Richard's fault, with his worries about assassins. He has me garnish myself with more secreted weapons than a murderer. Watch out with the boots, there's another dagger hidden there."
I had already discovered it and had placed my hand between the boot pocket and the King's leg so that the dagger would not accidentally cut my father as I removed the boot. As I laid the boots aside, I turned around and saw to my relief that Gridley had already placed out a fresh tunic for my father. I would not be taxed with going through my father's huge wardrobe of gold clothing and trying to guess which tunic was the appropriate dress for this time of year and day.
The gold tunic was lying limply over the back of a chair, gleaming in the late-afternoon light like a fireball. As I turned back to my father, I discovered that he had already stripped himself of his travelling tunic. This was not a good sign. The Prince, I had heard, preferred to dress and undress himself, this being the custom in the army, but my father followed convention in such matters except when he was tired and impatient. I stepped forward and tried not to betray my nervousness as I helped him on with his gold tunic.
"Well, and what is on your mind, my dear?" my father asked, flashing me one of his brilliant smiles.
I was not deceived by the smile, which I knew could disappear from his face with the rapidity of a sun being covered by a cloud. Still edging my way carefully around my father's mood, I said, "I was worried that you were gone for so long. I heard a rumor that Koretia was about to declare war on Emor, and I was afraid that you would be caught on a battlefield."
"Oh, that." My father dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand as I pinned his tunic-flap closed with a jade brooch. "Daxis should be so lucky. I doubt there will be war if the Jackal uses his blood brother as an intermediary between himself and the Chara. Even if war comes, Richard seems to think that the outcome isn't certain. The last thing we want is for Koretia to make Emor its dominion."
I stepped back to pick up my father's jewelled sword-belt. "Emor has a much larger army, doesn't it?"
"Koretia has the Jackal as its army commander, that's the problem. I tell you, my dear, if your cousin has any rival in the Three Lands for leading armies, it's the Jackal. He's a vicious man on the battlefield, though you wouldn't guess it from his appearance."
My father walked over to stare out the window. I trailed behind him, attempting to tie his belt. The wavy surface of the glass cast patterns upon his face. There were only five glass-makers in the Three Lands, and they all worked for my father, reserving their secret products for the King and for anyone whom he might favor with his gifts.
My father stood in the shadow cast by Capital Mountain as he said, "A pleasant, soft-spoken man – that's the impression which the Jackal gave me the first time I met him, shortly after Koretia won its independence. So I had the idea that we could settle matters in Koretia by ensuring that the Jackal didn't live long enough to be enthroned."
I had stepped behind my father to check that his tunic was straight in the back; I was glad that he could not see my face. "So you sent someone over the border?"
"No need for that. There were plenty of Koretians who knew the Jackal only as a peaceful, unarmed man, and who could be persuaded that the throne was still open for all claimants – fools that they were. The Chara had placed Koretia under the Jackal's care, and if the Jackal had been assassinated, the Chara would simply have taken control of the land again. That would have been a gratifying change of events for Daxis."
"But the Jackal wasn't assassinated."
"No." My father's reply was so short that I came round to the front to look at his face. The King's eyes had narrowed so that he looked like the Prince; he continued to stare at the mountain between Daxis and Koretia. "No, Richard was right when he advised me not to send one of our own men to take care of that matter. Your cousin was the only person in this land to have recognized the truth behind that peaceful expression which the Jackal wears when he is naked-faced. I would not have wanted any Daxion to have ended his life in the way that the assassin did."
My father turned abruptly away from the window, but I remained where I was, leaning my cheek against the sun-warmed wall. In a hearth nearby, Gridley had built a blazing fire, and the room was filled with heat that was as pervasive as a song. My father picked up his thigh-pocket and strapped it back on, saying, "No doubt Richard is right to encourage me to wear this. As for what happened ten years ago, there seemed some hope at the time that the assassin's family would indulge themselves in an old-fashioned Koretian blood feud at the Jackal's expense. But then the Jackal sent his blood brother to talk to the family, and by the time he was through, the family was prepared to sacrifice their first-borns to the gods in reparation for what their kinsman had tried to do. A dangerously skillful man, that blood brother. No, the Koretians are never to be underestimated. That is one high matter in which Richard has turned out to be right."
The room was beginning to gather with shadows as dark as storm clouds. Taking a taper from the hearth, I carried a glowing flame, bright as a new star, around to all of the lamps in the room. By the time I was through, my father was smiling again. He had tilted the window open to let in the evening breeze. With it came the sweet smell of the fruit trees in the palace gardens. It was sleeting outside. Having lived most of my life indoors, I rarely noticed the weather outside. My single vivid memory of winters past came from the year I was twelve, when southern Daxis had grown so cold that it had actually snowed. I was more used to the freezing rain that shimmered like bits of looking glass and turned the palace grounds pungent with the smell of wet earth.
"Does it snow in Koretia?" I asked suddenly.
My father laughed. "What, were all my geography lessons wasted on you? No, it doesn't snow in Koretia, except in the mountains and occasionally in the borderland. Don't tell me that you're becoming one of those ignorant slaves who thinks that the Koretian gods live in the black border mountains and that bards roam the streets of the Koretian capital."
My ignorance of geography was the result of the fact that I had never left the palace grounds during my life, so I made no reply to my father's remark. Perhaps my face reflected something of what I was thinking, though, for my father reached into the pouch hanging from his belt. "Here, I've brought back a little bit of Koretia with me. This is for you."
He pulled from the pouch a brooch made of blackroot wood. The brooch was crude in style – the Koretians have no better craftsmen than the Daxions – and the wood was not even varnished, though it was smooth to the touch. It looked like something my father must have bought at a village market at the last moment.
"It's beautiful," I said, taking the brooch from my father's hands. "Thank you so much."
"I'm glad that you like it," replied my father. "It looked somewhat primitive to me. The Jackal gave it to me as a gift for my Bard, but I don't want Rosetta wearing something that common – especially not a brooch that bears a Koretian god-mask on it."
I held the brooch toward the lamp-light to look at its design. Like the Koretian royal seal I had seen three days before, the brooch was in the shape of a downward-pointed triangle with convex sides, but there were no face markings on the mask. Instead, the brooch was carved with a picture of a double-pronged plectrum.
"Which god does this represent?" I asked.
"Oh, the carving of our royal seal is just an added flourish, I believe. As for the blank mask, I'm told that it represents the Unknowable God, some obscure god that only the Jackal and a handful of other Koretians worship. I can't say that this was the high point of my visit – having the Jackal try to convince me to worship a Koretian god. But I thought that the brooch was unusual enough that you might like it. Let's see what it looks like on— Here, what is this?"
As he spoke, he had been unclasping the simple pin on my neck-flap and opening the flap wide. Now he stared down with puzzlement at the Arpeshian amulet I had hidden underneath my tunic.
"A friend gave it to me," I said, hoping that my bared neck did not reveal the sudden rapidity of my pulse.
My father chuckled as he fingered the straw. "Slaves' crafts, eh? Well, you have something better to wear now." He broke the straw chain with a single jerk and tossed it out the window.
I could not prevent the cry of protest from reaching my lips. My father, who was on the point of pinning the wood brooch to my tunic, paused, and his expression grew more thoughtful. "You wanted to keep that trifle?" he said. "Why, who gave it to you?"
"Oh?" My father leaned against the wall and began to play with the brooch in his hands, as though it were a stone that he might restlessly throw into a pond at any moment. "And how does it come about that you are meeting Koretians these days?"
"He's a prisoner in the dungeon. Actually, he's the reason I wanted to see you. I thought perhaps you might be willing to spare him—"
"Stop." My father's voice was only a little louder than usual, but I halted with as much haste as though a bottomless chasm had just opened in my path. "Not another word," he said, his eyes growing more narrow. "If you have been going places in the palace where you shouldn't be and seeing people you shouldn't see, you ought to know better than to tell me. Say no more, or I will have to hand you over to Toft for your punishment."
I took a deep breath and said, "I don't care, as long as you listen to what I say. This Koretian—"
"If you don't care about the state of your own flesh, perhaps you can show some concern for your lover's state of health. If you're imprudent enough to reveal the name of this suitor of yours, I can guarantee you that his death will be long and painful."
He was looking down upon me with dark anger. Dimly I was aware that my expression matched his as I said, "He's not my lover."
"Then he is a fool to give the King's daughter a present that might be interpreted as a courting gift."
I lifted my chin so that I could meet his eyes, and said bluntly, "I'm only a slave."
A humorless smile drifted onto my father's face, and his hand closed so tightly around the brooch that it seemed his fingers would crush the wood. "Mere slaves," he said, "do not look at their masters in such a way, nor do they address them in such a manner. Mere slaves are not such reckless idiots as to block the path of the King when he is surrounded by his lords and ladies and officials."
Prudence caused me to lower my eyes and wait in silence. A wiser slave than I would have immediately gone down on one knee in the face of such chastisement, but there had always been limits to the degree that I was willing to abase myself in my father's private presence.
After a moment, I was relieved to feel my father pin the brooch to the flap of my tunic. As I raised my head, I saw that he was smiling again. "I forgive you," he said. "What stubbornness you have is honestly inherited. I am the fool for having encouraged you in your independence as a child, rather than teaching you your proper place in this palace. Even to this day, my feelings for you are so strong that I do not discipline you as I should. Well, my foolishness began from the moment that I told your mother I loved her, and I cannot regret that I am equally fond of the fruit of our love." As he spoke, he reached out to touch my hair gently, and I heard the voiceless song once more.
I do not know at what age I realized that only the Prince and I could hear this music emanating from the King. Perhaps it was when I heard tales of the strange echoes that some Daxions heard in the court, and realized that only the Prince and I knew that these were no echoes, but the sound of my father taking his Bard's song and sending it forth once more. We knew this because we had heard the Spirit's music come from the King at other times. This was one of many subjects that the Prince and I never discussed amongst ourselves, but when the King came close to the nursery, both our heads would jerk up at the same moment, and we both knew what the other was hearing.
Now, as my father poured forth his love on me like flower-scented water, I felt myself held captive by the Spirit's peace and was ready once more to lay down my life for the man who had hurt me on so many occasions over the years. It occurred to me that if the Jackal was a peaceful man hiding violence, my father was just the reverse: his cruelty sheathed a bright blade of tranquility that could only have come from the bards' goddess. When all was sung against him – and his vicious deeds would make quite a long tale – the King was still the Voice of the Spirit.
His hand fell and the music died away, leaving a sweet flavor to the dimly lit room. "Enough of our talk," he said. "My steward will be going mad with impatience by now. Have you had dinner yet?"
"No, my lord," I replied, swallowing, with difficulty, any further mention of the Koretian. I knew my father well enough to be sure that his threats against the man had not been idle ones.
He smiled, knowing that I had not added his title for the sake of witnesses. "Come, then. It has been quite a while since you've been in the Great Hall, hasn't it? I'll see that you have a proper meal for once, and you can show off your new brooch to the palace dwellers. You will be something pretty for me to look at tonight."
In actual fact, my father never took another look at me after we arrived at the cluster of the people awaiting him at the entrance to the Great Hall. Instead, he gave me over to the steward, who emitted a sigh as he scanned my dusty tunic before thrusting me into the midst of the neatly-dressed lesser free-men who were about to make their entrance into the hall.
I suppose that if we had lived in Emor, the lesser free-men's entrance would have taken the form of an exactly ordered line: as the lowest-ranked person there, I would have been the first into the hall, and the line would have culminated with the entrance of the royal clerk, the highest-ranked official in the land. As it was, though, we swarmed into the hall with only the roughest divisions between ranks to indicate our proper stations in life.
First came the lesser free-men (as well as one slave, ignored by the others). Surrounding me were free-servants and palace officials and a few army officials; I caught sight of Derek, his hand touching the belt where his sword should have been. The disarming of dinner guests was another custom that the Prince had persuaded my father to adopt, supposedly in order to protect the King. It seemed to me, though, that assassins were likely to carry hidden weapons, and that disarming all but a few guards meant that fewer of the King's loyal subjects were now capable of protecting my father in the event of an attack. But when I pointed this out to my father, he simply assured me that the Prince remained armed and that he was a fine enough swordsman to protect the King.
With the instinct of bees making their way to their own hives, the lesser free-men swerved over to the right side of the room and stood by the long line of trestle-tables there, calling to each other as they sighted friends with whom they wanted to sit. I waited until the others had found their places before placing myself at the end of the table nearest to the doors, beside a young free-woman. I recognized her as one of the clerk's scribes. She gave me an uneasy look before pitching herself into conversation with the woman beside her.
In the meantime, the noblemen had begun to enter the hall: barons and baronesses and lords and ladies, a splendid mosaic of colors. Raising their voices above the flutists playing in the corner of the timber-roofed hall, they made their way to the trestle-tables on the left side of the room, leaving the central portion of the hall inhabited only by the slave-servants scurrying to and fro to bring rose-water bowls to all of the guests. I recognized the slave placing the dish in front of me, but he did not raise his eyes high enough to see who I was.
A slight pause followed, and then the Prince entered the hall. By order of rank, he should have accompanied the other noblemen, but by custom he sat at the high table at the head of the room. Clinging to his arm was his dinner companion, Lady Felicia, who smiled proudly at her fellow lords and ladies as the Prince murmured in her ear.
Not far behind was the High Lady, accompanied on this evening by her young kinswoman, Baroness Eulalee, who shyly lowered her eyes as she entered the hall. And then the flutes fell silent, for a greater source of music was about to appear.
I remembered how, when I ate in the hall as a child, I had always been awe-struck by the entrance of the three Voices of the Spirit: the King flanked by his Bard and his Consort. The King's Consort was no longer alive. In order to keep from emphasizing this fact, Rosetta now entered the hall inconspicuously and awaited my father at the center of the room.
They joined there, the King and the Bard, like two voices that meet and intermingle. Their heights matched each other, and for a moment they looked straight into each other's eyes, smiling. Then Rosetta sank to one knee, holding her harp cradled under one arm, and asked, "What is your pleasure, my lord King? The Prince has had me prepare a new song for you."
My father's smile deepened as he reached out to touch Rosetta lightly upon her shoulder. "We will save that one for a private audience. No, I leave it to you and the Spirit to decide your songs tonight. Let the music be sprightly, though, else I am likely to fall asleep over my cups tonight."
Rising with a laugh, Rosetta broke the song-silence with a great strum across her strings and launched immediately into a drinking song that set everyone in the hall to bellowing verses and tapping their feet as they sat down on the benches. Even the slaves, who were beginning to bring in platters of food and set them before us, hummed softly along with the music.
Light from the candle-studded chandeliers fell upon the people below, who were divided into Three Lands of rank as sharply as though there were guards keeping us apart from each other. Only the youngest free-children, brought from the nurseries to eat with their parents, failed to notice the divides and scurried between and underneath the tables without care for where they were going.
Contrary to what my father had said before, it had not been a long time since I last visited here. As the King's slave-servant, I often served the high table, but of course my father would not have noticed me on such occasions. The last time I had been here as a guest had been sixteen years before, when the Prince came of age at age sixteen. Even the slaves had been permitted to join in those celebrations. The hall had been brightly bedecked then with banners proclaiming the glorious event. Amidst them all, the white-tunicked Prince had stood out in a regal fashion. I remembered his smile as he accepted the acclaim of his subjects-to-be.
My own coming-of-age had taken place two years before, when I was fourteen. There had been no ceremony, and the only person who took note of the occasion had been Toft, who promptly assigned me the harder tasks of a slave-woman.
Now I accepted automatically the food that was served to me from the slave-borne platters. I ate what I was given without thought to the taste of the stuffed gull, sauced eel, and salted venison. My thoughts were on the Prince, who was seated at the high table and taking no notice of what was occurring elsewhere in the hall. He was busy murmuring into the ear of Lady Felicia, who emitted periodic giggles. I saw the High Lady glance toward the couple and purse her lips before continuing her conversation with her kinswoman.
I had long since ceased to listen to Rosetta, but now a simple, quickly-repeating phrase caused me to look at the King's Bard. She was standing near the high table, ignored by my father, who had taken the opportunity of his proximity to the Prince to exchange a few private words with the subcommander of his army. As I watched, the Prince beckoned to one of his captains, who came over to join in the conversation.
Rosetta, standing straight with her head held high, paid no notice to the fact that she was being ignored. As the men and women around her talked and laughed, she told "The Song of the Quarrelling Children." There were two children, a boy and a girl, and the girl refused to allow the boy to join in her games. In revenge, the boy stole the girl's doll and hid it from her, laughing when she begged for it back. Then the Spirit came, scolding her disobedient children. She spanked both the children soundly and sent them separately to their beds to weep alone. At the end of the song, the boy crept out of his bed to take the doll and lay it next to the sleeping girl. The Spirit stood nearby, smiling as she watched, and sent the song of her peace down upon the children.
My gaze drifted toward the high table again. The Prince was no longer talking with my father, nor was he paying any attention to Lady Felicia, who was chatting to him. Instead, his eyes were on me.
I am not sure how long we continued to look at each other. Two things occurred to break our silent conversation: the King called out to Rosetta to sing a more lively tune, and Lady Felicia suddenly pushed herself away from the table and stalked toward the hall doors.
The Prince watched her go with a dispassionate gaze. For a moment he remained where he was, coolly calculating what he should do. Then he murmured something to my father, who nodded. The Prince rose and left the hall in pursuit of his lover, in a leisurely manner.
With a smile, the King pushed his plate to one side, indicating that his guests were free to leave when they wished. If he had not done so, it would have been a sign of his displeasure with the Prince. Rosetta continued to sing; her back remained facing me and the doors through which the Prince had left.
I remembered the first time that she had sung "The Song of the Quarrelling Children." She had inaugurated her song at a private audience for two in the King's nursery. Richard and I had been so awe-struck that the King's Bard should compose a song about us that we had managed to keep from fighting each other for nearly a week. But of course, such peace oaths between us never lasted long.
I looked about me. The windows high above us had turned black with night; the slaves were beginning to collect empty pottery. I slipped off my bench – unnoticed by the scribe, who had not looked at me since the dinner began – and sailed my way through the sea of slave-servants until I reached the door. Then I began travelling back to the council chamber.
The quickest way to do this was to cut through the long gallery that overlooked the garden beside the outer court. This was a risky journey to take, for slaves were not permitted in this finely furnished area, but I was still infected with the feeling of being a free-woman, so I ignored the door leading to the remainder of the palace and instead turned right into the candle-lit gallery.
Most of the curtains that hid the bay windows at night were still pulled back. I could see through them the winter-black garden and the tall marble columns marking the entrance to the court. The light from the wall-hung candles twinkled like trapped stars upon the window panes. My footsteps reverberated along the corridor walls as I passed the cushioned couches where noblemen sat on fine days. Then I heard a woman's upraised voice at the other end of the gallery. Quickly, I leaped into the recess of one of the windows, pulled the curtain closed behind me, and peered past the edge of the curtain to see who was coming.
It was Lady Felicia, followed closely behind by the Prince, who was listening to her remonstrations with a dutifully repentant expression. As he reached out to touch her, she flung his hand back. He managed to make it look as though she had driven his hand against the wall. Lady Felicia hesitated in her journey as the Prince paused to suck on his knuckles and cast upon her a look of sorrow and pain.
Having gained her attention, the Prince said quietly, "My love, I would beg your forgiveness if I knew what I had done to hurt you so."
"How can you say that?" cried Lady Felicia, flinging herself back against the gallery wall in frustration. "How can you leer openly at her like that and expect me to be happy? Is it not enough that I have given you all that I have, that you must be searching immediately for another – another—?"
The Prince quickly handed the sobbing lady a clean face-cloth – I knew that he kept a large supply of these in preparation for such occasions – and said, "What sort of song do you imagine I want to sing to such a creature? I'm not like my uncle, seeking love in the slave-quarters. And if I did, I can assure you that I would pursue any girl but the one who pushed me into a muddy puddle minutes before I was about to be presented to the council for the first time."
Lady Felicia's sobs turned into laughter as she dabbed her eyes with the cloth. "Did she really do that?"
"She most certainly did. I was wearing a white tunic, which made an elegant background for the mud. The council ladies and lords were unable to suppress their laughter when they saw my appearance. You may be sure that any cousinly affection I might once have held for her was lost on that day."
Through the crack between the curtain and the wall, I could just glimpse Lady Felicia's shining face. She asked, "Did you tell the King what she had done?"
"Of course. And the King decided it was time that she was removed to the slave-quarters, so I had my revenge. In any case, you have nothing to fear from her – nor from any other woman. The highest-ranked woman in this land could not tempt me away from you."
The Prince's voice had grown soft. He was leaning over Lady Felicia now, with his right hand on the wall above her and his left hand reaching out to touch her hair. As he swept a few strands away from her face, she tilted her head back and closed her eyes. Thus she did not see the moment when the Prince's lips moved from solemnity to mockery; she only felt those lips upon her own.
I would have moved back at this point, but the Prince's kiss was brief. He whispered something into Lady Felicia's ear, and she giggled. Then he stepped back and watched as she continued to walk down the gallery, casting longing looks back at him every few steps.
The Prince remained where he was, smiling a carefully affectionate smile as long as she remained in sight. Then the mocking smile returned as he said, without moving his head, "And what can I do for you?"
My heart jerked, but I relaxed in the next moment as Derek slid over to the Prince's side. He said, "I don't suppose that you would be willing to give me a few lessons on how to sing like that."
The Prince turned finally to look at his subcaptain, who must have come straight from the hall, for he was still unarmed. Aside from the brand on his face, Derek had an innocuous appearance. He was a short, wiry man, and he wore an army tunic whose blue edging was so faded that he might easily have been mistaken for a bottom-ranked soldier.
The Prince said with smooth satisfaction, "The trick is to believe your song while you're singing it. A singer cannot lie, so the woman will always be sure that you are telling the truth."
"One of these days you'll begin believing your own lies, Richard," said Derek as he started to walk beside the Prince.
"Oh, I doubt it," said the Prince. "No woman matters that much to me, and you and I have too much experience setting traps to make the mistake of falling into our own. Speaking of which, I managed to extract from the clerk the information of where the King hid those documents. Do you have time to make a foray for me?" The Prince had lowered his voice almost to a whisper, but he was now close enough for me to hear him still.
"What documents?" Derek's forehead was creased, as though his concentration was elsewhere.
"Why, the ones we discussed, describing the King's army plans for— No!"
During the brief interval between the Prince's penultimate word and his shout, the following had happened: Derek, with no appearance of haste, reached out to the side, flung back the curtain to my window, dragged me from the recess, and threw me face-first against the gallery wall, trapping my hands behind me. As I got back my breath, I turned my head and saw that Derek had his free hand up. In his hand was the nearly invisible edge of a slender blade.
The Prince was holding Derek's wrist; this was why I had time enough to turn my head. During the pause that followed, I could tell that Derek had been forced to halt his deadly attack but was not going to release me.
The Prince said in an easy voice, "Derek, your instincts are going awry if you're starting to protect me against eavesdropping slaves. It is in the nature of slaves to listen in on their betters."
Derek did not move his eyes from me. "This particular slave has the King's ear," he said shortly.
"All the more reason to let her go," the Prince replied in the same casual voice. "It might be somewhat difficult to hide her disappearance from my uncle."
I could feel Derek's hand clamped around my wrists as tight as a rope. He made no reply to the Prince. After a moment, Richard released his wrist, smiling. I felt the subcaptain's hand squeeze me tighter in preparation for the next move. I closed my eyes, knowing that any scream I made would not be heard by other palace dwellers in time. Through the darkness, I heard the Prince say lightly, "The decision is yours, Derek, but you're leaving me with one less conquest to make." He ended his words with a laugh.
For a moment, the only sound was my thudding heart and my silent words of prayer to the Spirit. Then I heard a throaty chuckle as the subcaptain released my hands. As I turned, shaking, he slid his dagger back into his thigh-pocket. "Far be it from me to overrule you on matters concerning women," he told the Prince. "I'll be interested in seeing the results of this particular ballad."
"Oh, I imagine that it will be a lengthy ballad," said the Prince, laying his arm over my shoulders, "but I'll see if I can make a start to it tonight. I have an hour or two before Lady Felicia arrives in my chamber." He firmly guided me in the direction of the royal residence, leaving Derek laughing in the long gallery.
I was only dimly aware of the subsequent journey. I came to myself again when I felt a cup touch my hands and looked up to see that the Prince was handing me some cider. We were in his sleeping chamber, which was dark but for the hearth-light painting everything red.
"My apologies," he said in a nonchalant manner. "One of these days, Derek's enthusiasm is going to get me in trouble. Drink up – you look as though you're about to drift off to the Land Beyond."
I managed to drink the liquid without spilling much of it. As I did so, I felt myself growing dizzy from its warmth. When I looked up again, the Prince was standing before me with a cloak in his hand.
"I noticed that you looked a bit cold in that shawl of yours," he said as he took the cup back from me. "It occurred to me the other day that I ought to give you something in thanks for helping me with that small matter concerning the Jackal's letter. I outgrew this cloak a long time ago, but I think it will fit you." And with a swirl of cloth, he settled the cloak onto my shoulders. The wool was very warm.
I said stiffly, "There is no need, Prince. I was only doing my duty. Besides, palace slaves are not allowed to own cloaks."
The Prince was busy closing the clasp. As he did so he touched my new brooch lightly, but did not ask me about it. "I think Toft will allow you to keep a present of mine – and if you don't want it, you can give it to a friend. In any case, I insist that you accept my gift." Beneath his light smile, his words were firm.
I took their meaning. In a gesture I knew that the Prince would recognize as defiance rather than submission, I lowered my eyes, saying, "As you wish, my lord Prince."
The Prince stepped back, and I heard him draw in his breath. The lightness of his voice was replaced by darkness as he said, "If you're going to play the dutiful slave, Princess, then you don't belong in the royal residence at this time of night."
"No, my lord." I dropped to one knee, keeping my head bowed, and then rose again as the Prince opened the door to the corridor. I had barely stepped through the arch when the door slammed behind me, creating a boom that startled the soldiers guarding the staircase nearby.
I hurried past them, my mind filled with thoughts of all the battles I had lost during the past hours. I saw a King who alternated like day and night, loving me and reproving me, embracing his daughter and ignoring his slave. I saw a Prince, laughing as he discussed my death. But most of all, I saw a prisoner in the dungeon, awaiting my word.
I stopped suddenly. I had made my way downstairs and was standing at the entrance to the council chamber, dressed in the nobleman's cloak that the Prince had given me. Before me, the candle-lit floor was clean and nearly dry. At one end of the chamber was a hunk of bread, a handful of nuts, and a cup of water – a slave's meal awaiting its owner. At the other end was Joan, just rising to her feet with the night-black bowl of water in her hands. She swept past me quickly, finished with both our tasks, but not before I had seen the dark anger in her face.
Sandy was at his post when I arrived at the dungeon that night. He was humming under his breath until he stopped abruptly, hearing my step. He had a low, wavering voice I always loved, because it was his, but he disliked having other people hear his shaky tone. Of course, this did not stop him from singing to the Spirit when he was alone.
I caught sight of a small figure on the shelf behind him and reached over to take it down. Sandy said, "I told him that I thought the bird was pretty, and he gave it to me."
"You went to see him?"
"I had to – he hasn't touched his food for the past three days. Some of the prisoners do that, you know. They try to cheat the executioner by starving themselves to death."
I placed the bird back onto the shelf, next to various metal instruments that I had never wanted to ask Sandy about. "What did the Koretian say?"
"He apologized. He said that he had not meant to cause trouble – that he had been fasting in preparation for meeting his god."
I leaned back against the icy wall, feeling the cold touch my back like the fingers of a jagged blade. All around us, the prison was still. I had come later than usual, when most of the prisoners were asleep. Even the night guards looked ready to sneak off into a corner for a nap.
Sandy said, "We talked after that about the gods. He asked me about my amulets and wanted to know which gods they signified. I had been planning to ask him some questions about himself, but I never seemed to reach that point. I suppose that's the mark of a good spy, that he learned more about me than I about him. He asked me how I knew that he wouldn't hurt you."
"You've always known," I said. "I've been visiting prisoners for years, and none that you have let me see has tried even to touch me."
"I replied something of the sort. I also told him that I was sure that the gods watched over you and that they would curse any man who laid a hand upon you. He knows quite a lot about the gods of different lands; he said that he worships them all. He listed the names of all the gods he had encountered in his travels. I've heard ballads that took a shorter time to recite. I asked him why he would burden himself with worshipping so many gods when even I have never tried to pay homage to more than a dozen or two."
"What did he say?"
"He seems to have given a lot more thought to these matters than I ever did. He told me that when he was younger he contemplated taking his own life because he couldn't stand to witness all the suffering in the world. Then one day a god spoke to him and revealed to him how the gods use men's suffering to bring about good." Sandy paused, and for the first time in his blunt, pitiless recital he appeared uncertain whether to speak. In the end he said, "He gave me a look – it wasn't quite a smile, nothing so definite as that. He said that he hoped that his god would reveal to him tomorrow what good had come from his own death. He said that he would enjoy knowing that."
After a minute, Sandy said, "Princess? You've visited men before who were going to be executed. Don't be grieved—"
"I'm not grieved," I said. "I just realized that I should have brought something down here with me. I'll be back in a few minutes."
I returned not long afterwards, and held out to Sandy the cloak bundled in my arms. He shook his head, and at first I thought he was refusing to let me carry out my plan. But to my surprise he said, "No need for me to inspect it, Princess. You go ahead and take it in to him. I told him that the King was back, and though he said nothing, I imagine he could use whatever warmth you can give him."
As the door to the cell closed behind me, I look down silently at the Koretian. He was sitting in the far corner, with his arms wrapped around his knee-bent legs. His face was tilted up toward the ceiling. For a moment I thought that he was asleep; then I saw that his eyes were open and gazing steadily at something. Not the ceiling – whatever he saw lay beyond this cell.
I knew that he realized someone had entered his cell, for I saw his arms tighten briefly on his legs before they relaxed once more. It was some time before he looked my way; then he nodded in greeting.
"Your pardon, Princess," he said. "I thought it was Sandy, come to fetch me. I was reluctant to break away from my peaceful vision."
I stayed by the door, hugging the cloak to my body. "You had a faraway look to you."
"I suppose that I must have. I was looking over the boundary marker into another land."
"Did you like what you saw?"
"I have always liked the glimpses I've had of that land. I confess, though, that I will be sorry to leave my friends who are still on this side of the border."
I came forward then, placed the cloak at his feet like a gift-offering to a god, and retreated back to near the door. The Koretian looked at it without moving and said, "Is this yours?"
"It's the Prince's. He gave it to me as a bribe to keep me from telling my father about all the things he does. I accepted it rather than make the Prince angry at me. He said that I could do as I wished with the cloak. I thought that you wouldn't mind wearing it."
The Koretian gave a wry smile. "I will be glad to free you of your cousin's bribe." He pulled the cloak forward. The cloth unwound, revealing the dagger placed in the center.
For a moment, the Koretian was still. Then he reached out and wrapped his right hand around the wooden hilt. He held the blade up so that the moonlight caught hold of it and sent moon-sparks dancing upon the walls. He said, his eyes on the dagger, "Did the Prince give you this as well?"
"It's the one that Sandy gave me. I want you to have it."
The Koretian lowered the blade slightly and looked past it to me. "Princess, unless I have been falsely informed about the skill of Daxion hangmen, I have no need of means to a quick death."
"No, it is to help you escape." Having gotten the words out, I felt my legs grow weak, and I sat down abruptly.
The Koretian was holding the blade tentatively in his hand, almost as though it frightened him. Remembering back, I said, "I know that you don't carry a weapon, but you need only carry it to scare other people. You don't have to use it."
For a moment more the Koretian contemplated the metal, as though it were a rare jewel. Then he came over, sat down beside me, and placed the dagger on the ground between us. "Thank you," he said softly, "but I know what they would do to you if I took advantage of your offer. My life is not worth that price."
I took breath and began the most dangerous part of my mission. "You don't understand. When I killed that guard who tried to rape me, they could have had me executed – they would have, if I had been any other slave. But they didn't even take away my dagger. My father wouldn't let them harm me, and he won't let them harm me for this." I looked the Koretian steadily in the eyes, waiting to see whether he would believe my lie.
It seemed that he did. His fingers reached down to stroke the splintering hilt as he said, "What did you have in mind?"
I let out my breath in a sigh. "There exists a passage, the one in which I listened to the Prince speak. It also leads to a hole to the outside. If you knew of a way to get beyond the palace wall and the city wall, you could make your escape."
"The walls are no problem, but how far is this passage from the cell?"
"On the other side of the dungeon, not far beyond the door to the outside."
He leaned back against the wall, abandoning the blade where it was. "Princess, I have been between here and the outside door six times. It is amazing how many people one has to meet before the guards decide where to lock you away in this dungeon; Emor's bureaucracy has nothing to match it. Based on those trips, I would say that there are seven patrols between here and the door – am I right?"
"Eight patrols at night."
"Eight patrols, all set to a timing known only to Sandy, I'd guess. Am I right?"
"Yes," I said in a low voice.
"It works that way in most palaces, and it is one of the reasons that spy work in a palace is more difficult than in any other location. Not even the Jackal would try to go from one end of a dungeon to another without knowing when he would meet eight sets of guards."
"I could ask Sandy the routine."
"If Sandy has any sense of duty, then he would not tell you. Moreover, he would know from your asking what it was that you were contemplating."
I stared down at the dagger, glinting untouched in the moonlight, and said vehemently, "There must be something we can try. I would do anything; just tell me what help you need. If you're killed in the morning—" My voice caught, and I steadied it before saying, "I couldn't live with that. Can't you think of another plan?"
The Koretian's expression had been relaxed as he explained the failure of my strategy. Now, slowly, it grew rigid, as though his face were malleable water turning to hard ice. He was silent for a long time, staring straight ahead. Finally he said quietly, "It's cold tonight," and went over to pick up the cloak.
I bit my lip as I watched him place the cloak over his shoulders and secure the clasp with one hand. I was suddenly very conscious of his neck, pale in contrast to the black cloth. At the base of his neck, I could see the faint line of a scar, but otherwise the skin was as flawless as the light shining upon it.
He was still adjusting the clasp, though I had heard it click. Without looking up, he said, "You could do one favor for me. Will you listen at the door and tell me whether you can hear where Sandy is?"
I went over to place my ear against the cell's door. For a moment, all that I could hear was the steps of a pair of guards; then that faded, and I listened carefully. "I think that I hear him," I said.
"He's talking to someone?" the Koretian asked from behind me.
"No, he's humming; he only does that when he's alone. I suppose that he must be at his central post, a little ways from here." I leaned back—
—and at that moment, the dagger blade met my throat.
"Stay quiet," the Koretian whispered. His left arm had moved to pin me against his chest; his heart beat against my body. I could neither have spoken nor moved. It was as much as I could do to keep breathing. I could barely feel the blade – its edge was no wider than a hair – but whenever I swallowed, it burned my skin.
He held me in this embrace for a minute. Then he withdrew the blade far enough that, without tilting my head, I could see the dagger near my chin. His arm relaxed at the same time, so that his grip was no longer painful, but he kept firm hold of me. He said in a low voice, "You may speak, but keep your voice down."
I could manage nothing more than a whisper. "Why are you doing this? I told you that I would help you."
"And so you will, Princess, though in a different manner than you contemplated. I thank you for the use of your dagger. My own was lost in the body of the soldier I killed when I was arrested."
I was still staring at the door. Now it began to grow more dark, and its outline wavered. Abruptly, the door-frame became clear once more as the Koretian's tightened grip pierced through my haze. "Don't faint," he hissed. Then, his grip slackening once more: "I am not a murderer by profession, just a desperate spy. If you do as I say, no harm will come to you. My only wish is to return to the Jackal with the information I have gathered in this land . . . including the valuable intelligence I was privileged to learn from you. So you see, I am twice in your debt, and I am, in my own way, a man of honor who discharges his debts."
I was silent for a moment. Now that there was a possibility that I might live, my mind was beginning to work once more. Finally I said, my voice still unable to rise above a whisper, "I don't believe you. I don't believe that you have been lying to me all this time."
"I have no need to lie; half-truths are so much more effective. I warned you when I met you that you would receive nothing other than that from me. Everything I have told you has been true. I simply left out facts that revealed the other side of me – though you ought to have guessed when I told you of my murder charge. For example, I mentioned the Arpeshian who taught me to make those beautiful straw figures. I failed to mention that, a few minutes after he finished showing me how to make the Heart of Mercy, I killed him."
"No." My voice sounded almost calm, but very far away. "No, it makes no sense."
"Oh, I had to kill him. I discovered that he was going to betray me, and I couldn't dissuade him from his path. I do prefer cooperation, Princess. Bloodstains are hard to remove from clothing, and they identify a murderer too easily. And really, it's the mark of a poor spy to allow matters to reach that point. I sincerely hope that you will not give me any cause to have to hurt you; I have very much enjoyed our conversations."
No mockery accompanied his words, as it would have done if the Prince had spoken; the Koretian was as passionless in tone as he had been throughout our acquaintance. I could almost have taken his words to be gentle if it had not been for the death-grip he held me in.
"Tell me what to do," I said.
"I want you to call Sandy," he replied. I stiffened, and he added, "Not to his death. I told you, I don't kill unless I must. As long as both of you do as I say, there will be no shedding of blood tonight. Call in a loud enough voice to be heard by Sandy but no one else." He bent his mouth down near my ear, as a lover does in an intimate moment, and murmured through my hair, "It would help if you sounded scared."
As before, there was no irony in his voice. Its very sincerity made my body shiver. I called out, "Sandy! Sandy, please come. I need you. I need—"
"Enough." My rising voice was cut off, not so much by the Koretian's harsh whisper, as by the arrival of the blade back at my throat. The Koretian took two steps back so that we were beyond Sandy's immediate vision as he opened the door. I heard Sandy's heavy footsteps racing toward the cell, and his key in the lock. The door swung open and Sandy stepped in, sword in hand.
He stopped as soon as he saw us, and his breath rushed in. The Koretian said in a low, flat voice, "If you wish her to live, drop your sword and close the door."
There was the briefest of pauses as Sandy weighed his options; then his sword fell to the ground, and his hand slammed the door shut. The Koretian, meanwhile, was dragging me back until we stood at the opposite end of the cell, the part bathed in moonlight. The Koretian allowed the dagger to drift a short ways forward again. Once more the light shimmered off of the blade. One glimmering reflection landed on Sandy, still standing in shadow, his hands dangling by his sides, his light brown face tight with anger and fear. In a strangled voice he said, "If you hurt her, I'll tear out your heart."
"You were right in your assessment of me. She is in no danger . . . unless you place her there. It is you who will determine what happens to her."
The Koretian's quiet words caused Sandy to clench his fists, but he said merely, "What do you want?"
"Firstly, I would like you to remember that you bear the amulet of the Moon Goddess. Do you know of the oath to her, and what the penalties are for breaking it?"
I could see the amulets on Sandy's chest rise and fall rapidly as his breathing increased pace. "Yes," he said shortly.
"Then you will take an oath to the goddess, promising to do as I tell you to do, and swearing that if you break the oath she may bring down her curse, not only on you, but on the Princess as well."
"No." Sandy's voice wavered as though he were singing. The Koretian made no reply, but I felt the dagger touch my neck once more. At the same moment, the Koretian clenched my arm in a place hidden from Sandy's view. I gasped at the pain.
"Wait!" Sandy took a step forward, and then stopped as the Koretian drew his blade away from my neck. I could see sweat on Sandy's forehead and agony in his eyes. Finally he said, "How do you wish me to give the oath?"
"Listen first to what you will do. You will guide us to a point beyond the outer door, where you will leave us. You will not allow us to be seen by anyone on the way, and after you leave us, you will return to your post and tell no one of what you have seen. When the Princess returns to you – it may take minutes, it may take hours – you will wait until she has left the dungeon; then you may raise the alarm if you wish. You will never reveal to anyone how I escaped – this is important – not only because of the curse, but because the Princess gave me this dagger of her own free will. I know that you would not want her to be punished for that. Will you swear to do as I have said?"
Sandy nodded, and then rapidly, as though trying to hurry past the worst part of his task, he gave his oath to the Moon Goddess, adding at the Koretian's urging a recital of the terrible penalties that befall a man if he breaks his oath to the goddess of death. He stopped short at the end; then, as the Koretian prompted him, he added my name as one who would endure the curse of his forswearing.
The moment he had ended, the Koretian released me, spinning me into Sandy's arms. I buried myself against Sandy's body for a moment before turning my head to look at the Koretian.
He was standing with dagger in hand, awaiting Sandy's attention. With one swift motion, he sliced the blade across his left palm, so that a thin red line appeared. He intoned, "I, whose true name is known to the gods, do swear that if Sandy son of Argus shall keep his vow, I will bring no harm unto him or the Princess Serva; nor will I keep her my captive longer than it takes for her to show me the way to freedom from this palace. I swear this vow, by my blood and by my name, to the Unknowable God." He turned his back to us and swept his hand across the wall of the cell, leaving a streak of blood.
When he turned back, he said softly, "That is the most powerful vow that a Koretian can make, because the only penalty for breaking such an oath is permanent exile from the peace of the Unknowable God, which is a greater curse than any other. So now—" He wiped his blade clean on his cloak before sticking the dagger under his belt. "Sheathe your sword and lead us on, Sandy."
It seemed a long way back to the passage. After passing each patrol point, we would pause as Sandy waited an irregular amount of time before approaching the next patrol point. Each time we would catch sight of the patrols, both behind us and ahead of us, passing close by. No one except Sandy could have taken us through the overlapping rounds.
We had just reached the outer door – sidling through a side passage which avoided the guards at that doorway – when Sandy suddenly opened a cell and thrust us both inside. The door clicked shut; then the key turned in the lock.
I looked over at the Koretian. I had been driven back against his torso by the force of Sandy's shove. He held his arm lightly around my shoulders, as though I were his lover rather than his captive. His cold eyes did not look my way. They were focussed on the door, behind which we could hear Sandy conversing with one of the guards. What words they exchanged died before reaching our ears, but the Koretian's touch remained relaxed. He simply waited.
After a while, the conversation ended. The lock clicked, and Sandy opened the door. He looked at us with uncertain eyes. I could not tell whether he had been exposing the Koretian or simply was worried that the Koretian would think that the oath had been broken. All that the Koretian said was, "Take us the rest of the way."
He did so, and when we reached the end, the Koretian said quietly, "Thank you; I am in your debt. Now go, and do not forget the rest of your oath."
"Just don't forget yours," said Sandy fiercely, and with one last anxious look my way, he turned and strode back to his post, walking with stoic uprightness.
"Now it is your turn, Princess," said the Koretian. I turned – it required some effort for me to turn my back on him again – and located in the black shadows the stone that came loose to reveal the passage. The Koretian helped me to scramble into the passage; then he followed me and placed the stone back where it had been, shutting out the light.
It was completely dark in this part of the passage. We were on the bottom storey of the palace, where we could stand upright; the Koretian reached over and took my hand. It was sticky – with sweat, I thought, then realized that his left palm was still moist with blood. It occurred to me that, here in the dark, it would be easy enough for me to run away to the slave-quarters. Instead, I took firmer hold of his hand and led him to the outer wall.
Here the passage reached up to the roof, where it spread out into one of the many chimneys that dotted the roof. A shaft of light trickled down past barriers to where we stood. A little of the light fell upon the crumbling stone wall, with blocks easy to remove.
"We're on the north side," I said. The Koretian's head jerked my way at the sound of my voice, and I added, "Nobody can hear us in this section of the passage. . . . The gates in the palace wall are to the east and west."
"Believe me, Princess, I have the palace wall well memorized. Thank you for your assistance. I apologize for not being able to return your dagger, but I may be putting it to use again this night. Farewell."
He began easing the first block off. I saw his injured palm begin to bleed again as he scraped it against the rock. After a moment he turned his head and saw me still standing there, watching him.
"Princess." The voice broke far enough past its neutrality to carry a tinge of warning. "It is time for our paths to part."
"No," I said, unable to hide the trepidation in my voice. "I want to know what you really are."
He leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "I thought that I had already made that clear."
"I still don't believe you. You are like a song that has a gentle melody and gruesome words. They don't match."
His eyes were like ice; I saw his muscles clench. Then, with measured slowness, his right hand pushed back his cloak and rested lightly on the hilt of the dagger. His voice grew low like the growl of a wild dog as he said, "I suggest that you leave now, before I remember that I am released from my vow to the god."
I had not reached him; whatever secret lay behind his wintry eyes would remain locked away forever. My own gaze fell.
Without looking up at him, I pulled from my neckline the fresh face-cloth I had placed there. I reached out to take his left hand in mine. I felt him resist for a moment before he allowed me to turn the palm so that it faced me. I wiped as much dirt off of the wound as possible before tying the cloth around his hand. I looked up.
For the first time I saw on his face a strong emotion: it was the look of a man who has just received a sword thrust through the heart. For a moment more he stared down at me, his eyes glazed with pain. Then he sunk and knelt before me, his right hand cradling his left, his dark head bowed.
I sat down beside him and touched him on the shoulder. When he looked up, his eyes were still tortured, and his face was open and vulnerable. His voice, though, was tightly controlled when he spoke. "I'm sorry." For the first time, the formal pattern of his speech disappeared, and he spoke in the colloquial. "I should have known that you wouldn't be satisfied with another half-truth."
"Why did you do that?" Now that the barrier was broken, I could have allowed myself to whimper, but I did not wish to add to the anguish in the Koretian's face. "I would have pretended to be your hostage if you'd asked me."
The Koretian sighed as he rested his forehead on his fingertips. He had not moved from his kneeling position. "Your ability to read men's thoughts rivals the Jackal's, but you haven't yet learned how to hide your own thoughts from those you love. If you hadn't really been scared when Sandy entered my cell, he would have known it in an instant from your face." He paused, and then added in a low voice, "You said that you wanted to help me. I took you at your word."
"So which are you really, Koretian? The meek visionary or the murderer?"
He met my eyes. "Both. I haven't lied to you; the gruesome words are there as well as the gentle melody."
Our voices echoed through the passage. Above us, bats fluttered as they made their way into the chimney. Their shadows passed over the Koretian's face, turning it alternately light and shadowed. He said, "I don't know whether you can understand this; it made no sense to me when I first found out about myself ten years ago. I thought, when I learned that I had both the ability and the desire to kill, that I could simply put away my dagger and hide that part of me. Eventually, though, the god called upon me to take up my dagger once more and render my service to him through both mercy and vengeance."
"How can the gods ask for vengeance?" I asked. "Your Koretian gods must be different from the Song Spirit, who brings love and peace, not murder and war."
"I don't yet know the Spirit well, but I've found that the Unknowable God shows his twin faces in every land. In Emor, the royal emblem is the Balance of Judgment weighing the Heart of Mercy against the Sword of Vengeance. It's the other side of knowing that the god turns suffering to good; he turns even men's evil desires to good."
I said after a minute, "I can see that. I can see that men go to war to fight for a good cause, though it requires them to kill other men. But the only thing that keeps men from turning evil is for them to stay with the truth. And you lied to me by letting me think that you were my enemy."
"I had to; I explained that."
"You had to do so back in the dungeon. I can't hide my thoughts from Sandy well enough, so I don't blame you for what you did there. But you lied to me here, when there was no longer any need."
The Koretian searched my angry face, his eyes darting from side to side. He said gently, "I did it to spare you the pain of knowing that someone you cared about would hurt you in such a way."
"No!" My voice was drowned out by the flutter of the bats as they rose at the sound of my cry. I waited until they had settled down again before lowering my voice to say, "Don't you see? It is the truth that matters to me, not whether I suffer in the course of finding that truth. I would rather that you'd slit my throat and whispered the truth to me in my last moments of life than that you should leave me free to believe a falsehood."
The Koretian sucked in his breath suddenly. He held it there, and then said, "Serva . . ." His voice cracked on the word, as though he were a boy acquiring a man's voice.
"What?" I asked.
He was silent. The high whistle of a wind echoed down the passage, joining with an equally high-toned but more powerful wind from the other end of the passage. Finally he said, his voice once more tightly controlled, "My true name is Andrew son of Gideon. I entrust you with that; if anyone in the palace knows that I have been here, I may lose my life. And I promise you that, if ever our paths cross again, I will give you nothing but the whole truth."
"Thank you," I whispered.
He smiled then, rising to his feet. For a moment I thought he would touch me. Then he stepped back and said, "Would you like to come to Koretia with me?"
My heart thumped hard at his words, but I already had an answer ready, from speaking with the Prince: "I can't. My father needs me here." As he remained silent, I added, "I don't think that I'd be happy for long in a land without the Song Spirit."
He bent his head, as before a queen, and said, "Then one more piece of information I entrust to you. If ever you need help of any sort, go to the Watchful Traveller, an inn in this city. Ask there for Durand or Waldron; they are two Koretians who visit there regularly. If they're at the inn, speak to them privately and tell them I've placed you under my care. They'll help in any way they can."
I nodded. A mute Daxion is as rare as a harp without strings, but I seemed to have lost my ability to speak as I watched the Koretian remove the wall stones. As he finished he ducked down to wriggle through them, and I realized suddenly that this was the last time I would ever see him. The thought chilled me more than the winter wind blowing through the gap in the wall.
He rose unexpectedly and placed his lips against my ear so that no sound should escape from the passage. "I'm sure that we will meet again, if not in this land, then in the Land Beyond the boundary marker of life. I'll look forward to speaking to you then."
He left through the gap. I looked out the hole, but already he was gone from sight, so I slowly replaced the blocks to my prison cell.