The twenty-fifth day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.
I'm going tomorrow with Quentin and Carle when they travel to meet the Koretian border guards. The patrol's lieutenant and sublieutenant do this once a year, I'm told, to discuss areas of mutual cooperation with the Koretians. "We do have a handful of those," Carle said with a grin. We're bringing with us Levander and his horse, in case we need to send messages back to the patrol quickly. Though it's a three-day journey by foot to Koretia, royal messengers can travel that far and back in the space of just a few hours.
I don't think Quentin had originally planned to include me in the party, but I overheard Carle tell him that I could use a change of scene. My nightmares haven't stopped. They say in Koretia that dreams are sent by the gods, as a message to mortals. The only realization that my recent dreaming has brought me is that I cannot – or rather, I will not – kill any of my family in order to protect myself against them. I would rather die a bladeless Emorian than protect my life at the cost of the lives of any of the men to whom I am bound by my old blood vow.
So in that respect, I suppose that my nightmares have brought me some wisdom.
Our excuse for going to Koretia now, before the busy summer hunts are over, is that we've caught a Koretian, by the name of Knox, whom the Chara has asked us to return to Koretia. Our prisoner is wanted there for attempting to assassinate a member of the royal family.
This is how the Emorians describe the charge, but Carle and I received the true story from Knox, who, like many a condemned man, is facing death with a loosened tongue.
"Assassinate!" It took Knox a long time to recover from his laughter. Carle meanwhile exchanged glances with me; we were escorting the hand-bound prisoner while Quentin and Levander walked further ahead.
"Well, I suppose that you could describe Rawdon's fifth cousin twice removed as royal family – I don't know what his real relationship is, but it's somewhere along those lines," said Knox.
"One of the new nobility, then?" I said.
"That's right." Knox cast a curious glance at me, but I did not enlighten him as to my origins. The lieutenant thought it best that Koretian border-breachers not bring my story back to Koretia. "That was months ago, of course, when it was still single killings. Now that it has reached the point of whole families being wiped out overnight, I wonder that the King is still interested in me. But you know what the new noblemen are like. Once they consider themselves wronged, they never let go of a grievance."
I didn't particularly want to be reminded of this fact, so I was grateful when Carle took over the conversation, saying, "You admit that you are one of the rebels against the King?"
Knox's mouth quirked; it was clear that he was amused at learning the Emorian perspective. "Again, it's all a matter of terminology. I've heard you Emorians call it a civil war; to us, it's just a blood feud. The King is the man who started it all, by demanding the death of a nobleman – one of the old nobility, of course. If it had been one of his own kinsmen, he would have been harassing the priests day and night to interpret the gods' law his way. But Blackwood wasn't going to stand for having one of his kinsmen fed up to the King's blood-thirst."
"Blackwood?" said Carle.
"Baron of Blackpass," I explained. "So Blackwood took a blood vow to murder the King and his kinsmen?"
"Heart of Mercy," said Carle. "Why did not the King send his soldiers to arrest the lot of them?"
Knox stared at Carle as though contemplating an exotic plant. I said, "There's no law against killing the King. He can be murdered in a blood feud like anyone else. As a matter of fact, that's how King Rawdon's grandfather gained the throne: he killed the last king of the old royal line in a blood feud. Besides, the King doesn't have any more soldiers than are required to keep order in the capital."
"He didn't at the beginning of the year," Knox amended, "but this feud has flamed up beyond all previous ones. It's no longer a case of one person being killed, then another, then another. The King sends soldiers out to kill whole sections of villages. Then Blackwood does the same with the villages held by the new noblemen; his kinsmen have formed an army just as large as the King's. The priests are ready to tear their robes to shreds. They don't know how to stop this."
"They should have stopped this with the first blood feud," Carle said grimly. "This is what will happen in a land where you resolve grievances by murder." And he exchanged another look with me.
The twenty-sixth day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.
Carle asked me last night to explain the difference between the old nobility and the new nobility. He has heard the terms many times before, of course, but he says that he learned most of what he knows about Koretia from other Emorians, and he now suspects that the Koretian perspective is very different.
"The old nobility are just like the Emorian noblemen," I said. "Each village and town is run by a baron, who is sometimes the head councilman as well—"
"And is the baron also a judge, as in Emorian villages?" asked Carle. "No, I'm not thinking; the Koretians don't have judges."
"The village or town priest is the judge; he interprets the gods' law. At any rate, the baron's title is handed down to the nearest male heir. The King can persuade the priests to declare the baron god-cursed, but he can't keep the title from being passed on to the baron's heir."
"That's one of the limits on the Chara's power," said Carle. "He can help appoint his council lords, but he can't appoint the other noblemen of the land."
"Yes, but in Koretia, where the King's power is already so weak, it has always meant that the King was just one nobleman among many others. It's as though the land was one giant council, with the King as head councilman. Most Koretians approve of that arrangement, but when Rawdon's grandfather won the throne – that's King Boyce – he started gathering power for himself. He influenced the priests to make changes in the gods' law – Fenton told me that that's when some of the worst atrocities entered the gods' law – and he developed a way to appoint new noblemen."
Carle was lying on his side, with one elbow propping him up as he gnawed on the end of a lamb bone. Near us, Quentin was securing Knox's chains to a rock for the night, and Levander was practicing his code-whistles.
"I'm not sure who to support in this story," said Carle. "A strong central government is what makes Emor great, but this Boyce sounds like a law-hating rascal. Tell me about his scheme with the new noblemen."
"He only managed it because Koretia was growing a great deal during that time, sprouting new villages and towns. In the past, barons to new villages and towns were always second sons to the old barons. Since the barons were blood kin all the way back to the beginning, this meant that a single family ruled the land. But Boyce, who wasn't a nobleman before he became king, began appointing his own kinsmen as the new barons. And he did so in such a way as to ensure that they were allowed little independence. Oh, some of the new barons went their own way despite that, but for the most part Boyce controlled what decisions his kinsmen made. So he had a great deal more power than the old kings, who allowed the old nobility as much independence as a High Lord allows his councilmen."
"May the high doom fall upon them all," said Carle crossly, tossing the bone away to an awaiting carrion crow. "They all sound like villains or incompetents to me. So how does this result in a blood feud?"
"Why, because blood feuds are carried out between rival families, and now Koretia is divided between two families of noblemen. Even the King's Council is divided that way, except for a few lesser free-men who were appointed to the council."
"Lesser free-men are occasionally appointed to the Emorian council as well," said Carle. "They have to be exceptionally well-qualified, though. Only noblemen really have the time to devote all their lives to learning the law, and you can't expect anything less from men who direct a great empire. —But I'm still not sure I see where the rivalry lies between the old and new nobility."
"There isn't any reason behind the rivalry. It just flares up out of small arguments, like any other feud." I thought for a moment, pausing as I wiped my sword clean of a few drops of black blood that had lodged between the blade and the hilt. "Take Mountside and Cold Run, for example. They're close neighbors, and their families intermarry a lot, but they're still rivals, partly because of who their barons are. Cold Run's baron is Griffith – you remember; it was his brother that I nearly killed. His family is old nobility; their line goes all the way back to the beginning of Koretia, as far as anyone knows. But Mountside is one of the villages that grew up during Boyce's reign, and so its barons have been new nobility. That's why some people don't consider my father a real baron, and—"
I closed my mouth, but it was too late.
So then it all came out, about my noble blood, and I could tell immediately that my instinct to stay quiet about this matter had been the correct one.
"By all the laws, why in the name of the dead Charas did you not you tell me that you are a nobleman?" Carle asked. He was sitting stiffly upright now; he looked at me as though I were the High Lord, and I was beginning to fear that he would stand and bow toward me.
I said uneasily, "Well, I wasn't, not until my brother died; he was my father's heir. And now I'm Emorian. I can't hold a Koretian nobleman's title when I've taken a loyalty oath to the Chara."
"That's true," Carle said. He relaxed and reached over casually to fling the bone at a further distance from us, since the gathering crows were beginning to become a nuisance.
I felt as though Carle had just whistled Danger Past, and that I was still trying to wrestle with the idea of there being danger at all. "Would it have made any difference if I were a nobleman?" I asked in a low voice. "You know how it is in villages, Carle. One of your childhood playmates was your baron's son."
"That was when I was small," replied Carle, pulling open a flask of wine. "I don't believe in friendships between the ranks."
I made no reply. After a while, Carle paused from his sipping and said quietly, "I think I'd have made one exception to that rule, though." He offered to me his wine. I took it, feeling that the civil war that had threatened the two of us had been averted, not by my lack of a title, but by Carle's final gesture.
The twenty-seventh day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.
Carle and I fell into a conversation earlier today with Quentin about the Koretian civil war. Quentin said that he'd been discussing it with Abiah – that's one of the Chara's spies who does missions to Koretia. Only a handful of high army officials and palace officials and their assistants know which Emorians are the Chara's spies, but the patrol has to be told as well, or we'd be stopping the spies every time they went through the mountains. Even the Chara's spies can't slip past us.
"Abiah says that the Chara can't decide which side to support as long as he remains ignorant of how the war started," Quentin said. "It wouldn't do any good to ask the King directly – the Chara would only receive one side of the story – so he has sent his spies out to discover the full story."
"It probably started with a dead chicken," I said with a half-smile.
Meanwhile, Carle has spent the past day slowly finding a way to handle my revelation yesterday and to bring us back into equal relations. He eventually found a solution, much to my relief.
"So you're kin to the King," he said as we walked over the final dip in the pass before the ridge that overlooks Koretia.
"Distant kin," I murmured, not wanting to dwell any more on my noble blood.
"We have that much in common, then. I'm kin to the Chara."
I looked over at Carle. His eyes were fixed on the rock-strewn path before us, but there was the suggestion of a smile to his expression.
"Carle son of Verne," I said slowly, "why did you not tell me that you are of noble blood?"
Carle laughed. "I suppose that we've both been keeping secrets. Actually, you're lucky that you weren't treated last winter to one of my father's long discourses on our family heritage. He's the reason why I don't talk much about my kinship to the Chara, though I'm incurably proud of the connection."
"How many cousins once removed is he to you?"
"It's actually a fairly close relationship. My father is the Chara's cousin and is a member of the royal family as defined by the Law of Succession. The Chara's uncle, the second son of the Chara Purvis, was my grandfather Carle, for whom I'm named."
"Is that where your father got his wealth?" I asked.
Carle shook his head. "That came from my mother's side of the family. My father was Carle's fourth son; he grew up in the Chara's palace and could have stayed on as a palace guest once he came of age since he was part of the royal family. But he had sense enough to see that his children would fall outside the line of succession and would not be entitled to live a nobleman's life in the palace, once they came of age. So rather than let his future children struggle with the problem – I give my father credit for his foresight in this matter – he married the only offspring of a rich orchard farmer, so that he would have an inheritance to leave us." There was a pause in the conversation as we both thought of the inheritance that was no longer Carle's. Then Carle said, "No, as far as I'm aware, my father's sole inheritance from the royal family is a brooch—"
He stopped, having realized that I was no longer listening. We had reached the top of the ridge, and before us spread, like the dark green waters of an ocean, the Sea of Koretia: the forest of trees that spreads from the black border mountains down to the capital city, broken only by towns and villages and occasional patches of farmland.
After a while, I became aware that Carle's arm had made its way around my shoulders. "Do you miss it?" he asked quietly.
"I'd miss Emor a good deal more if I had to leave it," I replied.
"But it's still your native land," Carle said simply. Then he added briskly, "We'd better catch up. The others are nearly to the border, and the lieutenant may need our help if the Koretian border guards decide to capture us."
I laughed, turning my eyes away from the landscape to the path before us. "That won't happen. The lieutenant could cross the border, singing at the top of his lungs, and the Koretian guards wouldn't notice."
The twenty-eighth day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.
"And they say that we Emorians are obsessed with rank," Carle remarked with disgust this evening, as we returned to the Koretian border guards' hut.
The hut was empty. Unlike the mountain patrol, the Koretian border guard doesn't sleep near its work-ground. The subcaptain of the night guard, and the bottom-ranked soldiers who assist him, live in houses in Blackpass, as do the day guards: a lieutenant and his bottom-ranked soldiers. We had been introduced to all of them when we arrived yesterday, then had spent the remainder of the daytime sleeping in the hut, which was furnished with pallets for the wounded, as well as chests where the guards kept their uniforms when off-duty, exchanging them for their civilian clothes when they came on duty.
No guards or breachers have been wounded recently, so Carle and I had the hut to ourselves as we spoke together this evening. Except that we ought not to have been here at all. We ought to have been alongside Quentin as he held discussions with the subcaptain at the Koretians' guard-point.
"Maybe the subcaptain just didn't want us to distract him from his duty," I suggested.
"Then why call for a meeting while he was on-duty?" Carle pointed out as he paced restlessly back and forth in the tiny hut, as though he were a mountain cat trapped in a cage. "He said at the start that he wanted us to see his guardsmen at work. Most cursedly useless exercise I've ever undertaken. Our own patrol is polite to any man it stops, and it never lets a man past the border unless he has proper business crossing the border. The Koretian guards, on the other hand, are foul-mouthed toward every man they stop, yet they allow endless numbers of border-breachers past them—"
"Yes, I know," I said mildly. "And the subcaptain knows too, now that you've told him. Has it occurred to you that this might be why Quentin sent us back to the hut? Because the subcaptain was on the point of duelling you?"
Carle stopped his pacing suddenly. "Was he?"
"Carle, don't you even know the signals for a duel?"
"How could I? Most of what I know about Koretia, I learned from Fenton, and what he knew, he learned from books. I don't suppose that any Emorian who was challenged to a duel lived long enough to write about the experience." Carle flashed me a smile, his ill humor vanished. "Well, yes, I admit I did notice that the subcaptain went a bit red in the face when I told him how many breachers reach our patrol from the south, as opposed to the breachers that arrive from the north. He seems to think that we don't know about the ones coming from the north that have slipped past us. Do you suppose that's true?" A genuine note of concern touched Carle's voice.
I laughed. "If it is, then the Koretian border guard would hardly know. Any breacher skilled enough to slip past the patrol could certainly slip past the Koretians."
"You seem very sure of that." Carle frowned.
"I could be the Jackal God, howling at the top of my lungs, and the Koretian guards wouldn't think to stop me."
I had spoken lightly, but Carle's frown deepened, and I realized that he was still worried that the activities of the man calling himself the Jackal would spill over the border. The bottom-ranked Koretian soldiers, exchanging harmless gossip with us over their meal, had told us that the Jackal was vigorously gathering followers to himself throughout the borderland.
"The Chara's spies will learn the truth about the Jackal," I assured Carle.
"I wish I could be sure of that." His brows low over his eyes, Carle turned and rested his arms upon the broad window-ledge. The time was an hour past dusk; an early evening breeze brought the smell of fresh-scythed hay from one of the fields in a farm just over the border. Beyond that, everything was hidden by the rustling leaves of the forest.
"Frustrating to be so close," Carle said, his eye on something besides the forest. Coming up next to him, I saw that he was watching a group of figures at the border ahead of us: our lieutenant and the Koretian guards. Levander was nowhere in sight; when we had first arrived at the border, the guards there had been in heated debate with a group of the King's men, over whether the guards or the King's men had the right to take charge of the breacher who was being returned to Koretia. Levander, mistaking the cause of the quarrel, had volunteered to go with the King's men to their captain, in order to assure the captain that Knox had been well treated while in Emorian custody.
I hoped that the King's captain would have enough sense to wait until Levander had left before slitting Knox's throat.
Now, as I watched, Quentin suddenly raised his head and said something to the subcaptain. The subcaptain shrugged off his remark. A moment later, I raised my head too. Carle, his hand shifting to his sword-hilt, said, "I wonder whether we should stop him."
"Them." I kept my voice quiet, listening with half an ear to the soft sound of pebbles rattling down the mountainside nearby. "There are two of them. . . . It's not really our business, is it? They're travelling so loudly that our patrol is sure to notice and stop them when they reach that far. And the guards here—"
"Ignored Quentin's warning that their border was being breached." Carle snorted as he let go of his sword. "I'm beginning to see why so many breachers reach us from the south. The arrogance of Koretians— Sorry."
I smiled at him. "For offending my kin?"
He grinned then. "You really don't think of yourself as Koretian any more, do you?"
I shrugged. "I'm Koretian in blood. I don't deny that. A man can't help where he's born, but I've made my choice about where to pledge my loyalty. Still . . ." I leaned out the window, smelling what I had not smelled for a full year: the scent of blackroot trees, their boughs heavy with nuts ready to harvest. "It's a shame I'll never be able to visit it again."
"Why not ask permission to cross the border?" Carle suggested.
Now it was my turn to snort. "Carle, haven't you been paying attention to how the Koretian border guard works? Any man of Koretian blood who crosses the border has to give his name and lineage. The name Adrian is common enough to excite no notice, but how am I going to explain why I, the son of the Baron of Mountside, am working as a border patrol guard? And for all I know, one of those guards has taken a blood vow against the King's kin. They're all Blackwood's men, you know."
"Are they?" Carle looked at me with curiosity. "So Blackwood controls the border between Koretia and Emor? I wonder whether the Chara knows that. If Blackwood is at war with the King—"
"—he could prevent the King's men from passing through. Yes, I know; it's been tried in previous feuds involving the King and the Baron of Blackpass, when Blackwood's father and grandfather were alive. But it doesn't work. The King merely sends his men up north by way of Daxis." I waved my hand to the west, where, many miles away, lies the land west and southwest of Koretia. "Anyway," I added, "the guards here are so poorly trained that a horde of the King's men could breach the border, and the guard would never notice."
"Yes," said Carle in a reflective voice, "they are poorly trained, aren't they?"
For a moment, the only sound was of a moth, fluttering through the window and circling our lamp. Then I said, "We couldn't. It would be a crime."
"We're not Koretian," Carle pointed out. "We're not subject to the gods' law."
"Yes, but— Carle, the lieutenant sent us back to this hut to stay. We can't just leave here without permission."
"Who's speaking of leaving? We'll be back in a short time. And Quentin wants us to gather information regarding the Koretian border guard, doesn't he? That's what he told us before we arrived here. How better to gather information than to try to slip past the Koretian border guard?"
For a moment, my heart thumped; then I sobered, saying, "The lieutenant will hear us breaching the border."
"Will he?" Carle's smile quirked as he waved his hand toward the border.
I looked, and then I stared. Quentin was gone; so was the subcaptain. The only men left were the bottom-ranked soldiers, who looked very bored.
Carle laughed at my expression. "It's the custom for the subcaptain of the Koretian border patrol to treat visiting guards to an hours-long dinner on their first night here. If the lieutenant hadn't sent us back, we'd be having dinner with him and the subcaptain now, at a small inn that's only a spear's throw from the border, and no doubt we'd spend the night at the inn. As it is . . ."
"You know," I said, beginning to smile, "I'm sure that the subcaptain's failure to invite us was simply an oversight. That being the case, he certainly wouldn't mind if we dined ourselves."
"At a Koretian place of dining," Carle suggested.
"Of course. And since we are, as the subcaptain recently reminded us, below the rank of lieutenancy and therefore ill-qualified to take part in high-level discussions—"
"—then we really must not disturb the subcaptain and the lieutenant at their high-ranking discussion," Carle concluded. "We need to find a place to eat on our own."
"Over the border."
"Over the border, in Koretia. Purely to fulfill the subcaptain's promise of hospitality, of course."
We grinned at each other. Far away, to the south, I could hear the sound of the Koretian border-breachers, making their blithe way toward the border mountain patrol. For a brief moment, I pitied them.
We delayed only long enough to find disguises for ourselves.
"Make yourself free of anything you want here," the subcaptain had said in an expansive manner when we first arrived at the hut, before the subcaptain had learned of Carle's skill in asking pointed, uncomfortable questions about the Koretian border guard's techniques. Now we made good the subcaptain's promise by rummaging through the chests where the civilian clothes of the on-duty guards were kept. After a few minutes of trying on this and that, Carle and I managed to find Koretian tunics that fit us. We could do nothing about our boots, but Emorian-style boots are not uncommon in the Koretian borderland, and it was easy enough to set our swords aside in favor of the Koretian daggers we found in the chests. Without bothering to discuss the matter, we kept our thigh-pockets strapped underneath our tunics, hiding our thigh-daggers.
Then we breached the border. It was no harder than convincing my mother to forgive my cousin Emlyn after he placed goldfish in her fresh vat of lime juice.
Half of an hour later, we were strolling along a woody path, chatting about how I had conceived a desire for Daxion nuts on my previous birthday. The path we had chosen leads to Blackpass, which lies only a mile from the border. The moon was up, laying a snail-silver trail for us through the dark leaves. I kept a careful watch on the bushes we passed, but if any bandits were lurking there, Carle and I evidently looked too young to be holding any wealth upon us, for we arrived at the town gates unmolested.
These were just being closed for the night, and all visitors were being carefully questioned, but we managed to slip past the guards by hiding amidst a group of young men who were returning from an evening of country revelry. Carle made a manful effort to pretend that he had visited this town dozens of times, though he kept glancing at the moat surrounding the town wall, as we walked over the bridge to the gate.
"Fire barrier," I explained when we had travelled beyond the town guards, who all bore black-and-forest-green badges, showing they were Blackwood's men. "The King is particularly skilled in fire feuds."
Carle muttered something under his breath, but made no other comment, for now we were amidst the early evening crowd gathered in the square by the prison next the gate – a thinning crowd, for with the sun down, people were beginning to make their way home. I spared no glance for the town prison, where Blackpass's apprehended criminals were housed briefly before their branding or beating or death or – in the worst cases – enslavement. If Carle and I were arrested as foreign border-breachers, it was far more likely that we would be taken to the army prison, which was at the other end of town. The army prison, unlike the town prison, was run by men who were trained to question prisoners.
This unhappy thought of mine was raised by the sight of a group of soldiers, making their way slowly through the crowd and stopping men occasionally to quiz them. No doubt they were seeking kin of the King's bloodline, in case such men had come to fulfill their blood vows against the baron's kin, but since I held the wrong lineage, I was no more eager to be questioned by the soldiers than if they had suspected that Carle and I had breached the border.
Without needing to be told any of this, Carle steered us out of the square, into one of the dark alleys. This, I could have told Carle, was no safer a place at night than the square had been. I pulled my belt-dagger from its sheath.
Carle, raising his eyebrows, did the same, and we made our way cautiously to the end of the alley, my gaze flicking back and forth between the dark doorways we were passing. I had only been foolish enough to enter a Blackpass alley once after dark, when I was young, and on that occasion, Hamar, who had just been taught his blade skills, had bravely held off our attacker while I ran for my father, who had settled the matter by sword-skewering our attacker. That a seven-year-old boy had been able to hold back a grown man did not say much about the blade-skills of Blackpass's thieves, but I did not want to chance the possibility of meeting a thief whose manner of greeting us would be to stab us in the back.
We made it safely to the end of the alley. Carle and I had no sooner slid our daggers back into our sheaths than, stepping out of the alley, Carle bumped into a Koretian carrying an armful of crates.
Without a word, I spun and thrust Carle back into the alley. I heard him sputter, but I had no time to explain. By the time the Koretian recovered from his near fall, I was the only man standing in front of him.
The Koretian carefully placed the crates on the ground and stood looking at me. We did nothing but eye each other for a moment. He was perhaps ten years older than me, and not hot-tempered, for he was watching me with due consideration. But he was frowning, which was not a good sign.
Finally, delicately, he placed his fingers over the tip of his sheath. "You should have watched where you were going."
I copied his gesture, keeping my gaze fixed on his. "I took a wrong turn. I am not familiar with the pattern of this town."
"Then you should have learned it before you came here." As he spoke, he slid his hand up toward the top of the sheath.
"Blackpass is known for its welcome of strangers. Is that reputation undeserved, then?" I asked. This time I went beyond his gesture, sliding my hand straight up onto my hilt.
His eyes flickered, but he did not hesitate to move his own hand onto his dagger hilt. "That depends on the behavior of the stranger."
"And if the stranger were to apologize?" I kept my hand unmoving on the hilt, waiting, my heart beating.
For a long moment, we both stood there, hands on hilt, while I tried to calculate my chances if he drew his blade. Then, with a smile, he let his hand fall from his dagger. "No need. I should have been more alert. May I give you directions to your destiny?"
"The market," I replied as I gratefully took my hand from my dagger. It was the first thought that came to my head; many people visited Blackpass merely to see its market.
"Ah, of course. Well, to avoid the alleys, you need only turn here, make your way to the end of the street . . ."
Within a short time we had exchanged first names and promises to host each other for dinner, and I had received a delicate suggestion from the Koretian that he had a younger female cousin who would be not unwilling to meet a handsome young man like me. This offer made me laugh so much that the Koretian's mouth quirked. "Don't tell me," he said. "You're of the wrong lineage."
"Very much so. —Not," I added, as I saw his brows rise, "that I'm here to cause trouble. It's just a friendly visit."
"Sneaking in to see forbidden territory?" he suggested with a smile. "How I remember that impulse. I was not so much younger than you when— Ah, well, the older one gets, the fewer opportunities one has to play pranks. I miss them sometimes. . . . By the way, you can tell your friend to come out of the alley. He's likely to be robbed of the tunic on his back if he stays in there much longer." And with a wave of the hand, he gave me the free-man's greeting and departed.
Carle, staring at the Koretian's back, waited until he was beyond hearing distance before saying, "The Chara should recruit him as a spy. I'd swear that he didn't have time to see me before you shoved me in there."
"I'm sorry," I said.
Carle turned to me with a smile. "I'm not. I've always wanted to see how Koretians duel."
"We weren't duelling," I explained as he and I began to walk down the street in the direction that the Koretian had pointed us. "We were trying to keep from duelling."
"Why not apologize at once, then?" Carle asked. His gaze started to drift toward a masked slave who was passing us; I quickly took hold of his arm and pulled him past this danger.
"Because he might have regarded that as a weakness," I said, trying to distract Carle from the slave. "You're expected to protect your manhood against challenge here."
"Mm." Carle mused on this a moment, then said unexpectedly, "I can understand that, to a certain extent. It's how Emor treats foreign powers: we show them we're strong before we negotiate for peace. Even so . . . Am I miscounting, Adrian, or have our lives been in danger four times since we arrived in this town a quarter of an hour ago? How do Koretians manage to survive to adulthood?"
We were still laughing – a rather dark laughter that released us from our earlier tension – when we reached the market.
I don't suppose that, back in the days when I was writing this journal for my imaginary Emorian reader, I ever bothered to explain about the market in Blackpass. It's the only market of its kind in the world: it is located underground. It was built that way because it's the northernmost of Koretia's town markets; occasionally the winter will grow so chill that it's warmer to be undercover in Blackpass than to be outside. The earliest inhabitants of the borderland, realizing this, dug a tunnel right through a hill in the village that grew to be the town of Blackpass. The town market is thought to be older than Koretia itself – older even than the man-built caves in Capital Mountain, for the borderland was settled many years before southern Koretia was.
The market walls, which are made of quarried stone, have been rebuilt countless times; I could see, as we entered into their shelter, that the walls had recently been renovated by Blackpass's energetic baron. The market shone bright with lamplight, and its stalls were still filled with food and goods, even at this late hour. His eyes lively with curiosity, Carle led us from stall to stall, unnoticed by any but the boys hired by some merchants to prevent thieves from taking goods.
Before long, my stomach was snarling. With a grin at me, Carle launched without preliminary into a long, fiery negotiation with a cheese merchant. I watched the passersby somewhat nervously, but no soldiers walked by, and Carle's Border Koretian was good enough to pass with the merchant, who – his accent and his taciturn manner clearly told – was a native of central Koretia.
"Done!" said Carle finally, having driven down the price for a wedge of cheese and two hunks of bread to the four coppers that were, in fact, all the Koretian money we carried in our thigh-pockets. "Now, you will, of course, grant us the courtesy of a flask of water . . ."
The second negotiation was even more fiery than the first, but Carle emerged triumphant, while I offered a bland, reassuring smile to a couple of soldiers who glanced our way as they passed us.
"Five," said Carle, his mouth full of cheese as we walked.
"Five?" I replied, looking left and right for a place to sit.
"Those soldiers represent our fifth brush with death. Unless you count my atrocious attempts to speak Border Koretian."
"You'd pass as a borderlander to a central Koretian," I assured him.
"But not to a borderlander? I was afraid of that. Quentin has helped me to brush up my skills over the years, but since Fenton knew the tongue only from book-learning when I was a child— Ah, here's a place."
We had reached the far end of the market, an area that had evidently only recently been added to the underground tunnel, for there were tree stumps on the floor. We made our way to a trio of stumps and sat down on two of them. For a while, there was no sound as Carle and I eagerly filled our stomachs with the good country cheese and fresh-baked bread and clear well-water.
The area where we sat was surrounded on all sides by stalls. Dimly, far beyond us, I could see the whitewashed stone blocks that held the earth back from smothering us, but the looming presence of these blocks was less obvious than the bright lamps, the cheerful calls of stall-hawkers, and the laughter of men and women and children who were fetching their meals after their day's work. Soldiers passed by from time to time, but most of them were off-duty, their hands filled with food or goods.
One of them, after glancing round the stumps, came over to stand beside us. "Mind if I join you, sirs?" he said.
I hesitated, thinking of Carle's not-quite-perfect Border Koretian, but Carle filled the silence. "By all means," he said in Common Koretian that sounded as though he had learned that dialect in his cradle. "I was just telling my new acquaintance here" – he nodded toward me – "that we have nothing like this in the south."
"Oh?" said the soldier blankly as he sat himself down on the third stump and began spreading out his meal on his lap: some cornbread and beans. "Well, I suppose there aren't many markets this big, are there?" He squinted uncertainly at the stalls.
A mud-footed soldier, I thought, relaxing. We had nothing to fear from him.
Judging from the slight twitch at the edge of Carle's mouth, he shared my judgment, but all that he said was, "The King himself would envy the way your baron keeps his town in such splendor."
The soldier shrugged as he unsheathed his dagger in order to stab at his bread. "I suppose so. If the King wasn't busy trying to cut Blackwood's throat."
This gave me the opening I needed. "This gentleman" – I waved my remaining crust of bread vaguely in Carle's direction – "was asking me how the feud started. I had to confess I have never heard the tale, not being a soldier."
The soldier straightened his spine. Mud-footed and vain, I thought. The perfect combination.
"Oh, certainly, we know all about it in the army," said the soldier. "It started with a dead chicken."
Carle and I exchanged looks. "A . . . dead chicken?" I said.
"Yes, run over by a cart, or something like that," the soldier replied as he munched on a mouthful of beans. Bits of beans were already sticking, in an unappetizing fashion, to his beard. Carle silently handed him a face-cloth, which the soldier took with a word of thanks. Then he used it to wipe off the mud from his boots before handing the filthy cloth back to Carle.
Carle made no remark on this; he merely slipped the cloth back into his belt-purse, saying, "A chicken? Nothing more than that?"
"Yes, just an ordinary feud." The soldier was now cramming more cornbread into his mouth. "Didn't look as though it was going to be anything important. Then a priest got killed."
I jumped in my place. His voice as casual as though we were comparing the quality of daisies in Koretia and Emor, Carle said, "Accidentally, I assume?"
"Oh, accidentally, certainly." The soldier took the flask of water Carle proffered, poured it over his head, and then shook his head, sending water scattering upon both Carle and me. The soldier appeared not to notice. "Ah, it's good to be out of the heat. . . . The baron of the village whose hunter had made the mistake even offered up his own life in compensation. Very generous, he was. But the rival baron, he was of the new stock – wouldn't accept a gift from the gods if he was in the wrong mood. You know the type I mean. He sent his own hunter to avenge the killing. His son, they say. When his son didn't come back, the baron demanded to know whether the young man had been killed. Nobody in the other village had seen the hunter; the village's priest questioned everyone. Finally, placed under oath, the younger brother of the baron – not the rival baron, you understand, but the one in the village that had made the mistake about the priest – he confessed he'd seen the hunter. He said that the hunter had told him that he – the hunter, that is – didn't wish to fight in the feud anymore. So he – I mean the hunter – broke his blood vow and ran off somewhere." The soldier shrugged. "Lots of shouting back and forth after that between the two villages. The baron of the new nobility said that the hunter was no longer his son, was no longer a member of his village, so their village ought to have the chance to send another hunter in his place. The baron of the other village – the baron of the old nobility – said that the hunter's breaking of his oath ended the feud. That baron wasn't even demanding final blood, for love of the gods! But the new baron, the stubborn one, wanted to continue the feud till he had won victory. So he appealed the matter to the King, and the other baron appealed the matter to Blackwood . . . and you've heard how matters have gone since then, I'm sure."
The cluster of townsfolk was beginning to thin away. Nearby, a stall-keeper removed his remaining goods from the display crates. Another stall-keeper pulled down the flap at the front of his tent. The rest of the townsfolk wandered toward the door leading out of the market.
It was Carle who finally broke the silence. "Blood for blood – yes, we know how these matters go. And the King demanded the blood of Cold Run's baron's brother, someone told me recently. Is Blackwood demanding the blood of Mountside's baron's son?"
The soldier shrugged as he wiped his greasy dagger on his tunic. "I doubt anyone except the original villagers cares about the fate of that hunter any more. There've been too many deaths on both sides since that time."
"And the original villagers?" My voice sounded hollow but calm. "Has Mountside's baron said anything more about his son?"
The soldier shrugged again. The events in that village, understandably, seemed to be of no further interest to him. Carle, smelling the scent on this track begin to fade, switched to a new path. "And amidst this all, the Jackal appears. I have been wondering about that, you know. Why the Jackal should have made his first appearance so close to the villages where the feud began. Do you think it is a coincidence?"
I stared at Carle, at awe once more at his mind's quickness. In the short interval after the time that the soldier told his startling tale, I could not have possibly made the connection between that and Malise's announcement, many months ago, that the Jackal's first appearance in the borderland had been in a village near Mountside.
The soldier smiled. "A jackal always scents the blood of the dead, I suppose? Your guess is as likely to be true as mine. Though my roommate might know."
"Your roommate?" Carle peered down at his flask, now empty of all water.
"Yes, I room with a soldier who's from Borderknoll, originally. He wasn't there when the Jackal appeared, but of course he has family in the village. He might know whether the Jackal said anything about these other villages."
"Really?" Carle's tone was idle as he continued to stare at his flask. "Is your roommate home now?"
"Him?" The soldier roared with laughter. "Not him. He's as much a night-carouser as those decadent Emorians."
"Indeed?" Carle flashed him a smile. "Out all night, sampling the fleshpots, is he?"
"That's him. A girl in each arm, and a cup of wine in each hand. He'll stumble home sated and drunk some time in the night. How he manages to wake himself each morning . . ." The soldier shook his head as he rose to his feet. "Me, I'm for an early night. But if you want to meet him, I could bring him by here tomorrow. . . ." He was eyeing Carle's flask, obviously hoping for an offer of more than water the next day.
"That is very kind of you," said Carle, not moving his eye from the flask. "But I have come to Blackpass on business, and I fear I will be leaving for home tomorrow. Adrian, would you refill this?"
I took the water flask from him without a word. The soldier, disappointed from hopes of free wine, began to rise, but was forestalled as Carle said, "There is one other thing I have always wondered, and only a soldier such as you can tell me. . . ."
I did not hear the rest of the conversation. I had gone back to the cheese-seller's stall and was beckoning to the merchant there while keeping one eye on Carle and the soldier.
By the time I returned to the market, it was closed for the night. Carle was waiting outside for me, standing in the shadow of a tree. He was as dark as a breacher on a moonless night.
I joined him in his hideaway. "Well?" he said in a low voice.
"He boards just down the road. I looked through the window while he was readying himself for bed. He lives in a single room with two cots; the second cot was empty."
"That was good hunting." Carle squeezed my shoulder briefly, and I felt the warmth of his approval enter me. He gestured – the old, familiar gesture of a sublieutenant ordering his partner to take the lead – and I began walking with him down the street. The street was nearly empty now, since, as the soldier had put it in his rude manner, most Koretians retire to bed at an earlier hour than Emorians.
"No hope of tracking this roommate down at one of the aforementioned fleshpots, I suppose?" Carle enquired quietly.
"None," I said. "Officially, no brothels exist in Koretia; prostitution is against the gods' law. The unofficial brothels take time to track down . . . or so I've heard."
"Never been to one yourself?" Carle enquired.
"Never." I glanced his way. "And you?"
"No, I received many a lecture from my father on the necessity of reserving one's seed for one's properly wedded wife." Carle pushed aside the bough of a tree that was growing in the middle of the street.
"But your father . . ." I said awkwardly.
"Was an adulterer. I learned more lessons from his ill behavior than from any lecture he gave me. I've no intention of treating any woman in such a filthy manner. I'll wait until I can bed a wife, though I don't plan to marry till I'm retired from army service." He glanced my way.
I was grateful to him for his chatter on light matters; it had given me the time I needed to recover from what the soldier had told us. I said, "I'm sorry."
"Is your confession to me or to the Chara?" As usual, Carle didn't pretend to misunderstand what I meant. "Adrian, you can't take the burdens of the world into your arms. You refused to murder, and other men used that as an excuse to murder further. It's their folly that has created this war, not anything you did."
I swallowed. "If I had allowed Griffith to sight and kill me, the feud would have ended."
"And Griffith would have become a murderer, which would have done his spirit no good." Carle squeezed my shoulder again as we passed under the hearth-light spilling out from someone's upstairs dwelling. "Griffith is Cold Run's baron – am I right in remembering that? Truth to tell, he's the only one besides yourself and Fenton and your intended victim that I respect in this story. At least Griffith made an attempt to end the feud peacefully."
I nodded as I stared down at the dirt of the street. "He has always been honorable; that's why my cousin Emlyn chose him as his blood brother. But now that the feud has spread beyond the original villages . . ."
"This land," Carle said carefully, "has been dry tinder, waiting for a spark that would create a conflagration. The spark could have been anything. You're not to blame yourself for this, Adrian."
His voice had turned stern. I forced myself to move my attention back to my duties. The streets had turned very quiet; nobody would be about now except soldiers . . . and the criminals whom the soldiers sought to apprehend. Seeing a flicker of movement down the street, I took hold of Carle's sleeve, and he and I melted into the recess of a doorway.
"There," I whispered, pointing. "That house on the corner. You can see the door from here?"
Carle shaded his eyes against the moonlight. "Is that the only door?"
"Yes. If the roommate comes home tonight, he'll have to enter there. Do you think he's likely to have any useful information?"
Carle shrugged. "Who's to say? But we already know much more than we knew at the beginning of the night. And if we could send information to the Chara about any connection that the Jackal might have to this feud . . ."
I knew what he was thinking. Not only would we be providing service to the Chara, but I would be able to make partial recompense to the Chara for the trouble that I had started at his border. Silently, I handed Carle the flask.
He took a swig from it and nearly choked in surprise. "Adrian, this is wall-vine wine. Where did you get it?"
"From the cheese-merchant," I replied. "I told him that you needed a bit of wine to see you through your sentry-duty tonight because you were born in the south, and like all southern Koretians, you were very frail, unable to cope with the chill night air of the north—" I jerked away, laughing, as Carle made a mock punch at me.
"'Very frail.'" He grinned as he handed me back the flask. "Next time we do sword-practice, I'll show you how 'very frail' I am. Don't you think it's dangerous to make a remark like that to me in Koretia? Aren't you afraid I'll duel you?"
"No." I smiled at him as I sipped from the flask.
"No," Carle agreed, and taking the flask from me, he settled back in the recess of the doorway, his eye on the house where we awaited the hunted. I took my journal out of my back-sling and began to write.