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Death Mask

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Death Mask #1


When I was nine years old, my father told me that a man's life is determined by fate, and that any attempt to escape that fate can only result in a twisted spirit. He told me this with a smile as he was running his sword blade along a whetstone.

Two days later he was dead, killed by a border-breacher. His lieutenant told us that my father greeted the Koretian's upraised dagger with that same smile. Ever since then I have believed what my father told me, so that I have had less fear of death than of neglecting my duty. It was for this reason that, on a sunny autumn day three days after the Chara Nicholas's enthronement, I obeyed the imperious command of an ill-trained soldier who was half my age.

When this first line of my fate hooked me, I had been leaning for some time against the exterior wall of the city physicians' house, staring at the black border mountains that stand between the Empire of Emor and its southern neighbor, Koretia. The weather was warm and for that time of year; there was hardly a cloud in the sky, and the morning sun cascaded golden light onto the fields between the mountains and the city where I stood. I could see, blooming like brown field-daisies at the roots of the mountains, the tiny outlines of the Emorian border villages, and beyond them, barely visible, the beginning of the pass that leads through the mountains to Koretia. The pass, I knew, was as empty now as it would be during the snowbound winter season. Not even the most desperate Koretian would dare to break his King's peace oath.

"Ho, there, you!" My thoughts were interrupted by this brusque voice. The assertive confidence of the words, however, was belied by a wavering in his voice – the sign of a boy's transition to manhood. I turned my head. Standing near me, with his sword unsheathed, stood one of the soldiers who keeps watch over the Emorian capital, seeking lawbreakers. This one, judging from his accent and his snow-colored hair, was from the imperial dominion of Marcadia. Judging from his manner, he had arrived at the capital recently enough that he felt the need to display his power.

I waited as he strode up to me, his sword held in readiness against me. He flicked a brief glance down at my belt to see that I was unarmed. Then he said curtly, "Who are you? What are you doing in this city?"

I preferred not to give my title, and I was not prepared to give my name to a stranger, so I said, "I'm a soldier."

This was the wrong answer. The young man gripped his hilt tighter as he ran his gaze over my dark skin. I added, "An Emorian soldier. I guard the local border."

This statement, which would have enlightened any soldier who had been in the Emorian army for long, made no impression on the Marcadian. He said, "Then you're in trouble. The Chara cancelled all leave six weeks ago. You ought to be in uniform and reported to your unit. Come with me."

I considered what he said for a moment. I outranked the young man before me, and I was carrying, as always, a dagger in my hidden thigh-pocket. It would be easy enough to disarm this young soldier and hand him over to the nearest city-watch soldier, who would no doubt explain the situation to him in terms he was unlikely to forget. But I was restless after my long stay in the physicians' house; moreover, I was interested in learning whether a letter I had sent recently to the army headquarters had reached its recipient. I therefore nodded and allowed myself to be guided away from the house.

To the Marcadian's credit, he did not attempt to bind my hands. Instead he asked, "Who is your subcaptain?"

"I don't have one. The border guards are under the immediate care of the Chara. I report to Captain Wystan of the Home Division."

This disconcerted the soldier, but not enough for him to ask further questions. He maintained a dignified silence as he led me through the straight, broad streets up to the outer palace wall. So intent was he on carrying out his mission that he missed the puzzled expressions of the guards at the west gate as they waved us through. I nearly missed seeing their expressions as well, for my eye was on the Chara's palace, shining white atop the hillside we were climbing, surrounded by the inner palace wall and accessible to few. Even I had been inside only once, a few days after my sixteenth birthday, when I had gone there to stand before the Chara and pledge to him my oath as a border guard.

The Chara I had met then was Anthony. The blackened remains of the Chara Nicholas's enthronement bonfires were now scattered on the ground as the soldier and I rounded the hill to reach the army headquarters on the north side. When we arrived at the tents of the headquarters, several soldiers cast curious glances our way, but none stopped to ask questions. The Emorian army remained on high alert, as it had been since a few minutes after I arrived at the headquarters six weeks before.

The Marcadian was reassured enough by my submissiveness not to protest as I took the lead in guiding him through the tangled maze of tents. Captain Wystan's tent had recently been moved to make way for the soldiers, such as this one, who had been transferred down from the Marcadian army in case their support should be needed by the Emorian branch of the imperial armies. We stopped in front of the captain's tent and were immediately sighted by Sewell, Captain Wystan's orderly, who began to smile at me before catching sight of my expression. He turned toward the Marcadian.

"Sublieutenant, sir!" So energetic was the Marcadian's salute that he nearly sliced off his nose while placing his sword blade flat against his forehead. "I am Soldier Oswald, sir, recently transferred to the city watch. I found this Koretian lingering in the city, claiming to be one of Captain Wystan's soldiers, but not wearing a uniform."

"I see." Sewell, when he exerted the effort, could do a good imitation of a stern and sober council lord. "This is certainly a very serious matter. I will check to see whether the captain wishes to speak with you or whether you should simply hand the prisoner over to the army court to deal with the matter." After casting a forbidding look my way, he turned and disappeared under the tent flap. Presently, muffled by the thick cloth, the sound of laughter could be heard in the tent.

The Marcadian apparently made no connection between this and his statement. He remained self-possessed, keeping a wary eye on me lest I try to escape judgment. After a minute, Sewell returned, his face once more grave. He said, "The captain will see you both."

Oswald gestured me forward first. As I entered the tent, Wystan gave me a flicker of an amused smile before he turned his attention to my captor. As I would have expected from what I knew of him, Wystan dealt patiently with the young man, saying, "It is certainly a relief to me, soldier, to know that the city watch remains vigilant during this crisis. Nonetheless, this man does belong to my division, and you may therefore safely leave him with me."

With the stubborn attention to duty that makes Marcadians such good soldiers, Oswald said, "Sir, I have orders to turn over to the army court all soldiers who have disobeyed the command to return to their units, once their officials have been informed of their disobedience."

Wystan was standing behind his table – he always showed such courtesy toward his subordinates – and I saw him glance down at the papers he was no doubt rushing to finish. Nonetheless he said, with as much patience as before, "Thank you for explaining that. In this case, though, the soldier in question has not disobeyed orders. Lieutenant Quentin is a border mountain patrol guard and is on leave because the patrol has been withdrawn from duty while the peace oaths remain in effect. The lieutenant is also on convalescent leave."

Although the Marcadians are enough like Emorians to respect rank, Oswald showed only slight uneasiness at this revelation of my status. Instead he said adamantly, "Sir, I have my orders, and those are that even convalescent leave has been cancelled except for the severely ill. Half the men in my division are suffering from autumn flu, but they are working at their duties just the same. The Chara cannot afford to have any soldiers malingering in their sickbeds when the Koretians may withdraw their peace oath at any moment. Any truly loyal soldier understands that subjects of the Chara must sometimes suffer for the sake of their land."

Wystan glanced over at me. I was standing quietly by the central tent post, my gaze focussed on a sheet of paper that lay atop one of the piles on my captain's desk. Wystan followed my gaze and said, "Lieutenant, why don't you pour cider for the three of us? —Do you like cider, Oswald?"

"I do not believe I have ever had any, sir," said Oswald, clearly confused by this sudden change of topic . . . and no doubt also by Wystan's decision to address me in an informal manner.

"I cannot afford often the high import fees for Daxion cider, but I received this Emorian cider as a gift from one of my former soldiers. You really must try some." Wystan had not switched to informal contraction with Oswald. I wondered whether Oswald recognized the significance of that.

I was already over by the wine stand, pouring out the cider. I kept my back to Wystan as he said, "Please be seated, Oswald; you have no doubt been on your feet for hours. Tell me, what do you think of Southern Emor?"

Oswald gave a small smile for the first time as he sank into the cross-legged chair in front of Wystan's writing table. "It seems strange to me, sir. Quite hot, and with odd customs I have never encountered before."

"Yes, that was how I felt when I transferred from the Marcadian army many years ago. —Thank you, lieutenant." This, as I handed him his cup. "Actually, I found that the hardest part of my job here was becoming acquainted with the irregular units of the Emorian army, since they rarely visit these headquarters. Tell me, Oswald, have you ever heard of the border mountain patrol?"

Oswald hesitated as he took his cup from my hand without looking my way. "Not much beyond its name, sir. I know, as you say, that the patrol was withdrawn from the mountains, since Koretia's peace oath requires that the mountains be left empty of soldiers. However," he added in a determined manner, "there is no reason why Lieutenant Quentin could not take on other duties in the meantime."

Since only two chairs furnished the tent, I had gone over to stand next to the documents chest in the corner. I leaned against it, feeling the sharp pain along my belly that always asserted itself these days when I had been standing too long. With that disconcerting gift for reading minds that all the best officials possess, Wystan gestured in my direction, and I thankfully sat down on the chest.

This done, Wystan reseated himself and said, "The border mountain patrol, Oswald, is the most elite unit in the Chara's armies, higher in honor than even the vanguard divisions. Although the Chara, through myself, nominally selects the patrol guards, in reality the mountain patrol selects its own soldiers, choosing whichever men pass its very high standards for courage and endurance."

"Yes, sir." Oswald impatiently pushed away from his eyes a lock of the white hair that is common in the northern dominions. I saw his jaw begin to set against the words that were being said.

Wystan noticed this too, and his voice grew firmer. "The duties of a mountain patrol guard are quite simple. A patrol guard works from April to December; the patrol is withdrawn, of course, when the mountains are snowbound. From spring to autumn, it is a guard's job to patrol the narrow mountain pass leading from Koretia to Emor and to stop anyone who tries unlawfully to enter or leave this land. A guard is on active duty for ten hours every day. When not on active duty, he remains on constant alert in case the active half of the unit requires his help. As master of the patrol, the lieutenant frequently stays on duty for eighteen hours or more. Unless he is severely wounded, a patrol guard is not allowed convalescent leave, nor may he leave the mountains at any time except during the winter. For this reason, patrol guards are never called back to duty during their leave."

Wystan paused to straighten the pile on which lay the letter I had been gazing at. He carefully avoided looking my way. "Nevertheless, the lieutenant has taken convalescent leave many times over the years. The mountain patrol is the most dangerous posting in the imperial armies, Oswald. Patrol guards are encouraged to retire from army service after ten years, but few guards live that long, for the men who try to breach the border are usually armed and violent. The lieutenant has served in the mountain patrol for eighteen years now, longer than any other guard in recent memory. It is a miracle that he is still alive. During his years of service he has been severely wounded on eleven occasions, come close to dying when the snows arrived early, and received a variety of lesser injuries, including being pushed off the side of a cliff. Most recently, his twelve-man unit attempted to hold back five hundred Koretian soldiers who poured over the border. During that struggle, two-thirds of the patrol was slaughtered, and the lieutenant nearly lost his life when he placed himself between his sublieutenant and a Koretian's thrown spear. In short, Oswald," Wystan concluded softly, "the lieutenant does not require from you any lectures on an imperial soldier's duty to suffer for the sake of his land."

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir." Oswald directed this last, subdued comment at me, still sitting on the documents chest. I nodded in acknowledgment of his apology, but remained silent, sipping slowly from the sweet liquid in my cup.

Wystan's grave expression turned to a smile as he stood up, and his contractions abruptly disappeared. "I'm sure that it is difficult for you, Oswald, making a transition to life in a different land. Marcadia has been in the empire for less than fifty years now, and in many ways we remain a people apart. Try to remember that, and to realize that you are now in a land foreign from your own; then you'll be less likely to make any costly mistakes in your work."

Rising to his feet as Wystan did, Oswald looked around the barely-furnished tent to find a place to put his cup. I came forward and took the cup from his hand. The Marcadian, who was by now red-faced with embarrassment, said in a low voice, "It is an honor to meet you, Lieutenant— I apologize; I do not remember your name."

"Just 'lieutenant' is fine," I said. "Tell me, is it true that Marcadian winters are so cold that the lake ice freezes until summer?"

"Yes, sir," said Oswald, looking bewildered.

"If you can spare the time some day, I would appreciate learning from you how you survive such temperatures. If I ever find myself snowbound in the mountains again, I would like to be armed with expert advice on how to keep alive."

Oswald gave me a tentative smile which, with an effort, I returned. I retained that smile as Wystan dismissed him, only dropping my face back into its normal somber expression when the Marcadian had left.

"By the law-structure, lieutenant, sit down before I have to return your corpse to the physicians for burial," Wystan said, taking the cup from my hand. Only then did I realize that the liquid had been spilling from it.

"I am really quite all right, sir," I said, taking Oswald's seat.

"You look a good deal better than you did when you rode into these headquarters six weeks ago, but considering that you were at the gateposts to the Land Beyond then, I don't wish you to overexert yourself now." Wystan leaned against the edge of his table and reached back to take up the letter from the pile. "Well, lieutenant, you will have guessed that that long and, no doubt, highly embarrassing recital was for your benefit rather than for Oswald's. I received your letter, and it is not one I can officially accept."

I waited for a moment to see whether he would continue. Then I said, "You've been urging me to retire for some time now, sir. You pointed out that it is not fair to Devin for me to continue at my post."

"Your sublieutenant certainly deserves to be elevated in rank, and you deserve to retire before you press your luck too far. That isn't what I mean. I mean that I cannot accept a letter like this."

Wystan flung the letter into my lap, his face dark with anger. I resisted an impulse to rise to my feet. After another moment he said, with his voice constrained by his usual courtesy, "You know perfectly well, lieutenant, that the law requires me to request your dismissal from the Chara's service in accordance with your reasons for retirement. You know also that those reasons must be listed in your letter of resignation. With a letter like that, it would take a proclamation from the Chara himself for me to give you anything more than a Dismissal of High Dishonor."

"I don't believe I deserve anything more, sir."

Wystan slammed his palms down onto the light, reed-woven table, nearly causing it to spill over. "May you die a Slave's Death, lieutenant – we've been through all this before! The mountain patrol was never designed to hold back armies, only to prevent handfuls of breachers from crossing the border. Even the subcommander could not have held back the Koretians with those odds. He would have died in the attempt."

"That is the point of my letter, sir."

There was a silence, and then Wystan opened his mouth again. I added swiftly, "As you say, sir, we have been over all this before. You are not going to change my mind."

"I am not going to accept that letter either."

"You have no choice, sir. It is my right to scribe such a letter, and it is your duty to accept my resignation."

Wystan emitted a long stream of oaths – I had not realized that he even knew such phrases – and then pushed himself away from the table. Going over to the wine-table, he laid his hand upon the lip of the amphora filled with cider and said as he stared down at it, "I should know better than to try to argue the law with a patrol guard. You men know the law better than any of the rest of us in the army. But I would like you to take a few more days to consider this matter. It is a grave step you are taking, to turn eighteen years' worth of exemplary service into a term of high dishonor. You would be stripped of your honor brooch, your name and title would be struck from the roll of the patrol guard, and you would never be able to enter the Chara's service again under any circumstances. You would not be allowed to enter the Chara's palace during your life, and I know that that would be a great disappointment to Carle, since he has hoped to have you visit him some day."

Keeping my gaze also on the amphora, I said, "I would hate to disappoint Carle, as I owe him much, but I must do what I believe is right. More time won't change my mind."

"Neither will it do you any harm, since you are on leave at the moment. Please, lieutenant – in all the years I have known you, you have never disobeyed an official's order, not even when it meant placing your life at undue risk. Can you not complete your service to me by obeying this unofficial request?"

I stood up slowly, trying to ignore the blade of pain that cut through me as I rose. "If you wish so, sir. But it won't make any difference."

"By the Sword, I hope it does. Come by my tent at the beginning of next week, and we'll talk again. Until then, keep off your feet, or there will be nothing to discuss, because we'll be arranging for your burial."

I gave a quirk of a smile. "My burning, sir."

"Your burning, yes. I forgot about you borderlanders and your Koretian customs. Which reminds me: change back into uniform before every soldier in the city ends up arresting you. You may consider that a command." He offered me a quick smile before turning his attention to the papers awaiting him.

Sewell was waiting outside, eager to talk. "It's a bad time to be dark-skinned," he said. "Do you suppose there's a drug you could take to turn you pale?"

I reached over to pull up the edge of my tunic and place the resignation letter below my dagger in the leather thigh-pocket that was always strapped around my leg. "I'd have to get rid of my accent as well. It sounds Koretian to anyone except another borderlander."

"Or except to Carle, who can speak Border Koretian and Common Koretian, and sound equally authentic in both. The army lost its best spy when Carle— Well, speak of the man himself."

I looked up and saw walking toward us a red-bearded man dressed in a lesser free-man's tunic, with a battered sword sheathed and clipped to his belt. He was at this time twenty-eight, six years younger than myself, and he had a jaunty, confident walk that had made many people mistake him, during his army years, for a high official. Carle had been exceedingly embarrassed by those cases of mistaken identity. Wystan had once dryly remarked that my former sublieutenant was the only man he knew who rivalled me in undue humility.

"What luck!" Carle cried out as he tossed the amphora he was holding into Sewell's waiting arms. "I was planning to come see you at the end of this week, lieutenant, but you've saved me a trip. Sewell, that's more cider for the captain. My orchard is overflowing this year, and I can't get rid of the apples fast enough."

Sewell grinned. "I'll be glad to take over your orchard any time you grow tired of it, Carle."

Carle drew his blade in mock defense. "May the Chara preserve me from your schemes, Sewell. I admit that a council law researcher's salary is substantial, but I'd be dressed in peasant brown if I didn't have my inheritance to fall back on. I didn't have all my palace expenses to pay when I was in the army."

"So come back," Sewell said, placing the amphora on the ground by the tent. "Mountain patrol guard, Chara's spy . . . You know that the captain will give you back either of your old jobs."

Carle's smile was distinctive: one half of his mouth crooked up while the other remained serious. "Not if you threatened me with a Slave's Death, Sewell," he said quietly. "I've found my place, and nothing could tempt me away from it. You've no idea what it's like to spend each day working with the Chara's law."

"No, I don't know what it's like to spend all day hunched over books," Sewell replied cheerfully. "May I be saved from ever knowing. Did you want to see the captain?"

"Oh, I'll come back later. I would far rather spend time with you." He slung his arm over my shoulders and said, as we started to walk away, "What in the name of the dead Charas is wrong with you, lieutenant? You lie at death's gateposts for six weeks, and you never even send word to me. I should have guessed, of course, when I heard about your death-defying, land-preserving ride to warn the army, but I assumed that you couldn't have made such a journey in so short a time unless you were only lightly wounded. I ought to have known better."

I avoided replying to the last half of his remarks by saying, "I didn't want to bother you because I knew how busy you must be."

"You're right about that." Carle released me and resheathed the sword he had been holding naked all this time. "It turns out that I'm the only researcher who knows anything about Koretian law – if one can dignify the gods' law with that name – so I've been supplying the head researcher with every scrap of information I can remember from what Adrian told me and from what I learned myself during my spying missions. But I have not been too busy to forget my friends, and that was what I was planning to tell you when I saw you next. I have obtained a pass."

He waited with such a look of satisfaction that I knew what he must mean. "A pass for me to visit you? But I thought you couldn't request such a pass until you had received seniority."

Carle grinned silently as he stepped out of the way of an oncoming subcaptain. Carle never forgot that he had left the army with the rank of lieutenant, and he always behaved accordingly when he visited the headquarters.

I said, "By all the laws – a senior law researcher after only four years? What's next, the High Lordship?"

Carle laughed as he raised his hand to give the free-man's greeting to a lieutenant we were passing. "My good fortune has taken me as far up the council ranks as I'm likely to go. Ironically, it's the same good fortune as allowed me to enter the border mountain patrol: my knowledge of Koretia. When the Chara was enthroned this week, he asked the head law researcher whether he could recommend any men for elevation. No doubt the only reason our head remembered me is because I've been visiting his quarters every night for the past month. He probably thought that the only way he could rid himself of me was to give me a rank that would allow me to work directly with the Chara and the senior council lords."

"Carle, this is a great honor—"

"Isn't it? Totally undeserved; I feel ashamed of myself. If it had been Daxis attacking us, nobody would remember I exist; I contribute so little to our land. But every small task I can do for the Chara is worth the effort it takes to do further research on those bloodthirsty, treacherous Koretians."

I looked over at Carle. His face was flushed, and his eyes had turned cold. Spinning the conversation quickly out of the path of Carle's prejudice, I said, "So I can visit you now."

"Indeed." Carle shook his head as though freeing himself from his darker thoughts. "Will you stay with me tonight? We'll both have to sleep on the floor, I'm afraid – my furniture is in the process of being moved – but you're used to that."

"As are you, unless you've grown soft since your patrol days. I can't come tonight, though; I sent a message to my grandfather, telling him I'd visit this evening. In fact, I had better hurry if I'm to reach my village by nightfall."

"Do you need a ride? I can lend you my horse."

"My thanks, but I'm catching a ride from a peddler. What if I visit you tomorrow? I'm eager to explore the palace interior. Is it as impressive as they say?"

Carle paused. We had reached the northern gate to the palace's inner wall, beyond which I could not go without a palace pass. Carle gave me his faint, crooked smile as he said, "Better. Much better. There is nothing like walking round a corner and finding yourself face to face with the Chara, the embodiment of the law. I don't know why I complain about my lack of money. I could survive without food or shelter, as long as I could continue seeing the Chara every few days." He walked through the gate, ignored by the guards who recognized him, and then turned back to say, "Just request to see me when you arrive here tomorrow; I'll bring the pass when I come out. Oh, and remember me to Quentilla. She is the most perceptive woman I know; your patrol-guard inheritance must have been split with her in the womb."