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Death Mask

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Death Mask #1
ACKNOWLEDGMENT WHISTLE
 

CHAPTER ONE

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."

Chapter Text

My grandfather invited the peddler to stay the night. This I had expected; the less pleasant surprise was that the peddler, seemingly disconcerted by being surrounded by so many brown-skinned people, took refuge in talking to me, since I was at least wearing an Emorian soldiers' uniform.

By the time dinner was over, I had worked my way through describing how big our village council was (twenty-four free-men, equal to the number of men in the village, with my grandfather as head councilman), what the daily routine of the village was, which village women and girls were most charming (I dutifully described my sisters as such), and we were now launched into the topic I had most dreaded, my family lineage.

"So you're all mountain patrol guards," said the peddler, scanning the room nervously, as though expecting to be attacked at once by any of the twenty-four men wandering about the great hall in my grandfather's house.

"Only my grandfather and me," I said. "My father and great-grandfather were guards as well, but they're no longer alive."

The peddler grinned at me – though he may have been aiming his smile at my sister Flora, who was flirting with him whenever my mother was otherwise occupied. He said, "And you're named Quentin, like your father and grandfather and—"

"Yes," I said. Then, hearing that my retort was too sharp, I added, "It makes it a bit confusing. That's why I prefer to be called by my title."

There was no telling whether the peddler took my hint. He looked around at the crowd weaving its way between the tables and the central hearth-fire, and said doubtfully, "And you're all related?"

I permitted myself a laugh then. "We're all descended from my grandfather and grandmother. It's a borderland tradition for villages to be composed only of kin – though we stretch the definition of kin to include close friends."

"Blood kin, you mean," said the peddler, raising his cup to toast Flora across the room, who squealed with delight and twirled around, only to encounter my mother standing behind, her arms folded, looking at Flora sternly.

"You'd better watch out," I cautioned. "My grandfather ran off her last unauthorized suitor at sword-point. Yes, blood kin: relatives by birth and marriage, as well as wine-friends—"

"Blood brothers, you mean?" The peddler's forehead puckered with puzzlement.

"Wine-friends," I responded firmly. "We're not so Koretian as to take blood vows of friendship. You've been to Koretia?"

"Just briefly. I didn't much care for the place. I couldn't walk two paces without someone unsheathing his dagger and challenging me to a duel. My nerves were shattered by the end of the trip." He took another dubious scan of the room. "I must say that this place looks a good deal like Koretia. Everyone here is speaking Koretian, for example."

My patrol training was picking up messages the peddler was not intending to send: the hint of a Koretian accent, greater knowledge of Koretian customs than most Emorians had, too much time spent composing his tale. Well, whatever the reasons for his long stay in Koretia and whatever his reasons for leaving, they were none of my business. In any case, I did not want to be a guard tonight. Eager to move the conversation away from the subject of my heritage, I said, "We speak Border Koretian. It's the ancient language from which Common Koretian, Emorian, and Daxion are all descended. It's spoken in the Koretian borderland as well, but most Koretians find it just as hard to understand as you do."

"The borderland . . ." said the peddler reflectively as he grabbed a handful of Emorian wall-vine grapes that my sister Quentilla was passing around. "This is where all the intermarriage takes place, am I right? Your grandfather is obviously Emorian. What about your grandmother, before her death?"

"We're all Emorian," I said quietly. "But if you're wondering where the Koretian ancestry comes from, it's in the second generation. My father and uncles married women from a nearby village who were of mixed blood, like most borderlanders. We're all mixed here: mixed skin-color, mixed language, and mixed customs. The only thing we're not mixed in is our land loyalty."

"Heart of Mercy, I didn't mean to suggest otherwise," said the peddler with a chuckle, popping three grapes into his mouth at once. "No, I think that the more Koretians we can persuade to come over to this civilized side of the mountains, the better. Your mother seems to have a highborn manner to her; is she of noble blood?"

This was scarcely an improvement over discussing my father's line. However, seeing that the peddler was so struck by my silence that he now had his gaze fixed upon me, I said, "Koretian nobility. She and most of my aunts are descended from Harman, who was once baron of a Koretian borderland town."

"Well, I hope that she isn't kin to the King," said the peddler with a smile. "I'm beginning to feel as though I've wandered onto the wrong side of the mountains. . . . You know, your grandfather has been giving us the eye for the past quarter hour. Either he's convinced I'm going to ravish your sister, or he wants to talk to you."

Unwillingly, I turned my head toward where my grandfather sat, close to the fire, surrounded by a gaggle of small children, all listening with open mouths to the story he was telling. As I watched, he drew his sword suddenly, slashing the air in a convincingly dramatic manner that in real life would have left his guard open and allowed any border-breacher to kill him easily. His gaze rose to meet mine, and I knew from the crinkle around his eyes that he had guessed my thoughts at his flamboyant performance.

He sheathed his sword and said something to the children that caused them to groan collectively. Judging it better that I should come to him rather than be summoned like a small boy, I stood up and began to weave my way round the men settling down to dice games on the floor, the women moving the remaining food into the storeroom, and the children racing round the room at a speed that would have been envied by the royal messengers.

The hall was crowded, but a good deal less crowded than my grandfather's old hall had been. This new one had been built three years before, during the summer while I was on duty, but I had made my own contribution by bargaining with Koretian peddlers passing through the mountains for a timber price that wouldn't require my grandfather to sell all his farmland. Wood is expensive in Emor, since there are almost no trees in this land – Carle's orchard was thus a good source of income for him – but borderlanders adhere to the traditional Koretian manner of building homes.

"A Koretian house has to be easy to burn down in a blood feud," said my grandfather with a chuckle when I visited next. Then he proceeded to explain in lengthy detail why I should spend my winter in his new timber-and-plaster house, rather than in the city.

Now, as I approached my grandfather, he stood up from his footstool and gestured me into his spacious sleeping chamber, which he shared with my mother and sisters and brother. This did not bode well, that he would want to talk to me in private. I followed him in and shut the door behind us, and then watched as he stoked up the fireplace so that the firelight tinted the stones around us blood-red. Although this chamber was timber-roofed, the walls were stone-stacked in Emorian style – a concession to the fact that even borderlanders must live through Emorian winters.

"Well, Quentin," he said, "I was beginning to wonder when you would grant us a glimpse of your face so that we would know that you were still alive. Your mother took it hard, you know, that you didn't wish to have any of your kin visiting while you were at the physicians' house."

My grandfather saved his flamboyant swordplay for the children; his thrusts at me had always been direct. I stood as stiffly as though I were being reviewed by my old lieutenant as I replied, "I was in a bad state, sir. I thought it better that she not see me until I had healed."

"Or that I not see you?" My grandfather lifted one white eyebrow. "Well, and how are you? Ready to return to your duties, I trust?"

"I'm quite well, sir." I was in fact beginning to ache once more, but I dared not ask to be seated now.

My grandfather smiled suddenly and leaned against the wall, his hand brushing past the spear that his lieutenant had awarded him when he retired from the patrol. When I was ten, I had spent one terrifying afternoon standing against the outside wall of our house as my grandfather flung the spear near me – to show me what a spear looks like when thrown by an enemy, he had said, though in fact I knew that it was to test my courage.

"I expect you've been begging the physicians to let you out of bed for weeks," he said. "It was always that way with me; the worst part of a wounding was being away from the patrol. Though, of course, right now the patrol is on leave. I hope you've had time to keep up on your swordplay. You don't want to get out of practice."

I thought of the past six weeks, of the days and nights spent biting back screams and tears, and I remained silent. My grandfather scanned me with eyes that glittered blue like shadowed snow. He said, "Or do you perhaps find that too dull a way to spend your days?"

"I don't know what you mean, sir." Even to my ears, my words sounded unconvincing.

"Quentin, Quentin," said my grandfather softly, "don't try to fool an old patrol guard. We both know that you'd rather be doing other work. But you're a fine soldier, as good as your father was, and whether you enjoy the work or not is of no importance. What is important is that you are serving the Chara in the way best suited to your talents."

"Yes, sir." My tone was sharp this time, less because of his words than because my belly was beginning to ache as though the spear were still lodged in it. My grandfather raised both his eyebrows, and I added, "You've told me this on many occasions before, sir. Are you planning to continue telling me this up to my sixtieth birthday?"

My grandfather smiled again and let his hand fall down onto the hilt of his old army sword. "Hardly," he said. "But you have a few good years of soldiering left in you; I don't want to see you waste them. Nor will I ever be happy at the way you try to distance yourself from your family. If you believe that calling yourself 'lieutenant' is going to fool people into thinking that you have no relation to any other Quentin who served in the patrol, you have less wits than I've credited you with. Would it be too much to ask that you at least come home for more than one or two weeks out of the year? I promise you in return that I won't embarrass you again by turning up at your patrol hut uninvited."

"You're quite welcome there, sir," I said, my voice turning stiff once more. "The men enjoy your tales of the old days in the patrol."

My grandfather swept his hair back from his forehead, a gesture he used when he was on the point of charming one of his victims. His charms always worked, even on me. "But you've heard my tales far too many times. Old soldiers are the worst bores, playing out their pasts in storytelling because they no longer have the pleasure of bloodying their swords. Your living presence is far more exciting to your men, I'm sure, than my stories are. Heart of Mercy, I've begun to hear tales about you from passing peddlers – embroidered, no doubt, but the most extraordinary tales are likely to be the truest. When I was up in the city two months ago, I heard a market stall-keeper reciting the story of the snowbound lieutenant who kept his men from sure death. It was all I could do to keep from bursting out with the announcement that I was kin to you."

Feeling myself trapped within the lure of his words, I said, "I'm glad you feel that I've done you honor, sir."

He said lightly, closing his net firmly around me, "Of course, that was two months ago."

I stood fixed where I was, forcing my chest to continue moving up and down. Something about my face must have warned my grandfather that he had struck too deep this time, for he added quickly, "Don't mistake my meaning. I still consider you to be a fine soldier and a credit to your father. But I imagine that a lot of well-meaning people have been loading you with praise during the past few weeks. Probably even your own captain has been trying to convince you that you did the right thing. To outsiders, you must appear to be a hero, a man who endured great pain to bring news of the Koretian attack to our army headquarters. By the standards of the regular army, you are indeed a hero. But I'm sure I do not need to tell you that you have bitterly failed to uphold the standards of the border mountain patrol."

With a voice as low as the one I used while hunting breachers, I said, "Yes, sir. I know that."

I had hoped that my reply would stem the flow of my grandfather's words, but his dam had already broken, and I was tossed into the floodwaters. "You could not win against such odds; we can settle that from the start," he said, pacing up and down the room. "You could not have held back the Koretians, and it would have been death to try to. But of course that is the point. It is the patrol tradition to hold back breachers or to die trying. A patrol guard – a patrol lieutenant, above all – dies in the mountains with blood on his sword. He does not grab an enemy horse and escape to the city, no matter how noble his motives may be for doing so. He most certainly does not leave three of his men lying wounded and vulnerable to attack."

I had sworn to myself that, when this moment came, I would offer no excuses; and indeed, I believed I had none to give. But I found myself saying, "None of the other men had the ability to ride to the city."

For a moment, I thought that my grandfather would hit me. I braced myself to take the blow as stoically as I had tried to take the beatings he gave me as a child – beatings given, not because he enjoyed hurting me, he always explained gently afterwards, but because he wanted to prepare me for the harsh discipline I would undergo in the patrol.

"That is not the point!" my grandfather cried. "It is the lieutenant's privilege to make the sacrifice when it is required, yet you made no sacrifice, none whatsoever. On the contrary, you are now lauded with praise and honor from all quarters except where it counts. You have raised your estimation in the eyes of most men, but you have sullied the honor of the patrol and wounded it in a manner from which it may never recover. In my day, a patrol lieutenant would have fallen on his sword rather than act as you did."

My arms were stiff by my sides, and my gaze was fixed on the wall in front of me. Thus I did not see my grandfather but only felt his hand touch my arm as he said softly, "You are a good soldier, and soldiers learn from their mistakes. What you have done cannot be undone; the best reparation you can make is to follow your duty unswervingly in the future. I am confident that, by the time you retire, you will have contributed much to the Chara's service, for you are a man of great talents in what you do. All that you need to remember is that you must use those talents in the tradition of the patrol. If you do that, then you will continue to be the true and loyal servant of the Chara that you have always— By all the law books, child, didn't anyone ever teach you to knock?"

I looked over and saw Quentilla peering round the door. "I'm sorry," she said. "I wanted to show something to the lieutenant, but I can come back later."

"No, no, I think we're done here for now." My grandfather stepped back. He was smiling again. "Quentin, I am very glad that you are home. You mustn't allow yourself to be disheartened by what I have said. Take it instead as a challenge to do your best work. We'll talk again later. . . . Quentilla, child, what is that extraordinary arrangement you have your skirts in? Do you want visitors to take you for a woman of ease, open to all comers?"

Quentilla glanced down at herself and hastily pulled her skirt edge down from where she had pinned it at her waist. "Nobody except the other women saw me," she said. "I was in the storeroom, and I had to crawl to the back of one of the bottom shelves."

"That's no reason to display your knees for all the world to see. By the Sword, you're a grown woman now. I should think that you would have given up your boyish ways and—"

"Grandfather, I believe that Mother is calling you," Quentilla said, looking over her shoulder.

The sides of my grandfather's mouth quirked. "Not prepared to listen to another of my lectures? Well, I can't blame you. I'll go lecture the children still small enough not to have learned to think for themselves."

The sound of the door closing behind my grandfather was like the clanging of a dungeon door as it opened wide. My knees sagged; I just managed to keep from falling by gripping the stones of the wall with my palms.

"I don't actually have anything to show you," said Quentilla. "I just thought that I'd rescue you from Grandfather's bullying and— Lieutenant! Are you all right?"

I was in the midst of trying to judge whether I could cover the distance between the wall and the great bed in the middle of the chamber without falling to my knees. "I'm not supposed to stand for long periods," I said.

Invoking a terrible fate upon my grandfather through a few vivid petitions to the Koretian gods, my sister promptly came over and placed my arm over her shoulders, and then lent me her support as I made my way to the bed. She saved me from slipping limply off the edge of the bed and managed to lay me flat on the mattress.

After a breathless spell, I said, "Thank you. I should have had you as my healing-woman at the physicians' house."

"Yes, you should have."

I looked over at her. Whereas I favored my mother in appearance, Quentilla had inherited our father's looks: she had pale skin with just a tinge of brown in it from our mother's side. Her wheat-colored hair was now touched by grey; she was eight years older than my father had been when he died. She placed her worn palm against my forehead, adding, "You don't have to say it. If you'd invited me, you would have had to invite everyone else, and Grandfather would have ended up killing you, ordering you out of your bed when you were only half healed. It's just that I miss you. I hope that doesn't sound too much like Grandfather. Could I come stay with you in the city for part of this winter?"

"I'd love to have you visit," I said, "but can Mother spare you?"

Quentilla was kneeling at the side of the bed, her arms resting on the mattress. She laid her head down upon those arms and looked over at me, saying, "She claims she can spare me to any suitor who passes Grandfather's strenuous test of qualifications. She hasn't given up hope of marrying me off. Though I admit that this household is hard for her to manage alone, what with her supervising two young children and one old child. Did Mother tell you that she found Grandfather scrambling over Pass Peak last summer, playing Hunter and Hunted?"

I rolled over onto my side, ignoring the flash of pain. "With whom?"

"Nobody except himself," replied Quentilla. "Don't worry, he hasn't picked a successor for you yet. If anyone in this village wants to be a patrol guard, they have sense enough to keep that desire unannounced."

"It's too bad that I didn't have such sense," I said. "But Father was alive in those days, and he always made Grandfather leave me alone. It was when he died that our lives changed."

Quentilla scrambled away from the bed suddenly, crawling over the floor in a manner that would dirty her skirts and no doubt earn her a new lecture. She fished around for a moment in a chest in the corner of the room. When she returned she was holding a wooden-hilted dagger.

"Here's something I can show you," she said, holding the blade up so that it reflected red in the firelight like the walls. "Do you remember this? You gave it to me on our sixteenth birthday, when you were so unhappy that you were leaving to join the patrol, and I was so unhappy that I wasn't leaving to join the patrol. I thought it was unfair that women couldn't be patrol guards. You said that you'd teach me how to use it when you came home that winter – only you never came home again, not for more than a few days at a time."

I pulled myself up into a sitting position. I had already forgotten about my body's aches. "So I'll teach you this winter."

Quentilla laughed. "Lieutenant, I'm thirty-four!"

She was the only one in my family who called me by my title. I had never even asked her to do so. "It's not too late to learn," I said. "What do you want to learn first? Capture? Defense?"

"Oh, I don't know." She tossed her head to fling away the strand of hair that always fell over her forehead and into her eyes. I remembered her watching me with envy whenever I cut my hair. "I suppose you could show me how you kill condemned prisoners."

From the hall outside came the sound of Flora laughing and my brother Tevis shouting an angry remark. This mingled with the cheerful sound of my kinsmen chatting in the background. On the other side of the chamber, the one facing the mountains, there was no sound at all. The silence was as deep as death.

"I'm sorry," said Quentilla softly. "It was a foolish joke to make."

I took the dagger from her hand and then pulled that same hand over so that its fingers were pressed against my chest. "Here – it's between these two ribs. You thrust slightly upwards like this." I took the tip of the dagger and held it at an angle against my heart so that she could see. "It's easy to find. The hard part is pushing the blade in firmly and without hesitation, so that the man feels little pain."

I placed the dagger in Quentilla's hand and waited for her to copy my gesture. As she curled her fingers round the hilt, I was thinking that one advantage of being a patrol lieutenant is that you learn to do that sort of procedure in your sleep. It would be easy enough for me to take my grandfather at his word. But if I did that, I could just imagine how my grandfather would rant at my death spirit, telling it that I had neglected my duty to put my talents to their best use.

Quentilla did not point the dagger at me. Instead she placed it against her own heart, saying, "What about women? Do you do it the same way with them?"

"I don't know; I've never killed a woman. Why don't you research the matter and show me your findings when we meet next?"

I don't think the lightness of my voice deceived her; she had inherited the family gift for being able to read thoughts. Pulling herself onto the bed, she curled up beside me and said, "Do you sentence many border-breachers to death?"

"Not many. Maybe one or two a month – the most violent breachers, the ones I've placed under judgment and found guilty of attempted murder. Most breachers aren't even put on trial. If we simply scare breachers, they usually won't try to cross the border again."

"And you're always the one who carries out the execution?"

"It's one of my duties. I delegate the authority on rare occasions, though. Some years back, I condemned one of my own men, and I let the guard who had been his patrolling partner do the deed. That may have made it easier for Chatwin to face his death, though I'm not sure."

"But not easier for you," Quentilla said softly.

"No," I said. "No, it's never easy."

Quentilla gave a half-smile as she laid the dagger on a table next to the bed. "And Grandfather will never understand. I'm glad, actually, that I didn't join the patrol."

There was a pause in our conversation. Quentilla had slid down so that her head was resting beneath my chin. I placed my arm around her shoulders. Fire crackled in a whisper from the chamber hearth, its light playing against Quentilla's face. After a while, she asked, "Is there anything you like about the patrol?"

"The men I work with. I enjoy becoming acquainted with such talented and honorable soldiers, some of the finest men in the empire."

"Such as Carle?" Quentilla murmured.

I bent my head to try to see her face better. "You like Carle?"

Quentilla gave a small laugh at the back of her throat. "Let's just say that I think I could persuade Grandfather not to run Carle off at sword-point."

"Ah." I tightened my arm around her. "Well, then, I'll bring Carle with me the next time I visit. He asked me to send you his greetings, actually. He said—"

The rest of Carle's message was interrupted by a knock at the door. The door swung open to reveal my mother, followed in her trail by two small girls, tugging at her skirt. "Quentin, could you please persuade your brother not to kill Flora?" she asked, gesturing with the arm that held the copper bracelet my father had given her on their wedding day. Then she turned immediately away in order to deal with whatever crisis the little grandnieces had fetched her for.

Quentilla laughed and went over to encourage life from the dying fire while I came to the doorway to look. Quentilla was my only sister by birth, but several years before, my mother had taken under her care a grandniece and grandnephew who had been orphaned: Flora, now age twelve, and Tevis, age nine. I caught glimpses of them as they raced around the room, leaping over and ducking under their elders as though they were playing Hunter and Hunted among the mountain boulders.

Flora was the hunted: she was laughing and shrieking as she held an object high above her head, out of Tevis's reach. As she glanced behind to see how close he was, her chestnut hair fell from the bun in which she had jammed it when our grandfather was not looking. Encouraged by the longing looks of men who were ten years younger than myself and searching for wives, she had taken to wearing her hair up woman-fashion, though she had not yet reached her coming-of-age. My grandfather was continually having to hide her away when male visitors came to call, lest she try to lure them into promises of love.

Tevis was scrambling to keep up with her. He was small for his age, dark in complexion and hair like myself, and he usually hid in corners when I or any other stranger came to visit. Now, though, he was too desperate to take notice of anyone around him. As I watched, he snatched an object from a table he was passing.

The first thing you learn in the patrol, after the whistle code, is how to move quickly. Flora had just reached a wall and was turning with a scream of delight to face her pursuer. She had not yet fully turned by the time I leapt over three men seated in my path and came abreast of Tevis. Grabbing his shoulder with one hand, I slapped up his outstretched forearm with my other hand, grasping his fist in case the object in it came loose. "Put up, sir," I said.

Flora turned in time to see both the danger and the fact that it was now over. This did not prevent her from shrieking at the top of her lungs for the benefit of her audience. No one took any notice of her, nor of me. No doubt my grandfather was inclined to fly across the room in the same manner. Only Tevis stared at me, his angry face turning to uncertainty. As I released his fist, he stared down at his hand; then he turned the dagger there in order to hand it to me hilt-first.

I was about to place the dagger on a nearby table when I remembered what I had told Quentilla about scaring border-breachers. I approached Flora with the blade pointed upwards, but in such a fashion that its tip was on the same plane as her neck. She looked from the dagger to my face, hugging against her body the toy mountain cat she held. "He shouldn't be playing with toys at his age," she said defiantly. "Grandfather said so."

"Then it is Grandfather who must decide how to deal with the matter," I said quietly, tilting the blade in my hand so that she could see its edge. "He is the master of this house. It is not for you to decide when to dispense discipline."

Flora shoved the mountain cat into my arms suddenly; I had to move the dagger quickly to keep it from stabbing the toy. "Oh, you sound just like Grandfather!" she shouted; then she used the moment of my paralysis to make her escape.

I was drawn back to the present by the awareness of Tevis standing close to my elbow, looking up at the mountain cat. I handed it to him. In the next moment he was huddled in the corner of the room, curled around his cat and whispering something to it. I turned to hand the dagger to its owner, who had come to reclaim it. The dagger belonged to one of my uncles, who gave me a smile of silent apology for leaving the weapon where children could take hold of it. In Koretia, Tevis would have had a dagger of his own by this age, but our family held to Emorian customs where blade-play was concerned . . . unless, like me, they trained for the border mountain patrol.

I went over and sat beside Tevis on the rush-strewn earthen floor. After a while, I asked, "Is he all right?"

"I think so." Tevis's voice was muffled, since his face was pressed against the fur.

"Is there anything I can do for him?" I asked.

He looked up at me, his eyes searching my face. "Maybe."

I waited as Tevis continued to assess me. Flora and my mother were helping the women collect their sleepy young children, while my grandfather was exchanging a few last bits of chat about the farming weather with several of his sons and grandsons. Finally Tevis said, "Cat has wanted to ask you about something, but he isn't sure that he should. It's a secret."

"Would he like me to swear my free-man's oath?" I asked, directing my gaze at the cat rather than Tevis.

Tevis considered this, consulted with the cat in a whisper, and then said, "No, he trusts your word." Tevis tilted his head up. I leaned over so that he could whisper in my ear, "He wants to be a patrol guard."

I looked down at the boy, whose brown eyes were so big for his face that he looked like a gentle fawn. Cat's head was now turned to face me, awaiting my judgment.

I asked, "Can he whistle?"

Instantly there issued from Tevis's mouth a high note held for a brief moment, sliding into a low note held for two heartbeats, and then flying upwards swiftly like a bird escaping into the sky.

He did this practice whistle in the proper manner, the notes escaping his mouth in a soft, breathy fashion, but even so, I swung my head to see whether my grandfather had noticed. Once you have learned how to wake from deep sleep at the sound of a danger whistle, you remain alert even to the sound of a routine practice whistle.

My grandfather, though, was busy laughing at someone's joke. I looked back at Tevis and asked, "Did Grandfather teach you that?"

He shook his head. "Cat and I heard it in the mountains. We don't know what it means, though."

I looked over at the mountain cat, staring up at me with his green cloth eyes. "And Cat wants to know what it means?"

Both boy and cat nodded their heads. I glanced around the hall. It was nearly empty now; in another minute my grandfather would take notice of us and come to join the conversation. I stood up and offered my hand to Tevis, saying, "Let's go outside."

Tevis promptly placed his cat in my outstretched hand, scrambled to his feet, and followed as I escorted him out of the house by way of the storeroom. We were noticed by no one but Quentilla. She smiled as I passed her, holding the cat.

When we reached the outside, I handed Tevis the cat. We continued walking through the hamlet that we dignified with the name of village, but whose houses were no more than tiny sleeping chambers. Everyone in the village ate and played in my grandfather's hall, just as they had slept in it during my father's day.

We passed the villagers making their way home, hailed the peddler – who had evidently had enough of the borderland and was heading out of the village – and were soon beyond reach of the torches that my kinsmen were carrying to light their way.

The night was especially dark, with only a crescent moon slicing its way through the sky. Rocks scattered the ground between our village and Pass Peak, the mountain under whose shadow the village was built. I kept up a steady pace, watching out of the corner of my eye how Tevis coped with walking in near blackness. My brother did well, feeling forward with his feet and keeping his ear tilted toward the sound of his footsteps rebounding off the mountains. He did not depend on his eyes as any untrained person would do. No doubt he had witnessed my grandfather travelling in this manner.

As we reached the gap between Pass Peak and the mountain to the east of it, he hesitated, saying, "We're not supposed to go in. The Chara has forbidden it."

"The no-man's-land doesn't start until we reach bare rock," I assured him. "As long as we're still on grassland, we're in Emor." Then, in reward of his obedience to the Chara, I took his hand and guided him through the black shadow of the gap that ends a short way into the mountains, as all such gaps end except for the pass that the patrol surveys.

A small ridge lies at the end of this gap. It possesses a good view of the first few mountains. In order to arrive at the ridge, you must scramble up the side of a cliff that offers few handholds and no confidence that you will reach the top alive. Upon reaching the cliff wall, I climbed up it promptly, without waiting for Tevis. This was not as heartless as it sounds, for I had ascended this cliff as a boy. I knew from experience that the worst part of the climb is at the bottom, where, if you lose hold, your fall is cushioned by the moss below. But to anyone who did not realize this, the cliff was a test of courage.

It took him a moment to follow. I had forgotten about Cat, whom Tevis ended up placing under the back of his belt-tied tunic as though he were carrying the toy in his back-sling. As Tevis clambered his way upwards, I could see Cat staring up at me from behind the boy, wearing a serene expression of confidence in his bearer.

Tevis nearly slipped on the last handhold. My heart jerked as I envisioned returning his body to my mother. But he caught himself with the classic swing-and-squeeze, which forces a person's body into a crevice of the mountainside that will hold him. You cannot make this move unless you have surveyed the terrain beforehand and prepared in your mind any contingency plans should you begin to fall – something which every patrol guard does in an instant before climbing, and which Tevis had not taken much longer to do.

"You and Cat have trained well," I commented as I pulled Tevis onto the top of the ridge. "Do you play Hunter and Hunted with the other boys?"

It took him a moment to catch his breath as he sat down beside me. As he did so, I swung my body around to survey the black mountains before me. They are black even in daylight, with light swallowed by their bleak slopes. Now the evening sky had more color than the rocks thrusting upwards like a field of sprouting daggers.

Tevis settled by my side, his eyes on the peaks scraping the passing stars. "I used to, but Grandfather always wanted to play too, so now Cat and I play by ourselves. Sometimes we come here, and sometimes we play at home. Under Grandfather's bed is a good place to hide. . . . Are you going to tell Cat what the whistle means?"

"Well," I said, "you know that patrol guards are sworn to reveal the whistle code to no man."

"Oh." Tevis looked down at his feet, which were hanging over the side of the ridge. He bounced them against the southern cliff wall. "Cat wouldn't want you to break your oath."

"Nor would I, but there's nothing in my oath that says I can't reveal the code to a cat. And the Law of Languages says that an interpreter can interpret conversations that he normally could not lawfully hear. So if you would care to act as Cat's interpreter, I could teach him a few whistles."

He head was still bowed, but he tilted it my way. He was smiling. "Why do the patrol guards use whistles, anyway?"

"Listen," I said.

We both sat silently, hearing the winds that howl almost continuously through the mountains, whistling their way around the peaks. Amidst those winds, I had heard as a child the whistles of the mountain patrol, and it had not taken me many months of watching the patrol at work to figure out the meaning of the more common whistle codes. No doubt, by the time Tevis came of age, he would know the meaning of far more whistles than he was about to learn from me. But always hereafter he would remember that he had learned his first whistles from a patrol guard, and that would bind him in honor from telling others the secrets of the patrol.

Breaking the silence, I said, "This isn't a code – at least, I hope it isn't – but listen to how it blends in with the wind."

There are several hundred whistle codes; I had to review them quickly in my mind before selecting a pattern that would be harmless. I waited until the moment the winds were blowing away from the pass; then I sent my message, loud enough to reach across several mountains.

Tevis tilted his head again to hear better. He said, "It's hard to tell which is the wind and which is the whistle."

"That's why we whistle. The sound carries far, and it blends in with the winds, so that even a border-breacher who knows that we whistle may not be alert to the fact we're tracking him until we have him surrounded."

"But I heard a whistle. That is, Cat did, and he taught me it."

"That's the whistle which guards send at the end of the hunt, when it doesn't matter whether the breacher hears them. It means, 'The hunted is captured alive.'"

Tevis promptly reported this important revelation to Cat, who whispered back a question to the boy. Tevis looked up at me and asked, "Is there another whistle when the border-breacher is killed?"

"'The hunted is captured dead.' That whistle isn't used much, because we're under orders to take prisoners alive whenever we can. It goes like this." I whistled under my breath this time. Logic told me that no one could hear a whistle I sent into the mountains now, but no guard ever emits a practice whistle loud enough to be heard by those out of sight. "It's just the same as the previous whistle, except you go down at the end. Can you show Cat how to softly whistle it?"

He did so, shivering in the wind. It had been a warm night back in the village, but here in the mountains it was always cool at night. My mother would not be happy if I kept him here much longer. When he had finished, Tevis asked, "Can you teach Cat some others?"

I put my arm around him to shield him from the worst of the wind. "Here's one you'll hear often if you keep alert for it. Listen carefully." I gave the Acknowledgment whistle, which takes little time to send. It goes from high to low to high quickly, like the chirp of the mountain birds it is meant to imitate. "A guard sends that to his lieutenant or his sublieutenant to indicate that he understands the command he has been given and that he will comply with it."

Tevis demonstrated this to Cat, and then said, "You're the lieutenant. You command the night patrol, while your sublieutenant commands the day patrol."

"That's right," I said. "Unless the patrol that is off duty is called back to assist the on-duty patrol, in which case the lieutenant takes command of everyone."

"How do the men who are off duty know when to come back onto duty?"

"They respond to a danger whistle; there are two of them. One is the Probable Danger whistle: it means that the active patrol has sighted a border-breacher who is known or suspected to be dangerous. If you hear that, you come running quickly, but no more quickly than you would if you were already on duty. The Immediate Danger whistle, though, is the whistle that you risk your life to respond to instantly. It means that a guard is about to be attacked or has just been attacked."

"Will you teach us that?" Tevis asked in a hushed voice.

I took a final look at the mountains – silent, empty, and cold – and swung my body around, saying, "Once we're back on the ground."

I went first again this time, to break Tevis's fall if he should slip, but he scrambled down the rock like a sure-footed goat. When we had reached the moss, he asked, "Why here?"

"Because if by chance any guard were sitting on the edge of the mountains as we were, and if by chance my practice whistle carried too far, then I would be on trial for my life tomorrow for unwarranted use of the Immediate Danger whistle. Come sit by me."

He obediently squeezed himself beside me in a cranny within the mountain that I hoped would hold in most of the sound I made. I waited a moment – it requires nerve to send the Immediate Danger whistle in practice – and then emitted a soft version of the long, single-note whistle which is so high that even birds look askance at it.

Tevis seemed suitably impressed. After several tries at imitating it, he confessed, "I'm not sure Cat and I can whistle that high. Not yet anyway."

"It takes a lot of practice. It's made deliberately high so that it can't be mistaken for anything else, and so that no one will whistle it in error."

"Are you in much danger in the patrol from breachers?" Tevis asked.

"It depends on which side of the border they're coming from. Koretians are more dangerous than Emorians, because whenever something happens that angers them, they grab their blades."

There was a silence. Tevis stared down at Cat, petting him diligently. I said, "There was a man in my patrol once who was Koretian-born, and he had a hard time understanding Emorian law when he first started his duties. You see, in Koretia, if anybody has done something wrong – say, if they have stolen something that doesn't belong to them – the first thing a Koretian will do is to challenge his rival to a blade duel. And if the other man won't fight, then the Koretian takes a blood vow to murder the man. Often everyone else in his village will take the same blood vow. And then someone will go and murder either the man who has caused the problem or one of his kin, and then the second village will take a blood vow to murder, and the villagers will keep killing each other until someone gets caught trying to murder."

"What if no one gets caught?" asked Tevis, his head still bowed.

"Then perhaps other people outside the village will argue about what should be done, and the blood feud will spread elsewhere. . . . At any rate, this soldier of mine learned that life is different in Emor. Here, if someone has done something wrong, we bring the prisoner before a judge – say, a patrol lieutenant or a head councilman. And then the judge uses the Chara's law to decide whether the prisoner is innocent or guilty, and whether the prisoner should receive punishment. And so nobody gets murdered, and there isn't any feud."

"I see," said Tevis in a small voice.

There was another long silence. Then Tevis asked, "Can Cat and I come see you some night when you're patrolling? We wouldn't get in the way. We'd just like to see you hunting."

"I don't know." I looked over at Tevis, blinking his eyes open to stare at me, and added, "If you and Cat don't mind having another guard in the game, we could play Hunter and Hunted the next time I visit. I'd track you two, and you could show me how well you hide."

"Cat would like that," Tevis murmured.

We sat silently next to each other for a while as I listened to the faint note overhead of the wind rising slowly and falling, like the Probable Danger whistle that imitates it. When I looked over at Tevis again, his eyes were closed and his head had fallen against my arm. Cat had slipped off his lap.

I turned and began to gather him up. He murmured, "Cat." I tucked the mountain cat into his arms, then lifted the boy and began walking back to the village.

I met my grandfather halfway. I supposed he knew where I was because he could not imagine that a patrol guard would want to stay away from the mountains for long. He gestured to me, and I handed the boy into his arms as he said, "You and I will have to play Hunter and Hunted tomorrow, for old time's sake."

It took me a moment to speak, not only because carrying Tevis had caused my wound to flame up once more, but also because of the automatic feeling of nausea that my grandfather's words prompted in me. I replied, "I'd like to, sir, but I promised Carle I would come see him tomorrow."

Without looking my way as we began to walk back to the village, my grandfather said, "I think that the women-folk would appreciate it if you visited Carle on another occasion. They are rather nervous at the moment because of the recent attack. Of course, we patrol guards know that the Koretians are not the type of people to break a King's oath, but your mother and sisters might feel more at ease if you stayed."

I had a single, bright image of Quentilla sitting beside me on my grandfather's bed, but it was quickly overlaid by an image of what had happened in that chamber earlier. Hearing some stubbornness whisper in my ear, I said, "Uncle Lowdy has already said that he can give me a ride to the city when he goes to the market tomorrow morning."

"Fleeing from your post again? Have you no sense of duty toward your kin?"

My grandfather's voice was as light as usual. Under the faint shine of the moon, I could see his smile. I said, "I'll have to fulfill that duty on another occasion, sir. I've already made plans."

My grandfather did not reply. Beyond the small timber houses ahead, I could see the white light of the moon that never sets in Emor: the Chara's palace, lit day and night by torchlight. As we made our way through one of the fields encircling the village, my grandfather said, "I hear that you returned a cat to its master tonight."

I looked over at him. "Did you tell Tevis that he was too old to play with Cat?"

"Oh, I suppose I just felt that there are other games he could be playing that would bring him greater benefit in the future."

I stopped where I was, on the edge of the village, facing the sleeping chamber of my grandfather's house. Through the cracks in the shutters, I could see the red light of the fire. My grandfather had stopped when I did and was now waiting.

I said softly, "Don't. Don't take Cat from him, and don't ever play Hunter and Hunted with him. You'll answer to me if you do."

The night was still. My brother lay limply in my grandfather's grasp; Tevis's arms rested atop Cat. My grandfather's face was shadow-cloaked. He said quietly, "You know, you look quite a lot like your father at times."

He turned and continued walking toward the house. But there followed in his wake the soft sound of a note going high-low-high, like the chirp of a mountain bird.

Chapter Text

"And this," said Carle, "is the Court of Judgment."

He looked sternly at me, like a man daring his friend to say anything critical about his heir. I could not blame him. The great chamber spread before us so far that I felt as though I were looking toward the black border mountains – and there, at the back of the room, was a small mountain: a thirty-step dais crowned by a white marble throne. Scaling it were small figures kneeling on the steps; this seemed quite appropriate, but the boys' laughter and shouting as they scrubbed the steps were somewhat unseemly in such a solemn place.

Watching the slave-boys with an amused expression, Carle said, "Children! Was I such a fool when I was a boy, lieutenant?"

"It was a brief meeting, Carle, but I remember you as being quite wise for your age." I leaned against a gold door which stretched so high that I had to crane my neck to see its top, and which was so heavy that my weight could not push it further ajar than it already was. "There you were, only eight years old, yet you had already made up your mind to be in the patrol. And then, rather than simply daydream about it as most boys would, you set out to accomplish your goal by becoming an expert in Koretian customs. By my oath, you knew more on the subject than I did – and me a borderlander."

"It's the only skill that could have pulled me into the patrol, so I suppose I have something to thank that cursed land for." Carle caught sight of my expression and added, "Never mind that. Now look up at the throne and try to imagine the Chara sitting in judgment— No, I'm a fool; that's impossible. No one can imagine the Chara in judgment. Well, imagine him in the court anyway."

"That's hard enough," I replied, watching as one of the slave-boys splashed water upon his companions, prompting a fight to break out. Then something, perhaps the atmosphere of the court, caused them all to grow still. I continued, "The chamber is impressive enough as it is. It doesn't require the Chara to add dignity to it."

"Very true," said a voice next to me. "It is the embodiment of the law in its own way."

I turned to look. Standing beside me was a man a few years younger than myself, with eyes the color of a clear mountain sky. His beard was clipped short; the fact that he had one at all, rather than being clean-shaven like most Emorians, showed that he had served in the army. He had clearly left the army, however, for he was wearing a gold-threaded tunic with the royal emblem embroidered above his heart.

I did not need sight of the emblem to know who this was, for I had already seen Carle grow pale and quickly bow. After a moment, I remembered that I was not a death spirit standing invisible on the scene; I bowed as well.

I had never before seen the Chara Nicholas. When I first came to the palace to give my oath, he had been but a boy of twelve, and the Chara To Be had spent most of his adult years assisting the Marcadian subcommander in fighting against barbarian invaders in the north. Now, upon his father's sudden death, he was being forced to receive a quick education in Emor's problems with its southern neighbor. He looked as though he had not slept for days.

He smiled easily, though, as he turned to my companion and said, "Good day to you, Carle. How is your research coming?"

There was the briefest of pauses before he pronounced Carle's name. Only a patrol guard such as Carle or myself would have noticed the delay; we were trained to catch the subtleties of men's speech, since we needed to ascertain the truth of the stories we were given by border-crossers. Carle, however, looked as pleased as though the Chara had just issued a proclamation in his honor. I suspected that my old sublieutenant would have considered it privilege enough simply to become the Chara's slave.

"The research is coming well, Chara; I thank you for asking," he replied. "Chara, may I present—?"

"Lieutenant Quentin." The Chara cut Carle's introduction short as he switched his gaze toward me. He had eyes that pierced through to one's spirit; I began to think it was just as well that I had never seen the Chara in judgment. "I am very glad to meet with you, lieutenant. This reminds me that, in all the flurry of events during the past weeks, I have not had the opportunity to thank you for your timely warning to the army. I might be speaking to you on Koretian soil right now if you had not alerted us to the invasion."

"I doubt that would have happened, Chara," I said, ignoring Carle's look of consternation as I contradicted the master of our land. "The Koretians were only concerned with extending their blood feud to Emor's borderland villagers. They would not have invaded as far as the city."

"We know that now, of course, but we did not know that then." The Chara did not seem disturbed by my protest. "And because of your warning, only two of the borderland villages were destroyed. Emor owes you a great deal."

I remained silent. We were standing across from the front entrance to the palace. The evening was early, and a few lords and palace officials continued to pass by. The Chara's guards, their leather armor shiny with disuse, stood at a discreet distance in order to allow the Chara to speak privately. A slave-servant was lighting the corridor torches while another slave held the ladder for him; they were chatting quietly, so as not to disturb the Chara standing nearby. I saw them give a curious glance my way, for I was not wearing the brown uniform of the regular army; my plain black uniform, designed to blend in with the black border mountains, appeared from the distance to be an ordinary lesser free-man's tunic. Only when standing close up could one see the crossed swords embroidered upon my right sleeve, signifying my service in the Chara's armies.

The Chara had been scanning my face during my silence. Now he said, "You seem to have the gift, lieutenant, for combining wisdom and courage. A wise man would have run when he saw what you faced; a courageous one would have died fighting the Koretians. You, on the other hand, had the courage to fight while there remained a slim chance of holding back the Koretians; then you had the wisdom to leave and bring the news of the invasion to us – news that was far more valuable to us than your death would have been. And since the mountain patrol is under my care, I know that you sacrificed your own honor in doing so, since your departure went against the tradition of the patrol. Many patrol guards have given their lives for Emor; you are the first guard in my lifetime who has sacrificed his honor for our land. I will not forget that." He turned to Carle and said, "I will be coming by the council quarters tomorrow with some questions about the gods' law. I hope that you can help me with them, Carle."

"I will do my best, Chara," said Carle, and bowed again.

I forgot to bow as the Chara left; I was standing rigidly, my eyes unfocussed and unseeing. After a while, I returned to the Land of the Living and found Carle leaning against the other gold door, his arms folded and a smile on his lips.

"I'm sorry," I said. "Have I been away for days? I suppose I should have thought of something to say in reply."

Carle smile turned to a grin. "He has the same effect on everyone. If he'd said words like that to me, you'd find me passed out on the floor right now. Let's go back to my place and have a drink before you drift away to the Land Beyond."

Carle's quarters lay in the back of the palace, beyond the corridors of the east wing that he had been showing me. We walked for some time before I found my voice again and asked, "Have you been telling him about me?"

"I?" Carle laughed. "By all the law books, man, I've almost never spoken to him. I'm surprised that he was able to dredge my name out of his memory."

"Well, then, how did he know me? I could be anyone in the patrol."

In reply, Carle pointed toward the neckline of my tunic. I looked down at the brooch pinning the flap of my tunic together and said, "Hundreds of soldiers have those. You're wearing one yourself."

"Ah, but mine is silver." Carle gave a slight smile. "Hundreds of men wear the copper brooch, and scores wear the silver, but there can't be more than a dozen men in Emor who wear the subcommander's gold honor brooch. I'm willing to wager that the Chara has the names of those men memorized. —Here we are."

Carle pushed the door open. I found myself in a fair-sized sitting chamber, flanked on both sides by doorways leading to smaller rooms. The sleeping chambers – I assumed that was what they were – were stripped of all furniture, but a few chairs still remained in the sitting chamber. They were surrounded by piles of law books that had been pulled off a bookshelf near the blazing hearth.

"Please excuse the mess." Carle detoured around one such pile. "I'm scheduled to move into my new quarters tomorrow. That's why I had planned to come by at week's end, in order to save you from wading through all this."

"Where are your new quarters?" I asked, leaping over one pile as though it were a mountain rock.

"I've no idea. The palace slave-keeper, who assigns the rooms, says it's to be a surprise. . . . Curse it, where has my wine gone to? I hope it hasn't been moved already. . . . At any rate, the slave-keeper says that he has tired of moving me to new quarters every time I change rank, so he went to the High Lord and asked Lord Godfrey what rank he expected me to achieve as a council official, so that he could assign my new quarters accordingly. The slave-keeper won't tell me what the High Lord said, so I assume that I'm assigned to some dingy part of the palace – probably the slave-quarters. Lieutenant, do you see anything resembling a wine stand near you?"

I peered through the piles of books, switching to my professional skill for searching out fugitives in the mountain. I had not explored far before the door opened and Carle said, with relief plain in his voice, "Ah, here comes our rescue. Henry, where have you hidden the wine?"

A man of middle years, the hair at his temples beginning to turn white, stood in stiff alert at the doorway as he said, "I took it next door to Lord Thomas's quarters, sir, so that the slaves would not move it by accident."

"What a brilliant notion. Could you fetch it, please? This is Lieutenant Quentin, who will be staying here tonight."

"It is an honor to meet you, sir." Carle's free-servant politely bowed his head toward me. "Would the lieutenant care to have my chamber for the night? I can seek a room elsewhere."

"Oh, I don't think so." Carle glanced my way for confirmation. "The lieutenant and I have shared more cramped quarters than my chamber. —A wonderful servant." This comment came as Henry closed the door. "I don't know how I would have survived these past six years in the palace without his guidance. Now that my salary has increased, the first thing I'm going to do is buy a slave or two, so that I can take the heavy work off of Henry."

"You have a number of slaves at your country home, don't you?" I was already seated in one of the few chairs not piled high with books, having decided that Wystan's instructions to me to stay off my feet superseded any reluctance I had to impose on Carle's hospitality.

I doubted that Carle noticed; he was busy carefully dusting one of the law books. "Yes, but most of them have lived there all their lives. I wouldn't want to wrench them away from the only home they've ever known. It must be hard enough to be a slave as it is. —Thank you, Henry; your service is much appreciated." He said this as Henry entered, holding a wine pitcher and two cups. "Am I right in recalling that Lord Dean's free-servant is hosting a small party at the servants' dining hall tonight?"

"He is, sir, but I told him that I would not be able to attend because of our move."

"All the more reason that you should attend; you've been working hard all day. Go, and enjoy yourself. I won't need you for the rest of this evening."

I watched the older man as he expressed his thanks and left; then I followed Carle with my gaze as he stepped forward to pour the wine that Henry had left. I said, "You treat your servants with greater generosity than your father did."

"By all the laws, I should hope so! Do you know that my father used to mutilate the new slave-servants he bought? It was his way of demonstrating his power over them." After sipping from the cup he had just filled, Carle handed the cup to me.

I briefly smiled my thanks as I received the wine of friendship I had been offered, then said soberly, "He was a much-hated man who drove both his children from his home. He must have died a lonely death."

"Yes, and with his dying breath he tried to arrange my death. Did I ever tell you about that, lieutenant? That he was the one who told me to wear to the palace the royal emblem brooch he left me?"

"By all the gods!" I lapsed into Border Koretian, then switched back to Emorian. "Do you think he really knew what he was saying?"

"Oh, you can depend on it," said Carle grimly, leaning over to pick up a book from a chair. He waved the thick volume in his hand. "He wanted me to die through this: one of the subsections of the Law of Grave Iniquity, forbidding the wearing of the royal emblem by any but the Chara and his heir. It would have meant a Slave's Death for me, lieutenant: a long and painful death for treason. Thank the wisdom of the Charas that the Chara Anthony had mercy on me for my youthful folly."

"Mercy indeed," I said, leaning against the chair back in an effort to ease the ache I could feel growing in my belly. "If the Chara hadn't met with you to judge you for your treasonous action, you never would have ended up working for the Great Council. Carle son of Verne, former council scribe, former junior law researcher, now senior law researcher and assistant to the council lords and the Great Chara himself. You owe it all to that wretched man, your father."

Carle did not smile. He sat down on the arm of a chair and said, "Do you know, I sometimes dream that I have become my father? It was my worst fear as a child, worse than anything he might do to me, because people said that I looked like him."

"Only your smile," I said without thinking.

I tried to take back the remark a moment later, but Carle waved away my emendations with his hand. "I know, I know. That cold, dark smile he used to wear when he was tormenting someone under his care. I was starting to wear that smile as well, during my years in the patrol – until I met Adrian. Something about the way in which he willingly accepted whatever discipline I gave him erased that smile from my face, I hope forever. . . . I hadn't realized you'd seen my father smile."

"I saw him smile when he beat you when you were eight," I said quietly. "I've witnessed soldiers receive a lesser beating than you did, and he was smiling the whole time – especially beforehand, when he told you what he was going to do. His words were as cutting as his whip."

"You can hardly blame him for that episode," Carle said easily, leaning over to toss more moss onto the fire. "I'd just helped a valuable slave to escape. Any father would have been angry. No, what used to infuriate me was the way he treated his slave-servants – the way in which he would seek out some trivial error they'd made as an excuse to whiplash his slaves into utter submission. You're right that his words were as dangerous as his physical punishments. He had tremendous power to hurt others with his words. I know I've inherited that gift; that's why I keep having this dream. Lieutenant, please – if I ever start acting like my father, I'm depending on you to warn me. I can't think of a worse fate."

"Except perhaps being one of your father's slaves." I handed him back the half-drunk cup.

"Oh, that!" Carle took a sip from the cup. "It's strange how one's life can change. Another nightmare I have is that I unwittingly break the Chara's law again and find myself facing the Chara's wrath for what I have done. I suppose I could be sentenced to enslavement in such a case. Would you buy me then, lieutenant? You've proved a kind master in the past."

"You're the first soldier to serve under me who has said that," I replied. "Most of my men probably spend their time trying to figure out ways to wreak their revenge for the harsh discipline I place them under."

"Oh, you're much appreciated by your men," said Carle. "You underestimate the respect you've gained – as always."

I had been scanning the piles of books, trying to figure out whether Carle had reached the point of buying every volume of the Chara's law. Now I looked back at him. The bottom half of his face was hidden by the cup, but his gaze was steady upon mine. I lowered my eyes and pulled up the edge of my tunic to expose the thigh-pocket. Ignoring the pocket containing the dagger, I reached into the inner pocket and pulled out the resignation letter. Holding it up for Carle's inspection, I said, "You've seen this, I take it."

Carle put down the wine glass, revealing his faint smile. "Lieutenant, every time I begin to think I have some talent in reading men, I meet with you again and am reminded of who is the master of that art. Here I am, but two sentences into my well-rehearsed speech, and already you have found me out."

I refolded the letter and placed it back in the pocket. "The captain asked you to speak to me?"

"He showed me your letter, and I volunteered for the task. I must say that I was stunned by what I read; I've never encountered such a string of falsehoods in my life. Fortunately, though, you are spared from hearing my blistering opinion of your prose, since the Chara has already made clear to you your true worth."

I placed my palms together and laid their front edges against my lips. "If that really is my true worth."

"Lieutenant!" roared Carle. "Are you saying that you refuse to accept the judgment of the Chara?"

With any other man, I would have taken this statement to be a rhetorical flourish, but I knew that Carle was genuinely shocked by my remark. "I suppose that I must accept his judgment," I murmured.

"By the law-structure itself, I should think so," Carle said firmly. "He is the Chara, Emor's High Judge, the embodiment of the law, who has inherited a gift for judgment which surpasses that of any other man in this land. Leaving those facts aside, he is also our master."

"Masters can be wrong," I demurred.

"Don't be such a borderlander. You'll be talking like a Koretian priest next, saying there is no need for ranks. Yes, of course masters can be wrong; my father was wrong on many occasions. But I never disobeyed him except when others were in serious danger from him – and never when I was in danger. I don't know why I'm even telling you this. This is the same lecture you give all of your men about the importance of obeying orders. Or do you think that the Law of Army Obedience doesn't apply to you, and that you need not accept the judgment of the Commander of the Armies?"

I was silent for a while; then I felt the edges of my mouth curl up. "Very well, you've made your point. I am courageous, I am wise, I am a good soldier, and I have no reason to request a dishonorable dismissal. Are you satisfied?"

"Heart of Mercy, that was easier than I thought it would be," Carle said with relish. "What are we going to find to talk about for the rest of the evening, when I had at least three hours scheduled for this topic?"

"You have the eloquence of a council lord, Carle."

"And you are the most melancholy man I have ever met. I know how much you've hated your work for the past eighteen years. I know you feel guilty because you believe that you ought to be enjoying such a privileged position. But why punish yourself in this way? By the Sword of Vengeance, lieutenant, you've inflicted enough punishment on yourself to last a lifetime. What is it going to take to make you stop berating yourself for every small mistake? When will you recognize your strengths?"

He would have said more, but at that moment there was a knock on the door. Carle called out, "Enter!" The door swung open to reveal two slaves.

There were wearing the open-backed tunics that mark Emorian slaves as decisively as the old-fashioned practice of slave-branding. (Carle's father was the only man I had ever known who still adhered to this practice of mutilation.) Two slaves stood in the doorway: a man about Carle's age and a man in his sixties, about Wystan's age. Both of them had their gazes cast down in the presence of free-men. Despite this, they managed to locate immediately which direction of the room Carle was in; they bowed to him. The younger man said, "Sir, the slave-keeper has sent us to remove your books."

"What, now?" Carle said, looking past the slave-servants to the hand-cart in the corridor behind them. "Well, if you must. —Tell me, lieutenant, how long do you think that the patrol will be on leave?"

"You would know more about that than I do," I replied, watching as the slaves came forward to lift the books. "It all depends on how long the Koretian Ambassador continues to negotiate with the Chara. Do you think that the King is likely to recall his Ambassador and withdraw his peace oath?"

"No, I think that— What are you doing, lieutenant?"

"Helping," I said briefly as I took half a pile of books from the overladen older slave.

"Sit you down, man; what do you think slaves are for? . . . No, you're right, this will take less time if I help. But stay back, now. I'm not going to break my loyalty oath to the Chara by having one of his wounded soldiers move my books."

I sat back down obediently; my body had begun to scream assent to Carle's command. I watched as Carle swung a pile of books into his arms and then glared briefly at the younger slave, who had just dropped a book open-faced onto the floor. Carle said as he walked toward the cart, "No, I don't think the Koretians will withdraw their peace oath. I think they will break it."

"Carle, you begin to worry me with this prejudice of yours," I said. "Even you must admit that Koretians take their blood vows seriously – and a King's blood vow most seriously of all."

"Oh, they take their oaths seriously, but they take treachery and murder more seriously. Just look at the course this civil war of theirs has taken. To start with, it was no more than the Koretians' usual sickening exchange of murders, men creeping into rival villages to cut each other's throats on the sly – just a normal blood feud. Then, within a year, it was no longer a case where a couple of villages were fighting each other, but instead had become a feud between two halves of the land: those kin to Blackwood and the other old nobility and those kin to the King and the new nobility that the King's grandfather appointed. I even hear that one Koretian council lord killed another, since the council is split down the middle between old and new nobility. —In the name of the dead Charas, boy, keep your eye that pile." Carle sprung over to steady one of the book piles on the cart as the older slave moved quickly out of his way.

"Very well; no harm done, but be careful," Carle told the slave. "As I was saying, it has been bad enough watching the eerie manner in which those Koretians have been fighting their war: no set battles, no confrontations between warriors, just soldiers swooping down on rival villages and laying waste to them. About the only good thing that you used to be able to say about the blood feud was that it was confined to those who had taken blood vows to murder, yet even that isn't true anymore. I hear that, in some cases, women and children have suffered harm. Would you like more wine, lieutenant?"

"Not during this recital." I leaned over to hand one of the slaves a book that had fallen under my chair.

Carle grimaced. "It's not a pleasant tale, is it? And now the Koretians are extending their feud to the families who have settled in our borderland, blithely ignoring the fact that, no matter what the color of their skin, our borderlanders are subjects of the Chara and immune to their cursed gods' law. —No, no, you'll have to come back for the rest. Your cart is piled high enough as it is. You'll be trailing books all the way to my new quarters, and then I'll have to instruct the slave-keeper to beat you for your incompetence." Carle grinned amiably at the slaves before he shut the door behind them and started piling the remaining books into stacks by the door. After I had been silent for a while, he looked up and said, "What's on your mind, lieutenant?"

"I was thinking about those slaves," I said. "How odd it must be for them to have us chatting over their heads like that."

"If you'd ever owned slaves, you'd know that they can do a fair amount of chatting themselves, mainly about what they overhear their masters saying." Carle caught the book I tossed his way and gently placed it atop one of the stacks. "If I ever want to find out what's happening in the palace, I ask a slave. They know as much about high matters as any Koretian spy who infiltrates this land."

"Is the reverse true?" I asked. "When you were a spy, did you ever bribe a Koretian slave to give you information?"

"If you knew anything about Koretian slavery, you wouldn't ask that question. And I am not going to enter into a second discussion of unpleasant Koretian customs; the blood feud is a nasty enough topic as it is. Thank the spirits of the dead Charas that you and I don't have to worry about such matters."

I stood up and went over to pour myself some wine in order to cover my silence, but when I turned back with cup in hand, Carle was watching me.

"Heart of Mercy," he said quietly. "I didn't think. I suppose that all of you borderlanders are related to the feuding blood lines, aren't you?"

"Only half of us," I replied, raising my cup to my face to smell the subtle flavor of wall-vine wine, as well as to hide my expression. "My mother is kin to Blackwood, the baron of Blackpass. They share the same great-grandparents."

"And it makes no difference that your grandfather's line is Emorian back to the giving of the law, because he and his sons are now kin by marriage." Carle slammed down onto a chair the book he was holding, an action that startled me, for I had never seen Carle mishandle one of his law books. "May the high doom fall upon those Koretians!" Carle cried. "To think that your loyal Emorian family should be threatened by those blood-lustful murderers – as if the Koretians didn't get satisfaction enough from killing Adrian."

The name entered our conversation like a High Lord entering his Council Chamber. We both fell silent at its presence. Through Carle's corridor door I could hear the occasional soft footsteps of men passing. Carle lived close to the northern entrance of the palace, and so there passed by here a continuous flow of palace officials and army officials walking to and from the army headquarters outside. After a while, I said, "That wasn't the same."

"It was exactly the same." Carle slammed his fist down upon the ledge where Henry had laid the wine and then quickly grabbed the wine pitcher as it began to tip over from the vibration. "Adrian died in a blood feud that he never wanted to take part in – by the law-structure, he left his native land to avoid taking part in it! He wouldn't even settle in another Koretian borderland village for fear that that village would start its own blood feud. It would make him weep if he were alive today and saw the blood feud extending to his adopted land. He came here to find the law – Emorian law, with its strict, rational rules of duty and discipline. And now even Emor is being tainted by the gods' law, that irrational, priest-driven system of injustice."

"Emorian law has its faults as well," I said quietly as I placed my half-empty cup beside Carle. "It was the Law of Army Obedience that helped bring about Adrian's death."

A moment later, I would have taken back my words as I saw the change in Carle's face and realized that I had dragged his thoughts away from the safe topic of the Koretians' brutality toward Adrian, into the far more dangerous topic of the Emorians' complicity in Adrian's death. I added quickly, "It was entirely Captain Radley's fault, ordering Adrian to spy on his own village when Adrian had told Radley that his life was forfeit if he returned there. Radley tried to make light of it at his trial, but from the witness he gave you earlier, it's clear that Adrian was as close that day to pleading for his life as he had ever been."

Carle stared down at the cup I had given him, not touching it. "Radley was a doltish, malicious man, and it gave me a great deal of pleasure to watch him receive his Dismissal of High Dishonor. He ought to have paid for what he did with his life. But he isn't the only Emorian who is to blame for Adrian's death."

Carle swung away suddenly so that he was facing the hearth on the opposite wall. He took up an iron, but rather than poke the fire with it, he allowed the rod to hang limply from his hand as he said, "I was the one who convinced Adrian that he must never, ever disobey orders, no matter how unimportant the order seemed, no matter how severe the consequences would be for himself. It's a pretty lesson to teach . . . as long as you teach it from a distance. And that's where I was, at a distance from all that Adrian underwent during the week of his death. I was blithely scribing documents while Adrian spent an entire week running, hiding, desperately trying to escape from his murderous blood kin, but never trying to leave his village and return to Emor, because he had been ordered to find that trivial bit of information Radley wanted. And Adrian wouldn't disobey orders, not even if it meant sacrificing his life for the sake of a scrap of information that was of absolutely no importance to anyone."

I came over to stand by Carle. He dropped the iron against the wall and turned away from me to face the bookshelf that was stripped of its books. Staying where I was, I said, "If Adrian had told one of us, it might have been different. But he didn't tell us, so there's no way you could have known what he was facing."

"He asked me to come with him." Carle's voice broke. "That should have told me in itself. He had never asked for my help with anything, not during our year together in the patrol, not during our two years together as spies. He asked me to come with him on his new Koretian mission, and I cheerfully replied, My apologies but no, Adrian – you must face on your own whatever dangers you are asking my help with. You have offered your life up for me on more than one occasion, but that is of no importance to me."

Carle's back was beginning to shake. Feeling awkward and uncertain whether to touch him, I said, "You were starting your work as a council scribe the next day. If you had passed up that opportunity, you might never have had another chance to work at the palace."

"And Adrian knew that, and that's why he didn't tell me where he was going." Carle slapped his palms flat onto the bookcase ledge and leaned forward onto the tips of his toes, as though leaning out a window in search of fresh air. "I'm a law researcher now because Adrian sacrificed his life for me; that's what it amounts to. And I would have died a Slave's Death for him at a moment's notice – or so I always told myself. But when it came to the test, I showed myself for what I really am."

Then I did move forward and place my arm around his shoulders. Carle's face was red and wet; a continuous stream of tears bubbled forth from the hidden passage of his eyes, which were now squeezed closed. He said in a low, shaking voice, "I never told you what I saw when I went back to Koretia."

"No," I said. "No, you never did."

"I swear to you, Quentin, I will never return to that land again." So imprisoned was Carle in his misery that he did not notice that he had used my forbidden name. "In case I had held any doubts before, that last trip was enough to show me what those Koretians are truly like. I came to the edge of the village, and I met a boy there – some relation of Adrian's, I could see the resemblance, but of course everyone in Adrian's village was kin to him. I told the boy that I was an old friend of Adrian's and asked him whether Adrian still lived in the village. Well, I could see from his expression what had already happened. So I persuaded him – with the edge of my sword – to take me to where Adrian was. I did this quite openly, having no interest at this point in hiding why I was there. We had the entire village trailing after us by the end. At first, they shouted threats and waved their blades at me, but when they saw where we were headed, they all fell silent. For shame, I would like to think, though I'm not sure I should ascribe so noble a quality to such dogs. It was obvious that they had all taken part in what happened."

I let my arm slide away from Carle as he turned to face me. With his eyebrows drawn low and his chin shaking as he sought to control his voice, he said, "He was in the village sanctuary. Perhaps he had hoped to find refuge there with the priest. If so, he fled to the worst possible place. The priest was standing outside the sanctuary as we arrived; it was clear from his expression that he had handed Adrian over to the mob. And there Adrian was, lying on the floor, dead for so short a time that he had not yet gone stiff. Of course that is what tortures me most: knowing that I was so close to saving him. But he was certainly dead, and no one had bothered to prepare him for burial, or even a Koretian-style burning. Perhaps they were waiting for the jackals to drag off his body. I'm sure that the smell of blood would have attracted the corpse-eaters eventually. His throat was sliced open."

I inclined my head to focus my gaze on the ledge next to us. When I was sure that I could speak in a steady voice, I said, "At least he received a quick death. I remember him telling me once that he feared they would burn him alive."

"You expect his own kin to have had mercy on him?" said Carle, his tongue bitter with irony. "No, he had rope marks on his wrists. Their gods alone know what the villagers put Adrian through before he died."

"They may have been placing him on trial," I said in a low voice. "Remember, he had gone against their law by breaking his blood vow to murder. They were probably giving him a chance to defend himself before they pronounced him god-cursed."

"Defend himself against what?" Carle asked in a sharp voice. "Against refusing to murder one of his childhood playmates who had the misfortune to live in a rival village? Besides, Adrian was Emorian. He had renounced his allegiance to the King and the Koretian gods, so he was subject only to the Chara's law."

"He was subject to Koretian law while he was on Koretian soil." I hardly cared what I was saying at this point. I only knew that arguing about Koretian barbarities would keep Carle's mind off his own guilt. "You cannot enter another land without being willing to accept its laws and to accept punishment if you break those laws. I'm not saying that the gods' law is just in what it does, but neither was Radley's command. I've no doubt that Adrian accepted the punishment he was given in Koretia with the same acquiescence by which he complied with Radley's orders."

Carle picked up the iron and threw it in the fire, an action I found more reassuring than his previous ones. "And so you're saying that if the priests were suddenly to announce that the gods say all red-haired men are under their curse, then I should submit meekly to execution?"

"I would advise you not to visit Koretia in that case. But if you were there, I expect that you would find yourself adhering to the rule you taught yourself under your father: to break the law only to save others from danger, never to save yourself."

"Never to save yourself," Carle said softly. He turned his face away slightly; the firelight from behind lit the tear-stains upon his face. "Well, that is Adrian's epitaph. He had the talent and will to do anything, except to save himself."

He opened his mouth to say more; then his gaze travelled past me to the doorway, and he turned away suddenly. Looking over my shoulder, I could see the slaves standing by the open door, staring with plain curiosity at the scene before them. They quickly lowered their eyes as I looked their way. I told them, "We have private business to discuss. You had better finish this in the morning."

The door was no sooner closed than I could hear the slaves' voices in the corridor, lowered just far enough that I could not make out what they were saying. Swinging back to face me, Carle said, "May the high doom fall upon them! It will be all over the palace by morning, that I have been weeping in my quarters. When the Lawgiver divided the Emorians into ranks, why couldn't he have arranged for the slaves to be born without tongues?"

Seeing that his sense of humor had brought him somewhat back to himself, I said quietly, "I didn't realize that you were holding all this within you."

"Oh, I am just barely holding it within me," said Carle with a humorless smile. "You see how close it is to the surface. And you're not the only man who has witnessed this. I know that Henry has heard me weeping at night, though he has too much tact to raise the subject and too much loyalty to gossip about it. It's reaching the point . . ." Carle lightly touched the wine cup I had placed by him some time before, and stared down at it. "If I can't find some way to control myself, I will have to resign from my palace work. It has nearly reached the point where I'm crying during the day. And six years have passed – when am I going to reconcile myself to his death?"

I felt as though I had already stripped myself of all words I could use to comfort him. I stood dumbly as he said softly, "He was only nineteen, lieutenant – nineteen, and the most talented, law-loving soldier in the Chara's armies. He could have been a captain or a council lord. Instead, his body is moldering in my family's graveyard, and his spirit is in the Land Beyond . . . when it isn't haunting me in dreams."

"Haunting you how?" I took back the cup that Carle had not touched and forced some wine down my throat to cure the dryness there.

"He told me once that he thought of me when he made his sacrifices – that I was the one he used as a motive to do his difficult deeds. I was of some use to our land then, influencing Adrian to do his great work. But what am I now?"

"Someone who is trying to imitate me, it appears." I put down my cup. "Didn't we have this conversation earlier this evening? Adrian was indeed talented; he was the best soldier I ever knew, and he understood discipline and sacrifice as though he had been fed them with his mother's milk. But you have your own talents, Carle. You are a treasure-house of information about the law, and your faithfulness to the Chara is uncommon. If you want to serve Adrian's spirit well, then concentrate on being a good law researcher. He gave his life so that you could work in the palace; don't fling that gift into the mud."

Carle smiled faintly. "You have the eloquence of a council lord, lieutenant."

"It's just my natural talent rising to the surface; you know how loquacious I am. Will you finish this wine for me?"

Carle shook his head absentmindedly, so my cup remained unshared as I listened to Carle carefully turn the conversation to the subject of his orchard harvest.

o—o—o

I had trouble sleeping that night; I was awoken several times by loud voices in the corridor. I lay with my eyes open for a while, staring at the ceiling in Carle's sleeping chamber, which was utterly dark because his quarters contained no windows. He had allowed the hearth-fire to die away on this warm evening.

The darkness reminded me of the blackness in the border mountains when even the stars are covered by clouds. I remembered one such evening when Adrian had revealed to me that he was troubled, but I had not stayed to ask him about it. Never again had I seen him alive.

When I finally fell asleep, I found myself in the night-dark patrol hut. In front of me stood a young Koretian borderlander who, while fleeing to Emor in search of the law, had tried to break past the patrol by wounding one of my men. I told him that I would free him to go back to Koretia. But he begged to be tried by Emorian law for his life, so that, even if he suffered death, he would die knowing what the law was and knowing that he had been obedient to its consequences.

Chapter Text

It is always difficult for patrol guards to sleep while on leave. Trained as we are to wake at the first note of a danger whistle, we must make a conscious effort to ignore the clatter of the city during our winter nights. Thus, when the knock came at Carle's door the next morning, I simply rolled over and went back to sleep, ignoring it as I had ignored the sounds during the night.

Carle's hand on my shoulder woke me a short time later. He must have been awoken by the knock as well, for he was still dressed in his undertunic, and sand edged the corners of his eyes. In his hand was a letter with its seal broken.

I pushed back the covers and pulled myself up. "What is it?"

Carle was slow in replying. "It's from Wystan. You left word that you would be here, so he wanted me to let you know: the Koretians attacked during the night."

Carle had not yet lit any candles, so the room was dark but for the light flowing in from the corridor. Through that door I could glimpse men rushing back and forth, as they had during the night. No doubt, if Carle's quarters had included a window, we would have heard the Chara's soldiers moving out.

I had been silent all this while. Carle asked, "Are you awake, lieutenant?"

"Yes. What about the villages?"

"Mostly destroyed. The Koretians caught us off-guard, curse their demonic spirits. Wystan isn't sure about your village, since the first reports are only just coming in. We've beaten the Koretians back into the border mountains, though, so the captain suggests that you ride down to check."

I was already pulling on my tunic with one hand and reaching for my sword belt with the other. Watching, Carle said, "I'll see that you get a horse from the palace stables. You're not likely to find a spare one at the headquarters."

"Thank you." My movements were a good deal slower than they had ever been on patrol; I suppose I knew already that there was no hurry. My thigh-pocket was strapped on – I slept with it at all times, like any other patrol guard – but I paused to pretend to readjust its straps as I asked without looking up, "Will you come with me, Carle?"

There was no reply, but when I raised my eyes I saw that Carle was already dressed and armed. There was a grim look on his face, as though he had been awoken by a danger whistle.

o—o—o

We knew what we would find before we arrived. The carrion crows hovering over my village could be seen for miles.

We travelled like fish struggling against a stream of humanity. The roads were clogged with refugees from the borderland villages that had not been entirely destroyed, and also with army units returning from the mountains. By late afternoon, we had reached the road leading to my village; there we met Hylas, a royal messenger we knew, who had just galloped back from Koretia with news from the Chara's swift-moving vanguard.

Royal messengers are duty-bound to keep the border mountain patrol informed of high matters affecting their work, so he stopped and assured us that there had been no retreat. The troops being sent back were the extra divisions that normally would not have been sent over the border, for the Emorian subcommander, upon learning of the attack, had drained the headquarters of nearly every soldier, leaving only Captain Wystan's Home Division to guard the city and palace.

"I can't decide whether those Koretians are witless or just naive," said Hylas as he pulled back on the reins of his eager horse. "They actually seemed surprised that we would respond to their oath-breaking in the manner it deserves. Apparently they thought we would stop at the mountains, and it doesn't seem to have occurred to them that they had placed their own borderland villages in peril. Nobody there was expecting us to arrive. Let me tell you, though: we're showing their villagers a good deal more mercy than they showed ours."

We had started out at dawn, but dusk lay upon the land by the time we finally arrived at my village. For a long while, we simply stood at the edge of the village and looked.

Out of the couple of dozen houses in my village, only the hall and two smaller houses had survived the flames, though they were no more than blackened ruins. The men, I could see at a glance, had died defending the village. The body of my grandfather was lying nearby, close to that of a Koretian soldier. I would have guessed how my grandfather had died in any case, from the blood on his sword. Without a word, Carle chased the crows away and placed his cloak over my grandfather. I had wondered why Carle was wearing a cloak on such a warm day – but then, my Second Blade had always possessed much forethought.

No women or children were within sight. I wondered whether the Koretians had had enough time to capture them and take them back over the border. "Wait here," I said. Carle nodded. Like me, he had his sword unsheathed. Neither of us was taking any chances, though it was clear that only death spirits remained in this village.

I inspected the two upright houses first, but no one was in them. Poking through the dying embers, I found that this was true in the other small houses as well. That left the village hall. It was here that I discovered the fate of the women and children.

My home was not entirely burned: the stone walls to my grandfather's sleeping chamber remained intact. The roof there had collapsed, though I held out hope that the people there had died of smoke by the time the burning timbers fell upon them. It took a while for me to remove the fallen rafters, for I had to stop periodically to catch my breath, and on one occasion to be sick. But once I had cleared the timber and had inspected the bodies, I could reconstruct what had happened.

They had been bound; the ropes were still around their wrists and ankles. Either before or after they were bound, the soldiers had had their way with them – not only with the women, which I might have expected, but also with the girls. Once that they had taken their pleasure, the soldiers had brought the women and children to this place and locked them in. Then they lit the flames.

I found Flora, her long hair fallen girl-style about her shoulders, her mouth for once not turned up in flirtatious laughter. Her skirt was ripped off, and there was blood about her loins.

My mother's bracelet was still on the wrist of a sooty skeleton in the main part of the house.

It took me a while to find two other bodies, and neither of them was bound. Quentilla I located in the blackened storeroom. Her face was only partly burned, but I would have known her in any case from the dagger which she held in her hand and which was thrust between her ribs. The soldiers had been cheated of their sport with her. And in the last moments of my search I found the body of Tevis. He had taken refuge under my grandfather's bed and was curled in a ball around Cat, protecting him from harm.

All this while, I had been listening carefully, hoping beyond hope to find someone alive. When I finally heard the moans, it took me a long time to locate them. They were coming from one of the standing houses I had inspected first; I had not looked through the fallen timbers in the back. There I found the Koretian soldier.

I supposed he must have been forgotten in the confusion, or maybe the Chara's vanguard had beaten back the Koretians too swiftly. At any rate, he had been trapped when the timbers fell suddenly. Perhaps he had been standing nearby to admire his handiwork. His legs were pinned under a timber and appeared to be crushed, but the rest of him was only scraped and bruised where he had been attempting to extract himself.

He was young, perhaps eighteen. He was pinned in such a way that he did not see me until I was beside him; then he took in my uniform, and his eyes grew wide.

"Mercy!" he cried hoarsely. His lips were chapped and his throat no doubt dry from the smoke. "For the gods' sake, have mercy on me!"

I held up the sword where he could see it. "This is my mercy," I said. "I'll give you a quicker death than you deserve."

His death was not so quick as I had led him to believe, for my hand was still unsteady, but I doubted that it was more painful than the deaths my kin had undergone. After the last of his screams had died away, I stood a moment, staring at what remained of the soldier. Then I walked back to Carle.

I found him in the ruins of the storeroom, contemplating Quentilla's body. He asked no questions about the blood on my blade; the soldier's cries and pleas must have carried as far as the next village. I walked past Carle until I reached the first patch of ground that was still living; then I knelt down to wipe my blade on the grass. "You were right," I said flatly.

Carle did not reply. His face was hard but revealed no shock. I supposed that he had used up all his shock on the day he found Adrian. After a while, he asked, "Are there many left for us to bury?"

I shook my head as I rose and began walking with him toward where we had left the horses. "I'll be burning them first in any case; that's the borderland custom. You had better go back to the palace, where you'll be needed. I can take care of this myself."

This prompted no argument in Carle; no doubt he was already worried about the manner in which he was neglecting his duty. He merely asked, "Can I do anything for you there?"

I looked at what remained of my village: the corpses of men who had died in battle, the limp bodies of those who had escaped to a worse fate, and the cloaked body of my grandfather. "Yes, if you can find the time to send a message to Wystan. It's the tradition in my family for the ashes of patrol guards to be spread next to the patrol hut. I'd like to learn whether the Chara has withdrawn his peace oath so that I can go into the mountains."

Carle wrapped the horse reins he was holding more firmly around his knuckles; the horses were shying away uneasily from the smell of blood. "I can tell you the answer to that question," he said quietly.

I looked back at the border mountains, black under the grey sky. "There was more in Wystan's letter?"

Carle came over to stand by me, his gaze on the mountains where he had once patrolled. "The border mountain patrol has been called back into service. The captain is sending extra units to help because he wants to ensure that refugees from the Koretian border villages don't pour over the border. You were supposed to report at dawn, but Wystan said he'd turn a blind eye to your absence as long as you reported by midnight."

My gaze continued to travel over the mountains which had been my prison for the past eighteen years – the mountains which I had wanted so much to escape. Then I looked down upon the village I had sought equally hard to escape two nights before – where I would have remained if I had followed my duty to my kinsmen. Reaching over, I pulled from my thigh-pocket the resignation letter and handed it to Carle.

He took it but said, "This isn't the moment to be making such a decision, you know."

I replied nothing more than, "Thank you for coming with me."

Carle handed me the reins to my horse before leaping onto his own mount. "Lieutenant, I would ride with you through the gates to the Land Beyond if that was what you wanted. Never forget that."

I barely heard his horse gallop away. The beat of its hooves was obscured by the calls of the crows, feasting upon the bodies of my kin.

o—o—o

"It was all done very cleverly. I can admire the Koretians from a professional standpoint," said Wystan, leaning back in his chair. "They planned the timing of the attack based on information given to them by a former palace slave. Slaves can be treacherous creatures; I would never trust a slave's loyalty if I owned one."

"But how did they locate which villages had families connected with the old nobility? They seem to have been very precise in their destruction, avoiding any villages that had kinship ties with the King, such as Devin's." I was sitting a fortnight later in the cross-legged chair in Wystan's tent, listening to the subdued sounds of the headquarters. During my last visit, this place had been like a town of death spirits, so few men were left in this spot. Indeed, until the previous day, Wystan had kept most of his division outside the city walls, partly to protect against attack, but mainly to show spies from Daxis the strength of our remaining soldiers, should our second southern neighbor be tempted to attack at this moment of our weakness.

Now there was no such worry. The Chara had returned on the previous day with the vanguard, leaving his subcommander to continue battling with the rest of the imperial force. With Wystan restored to his regular duties, I no longer had any excuse to delay this final meeting with my captain.

"The Koretians were clever there as well; they excel in this sort of sly plot," Wystan replied. "They sent a spy over the border to visit the villages and question their inhabitants, discovering their lineage. The spy was Emorian-born and was disguised as a peddler— What is it?"

"Nothing. Did we capture the spy?"

"No, and I doubt we'll ever see him again. If he's wise, he'll settle up north in the barbarian lands rather than risk falling into our hands if we succeed in conquering Koretia. Of course, we know of the spy only from information given by the prisoners we've captured. No Emorian who actually met the man is now alive."

I remained silent for a moment, scratching through my tunic the area of my leg where my thigh-pocket was usually tied. I felt naked without its presence, but I could not come armed to this interview. Aside from that and my missing sword, I was dressed in uniform. The gold brooch weighed heavily upon my tunic-flap. "So it is certain that the Chara will bring Koretia into the empire?"

Wystan nodded. "And Emor has Carle to thank for that decision. I saw the Chara yesterday; he told me it was the reports he had received from the law researchers concerning Koretia's religious practices which caused him to decide to make that land a dominion and bring to it the benefits of Emorian law. The Chara said it will take him years to determine which Koretian institutions should be outlawed. There doesn't seem to be a single custom in that land which isn't bound up with the gods' law, from bindings of friendship and marriage to less savory practices such as blood feuds and the Koretian form of slavery. The Chara can't change everything at once, but already he has made one necessary change in the conquered portion of the land: he has abolished trial by the gods' law. Henceforth, Koretian borderlanders must seek justice from the Emorian courts rather than from their priests."

"Adrian would have been pleased," I said quietly.

Wystan sighed, fiddling with the ring on his left hand. "Yes, it was what he wanted. I suppose it is one of the ironies of fate that this comes six years too late to save him from being executed under the gods' law. But then, it might not have come at all if Adrian's death hadn't enraged Carle and led him to advise the Chara as he did. Six years ago, I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling that Adrian's death was a terrible waste, a sacrifice that brought no good to our land. But now we begin to see how his suffering will bring good to both Emor and his native land."

I shifted in my chair to ease the ache in my belly. In order to disguise this, I said, "I suppose that many of us will never know the good that our sufferings do. That's why it is important to obey the law, however great the pain to us and however needless our suffering seems."

Wystan smiled, but he made no reply, for at that moment Sewell came in with a report for our captain to peruse and sign. Sewell carefully avoided looking my way. He had been reserved in his manner when I arrived, as though I had already been dismissed. I took this as an indication of how all of my acquaintances would treat me in the future if I should meet them. All except Carle – but I would not embarrass Carle with my continued presence.

Wystan's mind may have been running along the same lines. As Sewell left the tent, he said, "And what are your plans, lieutenant? Are you settling in the city?"

"No, sir. I have some money saved, so I thought I would use it to travel up to the mainland and settle in one of the barbarian lands. I'd considered settling in Daxis, but since Daxis and Koretia are allied, it may be that Daxis will be drawn into the war as well. I'd rather not find that my new village or town has become a battleground."

"Yes, I see." Wystan did not ask me why I planned to emigrate; he did not need to. He knew as well as I did that, with a Dismissal of High Dishonor from the Chara's armies, I could not expect to find anything but the most menial job in the Empire of Emor. "I hope that you don't find it too cold up on the mainland; going from one climate to another can be a shock. Not to mention going from one culture to another. Do you plan to raise a family?"

"I hadn't really thought about it, sir. I expect that my living will be rough for the next few years. It wouldn't be fair to put a wife through that."

Wystan smiled, fingering the quill in his hand. "Take the word of a long-married man: women thrive on that sort of thing. Women are odd creatures. They outdo even the patrol guards in their willingness to suffer, though their sacrifices are usually made for people rather than lands. If this army were composed of women, we'd have no need to ask for oaths of loyalty to the Chara, for women stand by the men they love with a fidelity that cannot be described, only experienced. Find a woman to love, lieutenant. That's the best way to make it through the next few years."

"I'll keep that advice in mind, sir." I was having a hard time concentrating on what he was saying. My gaze had fallen upon a sheet of paper that lay atop one of the piles on his desk. Even from where I sat, I could see that it was sealed with the red wax used by the Chara.

"You do so, lieutenant. . . . By the way, have you thought of what you're going to have people call you once you've left the army?"

"Not really, sir," I said quietly. The pain in my belly began again as the muscles there tightened.

Wystan leaned forward and took the sheet of paper in his hand. "Well, that brings us to our official business. Stand at alert, lieutenant."

He spoke the words firmly, as though in recognition of the fact that it was the last time he would use my title. I rose and stood in sentry position, my arms stiff by my sides, my eyes focussed forward. I kept my gaze fixed on a point at the back of the tent, less because my duty demanded it than to avoid seeing Wystan's face as he came forward. Benevolent as Wystan might be when his duty allowed, he always handled matters of discipline in an appropriately harsh manner.

This was the moment that had kept me awake all the night before as I had made a futile attempt to prepare myself for the ceremony. I knew that I was fortunate: by custom, this ceremony ought to have taken place in the mountains, in front of my unit. It was there that I had seen it last.

On that occasion, eleven years before, I had been the one who conducted the rite. I had been the patrol lieutenant for only two months; the cause of the ceremony had been my sublieutenant, Shepley, who had been so jealous of my being elevated in rank over him that he had disobeyed my orders and put the men under his care in peril from a border-breacher. One soldier had died as a result; Shepley himself had been saved only by the quick-wittedness of Carle, who had thus won his elevation to sublieutenant and had become my Second Blade.

I found the images of that day pressing into my thoughts: The unit standing nearby with expressions of scorn plain on their faces. Shepley's white face as I read the document that listed the reasons for his dismissal from the Chara's service, then ripped his army service brooch from his uniform. Carle's carefully neutral look as he handed me the roll of the border mountain patrol so that I could strike the man's name from it, thus stripping Shepley of both his title and his honor.

Wystan had been walking round his writing table as I reviewed my memories. Now he came back into my view and stood an arm's length from me, close enough to reach for my brooch when that moment came. Speaking with firmness and finality, he read from the official document, "'I, Nicholas, the Great Chara of Emor and Its Dominions, Judge of the People, Commander of the Armies, Lord of the Marcadian Mountains, Ruler of the Arpeshian Nation, do on this day declare that Quentin son of Quentin, formerly Lieutenant in the Chara's Border Guard Division, shall until his death bear the honorary title of Lieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol (Retired), in recognition of his lengthy service in that unit and in acknowledgment of his unceasing willingness to sacrifice his life for the sake of this land. I declare also that he shall on this day be dismissed from my service with high honor. Signed on the twenty-eighth day of September in the nine hundred and forty-ninth year after the giving of the law, by Nicholas, the Chara.'"

I stood as stiffly as before, vaguely aware that a death I had been expecting and trying to accept had not taken place as planned. Wystan lowered the paper in his hand and said, "Stand off alert, lieutenant." Then he offered the document to me, saying, "The Chara is planning to proclaim this in the court next month after he catches up with the court cases he has missed recently, but his clerk was kind enough to prepare a copy I could give to you before your departure."

I stared down with unfocussed eyes at the seal bearing the Chara's emblem: the Balance of Judgment weighing the Sword of Vengeance against the Heart of Mercy. "This is your doing, sir."

"I'd like to take credit for the idea, but in fact it was the Chara who suggested it. He could tell from his recent meeting with you that it would take a proclamation from him to make you accept his judgment. All that I did was suggest the nature of the proclamation. I told the Chara that, while I thought you could bear being stripped of your brooch, I couldn't imagine how you'd survive without your title."

There was a smile in his voice as he spoke. I continued to stare down at the paper, trying to swallow past the hard ball in my throat. Wystan added in a more serious manner, "You have no choice as to whether to accept the proclamation – it is the Chara's command – but I hope that you are willing to accept his judgment as well."

"Yes, sir," I said in a low voice.

I looked up to see Wystan striding over toward the wine stand. "Thank the wisdom of the Charas for that. I don't know what I would have done if you'd replied no – probably fallen on my sword. Will you share wine with me, lieutenant?"

He had been pouring as he spoke. As he finished his words, he sipped from the cup, and then held the cup out toward me.

I barely hesitated before coming over to take the cup from his hands. As I drank from it, Wystan smiled and said, "Thank you. I never offer the wine of friendship to men under my command – it might cause a conflict with my duties – but it has been in my mind to do this for many years now. Are you still set on exiling yourself to the mainland?"

I shook my head to free myself from the daze of my thoughts. "I don't know now. But I've already made arrangements to cross into Daxis and travel to its Border Port. Perhaps I'll take the opportunity to sail to the mainland in any case. My pension money will allow me to travel at ease, and I'd like to see what the mainland is like."

"Travel can be a broadening experience," agreed Wystan, leaning against his wine stand and watching as I drank from the cup he had given me. "I have a gift for you before you go."

"You've already given me too much, Wystan," I said quietly.

"That proclamation is from the Chara; this is from me, and it's unofficial." He pulled the ring off of his left hand and held it up for my inspection. "You've seen me wear this."

It was not a seal-ring; Wystan wore his seal on the opposite hand. It was a beautiful though much-battered bronze ring, decorated with a star flame composed of spears. The ring might have been made in Arpesh – their craftsmen are famous – but if so, it was made for a Marcadian client, for the Marcadians are the great warriors of the empire; the spear flame is their unofficial insignia.

I said, "I've never seen you without it."

"A friend gave it to me many years ago, before his death. He in turn had received it from a friend, who gave it to him as a way to honor the fact that my friend recognized that a soldier must be willing at all times to sacrifice himself for the sake of his duty, even if that sacrifice requires him to suffer in a seemingly needless manner. My friend gave it to me for the same reason."

Wystan's hand closed around the ring as he added, "I tell you in all honesty, lieutenant, that if Adrian had lived, this ring would have gone to him. Perhaps, though, it will be of greater benefit to you than it would have been to Adrian. Adrian may have been tormented by self-doubts, as all men are, but he did not require constant reminders from his master that his services were appreciated and valued. You have been lucky that the Chara has been willing to offer such reminders, but you cannot count on your next master being so considerate. Hard as it may be for you, lieutenant, you must develop an inner core of confidence that will allow you to recognize your own worth, continuing your work even under circumstances like those recently, when your honor is called into question. I hope that this ring will serve as a reminder that duty and sacrifice are always worth doing, whether or not our work is recognized and prized."

I reached over and took the ring from his hand, keeping my eyes level with Wystan's as I did so. For the first time in two weeks I was smiling. I guessed that my smile, more than anything I could have said, demonstrated my thanks to Wystan for what he had done.

Chapter Text

Death Mask #2
PROBABLE DANGER WHISTLE
Dusk Peterson
 

CHAPTER ONE

Seagulls battled the winds that blew off of the Western Sea, but they were not fighting as hard as the ship attempting to leave the calm, land-locked harbor in order to enter the storm-dark waters beyond. Even from where I stood, upon the salt-sweet wooden pier of the Border Port, I could see the fingers of the waves clawing up to pull the ship over. The ship remained upright, but just barely.

Standing beside me was the passage-booker I had hired to find me space on a ship. He was an honest man; I knew this because he had refused to take my money once he learned where I was headed. Instead, he was giving me the bad news for free.

"It's too late in the year," he explained, waving away another customer, who would no doubt have paid him well for his time. "You won't find a ship-master in all the Three Lands who would go up to the mainland at this time of year. The harbors up there would be iced in by the time the ship arrived. Normally, we wouldn't be sending ships anywhere north now, since the autumn storms have begun, but some ship-masters have considered it worth their while to brave the danger, considering the prices the refugees are willing to pay to escape the borderland."

The pier was indeed clogged with people boarding ships and with yet more people begging passages. Daxion soldiers had lined themselves on the edge of the pier in order to guarantee that only those who had paid for their voyages boarded the ships. Otherwise, one gathered, the ships would have sunk under the weight of the desperate families seeking a means of escape.

"So some ships are still going north?" I said, keeping my hand on my belt, mainly to cover my money-purse hanging there. I had learned not long after my arrival how some refugees were financing their flight.

"I can find you passage on a ship headed to the Dominion of Arpesh, and you could spend the winter there," replied the booker, stepping nimbly out of the way of a fight that had started between a group of Koretians and a group of Emorians. "But if you are a true servant of the Spirit, you'll show mercy on her children by leaving the passage open for someone who truly needs it. If you can afford to spend the winter in Arpesh, you can afford to spend it here, and there are families in this town who will starve to death by spring if they can't find passage up to Emor's dominions, where the governors have offered to feed and settle refugees. We have Emorians and Koretians alike offering to sell their first-borns for passage. I've ended up using some of my savings to pay the bribes necessary to get passages for the worst cases. Wait here till spring, sir. It's a better time of the year to visit the north in any case."

We had been speaking all this while in Border Koretian. I had crossed into Daxis, the land southwest of the Empire of Emor, apprehensive of my ability to make myself understood. Like all Emorian mountain patrol guards, I knew Common Koretian, the language spoken by most border-breachers; but I knew no Daxion. I had forgotten, however, that the black border mountains extend all the way across the Great Peninsula, dividing the northern half of the peninsula – Emor and its dominions – from the southern half – Koretia and Daxis. Here, in this town next to the tiny border between Daxis and Emor was the Daxion borderland, where most people spoke the ancient language dubbed Border Koretian. As an Emorian borderlander, I had learned Border Koretian in my cradle; I was as fluent in it as in the Emorian language. I had experienced no trouble making myself understood in the Daxion borderland.

For that matter, in this town you could eventually find someone who spoke your language, no matter what land you came from.

I said, "This is a lively enough place in which to spend a few months . . . as long as you can guarantee me that no battles are likely to be fought in this spot."

The booker laughed. He was a small, dapper man, with dark hair plastered wet against his forehead from the sea wind. Sun-freckles bloomed against his skin, as pale as most Emorians' skin. "No chance of that," he replied. "The word arrived just this morning: young King Leofwin has allied himself with both Emor and Koretia. He doesn't want to begin his reign with war, any more than I suppose your Chara did. With dual alliances, our King will avoid having Daxis pulled into either side of the war between Emor and Koretia. He was in such a rush to do it that he didn't even bother to consult his council – just sent one of his messengers with the peace settlements. So you'll be safe in the Border Port . . . and as you say, it's not a town where one can become bored."

"No, indeed." I pulled open my money pouch then and emptied it of its coins, handing them to the booker when I was sure no one was watching. "The copper pieces are for you, for your trouble. Use the silver to help with the bribes."

I stepped away quickly to avoid receiving his thanks, but turned to look back when I heard the booker hailing me. Shouting to be heard over the noise of the crowd, he said, "I forgot to tell you, sir: I can get you passage down to Lower Straits Port, and you could spend your winter in either our capital or the Koretian capital, depending on your preference. It would be a lot warmer down there."

I smiled. "It seems plenty warm to me on this side of the black border mountains. If I went that far south, I'd probably die from the heat. Thank you just the same."

o—o—o

The weather was indeed warm here in the Border Port – warm, that is, in comparison to the autumn cold that had spread over Southern Emor before I crossed the border. If I had been in the mountains now, leading my old unit, I would have been debating inwardly between donning my winter cloak or keeping up a stoically ascetic appearance for the sake of my men.

As I walked down the gravel-strewn streets of the Border Port, I passed a barbarian sailor who evidently exceeded my sentiments about the weather. He had stripped himself to the waist. Growing up as I had in the borderland, I had always thought myself cosmopolitan, but the Border Port displayed a variety of people that made my Emorian borderland village look provincial by comparison. I passed a Marcadian – a nobleman, I surmised from his gold-edged tunic and richly decorated sword – who was looking doubtfully at the sky, as though uncertain why snow was not yet falling. Nearby, a dark-tunicked Koretian trader politely but firmly negotiated his way to a bargain with a Daxion nut-merchant. Next to him, a barbarian was arguing furiously with one of the Emorian soldiers who had been sent to the Border Port to help the Daxions keep peace during this crisis. Further down the street, two jewellers were engaged in light gossip about the continued progress of the Emorian army in Koretia.

The brightly-dressed jewellers stood out among the others. Both jewellers were dark-skinned; one was speaking in a Daxion accent and the other in a borderland accent. Far away as I was from them, I could not tell which of the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula the borderlander came from. The borderlander was dressed in a tunic with a gold-threaded design woven upon a black background – an appropriate costume either for a nobleman or for a jeweller indicating his profession. Both men were bent over a table displaying their wares, and the borderlander had his back to me, but as I passed, he turned suddenly, and his eyes met mine.

I caught a quick glimpse of two lively amber eyes and a snub nose set in a face that looked vaguely familiar. Without thinking about it, my hand started moving toward my dagger. Then the jeweller smiled, touched his heart and his forehead in the free-man's greeting, and turned away to continue his conversation with the other jeweller.

The man's smile was reassuring, but his apparent recognition of me was not, so I turned aside, into an alley, in order to avoid passing the man and having my unprotected back facing him. I was no longer wearing my uniform, but my thigh-pocket was still strapped to my leg, and it was there to hide more than my pension money. In this town especially, I might need to use my thigh-dagger.

Over the years, I had turned back hundreds of Emorians from breaching the border, as well as thousands of Koretians. Inevitably, I had met a few breachers who vowed vengeance upon me. If I had stayed in my native land, I would have had little to worry about; most Emorians are law-lovers, so cold-blooded murder is rare in Emor. But Koretians learn to murder before they have been weaned. This town was filled, not only with Emorian borderlanders burned from their homes, but also with men and women and children from the portion of Koretia that the Emorian army had succeeded in winning and occupying after the Koretians' vicious, peace-oath-breaking attack on our borderland. Too stubborn to accept the Chara's rule, the Koretian refugees were seeking passage to southern Koretia. One of those Koretians might have sworn a blood vow against me in years past.

My thoughts were on this rather than on where I was going, so it was some time before I realized that I had been wandering the narrow alleys aimlessly and had no idea where I was. To be a patrol guard and to be lost is a contradiction in terms; the guards who become lost in the mountains are no longer around to tell the tale. I paused where I was, less to orient myself than to swallow my embarrassment.

"There must be a way you can find us passage. Isn't there anything I could give you to change your mind?"

My attention was attracted to the woman's voice, not by what she was saying – for indeed, I had witnessed women in this town offering more than their first-borns for passage – but by the fact that the tone of her voice made clear that she was not prepared to go that far. The words were desperate, but the voice was proud. I looked round the corner to see what borderland woman was prepared to retain her pride under such circumstances as these.

She was standing at the entrance to a dark doorway, her head erect and her arms folded as though she were a trader driving a difficult bargain, rather than a refugee pleading for help. Her hair was dark but was dappled with occasional gold streaks like the threads of the jeweller's tunic, and her skin was soft brown. Her borderland accent had such a strong touch of Koretian to it that I guessed she must be first-generation Emorian and that her parents were emigrants. She looked to be about twenty years of age, yet like Quentilla, she had a lock of hair falling down from her high-bound hair to indicate that she was unmarried. Perhaps she had scared all her suitors away. She did not look like the sort of woman who could be wooed with pretty words.

The man she was speaking to, a narrow-eyed Daxion who hovered in his doorway like a snake reluctant to leave its hole, did not appear to recognize this, for he said in a soft, pliable voice, "It is hard to know the best way to help you without determining the exact circumstances of your plight. Perhaps, if you would care to come in and explain further—"

The woman cut in with a voice that was just as soft, though hardly supple. "If you touch me, I will call upon the Moon to extend her curse to you. It takes twenty-nine days for the curse to finish its work. Would you like me to describe what happens during those twenty-nine days?"

One of the advantages of being a borderlander is that you learn handy bits of information like this. I knew the Koretian goddess's curse, and I could tell from his expression that the Daxion did as well. He said curtly, "I fear I cannot help you, madam." Then he wriggled back into his hole, closing the door swiftly.

She stood a moment more with her arms crossed, as though for the benefit of anyone who might have witnessed the confrontation. Then her arms fell limply to her sides and she turned away, biting her lip. At that moment, she sighted me.

We were in a dark alley, and I had made my way silently to within a body's reach of her; I supposed that she could not have found this reassuring. She jumped backwards, saying in a voice loud enough to attract the attention of anyone passing in the main road nearby, "What do you want?"

I stayed where I was, leaning my shoulder against the rough-wooded side of a house. I kept my right hand well away from my dagger. "Nothing but to compliment you on your choice of weapon," I said quietly. "You appear better armed than most men in this town."

She took another step backwards, which brought her close to the main road. I waited for her to flee. Instead, she stayed in that spot, her gaze travelling over me as she assessed my appearance. I was wearing a sober violet lesser-freeman's tunic, and I had replaced my army sword with a plain, unimpressive dagger I wore openly to warn off bandits. If I had to deal with murderers, my hidden thigh-dagger would be of greater use. After eighteen years of frightening border-breachers, I was not sure how to look peaceful and harmless, but I did my best.

I must have succeeded, for she smiled. "The Daxions are so used to worshipping their gentle Song Spirit that they think the Koretian gods are all bloodthirsty demons. You need only mention the name of the Moon or the Jackal or any of the others, and they leave you alone. It's as effective as having an escort."

"So your father believed that you would be safe coming here by yourself?"

She shook her head. "My parents travelled to the Land Beyond many years ago. I'm here with my eldest brother."

"And your other brothers? Where are they?"

Her smile faded like a flower wilting in the drought. There was a pause, and then she said, "I only had one other brother. He's dead."

She did not need to say more. This, then, was one of the borderlanders whose village had been attacked by the Koretians but not completely destroyed before the Koretians were beaten back by the Emorian army. I wondered whether she was willing to risk making bargains in dim-lit alleys only because she had no honor left to lose. If so, she hid it well; a young maiden proclaiming her purity to a village judge could not have gazed upon me with such dignity.

It was clear that she did not wish to talk of her family's encounter with the soldiers, so I replied only, "My brother died recently as well."

She nodded in wordless acknowledgment of our shared bond. This emboldened me to ask, "May I escort you to your next destination? I suppose that, through a little research, we could discover where all the unlawful bookers are in this land and make collective bargains with them. Though I'm afraid I don't have as much to offer as you do."

She laughed then. Taking the arm I offered her, she stepped out with me into the bright afternoon light. I scanned the houses around me and realized we were in the poorer section of town, the section I had avoided searching for accommodations in, since I had spent more than enough years of my life walking after nightfall with the knowledge that each step might be my last. The accommodations in the central part of town were more expensive but safer.

"You've had no luck finding passage either, then?" she said as we passed a group of young girls singing skipping-rhymes to each other.

"Yes, but I've already given up on the task anyway. I'm going to spend the winter here."

"I wish we could afford to do that," she said with a sigh. "It feels odd, living the life of a commoner. I'd never even realized that people live in conditions like this."

I glanced over at her. Her gown was far from being peasant-brown; it was made of rich crimson cloth. The gown had a dusty, much-travelled look to it, though, as if it were the only clothing she had left.

I said, "I know what you mean. I spent all of yesterday seeking accommodations. There wasn't a single inn in the town that had a place for me. I tried offering myself up to one innkeeper to be his slave – I'm told that works sometimes – but he simply looked me over and said that he didn't think I would qualify for that high a position. Finally, a soldier took pity upon me and let me share the basement chamber he is crammed into. —Is this where you live, then?" She had stopped walking. We were on the edge of an open square, where a group of ragged-clothed Daxion bards were joining together to entertain the town dwellers and also to earn themselves a meal.

"This is close enough," she said. "You needn't escort me any further."

I let my arm drop and took a hasty step back. I supposed I should have expected, after eighteen years hidden away in the mountains, that I would have little ability to keep a woman entertained. I had been talking to this woman in the straightforward manner I would have addressed my boyish sister Quentilla. But now I found myself remembering when I had witnessed Sewell wooing the young woman who became his wife, and how his conversation had been filled with compliments and flattery. Even a proud woman, I thought, dislikes hearing a man talk about himself all the time.

My hand stiffly rose in the free-man's greeting. Then, not knowing what to say, I slipped away from her side and blended into the crowd, as I had once hidden myself amidst the rocks.

o—o—o

The chamber where I was staying reminded me of a cave I had often visited in the mountains: small, dark, and moist. In this respect, I felt completely at home in it, though I would not ordinarily have selected as my chamber-mate the bitter, spiteful Emorian soldier who had taken pity upon me once he had determined that I was not in fact Koretian and therefore not worth picking a tavern fight with. Although he had been drunk when I explained this, I think that his comprehension of my finer qualities was enhanced by the fact that I had him pinned to the floor at the time.

Part of his bitterness came from the fact that he had been taken out of the war in Koretia because of an injury: he had been sword-sliced along his index finger and thumb, making it hard for him to close his dagger hand around a weapon.

"So they sent me here to Daxis to rot away guarding ships when I ought to be helping take vengeance against those treacherous Koretians," he said when I joined him that evening. "I was one of the soldiers who had to help burn the borderland villagers' bodies and bury their ashes. I know more about what we're fighting for than those soldiers who simply passed through the borderland on their way to win glory."

His speech did not come in precisely this form – it was laden with curses too strong to be scribed on paper – but I could not help but agree with him, at least about Emor's need for vengeance. I paused from biting into an apple; I always thought of Carle when buying such fruit, though of course there were plenty of other orchards here in the south. To the soldier I said, "It was a nasty bit of work the Koretians did. I'm glad, though, that the Chara forbade his soldiers from taking vengeance upon the Koretian women and children."

"I'm not," the soldier replied succinctly. He was burnishing his shield by the smoky hearth, which emitted the only light in the windowless chamber. "Those blood-lustful oath-breakers deserve the same as they gave out. Well, at least as far as the women are concerned; you're right about the children. Enslave the children who are still young enough to learn better, and you can teach them to be law-loving Emorians."

I made no comment on this. My thoughts were on an alley cat I could hear mewing in the passage outside our door. I picked a bit of meat off my dinner plate, opened the door, and tossed it to the grateful recipient before closing the door again.

The soldier laughed tolerantly at my eccentricity. He was the sort of soldier who could not become firm friends with anyone until that man had banged his head against the floor; therefore he had a tremendous liking for me. "Did you have any luck at the pier, or have those shifty Koretians taken all the passages?" he asked.

"I've decided to remain in town for the winter," I said. "I'll have to continue my search for a room tomorrow."

"Stay here," offered the soldier. "My lieutenant says that we'll only be here for a short time more, just until the Daxion units arrive from their capital. King Leofwin's subcommander paid for our accommodations through to the end of the month, so you'll have free use of the room till then. After that, you'll have to pay whatever excessive prices these Daxion landlords charge. I'm grateful to have your company in the meantime. I got the impression that the landlord here was planning to force me to share this chamber with a Koretian. With my luck, I would have been forced to share quarters some dagger-wielding chamber-mate like the Jackal."

"Not very likely," I said, setting down my wine cup sufficiently close to me that he wouldn't mistake the gesture and think I was offering it to him.

"You never know," said the soldier, holding his shield near to the firelight so that he could check its shine. "That god, or whatever the Koretians consider him—"

"God-man," I contributed.

"God-man, then. That sneaky Jackal of theirs seems to have done most of his work in the north. He might be fleeing from the Chara's newly occupied territory right now."

"I should think that he would welcome the Emorians," I said, placing my feet up on a stool to relax my body. My belly was better but still not completely healed. "Haven't he and his thieves been harassing the King and the new nobility for the past nine years in order to end the religious abuses in Koretia? He should welcome the Chara's abolition of trial by the gods' law."

"If that's what the Jackal's up to, you know more about the subject than I do," said the soldier, pushing his mud-brown hair out of his eyes impatiently. "My impression is that he just wants to pull down all of the noblemen of the land. A lot of the Koretians are like that, you know. They think that ranks are a demon's device to keep them in their places. They act as though Koretia needs no masters, when in truth what it needs is the Chara and his justice."

"The Jackal's thieves rarely attack the old nobility," I said. "Most of their attacks have been against the new nobility who were appointed by the Koretian King's grandfather and who have supported changes that were made then to the gods' law, bringing in the worst abuses. The Jackal and his thieves have been waging a subtle war against those who uphold the religious abuses, using thefts and tricks to harass them."

"Heart of Mercy, lieutenant, you seem to know all about this. Are you sure that you're not a Koretian in disguise?" The soldier's tone was light, but I saw that his hand was resting upon his sword hilt.

I kept my eye on the hand, but made him wait until I had sipped from my cup again before I said, "I knew a spy who met the Jackal once. The god-man told him the reason for his tricks against the new nobility."

"You mean the spy claimed to have spoken to that masked trickster? Not many men have done that. Frankly, lieutenant, I would take this spy's word only if accompanied by an oath."

I raised my gaze from the soldier's dagger-hand; with his injury, it would take him several seconds to draw his blade against me. I kept my eyes level with his as I said softly, "The spy was a friend of mine. He wasn't the sort to lie."

The soldier suddenly took renewed interest in rubbing the face of his shield. After a while he said, "Well, the Jackal's story is nonsense anyway. If he wants to change the gods' law, why not just use his so-called powers to do so?"

"The Koretians claim that the gods will never interfere with men's free will. Whatever powers that the Jackal has – and he claims to be limited in them, since he's a man as well as a god – he isn't going to use them in such a way as to take away men's right to decide how to run their lands and their lives."

The soldier gave a smile which I was too charitable to describe as a sneer, but which definitely contained skepticism. "Do you really believe those tales about the Jackal having supernatural powers?"

I lifted my hands palm upwards in a shrug. "I suppose that I'd have to meet the Jackal to know . . . or at least see his eyes. My friend believed that the Jackal was a god. He said it was obvious from his eyes."

"Well, I'll tell you what, lieutenant," said the soldier. "I'll look for a man wearing a god's eyes, and if I see him, I'll send him round to meet you." He roared with laughter. So pleased was he with his joke that he spent the rest of the evening describing to me what features of the Border Port he actually liked. That night I went to bed armed with the names of fifteen brothels he could recommend, along with descriptions of the women in them whom he knew would be just right for me.

Chapter Text

Next morning found me sitting near one of those brothels, politely refusing one of the women who had come to invite me in.

My presence there was a coincidence. It so happened that the fountain rim upon which I was sitting was the only place to seat myself in the open square I had visited the day before. I was there to find a woman who had not been on the list with which the soldier supplied me.

I knew, of course, that the chances of our meeting again were next to nothing, but stranger events had happened in my life, strengthening my belief in fate. If I was fated to meet this woman, then I would see her again. If not, it was not unpleasant to spend my morning being propositioned by beautiful women and pretending to myself that they were interested in something about me besides my money.

As far as women were concerned, I was still at my coming-of-age birthday. That is one of the hazards of being a patrol guard. My father was one of the few guards to attempt the difficult arrangement of being married, yet being absent from home for nine months out of the year. My parents were wedded a few days before my father left to join the patrol on his sixteenth birthday; Quentilla and I were born nine months later, and no other children followed. Nor was that the only evidence I had received of my parents' unhappiness with each other. This had been warning enough to keep me from seeking a wife during my years in the patrol. Perhaps it was just my stubbornness that had kept me from following my grandfather's advice to seek out less permanent unions during my winter leaves.

There was something refreshing about finding an area in my life in which I could be incompetent, but I would not be pleased if my ignorance was so thorough that I lost my second chance with the borderland woman, so I spent much of my time listening to how the brothel clients wooed the women they were interested in.

I was concentrating so hard on one such conversation that I missed hearing her approach me. Only my newly acquired training in how to behave outside the army kept me from drawing my dagger against her when I suddenly heard her voice. Instead, when she said, "Can't you find one that suits you?" I stood up quickly – too quickly, it turned out, for I could not keep myself from wincing as I did so.

"Are you all right?" she asked, her brow puckered with concern.

"I stood up too fast," I said. "I didn't hear you coming."

"I've been watching you from my window," she said. "After you'd turned down the dozenth woman, I found myself overwhelmed with curiosity to learn what kind of woman you would accept."

She was wearing the same gown as the day before. Her hair was now dotted with the spray of the nearby fountain. Her fingers intertwined in front of the gown, matching the lacing there. I said, "I've never been to such an establishment, actually."

"So what keeps you back? Honor or a wife?"

It was a fair question; most men my age had been married for a decade or more. I refrained from asking her what her reason was for remaining a maiden. Instead, I simply replied, "I'm not married. I've been in the army until recently."

She blinked twice – I vow that was how long it took for her to think this through – and then she said, "You're wounded."

Was it possible that thought-reading Quentilla had been reborn into another woman's body? I said, "God of Mercy, that's quick of you." We were speaking Border Koretian, so Koretian oaths sprang naturally to my tongue. "Did I make it that obvious?"

"Only by looking terribly stoic. I know that expression. It's the same one my brother has whenever he comes home all cut up after a fight. Did you leave the army because of your wound?"

"I suppose that in a way I did, but I was due to retire in any case." It occurred to me that I was not saying any of the elegant, complimentary phrases I had overheard the brothel clients speaking to the whores, but I could not imagine how to insert such words into a conversation like this. "That's why I'm here in Daxis. I thought I would travel a bit, since I've never done that before, and then find a place to settle down, figure out what work I would be good at, raise a fam—"

It was only after I had stopped myself mid-word that I realized my sudden halt was far more telling than finishing the sentence would have been. My eighteen years of training in subtle, reserved speech seemed to have vanished into the ground. I was making the sort of mistakes that the lowest-brained border-breacher would make.

I was blessed, however, with a merciful conversation partner. She took no obvious notice of my error but instead pointed to the ragged bards spending another day earning their pay. "Isn't it wonderful to visit a land where a goddess is worshipped through song? I've been enjoying this journey, being able to wake up every morning to the sound of music – though my brother says that he hopes the Song Spirit is deaf, because otherwise she'd be offended by musical offerings such as these. . . . If you don't mind my asking, who is your god?"

This too was a natural question, as quite a few Emorian borderlanders believe in the gods, since so many borderlanders – such as myself, as my dark skin testified – are descended at least in part from Koretians. My grandfather's Emorian skepticism about Koretian religion had pervaded our family, but I did not want to risk offending my conversation partner if she was serious in her worship. So I said, "I don't worship any single one in particular. Who is yours?"

"The Moon," she replied. She stepped out of the way to keep from being knocked over by a group of boys chasing a smaller boy around the fountain. "There aren't many people who worship the goddess of death. Most people believe she is too terrible a god to honor. But I think that you can't really appreciate what life is, unless you understand death."

"Yes, I'm sure you're right about that." I was trying hard to listen to what she was saying and to ignore the small boy, who had broken away from the others and was now listening to the bards, whistling along with their song. "I suppose soldiers feel that way naturally, since we're so close to death most of the time. I've had people ask me whether I was afraid of dying, but in fact it's the opposite. When you're in a great deal of pain from a wound, death seems a pleasant alternative to suffering. Every time I've been wounded, I've had to search out reasons to continue living. I suppose that means I've spent more time than most men thinking about why I should live."

"What reasons did you find?"

She was staring at the bards, but her eyes were no longer focussed, and there was a suggestion of moisture in the corners of her eyes. I fell silent at the realization that I was not the only borderlander who had been considering this question recently. Finally I said quietly, "I wish I could offer elaborate reasons for living, but for me, what it always has come down to in the end is that I believe it is my duty. I can't even explain why; I just feel that I was brought to the Land of the Living for a reason, and since I don't know what that reason is, I should stay here as long as possible, so that I can fulfill whatever my fate demands of me."

"Yes." The woman continued to stare at the bards, who were throwing pebbles at the small boy because he was interfering with their music. "Yes, that makes sense," she said softly. "Everyone I've met has been telling me that I'm lucky to be alive and that I should be grateful. It hasn't felt that way at all. I feel as though the dead are actually the lucky ones, because they're through with their suffering, and I have to live on in pain. But to think of life as a duty, something I take on because it's my sacrifice to the gods and not because I actually enjoy it – that makes sense to me."

"I don't know whether it's true," I said. "But I couldn't have lived through the last few weeks if I hadn't acted as though it were true."

She turned then, and our eyes were linked together. In the next moment I think she would have begun telling me what had happened in her village. Perhaps I would have shared what happened in mine.

But just then we heard a sharp cry, followed by sobbing. We both turned our heads to look at the small boy. Running to escape from the angry bards, he had fallen to the ground and hurt himself.

We both reached him at the same moment. A few minutes later, the woman had dusted off the boy's clothes, and I had taken out a face-cloth I carried in my thigh-pocket to keep the coins there from chiming as I walked. I used it to fashion a bandage around the scrape on the boy's leg, which so impressed him that he immediately ran over to his playfellows to show off his wound. The woman and I looked at each other again, and this time we burst into laughter.

In the midst of her laughter, she suddenly raised her head and said, "God of Mercy. My brother is home already."

I looked over my shoulder in time to catch a glimpse of the back of a dark-skinned man before he disappeared into a house that looked like several splinters of wood bound together. The woman said, "I'll have to go back; he doesn't like me being out unescorted. Tell me, do you come by this square often?"

I just managed to keep myself from saying, "Every day from now on, for as long as you can endure me." Instead, I said, "Fairly often."

"Perhaps we'll meet again, then."

I smiled at her. "Perhaps we will."

A dimple appeared in her cheek. She stared down at the ground for a moment before saying, "I'm glad you came by here today. You disappeared so quickly yesterday that I was afraid I'd said something to offend you."

I laughed. "The same was true for me. I thought you were eager to discard me as an escort."

The edges of her mouth quivered with laughter as she said, "I was just embarrassed to have you see what a miserably built house I'm staying at. That shows how small misunderstandings can blow into a blood feud." With that, she turned and started walking toward the house.

She was halfway across the square when I shouted, "Madam!"

The heads of half a dozen whores turned my way, but so did that of the borderland woman, so I ignored the onlookers and said, "I don't know your name."

"Tryphena," she replied. "And yours?"

I had only a heartbeat in which to make my decision. "Quentin," I said, discarding the army title I had demanded to be called by for the past eighteen years. "I am Quentin son of Quentin."

"Farewell, Quentin son of Quentin," she cried as she turned. "Don't forget to pass by here again some time soon."

o—o—o

She did not seem the type of woman to woo with flowers and jewels, so I arrived at the square the next day carrying a bag of nuts.

I bought them from the nut-merchant I had seen the previous day. He assured me that I would never be able to buy Daxion nuts in Emor at so low a price, so I tried to ignore the fact that I was using up a large chunk of my savings on a gift that would last only a few minutes. I was working with enough disadvantages without appearing to be cheap.

I sat on the fountain edge again, ignoring the boys who came and stood nearby, hopefully eyeing the bag – all except the smallest boy, who was nursing a new wound on the other side of the fountain. The largest of the boys was today sporting a band on his head that looked suspiciously like my face-cloth.

My eyes were on the fragmented, leaning house at the opposite end of the square. Presently I saw a man emerge from the house and begin walking toward one of the alleys.

I busied myself with counting the nuts and calculating how many days' worth of pay each one cost. I was therefore able to give a good impression of being interested only in my own affairs when Tryphena appeared by my side. Wordlessly, I handed the bag to her.

She pulled open the mouth of the bag. "Oh, Daxion nuts! I love these!"

Yes, her family had been wealthy. I wondered how to prepare her for the revelation that my rank in life was not so high. "I've never eaten them before, but a friend of mine did once, and he recommended them. He said that his new ambition in life was to become a council lord so that he could afford to buy regularly such noblemen's luxuries."

Tryphena handed me a palmful of nuts. "And did he?"

"Well, he became a royal official, which is as high a rank as any lesser free-man can reasonably expect to reach." I tossed a nut toward the smallest boy, but he fumbled in catching it. The nut was promptly snatched away by another boy standing nearby.

"How did you and your friend meet?" Tryphena asked, watching the boys scuffle for possession of the prize, while the smallest boy stood to one side.

"We were in the army together. The first time we met was when I was fourteen and he was eight. I was being forced by my grandfather to join the army, and Carle's father was trying to force him not to join the army, so we felt we had a bond of sorts."

Tryphena cocked her head to one side as she chewed slowly on one of the nuts. "You joined the army in the end. Did you like it?"

I gave a faint smile. "No. I hated it. But my father had been a soldier and had died at his post, so I suppose I felt that I owed it to his spirit."

"And you were in the army for how long?"

"Eighteen years."

"Eighteen years . . ." Tryphena's gaze travelled over our surroundings: the gravel-strewn square; the bards sitting on footstools, trying to attract the attention of passersby; the boys shouting song-challenges to each other; the merchant carts rattling by. "That's a long time to fulfill a duty toward one's kin."

"It's good training, though, for doing work that gives one absolutely no pleasure." I let the nuts Tryphena had handed me fall back into the bag. "I've begun to feel that the past eighteen years were just preparation for the last few weeks."

I looked up to see Tryphena giving me a sober-eyed smile. "And probably this is preparing us for something far worse. Isn't that a cheering thought? . . . You're not eating any of the nuts."

"They're a bit too dry. I was trying to figure out where the Daxions hide their fountain dippers."

Tryphena dropped the nut bag into my lap. "Wait here. My brother bought some wild-berry wine yesterday to try to fool us into thinking we actually have money left. I'll go fetch it."

I watched her race across the square, with her skirts lifted not quite as high as those of the whores. I looked back down just in time to keep the nut bag from being snatched away from one of the boys. As they raced away, shouting in laughter at their near-banditry, I looked about for the small boy, but he had already left the square.

I leaned back against the base of the fountain, listening to the water trickle into its pool like spring snow melting into a mountain stream. I closed my eyes and felt the cool wind patting my face. If I ignored the sounds of the carts and the bards and the boys and the whores singing the pleasures they offered, it was not too hard to imagine that I was back in the mountains, hunting breachers.

Or being hunted.

I had not heard Tryphena walking up to me the day before because she had approached me in a straightforward manner. I automatically screened out the noise of everyday footsteps; otherwise I would be startled every time someone passed me. But now I could not ignore a sound I had often heard in my work: the sound of someone taking a few quick steps forward, then stopping, then starting forward again – someone who was dodging between barriers so as not to be seen until it was too late for me to notice him.

The sound of a breacher preparing to cut your throat cannot be mistaken.

I kept my eyes closed, trying to judge how far away he was. That was difficult amidst the noise of the square. If I moved my hand to my thigh-pocket, he would notice, but there was nothing to prevent me from stretching my legs somewhat, shifting the bag over to the seat beside me, and then hooking my thumbs over my belt so that my hand was within reach of my belt-dagger. . . .

I waited till he was within a body's length of me before I rose and whirled with my blade in readiness.

He had not yet drawn his blade; that was the most reassuring aspect to the scene before me. Nothing else was reassuring in what I saw. He was wearing, not a dagger, but a sword, a weapon only soldiers or noblemen bear. If necessary, I could fight dagger against sword, but it would not make for a fair match. His hand had gone to his hilt, but his gaze remained fixed on my eyes rather than my dagger; he apparently had the experience to judge battle-readiness from eyes alone. I could have guessed his experience in this matter anyway from seeing his body: his light brown skin was covered with scars along his arms and legs. There was even a scar against his forehead, which is not the sort of wound you receive in mere training at swordplay. He was gazing at me with cold eyes and had enough confidence in his abilities that he did not even take a step backwards. Instead, he said softly, "If you plan to use that against me, I hope you have some skill with it."

I did not plan to use it; the familiar tone of voice had told me who he was. I quickly sheathed my dagger and said, "My apologies. You startled me."

He kept his hand on his hilt, and I felt my heart continue to race. I had to remind myself that we were both Emorians; he was not challenging me with that gesture to a duel. He said in a voice just as cold as his eyes, "So you are the man that Tryphena has been sneaking out to see."

Well, I could not blame him for being angry. Nothing would do here, after this awkward start, but for me to give a full apology. "I realize now that I have approached your sister in an incorrect manner," I said, "but I had no intention of bringing dishonor upon your family. I can only plead inexperience in these matters. I certainly had hoped to meet with you and ask your permission to speak with Tryphena."

After a moment, his hand dropped from his hilt, which helped to bring my heartbeat down to a pace close to normal, but his voice remained cool as he said, "I beg that you impart to me your name."

This is a Koretian greeting, demanding both name and title. "My name is Quentin," I replied. "I am a lieutenant." I raised my hand in the free-man's greeting.

He made no responding move. "I am Griffith, Baron," he said. He gave no village name to accompany his title; perhaps there was not enough left of his village to do so. His title was enough. I wondered what Koretian priests' spell had been cast upon me to make me fall in love with a noblewoman.

I doubted that he would have returned to me the free-man's greeting in any case, since his expression indicated I was not yet welcome in his house. But of course the question of whether to greet me that way was settled by the fact that we were not of the same rank. As though to emphasize this latter fact, he said, "So you are a soldier."

"I was until recently; I have just retired. I am travelling at the moment."

"And your father? What is he?"

"He was a soldier also before his death. I was raised by my paternal grandfather, though. He was a soldier, and then he became a farmer and head village councilman." I hoped the latter title sounded sufficiently impressive.

Griffith must have felt that I was stretching my claims somewhat, for he said sharply, "A nobleman?"

"No," I replied quietly. "Our village was too small to have a baron. I am just a lesser free-man." Well, I had done my best. The only other point I could offer in my favor was to say which army unit I had served in. This would no doubt impress Griffith, but something held me back from pleading my case that far.

There was a silence. Griffith's eyes had not moved from my face all this time, nor mine from his. Then Griffith said slowly and softly, "What village do you come from?"

"It is too small to have a name. It no longer exists, in any case."

Something passed across Griffith's face, but I had no chance to identify it, for Tryphena appeared at Griffith's elbow, bearing a wine flask. I noticed that she had not bothered to bring any cups with her, so we would be forced to drink from the same vessel.

"You said that you'd be out all day," she said to her brother in an accusatory tone.

"I meant for you to think that." Griffith's voice was still cool, and he didn't look in Tryphena's direction, but his left arm slipped around her waist in a relaxed manner. "I've just been becoming acquainted with Lieutenant Quentin."

"Are you an army official?" Tryphena asked me with interest. "I didn't know that."

"You don't seem to have asked him the right questions," said Griffith.

"Well, I knew that he was a soldier and that he was wounded recently," replied Tryphena, her chin lifting.

"Is that so?" Something about Griffith's tone told me that this was not a point in my favor, though I still could not grasp what was causing him to be so hard in his manner. "Tell me, lieutenant," he said softly. "Your grandfather the farmer and head councilman – which town did he used to sell his goods at?"

"Why, none." This was obviously a trick question of some sort, since there is no town near the Emorian borderland villages. "He found it easier to sell his goods at the city market."

"I don't understand," cut in Tryphena, her hand still clasping the flask of Koretian wine. "Why should he take his goods all the way over the mountains when he could just—"

She stopped. I caught only a glimpse of the comprehension awakening on her face, for I had switched my gaze quickly back to Griffith. It is not wise to look away from a Koretian who is angry and armed.

I waited with tingling palms, calculating how to preserve my own life without causing Tryphena's brother any serious harm. It is not true that Koretians always try to kill when they duel; if they did, every Koretian boy would be dead by age five. But I suspected that nothing less than death would satisfy Griffith for the deception I had played upon his sister.

I credited Griffith with less restraint than he had, though. After a moment spent watching me with a dark gaze, he said, "I take it from the expression on your face that this is as much a surprise to you as to my sister, and that no fraud was intended. Therefore, I see no reason to pursue this matter further, as long as my sister is satisfied. Tryphena?"

"Yes." At the sound of her voice, I finally switched my gaze back to Tryphena. She was looking at me through narrowed eyes, and her expression was as hard as it had been when she spoke with the sly booker. "Yes, I too see no reason to pursue this matter further."

Griffith turned without a word. He and Tryphena walked swiftly back to their house, their arms tight around each other's waists. I watched until they had entered the house; then I returned to my own chamber, leaving the Daxion nuts to be rifled by the gleeful boys.

o—o—o

"Koretian women are all sly bitches," said my chamber-mate that evening. "You're lucky this one didn't fool you out of your money as well."

There had been no one else I could tell my troubles to, but I should have known better than to seek sympathy from the soldier. I resisted an impulse to bang his head against the floor a second time in order to see whether this increased his affection for me. "If anyone is to blame, I am," I said. "I'm trained to be able to discern these things, and her accent made it clear enough which side of the border she lived on."

"Ah, well, women can do that to a man," said the soldier with a grin. "You could take the most rational man in the world – you could take the Chara himself – and place him alone in a room with a woman he loves. I guarantee you that he would emerge from that room as a madman. That's why you should stay away from love and confine yourself to women who won't endanger you in that way. . . . Where are you going?"

"To one of the brothels you recommended," I replied as I placed my cloak over my shoulders.

The soldier roared with laughter. "Good man!" he cried. "You've learned how to deal with those creatures."

I could still hear his guffaw as I closed behind me the door to the short passage that ran to the steps leading up to the street. The soldier's raw laughter nearly obscured the sound which had drawn me into the passage, that of the bony alley cat mewing for food. I had brought no meat with me, but the cat appeared contented with less substantial gifts, for as I lifted it into my arms, it immediately began purring.

Tucking it under my cloak so that only its curious head peered out, I went up the stairs and stepped out into the early evening chill. The brick houses cast long shadows that collected black in corners like dust, but the Border Port was supplied with torch-lamps on its streets, and the sky continued to blush pink at the end of the day. I made my way swiftly along the gravel roads, petting under my cloak the cat, which seemed contented to stay where it was and watch the sights.

In this part of town, most of the entertainment was taking place inside. From inns and taverns and houses came the sound of harps and quiet conversation. I met only the occasional couple walking arm-in-arm on their way to their destination. Soon, though, I had made my way onto streets that were alive with activity. Koretian dagger-throwers showed off their skills against the sides of houses, grinning dangerously at any passerby unfortunate enough to walk in front of them. Arpeshian artists offered to sketch portraits for a bronze coin or two. Daxion prostitutes were on every corner.

They had taken over the square by the time I arrived. The only other person left there was the small boy, who was seated on the patch of ground where the bards had been during the day. He was singing softly to himself.

I came over to stand by him. He looked up at me for a moment; then he scooted over in the dirt to make room for me.

"Are the bards who sing in this square skilled?" I asked as I sat down. "I'm no judge of music."

"They really aren't very good at all," said the boy, staring at the cat, who was beginning to claw her way out of my cloak. "But the only way to learn the songs is to hear the bards sing them. I'm going to be a bard one day. —Does your cat like it under the cloak?"

"It appears not," I said, struggling to keep the cat from jumping away. "Would you mind holding her for a moment?"

I pulled the cat out of my cloak, deliberately raising her high so that I could look past her to the windows of the house that we were sitting across from. The windows on the ground floor were dark, but the top-floor windows glowed with light, and I thought I caught a glimpse of a dark and gold head.

I placed the cat in the boy's arms. The cat, seemingly an amiable creature who was pleased with anyone's company, began purring once more.

"She appears to have taken a liking to you," I commented.

The boy did not reply. He was busy scratching the cat under her chin and watching her close her eyes and stretch her paws in delight. I waited until he had petted all of the cat's flea-bitten fur before saying, "I'm just passing through this town, so I can't keep her. Would you be interested in having her?"

The boy looked over at me sharply, as though he thought I might be teasing him with such a magnificent offer. Then he replied with pretended indifference, "Well, my mother has said that we could use a cat for the mice. She might like one in the house."

"I think the cat needs a protector," I said. "She looks as though she has led a hard life."

The boy began to scratch around the edges of the cat's fight-tattered ears. The cat promptly rewarded him by kneading her claws into his bare leg. After a while, the boy said, "I think she's hungry." As he stood up, he asked, "What is her name?"

"Cat," I replied.

"Cat. . . ." The boy rolled the name over his tongue as though testing its suitability. Then he looked down at the shabby creature in his arms. "Cat?"

The cat responded to her name by making a playful swipe at his face with her dagger-studded paws. Having made clear the hierarchy between her and the boy, she curled up with a sigh in his arms and enjoyed the rest of her journey with her eyes closed.

I watched the boy and the cat until they had disappeared into one of the alleys. After that, I leaned back, looking up at the stars that were beginning to spring forth in the sky, like crocuses heralding the spring.

I waited until the ache across my belly was too strong to be ignored. Finally I pulled myself upright, letting my gaze sweep over the house as I did so. The rooms at the top of the house were still lit, but no one was in the window now. I could hear the faint sound of a man and a woman talking and laughing.

I made my way back to my chamber, where I spent the rest of my evening inventing stories for the soldier about how I had spent my money at the brothel.

Chapter Text

Nothing much happened during the next fortnight except that the Emorian soldiers were withdrawn from Daxis.

"We're being sent to Koretia – the Koretian Land in the Empire of Emor, to be precise – to help make up the garrison at Blackpass," said the soldier as he flung his belongings energetically into his pack.

Blackpass was the main borderland town in Koretia, the one my grandfather would have sold his goods at if I'd been properly Koretian, as Tryphena wished. The town was also the home of Blackwood, the baron who had been leading the old nobility's blood feud against the King and his kin. I said, "Just be sure that you don't become chamber-mates with the Jackal."

The soldier roared with laughter at this. "I doubt we'll hear from the Jackal again," he said. "He has been quiet as a leaf-fall since the Emorians arrived. I suppose he knows better than to tangle with Emorian noblemen. In fact, the whole borderland is quiet. Our soldiers managed to make clear who is the new master of that land."

"The Emorian army hasn't reached any further south?" I said, tossing him a tunic in hopes that this would assist the soldier in leaving quicker.

The soldier shook his head. "No, matters have become trickier since Blackwood joined his army with the King's. King Rawdon was lucky there. You'd think that the old nobility would have welcomed an ally in their fight against the new nobility."

"A great opportunity lost for the Chara," I said. "As I understand it, the trouble is that the Chara ordered all of the Koretian borderland villages attacked, whether they belonged to the old nobility or the new nobility."

The soldier waved this away as a triviality. "Do those Koretians really expect us to keep up with the details of their civil war? Their King's army had just attacked us; were we supposed to politely enquire in each of their villages as to the genealogy of their barons? In any case, those ungrateful Koretians have nothing to complain about in our treatment of their villages. We practically patted the villagers on their heads, told them they were bad boys, and let them go again. But I suppose that if we'd treated them the way they treated our villagers, the Chara would have no one left to rule."

"So Koretia's civil war is over," I commented. "After nine years, that is something for which to be grateful."

"It's a new civil war now," replied the soldier. "A war between the rightful ruler of Koretia – the Chara – and the man who still claims the throne, even though he brought only bloodshed and lawlessness to his land. Once the Koretians see what peace is like under the Chara's laws, they'll be begging to have their land made a dominion."

o—o—o

Peace had come to the Border Port as well, if only because the ships had ceased to travel north. The Chara had sent word to the remaining Emorians in town that he would attempt to find room for them in the crowded farmlands and grazing grounds of Southern Emor. The pier remained clogged, though, with the Koretian borderland villagers who were still trying to find passage south. Every day when I came by, the crowds were smaller, and more ships left with empty places. I wondered how long it would be before I could no longer retain hope of seeing one Koretian in particular.

Gradually, the Border Port was becoming dominated by Daxions again, although there remained in the town a sizeable population of Koretians, Emorians, and even barbarians from various tribes on the mainland. I entertained myself by standing on the pier where the barbarian sailors congregated – the mainlanders are the great seafarers of the world – as they complained to anyone who would listen how barbarically hot and uncultured the Three Lands were. I supposed that every homeland looks rich in the eyes of a man who is away from it.

Once my chamber-mate had left, I spent a great deal of time listening to others in the town. I spent very little time talking. During my winter leaves, I had always avoided making new city acquaintances whom I knew I would not be able to see during my nine months at work. Virtually all of my leisure time had been spent with fellow soldiers, mainly men from my unit, past and present. Now, cast into civilian life like a babe thrust from his mother's womb, I wandered the streets aimlessly, watching carpenters lathe their wood, blacksmiths sizzle their horseshoes, and merchants ply their goods, all of this – since we were in Daxis – to the sound of work songs.

I kept a careful eye out for work I might be able to do, but nothing I saw seemed to fit the skills I had learned in the army: tracking, attacking, disciplining, and mastering. Well, perhaps I was setting my sights too high. Nine out of ten men probably adopted trades in which they had no great skills or interest, just as nine out of ten men married for the sake of a good match rather than for love. As long as I could find a job that covered my expenses, and a wife who was faithful and hard-working, it did not really matter whether I enjoyed my life, any more than it had mattered for the past eighteen years.

Before leaving Emor, I had discarded my meager belongings, other than my gold honor brooch, which I left in the care of Wystan. My savings I had brought with me, though, not knowing what expenses I might have during my journey. Now, to ease my mind about bandits, I paid for my winter board and lodging, then placed the greater part of my savings in the care of a Daxion banker. I loaned the money to her until spring, in return for which I received her promissory note swearing her oath to the Song Spirit that she would return the money to me at that time. After that, I continued my daily routine of walking alone through the town.

One satisfaction I had was that, the more the town was drained of its Koretian inhabitants, the better chance I had of surviving the winter without becoming the victim of a blood vow to murder. Perhaps as a sign of how relaxed I had become, it was not until the door to my chamber had already been lock-picked that I awoke one night in mid-autumn.

o—o—o

There was no bar to my chamber's door. This had caused me some uneasiness and had made me wonder whether I ought to move to more secure accommodations. But the landlord had assured me that the locks were protection enough. I accepted his word, having no experience in this matter. There is no lock on the patrol hut door, and the door is left open in all but the coldest weather to make it easy for the patrol guards to hear danger whistles. Of course, this makes the off-duty guards vulnerable to attack from any breacher who manages to find his way into the mountain hollow where the hut is hidden. It is for this reason that guards sleep with their thigh-pockets strapped on and their swords close at hand.

I had not neglected this ritual in the Border Port, but I had gradually been lulled into carelessness by my attempts to sleep through the town noise. It was hard enough for me to sleep during the nighttime in any case, since I had spent most of the past eighteen years sleeping during the day. Now I got into the habit of sleeping on my side, placing my head cushion over my exposed ear in order to shield myself from the thumps and voices that continued throughout the night, even in this quiet district.

Thus my first realization of danger came, not while the locks were being picked – the head cushion masked that noise – but when the door slowly squeaked open, allowing a bit of streetlight to fall onto my eyes and wake me.

I was too close to the door, that was the problem. In a larger chamber, I would have had time to grab my thigh-dagger, leap to my feet, and defend myself. But I was lying on a floor pallet near the hearth and was only a few steps from the door. Before I even had time to grab my weapon, the murderer would be upon me.

He had hesitated in the doorway; that was what gave me time even to think this much. Since the cushion was still over my head, I could catch only a glimpse of his floor-length cloak, the same sort of winter cloak worn by any inhabitant of the Three Lands. I was lying on my side facing the door, with both my arms outside the blankets – a mortally careless move that meant I would have to push back the blankets before I could reach my thigh-dagger. My belt-dagger was not far from my head, but the moment I moved my hand toward it, I could be sure that the man would bring his blade down upon me.

My one encouraging thought was this: Koretian murderers like to cut throats. Cutting a man's throat requires more than simply leaping toward him and plunging your blade into his body. If this was indeed a Koretian, he would come forward to trap my body first before pulling my head back so that he could make the appropriate slice. If he came close enough before attacking, I would have my chance.

There is a move I had learned many years before joining the patrol, a move I had found handy on one or two occasions during my time in the army, but which was mainly intended for a situation like this. It required me to be on floor level (which I was), to be able to see the man's feet (which I would be able to do once the man came close enough), and to be able to reach for the man's ankle to pull him off his feet. After that, the only question was the proper direction in which to make him fall. If he fell forward onto me, his blade might slice me open, but if he fell onto his back, he would have his blade up in readiness against me. What I wanted was for him to fall away from me, but onto his front, so that he would be forced to break his fall with his hands.

It is a tricky maneuver, but once you have practiced it for three weeks running with a grandfather who will not stop jerking you to the floor until you have learned the exercise yourself, it remains in your mind forever. Keeping my gaze fixed on the bottom edge of the man's cloak – I knew he could not see my eyes, since they were hidden beneath the cushion – I waited until he had taken the three steps forward to bring him within reach.

It takes just two heartbeats for an executed prisoner to travel past the gateposts to the Land Beyond, and it takes that long for me to carry out the following motions: reach out, grasp the left ankle firmly, jerk forward to unbalance, then wrench to the left to twirl the body around so that it reverses and falls away, pull back as far as possible, let go, grab the dagger, listen all this while for the sound of the thump (which, being soft, tells me that the man has not hit his head on the floor and has therefore used his hands to break his fall; so far, so good), leap onto the man (hoping, in the dim light, that I am leaping onto his back and not onto a dagger he is holding in readiness), squeeze my legs around the sides of his body to ensure that his arms cannot move, and then bring the edge of my dagger against the side of his neck and say softly, "Don't move."

The soft voice is deliberate. Not only does it unnerve the prisoner but it also helps to hide the shakiness I feel after performing such a move. This particular prisoner – for I had indeed performed the ritual in the correct manner – was trembling underneath me like a nervous colt, but he otherwise took my advice not to move. He did not even cry out in fear, which proved him to be braver than I was the first time my grandfather did this to me. I stayed motionless and silent myself, both to get my breath back and to try to discern in the darkness of the room what sort of man was lying under me. Then, as I took in the shape of the figure's hair, I suddenly performed a follow-up maneuver I had never done before: I flung away the dagger, pulled the figure up into a sitting position, and enwrapped Tryphena's trembling body in my arms.

Having shown herself to be braver than most men while she remained in danger, Tryphena responded to my Danger Past whistle by sobbing into my shoulder and giving incoherent explanations of her presence. I murmured equally incoherent apologies and reflected that the only mercy about this whole disaster was that Griffith had not witnessed it.

Eventually I sorted out the tale she was giving me: Days spent tracking down where I lived. My lack of response to her knock. Her decision to pick the locks and wait for me to return home. (I refrained from asking where she had learned such skills.) How she had not been sure upon seeing me whether the sleeping figure was me or a chamber-mate. How she had decided to come closer to see.

I waited until her sobs had subsided and her breathing had steadied before saying quietly, "So you've forgiven me for being Emorian."

She looked up then, leaving a damp patch upon my shoulder. "It wasn't because you were Emorian; it was because you were a soldier. I couldn't bear the thought that you had helped to attack our villages – that you might have been one of the soldiers who attacked my village."

I made no direct reply to this. While I had not taken part in the attack, it was true I would have done so if I had received such orders. The fact that I had been an enemy soldier could not be denied. So all that I said was, "What changed your mind?"

"Nothing, really. You're still an Emorian, you're still a man who was a soldier – but I saw you give that cat to the Daxion boy, and that seemed as important as anything you might have done in Koretia. I thought to myself that all of us do evil in the sight of the gods, and that I couldn't pick just one evil thing you had done and use that to condemn you entirely. That's the whole point of the gods' law and why it's better than Emorian law; the gods judge a man on his whole character, not on a single deed."

Her words brought back memories of an evening years before when I had checked on my day patrol and found the men sitting around the outside fire near the hut, questioning Adrian about the gods' law. Carle had been sitting nearby, taking careful note of all that was said, but wearing an expression of skepticism that I could tell Adrian noticed, for he carefully phrased his answers in such a way as to suggest he himself did not believe in the gods.

I was beginning to shiver from the cold air blowing in from the door that was still ajar, but I ignored this and said, "You didn't come down to see me that evening."

"I couldn't; Griffith was in the house. He would have killed you before letting me speak to you again, and not just because you were Emorian. It was because of the way you and I had been seeing each other. He said that showed what sort of man you were. I couldn't make him realize that what happened was as much my fault as yours."

I was still holding her in my arms; I could see clearly her face, which was tawny from the street's torchlight, with a touch of red from the embers of my hearth-fire. I asked, "Where is Griffith now?"

"Out somewhere. He goes out every night after he thinks I've fallen asleep, but I've been rising during the last few nights and searching for you. That was the only time when I could do so, because he keeps me by his side all through the day now."

"You've been walking the streets unescorted at night?"

"Well, I had to find you."

She spoke these words, not in a plaintive tone, but in a matter-of-fact manner, like a soldier explaining why his duty required him to undertake some dangerous mission. I felt then a spear enter my body that travelled from my heart down to my loins. The effect of its passage could be felt all the way to my extremities. I became aware suddenly of the closeness of her body against mine, and the fact that I was dressed in nothing more than my breechcloth and undertunic.

I released her as hastily as I could without being rude and reached over to pull my tunic over my head. Tryphena watched silently as I put on my winter breeches, boots, belt, and belt-dagger. Not until I reached for my cloak did she ask, "What are you doing?"

"I'm taking you home." The words came out a good deal more bluntly than I had intended them to. As I saw her bite her lip, I added quickly, "Along the way we can decide what to tell your brother. We can't meet again this way."

"No, of course not," she replied. "I just wasn't sure you'd want to see me again after the way I treated you last time. Now that I know you're willing to see me, we can decide what to do."

We left the chamber, and I carefully keyed the locks that were of no protection before leading Tryphena through the passage and up the steps to the street. It was a cool, moist night, with fog rolling in from the sea. The street torches struggled in the dampness to stay alight as we walked slowly along the gravel, arm in arm. Even in this formal position, undertaken by any unromantic escort, I found my tongue newly tied. I was grateful when Tryphena broke the silence by saying, "Would you mind if I asked where you learned that amazing attack you practiced on me?"

"My grandfather taught me."

"Your grandfather the farmer and head councilman – I take it that he was also a murderer in his leisure time?"

I laughed. The sound of my voice bounced off the houses opposite in the empty street. "He taught it to me to keep me from being murdered, actually. If you had in fact been a murderer, as I thought, it might have saved my life."

"And what exactly have you been doing with your life that you have to worry about murderers creeping into your chamber? I thought that you Emorians didn't have blood feuds."

"We don't, but I've met a fair number of Koretians over the years." Seeing that I would have to explain fully, I added, "I was a border mountain patrol guard."

"A mountain patrol guard . . ." she said quietly. I looked apprehensively at her, but I could read in it neither distaste nor adulation, just reflection. After a while, she said, "Well, that explains a great deal."

"What do you mean?" I asked, but she merely shook her head.

"Very well," I said, "I've confessed my dark secret; now you confess yours. Where did you learn to pick locks?"

She smiled. Moisture from the fog clung to her face, making her face shine under the torchlight like the sand under the sparkling ocean waves. "My brother taught me."

"Your brother the baron – I take it that he is a murderer in his leisure time?"

She laughed at that, pulling her hand tighter around my arm. "He's a prankster – or at least he was as a child. He and his blood brother used to be the terror-boys of our village, locking cows into someone's living chamber, dumping honey and feathers onto someone else's kitchen floor. From what my father told me, everyone sighed with relief when Emlyn moved south – he's Griffith's blood brother – and the pranks died down. They didn't die out entirely, though. I caught Griffith picking the lock on our father's jewel box one time; he taught me how to pick locks as a bribe to keep me silent. But people who had known Griffith when Emlyn was there said that he became very subdued after his blood brother left. Then, when Emlyn turned up in our village again nine years ago, all of the older men and women went into a twitter, even though Emlyn and Griffith were both grown men."

"But they didn't engage in any more covert activity?" I said.

"Well, no. At least, they didn't play pranks on anyone in our village."

We had passed beyond the quiet district. Echoing through the fog I could hear shouts and laughter and music, with occasional disturbing clashes of metal meeting metal. I shifted Tryphena to my left side so that my dagger hand would be free, saying as I did so, "Your brother's nightly excursions."

She tilted her head up to look at me. "God of Mercy, Quentin, you're quick."

"Do you think he's involved in something unlawful?"

She did not reply for a while. Catching a glimpse through the fog of a figure watching us, I quickly dropped my hand down onto the hilt of my belt-dagger. Then I realized that the man watching us was no bandit or murderer, but simply a nobleman out for a stroll, for I caught a quick glimpse of a gold-edged cloak before he turned away. Working on the assumption that any bandits nearby would attack the nobleman before they attacked us, I had us fall into step behind him, far enough away that we could see only the shining threads of his cloak.

Tryphena finally said quietly, "You promise that you won't say anything about this to anyone?"

"You may be sure that I won't," I replied.

Tryphena lowered her voice even further. "Griffith started going out at night after Emlyn came back from the south. He always implied to me that he was visiting a girl, but I'm sure that was just a story, because Griffith would never dishonor a girl by sleeping with her before marriage. He takes such matters seriously."

"And did Emlyn disappear from his house on such nights?" I asked.

"Emlyn travels in his work; he didn't come back to our village to stay. But he would turn up periodically, and after each of Emlyn's visits, Griffith went off on long trips outside the village. Oh, Griffith always had good reasons for these trips, some work he had to do for our village, but I could tell that there was more to it than that. The stories he told sounded too much like the alibis he used to give as a child."

The nobleman ahead of us paused in the fog, evidently to reclasp the brooch on his cloak. As we drew near, he turned into a side alley. It was the same alley that would take us to Tryphena's square, so I followed.

"Then one night," said Tryphena softly, "I knew how bad things had become."

She had awoken late at night, alerted not by any words but by the sound of moans in her brother's chamber. She had hurried there to find her brother lying on his bed, which was fast becoming soaked with blood.

Emlyn was there too. He was badly wounded as well but was sitting on the bed, bandaging Griffith's wound. He had his head turned toward the door when Tryphena arrived, and he immediately put his finger to his lips.

She would have thought nothing strange in what she saw before her, except she knew that her brother had resolutely refused to take part in the civil war, or in any blood feud for many years. She hurried forward, saying, "I must fetch the priest—"

"No!" Griffith and Emlyn spoke in the same breath. They exchanged looks. Then Emlyn said quietly, "I'm trained at healing. I can care for my blood brother as well as any priest."

She knew this to be true, so she allowed Emlyn to tend Griffith's wound, and for the next few days she pretended to the other villagers that her brother was still away on business. Griffith grew better. Finally, one night a week later, Emlyn disappeared as quietly as he had come.

On that night, Griffith finally spoke to Tryphena. He did not insult her by asking her to keep secret what she had seen; nor did he tell her what he and Emlyn were doing. All that he said was, "This doesn't happen often," and then, "When you're older, I'll explain."

"How old were you then?" I asked. The nobleman had become dim in the torchless alleys. Even with aid of my night vision and the sliver of a crescent moon, I could barely see the threads of his cloak.

"Fifteen; I had already come of age. I think what Griffith meant was that he was waiting for me to let him know who I preferred to marry. If I had chosen a man who could not be trusted with his secret, Griffith would not have told me, so that I wouldn't have to keep important information from my husband.

"After that . . . Well, I had suitors flocking to me. They all wanted to marry a baron's sister. And I kept asking myself, 'Is this a man I would trust enough to tell about Griffith's wounding?' Every time I asked myself that, the answer was no."

I could not speak for a moment; the honor she had just imparted upon me weighed as heavily as the gold honor brooch I once wore. Finally I replied slowly, "You say that Emlyn returned to your village nine years ago?"

She turned her head toward me. In the deep darkness of the alley, I could barely see her smile. "You are quick."

I was silent a while before saying, "You're sure he has not simply been involved in the civil war?"

"Quite sure." Tryphena's voice was firm. "He despises the blood feuds. Our village had one many years ago; our father was killed during it, and the way the feud ended . . . Griffith would never allow himself to become involved in anything like that again."

"I see," I said. "So there is only one other alternative."

She said nothing. I remembered the dark, shuttered looks upon Carle's and Adrian's faces whenever they had returned from missions in Koretia. That was the look I associated with spies: unrevealing eyes filled with memories of high danger.

I ought to have recognized that look in Griffith.

"The Jackal can't be caring for his thieves very well if he allows them to become as badly wounded as Griffith and Emlyn were," I remarked, keeping my voice quite soft, though the nobleman was so far ahead of us now that we would have had to shout to be heard.

"That wouldn't matter to Griffith," Tryphena said quietly. "The Jackal is his god, and if someone came to Griffith, claiming to be the Jackal and saying that he wanted to put an end to the blood feuds . . . I only hope this man who calls himself the Jackal is indeed a god-man. It would destroy Griffith's spirit if he learned that he had taken a blood vow of loyalty to a blasphemous imposter."

"And Emlyn?" I said. "Would he feel the same way too?"

She chewed on her lip a moment before saying, "Emlyn I'm not sure about. I think he'd be more cautious than Griffith before pledging his loyalty; he's the more careful of the two. Which makes me worry, because if the work he is doing for the Jackal is so dangerous that he can't protect himself or his blood brother—"

She spoke no further; I had placed my hand over her mouth.

She did not try to break away from me in the darkness. I waited a moment until I was sure she had heard what I had, and then I let her mouth free. She remained mute. She simply took my hand as I began to creep silently forward.

I looked round the corner of the crossing of alleys with as much caution as I had once shown when hunting breachers, but I need not have worried. Griffith was absorbed in conversation. Not with the nobleman – with my mind still on conspiracies, my first thought had been that we had been led into a trap. No, most definitely not a nobleman.

The man he was speaking to was masked. Although I had never before seen a Koretian wearing an iron mask over his face, I knew well enough what it meant – every schoolboy in Emor knows that much about Koretia. The masked man was standing in a doorway and was not wearing a cloak. From this I surmised that he was at the back entrance of the house in which he lived. There were windows above his head, but they were all dark. If the house held any other inhabitants, they must be asleep.

Griffith held out his hand. From the dim light of the street-torch nearby, I caught a glint of gold. The masked man made no move to take the money; seemingly he was indifferent to wealth. Then Griffith began to speak again. Faintly I heard the words, "Enough to buy you," and then, "Free you."

For a moment more, the masked man said nothing. His mask was tilted toward Griffith's face rather than the money, and I suspected he was inspecting the baron's expression for truthfulness. Then finally, haltingly, he began to speak, but so softly that I could not hear his words.

I had seen enough. Once the slave had revealed the information Griffith wanted, the baron would leave. We had, perhaps, just enough time to get Tryphena back to her house before her brother returned and learned of her absence.

Tryphena had made no effort to lean beyond me to see what was happening. Now she let me lead her back to the next nearest crossing; we followed it to the main street. We were now only a short ways now from her house. I used the time of our walk to tell her in a quiet voice what I had seen.

Within a short time her heartbeat, which I could feel through the hand I still held, had leapt and settled into a gallop. If her skin had been lighter, I think her face would have drained of all color. When I finished, she made no response. After a while, I asked, "Do you truly think he was in harm's way tonight?"

"Quentin, he spoke to a slave." She kept her voice to a whisper as we passed a group of Koretian men, staggering back from an evening at the drinking table of an inn.

I waited for her to say more. When she didn't, I said, "Yes?"

She stared at me as though I had entered into madness. Then her expression cleared, and she said, "I forgot. You're Emorian."

Recalling a conversation I had held with Carle not many weeks before, I said slowly, "Is it against your laws, then, for a man to speak with someone else's slave?"

She bit her lip and nodded, then looked away. I knew the movement. It was the same one Adrian had always made when one of us questioned him about a matter of the gods' law that was so taboo that even to speak of it brought one in risk of the gods' wrath.

Being Adrian, he had always looked back and forced himself to answer the question. Suspecting that Tryphena would show the same courage, I said swiftly and softly, "So you are right. Your brother is a spy. And if he hasn't been involved in the war between Blackwood and King Rawdon, then he must work for the Jackal, helping the god-man with his thefts and pranks against those who support the present form of the gods' law. Perhaps the slave's house belonged to the nobleman we followed, and the nobleman was of the new nobility?"

"I pray not," she said breathlessly. "If the nobleman or anyone else were to discover Griffith talking to the slave . . . Quentin, we must go back and warn Griffith!"

She whirled round. Only my quick reflexes allowed me to catch hold of her. "No," I said firmly. "Tryphena, you're not trained for this. If anything would alert the nobleman's household to the fact that a stranger was nearby, it would be your presence."

"But you're trained to move quietly," she said slowly. "Quentin, do you think that you . . ."

I had a vision of me approaching Griffith in a dark alley, and of what could result. Fortunately, I did not need to dwell long on this thought, for at that moment I caught sight of a flicker of motion further down the street. "There he is," I told her. "He has emerged from the alley. Quick – if you run now, you can get back to the house before he does. "

She said, "But we must see each other again—"

The figure was moving closer; soon he would see us. I said rapidly, "I'll come to your house tomorrow evening, and we can go somewhere public and talk about what to do. Don't leave the house unescorted. I'll wait until your brother is gone and then come for you. But go now, for love of the—"

She left my side swiftly, before I could speak the word "Chara." Watching her fly across the square, I kept an eye on her until she was safely indoors again.

Then I turned my attention back to Griffith. He seemed fully absorbed in thought of whatever the slave had told him. Though we were close enough to see each other, he did not look up. Quietly as a shadow, I stepped into the nearest alleyway and stood there for a time, until I could be sure that Griffith had left the square. Then I walked home, feeling oddly as though I was the one who had been in great danger that night, not the baron.

Chapter Text

"The Jackal," I said. "The Sun, the Raven, the Owl, the Cat, and the Fish." I released Tryphena's arm long enough to count on my fingers. "That's six gods and goddesses. Who's the seventh?"

"Mine," said Tryphena, smiling at me. "The Moon."

Her smile, shining more clearly than a summer moon, caused several men's head to swivel her way. I hastily took her arm again, lest she be mistaken for an unescorted woman. This was our third evening of walking the streets of the Border Port. I continued to feel uneasy about journeying through streets where a woman was likely to have her skirts lifted without preliminary if she was seen without a man by her side. If I escorted Tryphena through the more pleasant part of town, though, the pair of us walking alone were likely to excite even more comment.

So I thought as my eye lingered for a moment on an elderly woman standing near a young man and woman. She was clearly a hired chaperone; she made no comment as the young man reached out to touch the young woman's hand.

I saw that Tryphena's gaze had turned toward the chaperone as well. Feeling suddenly uneasy but unwilling to explore the feeling, I said hastily, "The Moon Goddess. What does she do?"

"She's the goddess of death," Tryphena said, pulling her gaze away from the elderly woman as we turned the corner into the square where Tryphena lived. "I mentioned that to you before, didn't I?"

"I thought the Jackal was the god of the dead."

"Yes, but he only escorts the newly dead to the Land Beyond. Once they've reached the gateposts to the Land Beyond, he gives them over to the care of the Moon Goddess." Tryphena shaded her eyes. To all appearances, she was avoiding the glare of the setting sun, but I suspected she was trying to shield herself from the sights through the open doorway we were passing. I felt my face grow warm as I tried to ignore the squeals and moans and panting emanating from the windows above.

"The Moon is the goddess of birth as well," Tryphena said, her gaze fixed on the unfortunate prostitute nearby who had evidently prompted this thought. "That's why so many women worship her. —Do you think that's why they take up this type of work?"

Three days of conversation had taught me that Tryphena was not the type of woman who could be shielded from the facts of her sordid surroundings. The Chara alone knew I had tried. "I suppose so," I said. "If a woman has lost her honor, and the man refuses to marry her, then I suppose she has little choice but to become a prostitute." I hesitated, not wanting to mention the other alternative I knew of.

"Or she could kill the child," Tryphena said quietly. "But the mother often dies as well, doesn't she? And even if she doesn't, she will have to answer for what she has done in the Land Beyond. What a choice is left for the woman: to live in dishonor, or to kill, or to be killed."

"Be killed?" I said, my estimation of her innocence fading away.

"That happened to a girl in my village, when my father was baron," Tryphena said. Her mouth was tight with tension. "The girl's father discovered what she'd done, and he killed her for bringing dishonor upon their family. I heard that her brothers stood by and watched as it happened."

I would have liked to have added that to my lengthy list of Koretian atrocities, but I had heard of such things happening even in Emor. "And the father of her child?" I said. "Where was he all this while?"

"Running as rapidly from the village as he could." Tryphena's expression clenched into anger. "Emlyn told me that he met the man years later, during his travels. The man had become a prosperous merchant, was married to the town baron's eldest daughter, and was well respected by the people of his town."

"Men do the dishonor, and the women they dishonor suffer the consequences." I emitted a sigh. "It's an age-old story, no less sickening on the millionth telling."

"The men will suffer," Tryphena said softly. "Emlyn told me that, unless men like that repent before death, they suffer long in the Jackal's fire, because the impurity in their spirits has putrefied for so long."

I looked again at Tryphena. The anger had drained from her face, leaving an expression that, after a moment, I recognized as pity. I shivered. Placing my arm across her shoulders, as though she were the one who required sheltering, I said, "Your brother's blood brother has a chilling view of the world. Is he always so cheerless?"

A laugh broke from her suddenly, like a playful child breaking free of its mother. "Hardly. In fact, he is—"

She stopped, but only because my grip on her had tightened. We had turned the corner into her square and had nearly collided against an enormous mass of people.

Most of the men around us were Koretians. My first thought was that we had stumbled upon one of those mass duels that sometimes rises spontaneously in the land of blood and vengeance. But then I noticed that there were also women here, and some of the women had brought their children with them. I tried to sight the focus of their attention. Before long I saw a platform that had been erected in the center of the square.

"So this is why," Tryphena murmured. I raised an eyebrow at her, and she added, "Griffith left drugged wine for me when he departed this evening. He told me that I hadn't been sleeping well and that there would be a great deal of noise tonight. He wanted me to be able to sleep through it."

"And he expected you to drink the wine after he'd told you that?" I said incredulously.

A dimple appeared in Tryphena's cheek. "He's a baron. I think he sometimes overestimates his ability to make me follow his orders."

I joined her in laughter, eyeing the crowd as I did so. The people in the square were quiet, more so than Koretians usually are. Several mothers were seeking to still their restive children. I looked closer at the platform and saw that several Daxion soldiers were standing upon it. Evidently this gathering had received official permission to take place. A Koretian priest stood on the platform too, distinctive in his brown, hooded robe.

"What do you suppose will take place here?" I asked.

"Most likely a meeting among the exiles to figure out how to fight back against the Chara," Tryphena replied. "It would be just like Griffith to try to shield me from that. He always used to get annoyed when I was younger and asked him what had taken place in our village's council meetings."

I snorted with amusement. The Daxions are well known for boasting about how much better they treat their women than the Emorians do, but it seemed that Koretia could not share in the boast. "Let's go further toward the platform," I suggested. "We'll hardly be able to hear anything from here."

She nodded. I put my arm around her to keep her close; then I began the difficult job of worming our way through the crowd.

At an Emorian gathering, I would not have had to do this. The men would have taken one look at the slight-statured woman beside me and given way to her and her escort. We were among Koretians, though. Anyone who had reached the front of the crowd had done so through force rather than through receipt of courtesy. I knew better than to appeal to the Koretians' better nature.

We managed to reach within a few spear-lengths of the platform, which was close enough for us to see the proceedings. As yet, nothing was happening. Some Koretian men were in the process of carrying a long object onto the platform. They struggled with it, stumbling their way forward, for its base was made of iron, as were the legs that projected out of its base. After a moment's scrutiny, I recognized it as an enormous gridiron, such as is used in Koretia sometimes to roast entire deer. I wondered whether a feast was meant to accompany this meeting, and I felt another stab of resentment against Griffith for denying Tryphena the pleasure of attending a meeting of her own people.

I looked down at Tryphena, but her attention had wandered away from the platform. She was on her knee, speaking to the small, light-skinned boy beside her and admiring the dagger he showed her. It was a real dagger; Koretian boys do not play with wooden daggers. It had always been a wonder to me that any Koretian boys survived their childhood. Watching Tryphena converse with the borderland boy, I felt a smile touch my face. Then uneasiness filled me again.

It had been this way for the past three evenings. At first it had seemed a straightforward enough matter for me to meet with Tryphena: we would discuss how best to approach her brother with my petition to court her, and then I would do so. But the more we talked, the harder it became for me to see any safe way to meet with Griffith. With sisterly affection, Tryphena assured me that Griffith would at least listen to my petition – but then, she was not the one who would suffer the wounds of his blade if she was wrong. I was more cautious; I had been attacked by too many breachers over the years not to be. And though I said nothing of this to Tryphena, I thought it highly unlikely that a man of such civilian rank as I – a lesser free-man from an unimportant village – would qualify as a suitor in Griffith's eyes.

And so we had met again on a second night, and on this, the third night, we did not even pretend that our meeting was for the sake of discussing our plans to make my courting official.

It was not how I had ever intended to lead my life. Like everyone, I had heard the Daxion ballads about illicit lovers meeting by moonlight and exchanging chaste kisses. My grandfather used to give his own rendition of such ballads, in which the chaste lovers were discovered by the woman's kin, and the suitor was sent to the Land Beyond in a summary fashion. Even in Emor such things happened. The longer that Tryphena and I met in this way, the more likely it was that Griffith would discover what we were doing and take his revenge – yet even the short time we had spent together might be reason enough for him to challenge me to a duel. There seemed no way out of our dilemma.

My thoughts were torn away from this gloomy topic as more men appeared on the platform. The sky was beginning to grow dim, but torches had been lit on the platform, and I could easily see that the men were carrying armloads of wood. The Daxion soldiers were watching with expressions of what seemed to me to be unwonted distaste. Obviously they had been assigned this duty against their will and would have preferred not to waste their time guarding festivities.

The sound of the Koretians' feet tramping heavily across the platform distracted Tryphena away from the boy. She straightened up beside me. After a minute she said in a small voice, "Quentin, I think we should leave."

"Wait." My attention was still fixed upon the scene on the platform; something about it bothered me. It was the wood, I realized, as the men knelt down to place their burdens upon the iron base of the grill. The wood was far too green to burn easily. Was this a Koretian method of slow-cooking their meat?

"Quentin, I really think we should leave now."

Her voice was no louder than before – barely loud enough to be heard above the murmur of the people around us, who evidently anticipated with excitement the feast that would follow. But something about Tryphena's voice made me look down at her. Her gaze was fixed upon the platform, and her mouth had the same tightness to it that it had held when she spoke about the dishonored women.

I was still trying to puzzle this out when a disturbance took place in the crowd behind us. I turned swiftly to see that the crowd was parting to let someone through. No, two people – for the man striding toward the platform was bearing in his arms a grey-clothed figure with a mask on his face.

For a wild moment, I thought it was the slave. My mind quickly righted itself, though, for I had attended Koretian-style funerals before. Indeed, I had presided over them. In the patrol, when we burned executed prisoners from the south, we did so with the full rites of the Koretian religion, placing iron masks over the corpse's face so that any disfiguring of the face would be hidden from loved ones who watched, though no loved ones ever saw our funerals.

This was manifestly a corpse rather than a slave; the grey cloth bound its torso and legs and arms into a single shape, and the body hung limply in its bearer's arms. The crowd, which had parted with such difficulty for Tryphena and me, drew back with vigor from the corpse, as though fearing they would be contaminated by the impure object.

It occurred to me that now would be a good time to pull Tryphena from this crowd; we would be able to travel far through the wake that had been created in the corpse's path. But my curiosity kept me fixed where we stood. The people around us had grown utterly still now, listening to the priest, who had been speaking for the past few moments. I turned my attention back to him in time to hear the opening words of the funeral rite. I guessed that his earlier words had simply been a more informal tribute to the man or woman who was to be sent to the Land Beyond this evening.

Tryphena's hand was now gripping my arm tightly. I turned my mind back to her. It seemed odd, that she would not want to watch a rite that she must have witnessed many times before. Perhaps the funeral simply tickled too many recent memories in her. I gazed round us, seeking an easy path out, but the crowd was even more tightly packed than before. It would take many minutes to wriggle our way back.

Wood crackled and metal clinked. I looked back in time to see that the assistants to the priest were chaining the corpse tightly to the grill as the flames began. Evidently the priest did not wish to take the chance of having the corpse tumble from its funeral pyre in an unseemly manner.

Other Koretians had joined the priest on the platform, among them a nobleman who was watching the funeral pyre with narrowed eyes. I took a more careful look at him, but his cloak was different from that of the nobleman we had seen three nights before. In any case, I could see no signs of any slaves present in this crowd.

The flames, though too weak to travel higher than the bottom of the grill-case, were beginning to snap loudly. It was time we were away from this place. I turned to push my way past the men behind us, who were watching the proceedings with their mouths agape.

It was then that the scream began.

My hand moved to my belt-dagger, but even before I turned, I knew that Tryphena was in no danger. The scream had come, not from anyone in the crowd, but from the platform. There, lying on the fire-blackened grill, the bound corpse was beginning to wriggle like a butterfly struggling to free itself from its cocoon.

"May the Jackal eat his dead—" I had before never spoken this powerful Koretian curse, but the words leapt to my lips as I took an instinctive step forward. I was blocked by the Koretians standing in front of me. I looked quickly over at the men on the platform, to see whether they had noticed the movement of the figure on the grill. The priest was simply staring blankly at the figure, as though his vision reached beyond the sight before him to what was taking place in the Jackal's otherworldly realm. But several of the assistants were nudging each other and pointing, and the nobleman had a grim look of satisfaction upon his face.

It was then that I realized I had been right the first time. This was not a corpse. This was the slave we had seen three nights before.

Even as I thought this, I inwardly cursed myself for my slow-wittedness. It was not as though such scenes were absent in Emor, though there they took place in secluded dungeons rather than before a gawking crowd. A Slave's Death was what it was termed in Emor – death by torture for the most treacherous men of the empire. It was called a Slave's Death because any slave of the Chara's palace who betrayed the nobleman he served was classified as a high traitor and given such a death.

It seemed that a similar custom existed here, for the nobleman continued to gloat as he watched his slave scream and struggle to break free of the chains that bound him within reach of the flames.

I looked down at Tryphena finally. She had not turned her eyes away from the torture. There was no shock on her face, only deep unhappiness. Guilt entered me then, like a breacher's blade. I leaned over. Above the continuing sound of the slave's shrieks, I said in her ear, "I'm sorry. I'll remove us from here as swiftly as I can."

Next to us, the small boy was growing restless. His mother had taken him into her arms so that he could watch the show; now he leaned over to whisper in his mother's ear. For a moment I wondered whether I ought to volunteer to his mother to take him away from here. Then the woman began pushing forward, struggling to get past the people in front of us. The boy did not want to leave; he wanted to go closer.

I turned and began jamming my body between the men there. They muttered curses but did not give way. I eyed them a moment, wondering what words would reach them. Then I resorted to Koretian custom: I placed my hand on the hilt of my dagger.

I had thought that the men were wholly absorbed in thought of the execution, but their reaction was instantaneous. Grumbling something about taking up my challenge when they were less busy, they parted to let me through. I wormed my way through the gap, dragging Tryphena with me and hoping that the men's remarks were less literal than they had seemed. I did not want to spend my winter fighting duels I had initiated.

It was hard going. The men I could force my way past through duel challenges, but I could not do the same with the women and children. We had not gone far before I heard a commotion behind us. Looking round, I saw that the small boy had escaped his mother's arms and was running across the platform to the slave.

The Daxion soldiers came forward to pull him back, but they moved with reluctant slowness. By the time they reached him, he was at the grill, his face red from the fire and from his exertions as he struggled to break the chains with his small dagger. The crowd grew still. The slave was making choking sounds, but he had stopped screaming; his mask was turned toward the boy.

Then the boy was snatched back – not by the Daxion soldiers, but by the nobleman, who promptly dumped the child at the feet of the priest. The priest, awoken from his reverie, knelt down and took firm hold of the boy. The priest began to say something to his small prisoner.

I could not hear his words over the renewed scream of the slave and the high, hysterical cries of the boy's mother, who had scrambled onto the platform and was now pleading on her son's behalf with the nobleman. I gathered she feared that some terrible fate would fall upon her son for his interference. The nobleman's face was filled with indifference, but the priest patted the boy on the shoulder, evidently reassured by whatever answer the boy had given him. The boy had turned to look back at the slave. His face was troubled, but he made no further move to release the slave from his pain.

I felt a sickness then, a sickness I had not felt when watching the slave's torment. Pain and death were familiar to me in my work, but only once in my life had I witnessed the attempted corruption of a child. That had been when Carle was young, and he had been too strong-minded to become what his father had wanted him to be.

But other children, I knew, did not have Carle's strength. There must be dozens of them in this crowd, learning to love the gods' law that had destroyed Adrian.

With a sudden fierceness I turned and pushed my way past a woman who had refused to give way. She squawked but made no further protest, apparently being too concerned with enjoying the death. All around me, in the darkness lit by pyre-flames, I could see the varied expressions of the onlookers: sobriety and glee and curiosity and distaste – though whether the distaste was aimed toward the torturers or the tortured was not clear.

We were nearly to the edge of the crowd now. I craned my neck to see over the last few people in the crowd. It was then that I sighted Griffith.

He was standing alongside a group of curious Daxions next to the wall of the fountain, nearly hidden by the man next to him. He was cloakless in the chill evening, but in the combined light of the pyre-flames and the street torches, I could see that his face was covered with sweat. For a moment I thought his appearance denoted fear. Instinctively I looked toward some Koretian soldiers standing nearby. A few of them were glancing toward the crowd near the fountain, checking to see that order was maintained, but none of them showed any special interest in the men there. On further reflection I decided that Griffith was too canny a man to appear in public if he had any doubts as to whether he had been witnessed committing a crime.

I could see him clearly, for we were directly between him and the pyre, but he took no notice of us. His gaze was fixed upon the fire where the screams were finally beginning to fade. The last of the slave's shrieks died. In the silence that followed, Griffith turned suddenly, placed his forearm against the fountain wall, and buried his face in his arm. His back was shaking.

I had halted upon sighting Griffith. Now Tryphena, who had been silent all this while, squeezed my arm and gave me an enquiring look. I leaned over and whispered to her what I had seen. Behind us, the priest was beginning to speak again, but I did my best not to listen, knowing that I would find it hard to contain my rage if I heard his justification for what had just happened.

"We must go to him," was Tryphena's swift response to my report.

"Yes, of course," I said in an habitual manner, and then looked up to see whether Griffith had disarmed himself on this night. I might as well have hoped that a god would appear suddenly before me. Koretian men consider blades to be their badge of manhood and do not strip themselves of their daggers or swords except in the direst circumstances.

As I looked, though, a change took place in the scene. The man standing beside Griffith, of whom I had taken no notice, moved round so that his back was flat against the fountain wall. He began to speak to the baron. He was smiling. I had seen smiles in this crowd already, but his was a different smile – a serene smile, as though he were warming himself before a winter's hearth-fire rather than standing in the presence of execution flames.

It was an incongruity that bordered upon madness. Yet as the man spoke, a change came over Griffith: his back straightened, his head rose, and he turned once more to face the funeral flames. His expression was set, like that of a soldier facing his greatest battle.

I took another look at the man beside him. This time I saw more clearly his features: a snub nose, amber eyes, a tunic woven with gold threads . . .

"Quentin!" Tryphena whispered.

I had forgotten about her. Quickly I bent down and reported the news to her. When I described the man, she sighed and said, "It's all right. We can go." Taking my hand, she pulled me toward the edge of the crowd, which was beginning to disperse, now that the torture was over.

I began to follow her; then I paused in my tracks. Griffith's gaze remained fixed on the dying flames, but his companion's gaze had wandered away and was scanning the crowd. For a brief second his gaze fell upon me. I saw reflected in his eyes the flicker of the flames from the pyre, so vivid that I might have thought, under different circumstances, that the man's own eyes were ablaze. Then the eyes moved on, and the fire was gone.

I moved swiftly behind Tryphena after that. The man's gaze had not paused when he saw me – but then, neither did my gaze pause whenever I sighted a breacher who thought he was hidden. And increasingly I was becoming convinced that this man, if I met him, would bring more into my life than an offer to sell me jewelry.

I waited until we had left the square and were safely in an alley before I said, more out of duty than desire, "Are you sure we shouldn't go to your brother?"

"Quite sure." Tryphena's voice was firm. "Emlyn has always been able to comfort him better than I could."

I stopped dead. We were nearly beyond the street torchlight here; Tryphena's face was dim as she looked back at me. "That was Emlyn?" I said.

She nodded. "I hadn't even realized he was in this town, but I ought to have guessed. He must be the reason Griffith has been leaving the house every night. They must be working together again."

I said slowly, "I met Emlyn once before on these streets, and he made me uneasy. I thought I'd seen him somewhere before."

Tryphena had been stepping past me to take another look out of the alley into the square, but now she stopped and looked back. "Of course," she said in a voice as slow as mine had been. "I never thought. You were in the mountain patrol, and he was in the patrol. You must have known him."

"Known who?"

"Adrian. Emlyn is his cousin."

For a moment, all was silent in the alley. In the square behind us, the execution rite had ended; the priest had ceased speaking, and people were walking away, talking about what they had seen. I heard some of the Koretian soldiers laugh.

I grabbed Tryphena and shoved her against the alley wall. As I pushed her hard against the stone blocks, I growled, "What village are you from?"

Her face took on a look of stupefaction; her expression cleared almost at once as comprehension arrived. "Not Mountside," she said softly. "We're not from Adrian's village. We're from Cold Run, Mountside's rival."

After a moment I realized, with a shock, what I had done. I quickly released her and began what I knew would have to be the longest apology of my life.

She cut me off before I had proceeded far. Taking my hand, she said, "It's all right. We were angry too when we heard what Adrian's family had done. I've never seen Griffith so furious – and I don't think it was only because of Siward."

"Siward?"

"My brother," she responded, even softer than before. "The one who died when the Emorians attacked." Then, as I continued to gaze blankly at her, she said, "Didn't you know? He's the reason Adrian was executed. Adrian broke his blood vow to kill Siward."

Chapter Text

"I performed the rite," I said. "It's against the law for patrol guards to leave the border mountains except during winter or when severely wounded, but Captain Wystan approached the Chara about the matter. The Chara appointed me as his official representative to the funeral, since Adrian had died in his service."

Tryphena leaned back against my arm, staring up at the southern-blue sky, unmarred by clouds or haze. We had both become homesick for the black border mountains, so we were seated upon one of the mountains overlooking the Border Port. Behind us we could hear the faint whistle of the mountain winds.

"It was a typical Emorian day: grey and windy, with unending drizzle," I said. "Only a handful of us were there: Carle and Wystan and Sewell and me and a couple of other men who had known Adrian during his three years in Emor. I remember that, in the middle of the ceremony, I was speaking the great words of hope from the law rite, all about golden chains and the peace of the Land Beyond. At that moment, I looked around and thought how small the gathering was. And during the last few years, whenever I've mentioned Adrian's name to my sublieutenant, all of the other guards have looked at us blankly, because none of them ever knew Adrian. It's as though Adrian's spirit was extinguished – as though he never lived."

Tryphena bent forward to touch a blade of the scrubby grass that carpeted this side of the border mountain. She plucked it, and then I could see no sign amongst the grass of where the blade had been before she took it away. She said, "So he was buried in the family graveyard of his old patrol partner."

"Yes, next to the plot where Carle plans to be buried himself. Carle wrote the epitaph. The first part is in Common Koretian, the second part in Emorian, and the last line is in Border Koretian, the tongue shared by both lands. The words say:


Here lies buried the body of
ADRIAN SON OF BERENGER
Heir of the Barony of Mountside
Born in Koretia
in the 924th Year
after the founding of that land

Lieutenant in the Emorian Army
Guard of the Border Mountain Patrol
Spy for the Chara
Law-Lover
Died in Koretia
in the 943rd Year
after the giving of the Law
to the Emorian People
He sacrificed his life for the Chara

The chain remains unbroken


Carle's village is atop a mountain in Southern Emor. If you stand in front of Adrian's grave, you can see the border mountain pass that leads into Koretia."

Tryphena nibbled on the tip of the grass, her gaze focussed on the town below us, sunning itself like a large turtle upon the beach sands surrounding it. She asked, "What does that last line mean? 'The chain remains unbroken.'"

"It's an Emorian law phrase. It means that Adrian continues to live because his friends have taken upon themselves the work he left unfinished. His link in the chain of the law remains here, though he has travelled to the Land Beyond."

Tryphena turned to look at me, a smile upon her face. "So his spirit isn't extinguished."

I tossed a pebble in the air and watched it soar like a golden bee in the evening sunlight before it landed further down the mountainside. "You're right, of course. Even if none of us remembered that Adrian had lived, we would still be honoring his memory by the things we do only because we knew him. Certainly, Carle has felt himself honor-bound to keep that promise. I think he has made it his life's mission to fulfill Adrian's wish and bring the Chara's law to Koretia, so that the blood feuds and other religious barbarities there will be ended."

I looked over at Tryphena, but all she said was, "Griffith refused to continue the feud after Adrian spared Siward's life – and Emlyn feels the same, I know. He came to our house earlier today, and I heard him talking to Griffith about the Chara's law. He said he admired Emorian law because, under such a law, there are no blood feuds and demon-stonings and slaves."

"Slaves?" I said. "But Emorians own slaves as well. What do you mean—?"

"But aside from that," said Tryphena, as though she had not heard me, "Emlyn said he feared the Emorian law because he knew that the Chara wished to replace the gods' law with the Chara's law. He said that Adrian wouldn't have been happy with that."

"He can't know that, surely," I said. "Didn't you say that Adrian was quite young when Emlyn moved south?"

"Oh, but he talked to Adrian a few months before his death. Didn't Adrian tell you that?"

I was silent a moment, listening to the gulls emit their mournful cries as they hovered over the ship-clogged harbor below. "No, he never told me, but I'm not surprised. Adrian was the sort of person who seemed candid and open, but I always suspected that he was keeping a great many thoughts hidden from the rest of us. . . . So he had one kinsman, at least, who didn't wish to kill him. I'm glad to know that."

"Emlyn would never have hurt Adrian; he's a great peacemaker. As a matter of fact, I told him about you and me." Though I had not opened my mouth to protest, she added rapidly, "Oh, not that we were still meeting, but just about our first meetings and how I still wanted to see you. I asked him whether he could persuade Griffith to change his mind."

"And did he agree to do so?" I leaned back against the turfy slope and closed my eyes, smelling the onion-sharp grass and the dead, damp leaves around us.

"He said that he and Griffith had already spoken on the matter, and that he'd had no luck in changing Griffith's mind. Emlyn said, 'He wouldn't listen to the god' – that's a Koretian phrase, meaning that Griffith is too stubborn even to follow the wishes of the gods. Emlyn also said that Adrian had mentioned you as one of his closest friends."

I placed the crook of my arm over my eyes, not to shade myself from the dying light, but to hide my expression. "It was really Carle who was his great friend; the two of them did everything together. Even so, I think that Adrian may have revealed certain parts of himself to me rather than to Carle, simply because I was a borderlander too. Carle, you see, is fully Emorian: very rational, very skeptical, convinced that the Emorian manner of seeing life is the only way. He has always been contemptuous of religion, and because Adrian accomplished so well his goal of being a loyal Emorian, Carle always assumed that Adrian no longer believed in the gods. But I remember—"

I stopped suddenly, having felt Tryphena's arm brush mine as she lay down beside me. Sitting up rapidly and focussing my gaze on the clay-red roofs of the houses below, I said, "I remember when Adrian came back from one of his last spying missions and told me that he had been captured by the Jackal, and that the masked man had revealed to him the nature of his work, so that the Chara would know that the Jackal was not Emor's enemy. Adrian had a haunted look on his face then. The only clue he gave me as to his thoughts was to say that he believed that the Jackal was the god-man he claimed to be. It wasn't until later that I realized that, if the Jackal really does have some sort of supernatural powers, he would have known that Adrian had broken his blood vow to murder. He might have placed Adrian under judgment for that."

"Surely the Jackal wouldn't have punished him for that," said Tryphena from beside me. "According to the tales, the god-man says that blood feuds go against the will of the gods."

I breathed against the palms of my hands to warm them in the evening cool. "I believe you're right, because some weeks later, Adrian mentioned in passing that he no longer believed that he was under the curse of the gods, as his family thought. I think it must have been the Jackal who relieved his mind on that matter. And so, whatever sort of creature this masked trickster may be, I've always felt kindly toward him since that time."

"I suppose that whether you believe the Jackal is a god-man depends on how much you have to lose by that knowledge," said Tryphena reflectively. "Most of the old nobility believe that the Jackal possesses the god's powers, but the new nobility like Adrian's father can't admit to themselves that the Jackal is a god-man, because that would mean admitting they are wrong to conduct blood feuds and demon stonings and to own slaves."

"You never explained—" I started, but I felt Tryphena stir beside me, and I realized that she was about to change the topic again. So instead I asked, "What about Emlyn? Does he think the Jackal is a god-man?"

Tryphena sat up, and I saw that her forehead was creased underneath the curling lock of hair which fell upon her brow – her sign of maidenhood. "I don't think I've ever heard him talk about it," she said. "He must, though, mustn't he? Otherwise he wouldn't have become a thief."

One of the mountain winds was beginning to make its way down the slope. I placed my arm around the back of Tryphena to shield her. Then, glancing at the setting sun, I helped her up. We began making our way down the mountainside. "I suppose that he might be tired of religious topics," I replied. "You said that he spent many years at the priests' house near the Koretian capital, didn't you?"

"Yes, because he was an orphan and was also very ill. He used to have spells in which he stared off into nowhere. The priest in our village was quite worried about him, so he was sent to the priests' house to be healed. I don't think he grew tired of talking about religion because of that. He talks about the gods quite a lot, about what the gods want and what we can do to serve the gods."

She began to slip on a rock. Unlike Adrian, Tryphena had not lived in a village built onto the side of the mountain, and so she was less accomplished at climbing. But no borderlander is a flat-walker, someone who can only travel on level ground, and she caught herself in the moment before I grabbed her waist. I allowed my hand to linger there a moment in order to give her time to steady herself. Then I dropped my arm as she said, "I wish that you could meet Emlyn. He's always laughing and joking, and you would think that he was the worst person to be around when you're deeply unhappy. But somehow his jokes are very healing. They seem to open up my eyes to ways in which I can escape from my pain. No, not escape from it, but use my pain for good purposes. He believes that the gods can turn evil to good, as long as we're willing to make our sacrifices. He says that the gods bind past and present and future together, taking all of our sacrifices and linking them into a pattern that overrides the evil of men."

"It sounds as though he is a believer in fate." I smiled at Tryphena.

Tryphena was busy trying to negotiate her way down a path slippery with sand. I was so caught up in the sight of her hair, brown and gold like the down of a nesting bird, that it took me a moment to realize she was replying. By that time, she was saying, ". . . sort of like what you said about that Emorian chain. He thinks that friendship binds us all together, so that even if we were standing alone, we'd still be surrounded by all the people of our past and would be able to draw upon their strengths to accomplish our work. —Quentin, I can't see where I'm walking." She spoke in a matter-of-fact tone and did not hesitate in her blind journey down the mountain.

I took her arm quickly before she should pitch herself headfirst down the remaining slope. I had ceased to use my eyes some time before, switching over to touch and sound from the moment that the night shadows swallowed the land. "That was Adrian's one great defect as a soldier," I said. "He always tried to accomplish dangerous tasks on his own. He went to his death alone, not wanting to trouble any of us with his dilemma. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that his death would pain the rest of us far more than any sacrifices we might have made to keep him alive. Perhaps we couldn't have helped him in any case, but I would have liked to have tried. As it is . . ."

After a while, Tryphena said softly, "You feel his blood on your hands?"

I nodded, bowing my head as I pretended to look at the ground below us. Tryphena said quietly, her voice clear in the silence of the winter evening, "You told me yesterday that the worst part about being patrol lieutenant was sending your men into danger – giving them orders that might result in their deaths. But you know, it works both ways. Men who were under your care died, but they died after having known you and learned from you. I'm sure that Adrian appreciated what you had done for him, teaching him to be a patrol guard and being his friend. And you're still doing things for him now. We're all bound together, living and dead, free and slave, and . . . And I'm beginning to sound like the priest from my village, who gives long lectures at the slightest encouragement. —Look at the moon." She tilted her head to gaze at the crescent that sliced through the sky above her. But my own eyes were on her face, serene and smiling under the moonlight.

I began to speak – there was a question I needed to ask her, and here, in the quiet, seemed the best place. But my voice faltered, and I remained silent until we reached the beach.

o—o—o

Tryphena was silent until long after I finished speaking. She stared down at the path we were following. Finally she said, "What did you do with Cat?"

Keeping my own gaze centered upon the moist beach-sand beneath us, I said, "I decided that Tevis had kept him safe from the soldiers, but that he had died later from grief. So I burned the two of them just as I found them, so that their ashes would be mingled and they would enter the Land Beyond together."

A salt-laden wind, casting itself out of the sea and onto the beach, bellowed over my low voice. We had nearly reached the northern border of Daxis by now. Tryphena had arrived at my chamber early on this evening, so we took advantage of the remaining daylight to walk up the lonely sea-coast. To fill the silence, I said, "Now it's your turn to tell me what happened at your village."

"I feel ashamed to do so," said Tryphena, carefully stepping over a jellyfish that was expiring on the shore. "What Cold Run suffered seems so small in comparison."

"But you saw it happen," I said.

Above us, a gull emitted a sharp cry before wheeling away toward the setting sun. Our feet, sinking in the sea-washed sand, made elongated prints along the beach, like shadows at the end of day. Under the whistle of the wind and the call of the birds, I could hear only the occasional crunch as we stepped on bits of shell.

Tryphena said, "Griffith had been away until late the night before. There had been fighting near Blackpass recently, as the King sought to wrest control of the borderland from Blackwood. Griffith arrived back in the village and called a meeting, not only of the council, but of the women and children as well. He said that the King had sent his army over the border to attack the villages of the old nobility in the Emorian borderland, and that if the King's army was beaten back, the Chara would attack the Koretian border villages in vengeance. A few of the more bloody-minded villagers cheered, until Griffith clarified that he meant the Chara would attack, not only the new nobility's villages, but the old nobility's as well. Griffith said the Emorians were too ignorant to realize we weren't kin to the King. But we found it hard to believe that the Chara would be so foolish as to attack the very villages that were fighting the King, much less Cold Run, which had taken no part in the war. So when the vote was taken, everyone chose to stay. And Griffith couldn't leave because Cold Run was under his care. We all went back to sleep, and in the morning the Emorians arrived."

As Tryphena and I walked across the sand, golden-red with dusk-light except where it was striped green-black from seaweed, Tryphena described to me the brief and decisive battle that followed, a battle that had ended when Griffith sounded the call for surrender, hoping that the Emorians would show mercy to their small band of prisoners.

Griffith had been wounded in the forehead during the battle, but lightly; Griffith's twenty-five-year-old brother and heir, Siward, had not been hurt. The soldiers placed the villagers on two sides of the village square: the women and children were lined up on one side, the men on the other. "The Emorians disarmed the men," said Tryphena, and then paused to see whether I understood the significance of a Koretian man being disarmed.

Once the men had been disarmed, the Emorian subcaptain gave a speech explaining that the Chara was taking vengeance for the destruction of the Emorian border villages, but that the Chara would demonstrate his mercy through the manner of that vengeance. Some of the villagers tried to explain that their own kinsmen had died in the Emorian villages, but the subcaptain took no notice. Instead, he began counting down the line of men, pulling every tenth man out of the line.

"I was so relieved Griffith wasn't picked that I didn't even notice at first that they had taken Siward," said Tryphena, walking heedlessly through the cold foam of the ocean's edge. "Siward . . . Well, he wasn't a coward; he fought bravely in the battle. But he could never hide when he was scared. He started crying when the soldiers put him in the middle of the square. The subcaptain gave another long speech – this one was about all the benefits of the Chara's law and what great rewards we would receive by giving up the gods' law and acknowledging the Chara as our ruler. My closest friend, who was standing next to me, nearly broke into hysterical laughter because it was so obviously the wrong time for the subcaptain to give this speech. None of us cared what good the Chara could bring us; we just wanted to know what they were going to do to the men they had taken."

The villagers soon learned. All this while, the soldiers had been looting the great hall of the village, which was Tryphena's home. When they finished, the subcaptain told the villagers what would be done to the men, but added that every man would be spared who abjured the King and the Koretian gods and who gave an oath of loyalty to the Chara.

Some of the men took the oath. For all her contempt of them, Tryphena could understand why. When it came time for Siward to speak, he could barely do so, so hard was he crying, but he said that he would never break faith with his god. Then he and the other condemned men were taken into the great hall and chained there. The fire was lit.

Tryphena said, "I think that the men outside would have attacked the soldiers with their bare hands if Griffith hadn't ordered them back. The Emorians were holding the women and children at sword-point, you see. Even then, I think that Griffith would have tried to enter the burning hall, but if he had died, there would have been no one to take care of me. Instead, he just stood there, not moving so much as a hand-span, watching the fire as blood from his forehead dripped into his eyes. He didn't even say anything when Siward began screaming and calling his name."

After the fire ended, the subcaptain told the villagers that, whether or not they took the oath, they were all subjects of the Chara now and the beneficiaries of his law. The subcaptain added that if they caused any trouble in the future, all of the village men would be killed and the women and children would be sold into slavery. Then the soldiers left the village, except for a handful who were supposed to keep the peace and serve as court officials until Cold Run's baron had been trained to sit in judgment. Cold Run's priest had been left unharmed, but he was warned not to meddle any more in matters of the law.

"We mourned the dead for three days while Griffith left the village to find out what was happening elsewhere in the borderland," said Tryphena. "When he arrived back, he called the council together. The hall was gone, so he held the meeting in the square, with the Emorian soldiers watching. Griffith said that the subcaptain had told the truth: the borderland was now under Emorian control, and the Chara had abolished use of the gods' law in trials. Griffith said that the Chara wasn't requiring barons to take oaths of loyalty to him, but that he required them to be judges in the Emorian style. Griffith did not believe that he could usurp the gods' role in this way. He said that he would stay in the village if his people wanted him to, but he didn't think that the Chara would allow him to remain baron of Cold Run if he refused be a judge. He said he would prefer to move south – to help with the fight against the Emorians, he meant, though he couldn't say so with the Emorian soldiers listening. The council let us go; they said that we had suffered enough already, since their baron's heir had been killed."

The phrase "baron's heir had been killed" lingered with me longer than it should have. I opened my mouth, drew in a breath, paused, and tried again.

"What happened—?"

Something cold touched me, like death. I looked up at the sky.

Chapter Text

Hard rain drummed upon the alley dirt, which had turned black. I could see nothing beyond the firelit entrance, for the winter storm had dowsed the port's street-torches. Grateful at the thought that the alleycat had acquired a warm home, I closed the door to my dwelling and turned toward the fire.

Tryphena sat on my pallet next to the fire, wringing the rain from her hair. The storm had caught us halfway back from the Daxion border; we were both sopping wet. Lacking anything better, I had offered my blanket to cloak her while her clothes dried and we waited out the storm.

As for me, I was as little prepared for the storm as Tryphena; as ill luck would have it, I had sent out my clothes to be laundered that afternoon. The best I could do was strip myself down to my undertunic so that at least my tunic and groin-cloth would have a chance to dry.

Half-naked as I was, it was far too obvious that I wore a thigh-pocket; I could see Tryphena eyeing my thigh as I came forward. Quickly I pulled off the straps and set the thigh-pocket aside, the tiny handle of the thigh-dagger glinting in the firelight.

Tryphena bit her lip and looked aside. It was then that I realized she had not been looking at my thigh-pocket at all.

I felt my entire body grow warm with embarrassment. I was used by now to my body's response, from time to time, to the presence of Tryphena's beauty and courage. There was reason enough for that response tonight, with Tryphena curled naked within the wool blanket, one bare shoulder peeking out.

But always before, my feelings for her had been hidden by the thick, loose cloth of my tunic. Not tonight.

Fortunately, Tryphena did not appear apprehensive, so I sat down beside her, taking care to leave a space between us. To cover both our embarrassments, I said, "You were about to tell me, when the rain started."

"Oh . . . yes." With an effort, Tryphena pulled together her thoughts. She began to squeeze her hair again, which she had pulled free of its usual bundle atop her head. Sliding her fingers delicately down the strands of brown-and-gold hair as though she were a woman at her spindle, she said, "I didn't see it myself, you understand. I was only fourteen then and living in Cold Run. Actually, no one witnessed it – no one except Drew."

"Drew?" The name seemed faintly familiar. I bowed my head to see Tryphena's face better. In the wash of firelight, with her pebble-smooth skin bright against the flames, she looked like a golden-brown bird grooming herself.

"Adrian's nephew-who-is-his-elder-sister's-son." She rattled off the word of lineage with ease, as Koretians always do. Fortunately, it was a simple enough kinship that I understood the word. I remembered now; Adrian had mentioned his nephew with exasperated fondness. I gathered from Adrian's stories that Drew was inclined to tag along and poke his nose into business that wasn't his.

I said as much to Tryphena, who nodded. She had left off drying her hair and was now cradling her up-bent legs as she stared into the fire. I had made sure that it was a suitably warm one, and that all the smoke was going up the hood, rather than into her face.

She said, "That's why he's the only one who listened. His grandfather, the Baron of Mountside, sent everyone else away after the village men voted for death—"

"Wait," I said, feeling my body grow tense. "Go further back. How was Adrian captured?"

She gave a quick shake of the head, as though trying to shake away the memories. "That I don't know. By the time that Drew learned about it, the trial was already underway in the priest's sanctuary. Drew eavesdropped at one of the windows, but all that he could remember afterwards about the trial was that Adrian kept mentioning the Chara's law, and the priest kept explaining to him that the Chara's law was irrelevent because, in Koretia, Adrian was subject to the gods' law."

"Did Adrian dispute that?" I could feel memories of my conversation with Carle crowding in upon me.

"I don't think so. He tried to defend himself by saying that the Jackal – the god-man, I mean – had told him that the blood feuds were evil. Well, that merely enraged Mountside's priest; most priests believe the Jackal to be a blasphemous charlatan. The priest placed Adrian under the gods' curse. The village men all voted that Adrian should receive death – a quick death, not a burning, because of his youth. And then everyone left the sanctuary, so that the Baron of Mountside could carry out the sentence."

Her voice was so dreary now that it was almost a monotone. I looked sharply at her. "Adrian's father killed him, not the priest? Is that usual?"

She shook her head. "It's very unusual. It was a sacred killing, so the priest should have carried it out, without human witness. But the Baron of Mountside argued that it would be easier for Adrian if he was with his father during his final moments, and . . . Well, the baron was the sort of man who always got his way."

So I'd gathered, from Adrian's anecdotes. I tried hard to think, through the thunder of my drumming heart. Adrian had loved his father – that had been clear from every story he ever told about his family. He had loved all his kin, which meant he had loved all the men who had condemned him to death. But he had been especially close to his father. If his father had sensed Adrian's continued love and had sought to comfort him in his final moments . . . It was still an ugly story, but not as ugly as it might have been.

"So his father sought to ease his death?" I said. "I'm glad to hear that."

Tryphena didn't reply. She was holding her knees tight against her chest as the blanket, tugged by the tightness of her arms, crawled further down her shoulder. I could see a bit of one of her breasts now.

I paid no attention to the breast; all my patrol instincts had gone on the alert. "Tryphena?" I said quietly.

She stared at the flames. "I'm not sure you'll want to hear the rest."

o—o—o

Drew's father – who had become the baron's heir three years before, after Adrian fled Mountside – had sent the villagers away to their usual daily tasks, then had remained behind with his wife and the priest, who were both waiting at the sanctuary entrance. Drew could hear his mother struggling not to cry, and he thought perhaps he should go to her, rather than eavesdrop on a sacred killing. It was not even as though he could see what was happening; Adrian and his father were out of sight, at the far end of the sanctuary.

Drew began to climb down from the barrel he had placed under the window at the hidden side of the sanctuary. Then he froze, hearing the baron speak.

The speech was very low – too low to be heard by anyone but Adrian and Drew. It was not so much a speech as an impassioned rant. The baron cursed his son, cursed the wife who had given him such an ill-begotten son, cursed everything and everyone who had helped bring about this moment when the son would betray his father.

There was no mention of the gods, except for the curses. Everything that the baron said pointed to a personal grievance – a grievance that had grown so great that he was now flinging every hurtful word he could at Adrian in an attempt to grind down his son.

Adrian said nothing, which was hardly surprising, for his father offered him no opportunity to speak. Only after a considerable amount of time, when the baron paused to catch his breath, did Adrian make a reply.

His reply was, "Father, I forgive you, and I absolve you of my death, before the gods."

There was a silence then – a long silence. Drew, sitting half-on half-off the barrel, his mouth dry with apprehension, began to hope that the silence represented a softening of the baron's implacable hatred.

Then Drew heard the scream.

o—o—o

I took Tryphena's hand. It was very cold. I tried to warm it with mine, though I felt cold all through at what she had recounted. I managed to say, "Adrian?"

She shook her head. She was still staring at the fire, not me, as though it held the answer to some mystery. "No, Drew is quite sure that Adrian never spoke again – never made any sound – after that final statement. It wasn't Adrian who screamed. It was his father."

I felt something cold trickle down my spine then, as though ice water were dripping there. "Why?"

"No one was sure at first. Drew was so frightened that he ran back to the front of the sanctuary, to be with his parents. By the time he arrived there, the villagers had begun to gather in front of the sanctuary. The priest tried to open the doors, but the baron had barred them from the inside. Drew's father shouted, asking the baron whether he was well. Drew's father had to shout, because the villagers were talking loudly amongst themselves, wondering what was happening.

"Then everyone fell silent. The baron had begun to shout."

I scooted over and put my arm around Tryphena. I needed her warmth; that seemed reason enough for the embrace. "At Adrian?"

Tryphena shook her head. She had not tried to pull away when I touched her, but her eyes remained on the fire. "No. At the Jackal. The baron was shouting at the god, as though the god stood before him."

All the warmth of Tryphena and the fire seemed to evaporate in a single moment. Tryphena turned her head to look at me. Light flickered upon her moist lashes. "Do you understand what that means?"

I could only shake my head.

"The Jackal . . . he ordinarily comes for the dead in three days' time. That's to give the kinfolk time enough to properly mourn and honor their dead. But if someone is murdered, the Jackal assumes that no kinfolk are there who will care for the body. So he comes at once in order to eat the dead spirit with his fire and bring the murdered person into the Land Beyond."

My mouth had gone dry, but I had no interest in releasing Tryphena long enough to fetch my wine. "So if the Jackal God was really there . . . And if he came at once after Adrian was killed . . ."

Tryphena nodded, looking back at the fire. "That's what everyone thought. Drew said you could tell it, from the guilt and shame and fear on the faces of every man in the village. They'd all voted for Adrian's death. They were all murderers."

o—o—o

The shouting continued. It became clear that the Baron of Mountside was seeking to fight the god, to impose his own notion of the gods' will onto the god who had condemned him for his murder. The baron's voice grew more and more wild as, outside the sanctuary, the villagers milled around, looking sick with apprehension. Nobody knew whether the god of death would emerge from the sanctuary, or what would happen to them if he did.

Drew's father, attempting to make the best of a truly terrible circumstance, instructed the priest to lead the villagers in a prayer for mercy. The priest tried, but his voice was shaking so hard that he had to give up the exercise. The rest of the villagers lapsed into silence, waiting.

The waiting was long and exceedingly hard. The baron continued to rant, his rants growing more and more into incoherent raves. Setting aside her own grief, Drew's mother went among the women, putting them to tasks that would keep their minds off what was happening. The women went to their hearths to prepare food and drink; the children ran back and forth, bringing the food and drink to the men who waited in a tight knot in front of the sanctuary. The men took what they were offered, but none of them seemed inclined to partake.

Now unnoticed, Drew took it into his head that the only thing he could do was bring the news of what had happened to Cold Run.

This was far from a sensible thought. At age twelve, Drew was old enough that he might be mistaken for a Mountside man and killed. But Drew knew that Cold Run's baron was kin to Adrian, by way of a blood brother who was cousin to Adrian, and so it seemed to Drew that the baron ought to be told of the crisis. Perhaps Griffith would even be able to help.

Drew began to hurry down the mountain, but he had not gone far before he found his path blocked. A man was standing on the path, tying his horse to a tree. When he saw Drew, the man smiled. "Good day," he said. "I am seeking a friend of mine. Adrian son of Berenger."

o—o—o

I drew in my breath sharply. Tryphena turned her head to look at me. "Do you know who it was?" she asked.

I nodded. "It was Carle. He told me this part of the story. He took Drew hostage?"

She returned her gaze to fire. "Drew said he wasn't even frightened – he just felt as though he were in some sort of nightmare that he'd entered a couple of hours before, and that he couldn't wake up. When the other villagers saw that Drew had been taken captive, they tried to rescue him . . . but then they saw where the stranger was headed."

o—o—o

By now, the sanctuary door was open. There was no sign of the god, but the Baron of Mountside stood outside the sanctuary, flanked by the priest and by Drew's father. The baron's eyes seemed to look at something that was bearing down upon him.

The stranger appeared not to notice this. The moment he reached the entrance of the sanctuary, he flung Drew aside, before Drew had time to see Adrian's body. Then the stranger sheathed his sword and stood in the doorway, his back fearlessly to the villagers. He stood there a moment as all of the villagers watched silently, uncertain what the stranger's appearance betokened. Then the stranger stepped through the doorway, turned, and flung the doors shut.

Drew's mother had reached him now, and his father was not far behind. Encased within the warmth of his parents, Drew began to sob, unable to hold back his tears as he realized this was no nightmare but a waking tragedy.

After a while, the sanctuary doors opened again. The stranger stood in the doorway with Adrian's body in his arms, wrapped in the stranger's own cloak. The stranger glared at the villagers, as though expecting them to challenge him for the body. But nobody said or did anything. After a while, the stranger turned and left the village with the body of the murdered young man. The stranger was never seen again.

o—o—o

"And that's all," said Tryphena in a voice that sounded as lifeless as a corpse. "Mountside began to die from that moment: first its priest left and then all of the families, one by one. The Baron of Mountside never recovered his senses, and his body grew weaker and weaker. When he finally died, there was no one left in the village except Drew and his parents. They came to Cold Run—" She must have felt the tension in my arm, for she said rapidly, "They are kin to us and were truly sorry for Adrian's death, so Griffith gave them sanctuary. It was Drew's father who took over the barony of Cold Run when we left. Drew's father told Griffith that Adrian had loved the gods, but Adrian had also appeared to love the Chara's law. By this point, Drew's father was prepared to try anything, if it would bring an end to Koretia's blood feuds. So he was willing to serve as an Emorian-style judge, in Griffith's place."

"Was Griffith angry?" I asked, barely hearing my question. I was feeling Tryphena shiver under me. I held her closer, trying to warm her with my body.

"Grateful, in truth." Tryphena leaned her head against my shoulder. "He understands that men of honor can disagree about the best means by which to bring peace. He was glad that a baron whom he trusted was there to take care of Cold Run. And it seemed appropriate for our village to enter into the care of Adrian's closest remaining kinsman."

I thought about this. My mind was swirling with images of hatred and love and pain and sacrifice. The only thing I was sure of was that Adrian would have been relieved to know that some of his kin cared that he had died, however complicit one of those kinfolk had been in his death.

As though following the same train of thought, Tryphena said, "There's one thing I've never understood – perhaps you know the answer. I heard Drew's father say once that Adrian was unarmed when he was captured and delivered to the priest. Is that because Adrian was living in Emor? I know that Emorian men don't wear blades all the time, the way Koretian men do."

I shook my head, nuzzling her hair with my cheek. "Adrian worked as a spy during the final two years of his life. He always took care to be armed when spying in Koretia . . . and to speak the truth, I think he remained enough of a Koretian that he continued to regard his blade as a sign of manhood. He almost never took his blade off, the whole time I knew him."

"Then why wouldn't he wear his blade when he came back to Mountside?" I could hear the bewilderment in Tryphena's voice, though her shivering continued. "He must have known how dangerous it would be for him to return there."

"He did." The flames were dying down now; I thought to myself that I ought to move forward to stoke the fire further, but I could not bring myself to let go of Tryphena. "He told me once that, if he ever met his family again, he wouldn't draw his blade against them – he loved his kinfolk that much. That was how I first realized that his mission had taken him to Mountside. My sublieutenant found Adrian's dagger hidden in the bushes near the patrol hut, a few days after Adrian left on his mission. Devin showed the dagger to me, and I remembered how disturbed Adrian had been when we last spoke. It came to me then what had happened. My duties bound me to the mountains, so I sent a swift rider to our army camp, to alert my captain that Adrian might be in trouble. Within a short time, Carle galloped past the patrol points, heading to Koretia. Then we waited. When Carle finally returned, he was leading his horse as it plodded slowly along, drawing a cart that had a coffin in it." I took in a gulp of air. "If I had only known . . . . If I had only paid attention to what Adrian was trying to tell me during those last desperate hours of his life . . ."

I did not realize I was crying until Tryphena turned to me and kissed my cheek. I moved my head and kissed her lips, frantic to drive back the pain that had been eating at me since the moment I saw Adrian's dagger and knew, like a blade-thrust through the stomach, what I had failed to rescue Adrian from. Tryphena's blanket slipped further down; I slid my arm around her bare back.

She stiffened. I froze, wondering what it was that I was doing.

But then she softened, and her mouth grew pliant against mine as I eased her down onto the pallet. "I love you," I said, my mouth muffled against her. "I love you, Tryphena."

That is how I finally told Tryphena I loved her, on the night when I took her honor.

o—o—o

Morning mist crept through the crack under the door. It touched my skin like a cold blade, stroking me with a biting cut.

"I'm sorry."

These were not words I had ever expected to have to speak to the woman with whom I first lay in love. I looked over at Tryphena. She was in the midst of pulling the binding strip of cloth over her breasts. She did not look up as she said, "It was my fault as well. I could have told you to stop, and you would have done so."

"No maiden should ever have to guard her virtue by saying no," I replied. "No man of honor should place her in that position."

She sighed as she pulled her shift over her head. "The past is past. The question is: What shall we do now?"

I was silent a minute, thinking of a man with a scar, gripping hard his sword-hilt. "Your brother . . ."

"I'll have to tell him," she said. "For all I know, he may be in the midst of negotiating a courting for me right now, telling someone that I'm an unstained maiden. Griffith needs to know what has happened."

And he would be able to guess anyway, from the fact that she had been gone all night. I nodded, trying to think through a murmuring that seemed to be taking place in my ear, as though I were a drunkard in a crowded tavern.

"Shall we go now?" she asked uncertainly as she pulled tight the belt of her gown.

"Yes, but only you." My thoughts were becoming clearer now. "If I turned up at Griffith's doorway, in your company after you'd spent a night away, Griffith would doubtless plunge his sword into my belly before I was able to speak a word. It would be better if you went back on your own. Tell him you've spent the night with a man, but don't tell him my name. Do your best to calm him. Then come see me again tonight, and we'll discuss what it would be best to do."

My thoughts were steady now. This was the sort of work I was accustomed to do in the patrol: assess the danger, determine which danger was too great to enter into, and find an alternative way to capture the enemy. At least I had a skilled partner on this mission.

I looked up to find Tryphena staring at me with wide eyes, like a dumb animal. She said, "You want me to speak to him alone?"

"Yes, that would be best." I tried not to let impatience coat my speech. Could she not see that, with every minute she delayed, she was placing me in greater danger of Griffith's wrath? "You'd best go now."

She made no reply to this, but after a minute – an entire minute, in which I was tempted to drum my fingers – she stooped down and tied her sandals. Then she reached for her cloak.

Realizing that I had perhaps been too brusque for a man who has just taken a woman's maidenhead, I added, "I love you."

She gave me a smile that seemed rather sad. "I love you too." She pinned her cloak shut and turned.

Something choked at my throat as she reached the door – an unreasoning panic. I wanted to call her back, draw her into my arms, kiss away the sadness of that smile. But that would only delay her and increase my danger, so I said, in as light a tone as I could, "Don't forget me tonight."

She had just reached the end of the alleyway. She looked over her shoulder. I thought her smile was more genuine this time. "I'll remember," she said, and then she was gone.

I closed the door and stood for a while, rubbing the pain in my temples. The murmuring in my head had faded.

Chapter Text

Come eventide, I was in the bathhouse, washing my sex-stained bedclothes.

The bathhouse was what I called it, though it was nothing more than a small room with a fountain that let out a continuous stream of water. The Daxions, urban-dwelling as most of them are, have kept the Emorian engineers busy devising new methods of delivering heat and water to the houses that stand shoulder to shoulder to each other, far from any nearby stream. Even tiny dwellings such as my own had this luxury of private plumbing. I never ceased to dwell with wonder upon seeing water that was not rushing across the riverbed or standing in a pail carried from a distant well.

Such thoughts made for a pleasanter diversion on this evening than the knowledge of how my bedclothes had come to be stained with blood and with semen.

Perhaps it was the effort to keep my mind from such matters that made me lose track of the time. Or perhaps I had reached the point of darkness in my life's sleep where the first whistles of my fate began to recall me. At any rate, my first moment of awakening came when I heard the door of my dwelling squeak open.

I took a hasty look at the dusklight falling through the fire-hood. "Tryphena?"

There was no reply. Without need for thought, my hand travelled to my thigh; then, with thought, to the dull dagger at my belt; and there too I paused, uncertain. I was not the sort of soldier to repeat the same mistake twice. Cautiously, I eased the blade from its sheath – a leather sheath; I had no need of gaudy metal sheaths that would betray me with their whisper. I slipped my way around the doorway to the main room of my dwelling.

I had just time enough to see that I was facing a man, not a woman; then I raised my blade, and he was upon me with the fury of an assassin. Our blades crashed once, twice, thrice before I had drawn my first breath. I saw the face behind the blade, contorted with anger. I spun to one side.

He followed, his blade jabbing the air as though he wished it were my flesh. I raised my blade once more to prevent his from passing through my heart. Another spin of my body, and I was in the corner. I had no room to retreat; nothing but an attack on my opponent would preserve my life.

At that moment, like a message sent from the gods, the image came to me of Adrian: sixteen-year-old Adrian, his face filled with the desperation of a border-breacher who is on the point of capture – and death, so he thought. He had thrown aside his blade rather than attack me.

My dull blade made a dull clang as it hit the bare wooden floor. It skidded beyond my reach and then lay twinkling under the evening's first drops of torchlight. My opponent raised his blade slowly till its tip touched my neck; its bite stung my throat and drove all breath from me. Having performed the ritual demand for surrender, Griffith sheathed his blade and stared darkly upon me.

His blade this day was a dagger, not a sword. That alone had told me what he hoped to accomplish during this visit, for he was too much a man of honor to kill his dagger-armed opponent with a sword. For a moment, neither of us said anything. I felt sweat from the fight and the fear grow cold upon my skin. Then Griffith said, in a voice much too quiet to be reassuring, "Well met, lieutenant. I thought that you patrol guards did not allow yourselves to be so easily hunted. But of course you were expecting a visitor, were you not?"

The open door beckoned in a chill wind from the ocean. Cloakless though I was, I dared not move to close the door. "She told you," I said.

"I suppose you expected her to continue lying to her brother till her dying day. Well, perhaps she would have if you had not opened her eyes this morning to what you are. She bid me give you a message. Tryphena says, 'I'm sorry, Quentin. I love you, and I will always remain true to you, but I cannot see you again.'"

He spoke stiffly, like a royal messenger delivering a rehearsed message. Then he was at the doorway before my numbed senses unfroze. I rushed forward and caught hold of his arm, saying, "Wait. I deserve more of an explanation than—"

He flung back my arm, turning with the hiss of an adder. "You deserve much more," he said, his hand tight on his hilt. "You deserve a lengthy and painful death for what you've done. Consider yourself lucky that Tryphena made me swear, before she told me of your deeds, that I would not vow my blood against you. In Koretia, we know how to make maiden-seducers regret their acts."

I had to steady my voice before I could speak. "I do regret what I did; I bitterly regret it. The dishonor is mine, not your sister's – I hope you realize that. It was no seduction, though. I love her; I never intended it to happen—"

"No?" said Griffith, sharp as the blade whose hilt he continued to hold. "You visited with her alone on the mountains, alone on the beach, alone in your sleeping chamber, and you expected nothing to happen. I suppose you are too poor to hire a chaperone. I suppose it was an accident that you never had the time to come see her family in an honorable manner—"

"If I had, would it have done any good?" My voice was trembling – not from angery, but from the pain that his revelations were bringing. "You made it plain that you would not allow me to see her. What actions did you expect me to take?"

"None but the ones that you took, I suppose." Griffith's voice was clear and cold among the soft evening sounds. "Cut her off from her family, persuade her that her only happiness in life lay with you, leave her with only two choices: to run away with you or to break your heart. Oh, these are not the acts of a seducer; these are the acts of a man who cares for nothing but the welfare of his beloved."

I said, like a dying man clinging to a vital memory, "I do love her."

"Yes, she has told me how you showed your love. She has told me of your self-piteous speeches, of your conversations that centered upon your troubles, your doubts, your desires to be comforted." He put up his hand to still my sudden movement. "No, she did not use those words to describe your time together. She is a selfless woman who gives freely of herself upon demand – as you well know from last night. But even she can recognize true evil when it is forced upon her. When you stripped her of her honor and then would not even stand by her side when it came time for her to explain to me why she had been away all night . . . When you left her to face alone what might have been my deadly anger if I had not loved her as much as I do . . . When you left her to do all this, then she realized that you are a man who has turned his face from the gods, and that she would have to leave you. Not for her own sake; she would gladly travel with you into the pit of your destruction if she thought it would help you. Instead, she is leaving you because she blames herself for what occurred last night and fears that she is tempting you further from the will of the gods."

I tried to speak then but found that the words had been stripped from me, like the clothes from a corpse. Binding his words carefully around me as though they were strips of burial cloth, Griffith continued, "Let us say that you came to me and asked for the honor of my sister's company. Let us say that I was even willing to consider giving her to you in marriage. Answer to me this one question which I long ago swore I would ask any man who wished to sign Tryphena's betrothal contract: Is there any darkness in you that would prevent you from calling yourself a true man of honor?"

The grey mists of the ocean, called to land by the twilight, began to sidle into my room. They wrapped around me like a shroud and touched my skin like cold earth. After a while, Griffith took his hand off his dagger. "So. At least you are honest. Very well, I withdraw my accusation with apologies. You are not a seducer; you are something much worse. I came here hoping you would give me an excuse to kill you, but now I can only feel pity for you – pity and horror. I hope you claw your way out of your pit, lieutenant, I truly do. But I will not allow you to use my sister as a stepping stool for your escape. I'm taking Tryphena to southern Koretia. I've had passages open to me for a fortnight now and have only put off the matter at Tryphena's urging. Now . . . Well, I will pray to the Jackal for you, lieutenant. I pray that some day you will become a man who cares about someone other than himself."

He turned then and disappeared into the mist like a death spirit. But it was I who felt the coldness of the grave, and it was I who sat all that evening staring at the glowing coals, feeling for the first time the maggots in my spirit. Then I went to bed, but I did not weep.

My grandfather had trained me in that matter as well.

o—o—o

I stood high upon the side of a black mountain, my feet firmly planted at a slant, my hand resting lightly upon the hilt of the sword hanging from my belt. From where I stood, I could see against the faint dawn sky the mountains rising up, one after another. They rolled back toward the horizon, peak upon peak, like a series of black waves stretching across the ocean. But I was conscious of none of this. My thoughts were on the sounds I heard: the chirping of several mountain birds nesting on a peak nearby, the faint rustle of the day patrol as it broke its night's fast, the whispering of two separate pairs of guards stepping quietly over the mountains, and the trickle of mountain streams working their way down from the snow-capped peaks above. Nowhere could I hear the sound I was hunting for.

Behind me, quiet as a baby's breath, came a sound of soft leather on rock. I did not bother to turn; I knew the footsteps, almost as noiseless as my own. In a voice too low to carry far, he said, "Anything?"

I shook my head. "He could be in a cave, waiting us out."

"Even so, you'd have heard him by now." He came into my sight, dragging his fingers wearily through his beard as he did so. He was twenty-six years old, only three years my senior, but three years in the mountain patrol is a lifetime's experience. The skin under his eyes was set in deep folds, and his collarbone bore a wound which had not yet healed, but which had not prevented him from carrying out his duties. On the fourth finger of his right hand he wore a seal-ring marked with a mountain barred by a sword: the emblem of the border mountain patrol.

He glanced over the side of the mountain at the pass below. Then he sent out a series of brief whistles. The replies chirped back, each from where I had heard the guards' whispers and footsteps. The soldier beside me said, "No sighting either. We'll have to admit that this one got past us. He'll be well on his way to Koretia by now."

"We're giving up, lieutenant?" I said, unable to contain a note of surprise in my voice.

He gave me a wry smile and in reply sent out the signal I had rarely heard during my seven years in the patrol: the End of Hunt whistle that means, "The hunted is lost."

Four mournful acknowledgments chirped back. Standing with ease in the slanted posture that patrol guards adopt when climbing mountains, Lieutenant Malise glanced over at the purple-pink horizon. "Almost time to go in. I doubt that the day patrol would have had any better chance of finding the hunted than we did."

I doubted it too, but of course I did not say so. Nearby, screened by the mountains that surrounded it, was the hollow containing the patrol hut. I could hear through the secret tunnel leading to it the sound of the sublieutenant's voice, cheerfully exploiting his power by ordering the patrol's junior-most guard to fetch him some water. It seemed to me that even a common border-breacher could hear a voice that loud, and I wondered how many more years it would be before some breacher used that guard's voice as a way to trace his way to the hut and slit all our throats. With this happy thought in my mind, I turned to follow Malise off the mountain.

But Malise was still gazing at the southern horizon; his daybreak shadow was motionless beside him. "Well, Quentin," he said, "I received word of my elevation yesterday. I'm to be transferred into Captain Scipio's division at the beginning of next year."

"Congratulations, sir," I said. "You must have the energy of a Chara."

He chuckled as he swung round to face me. "The army is my life," he said. "Just being in the regular army will be a retirement for me in comparison with my patrol duties; I couldn't stand spending the rest of my days living off my pension. But of course there's much left for me to do before the winter withdrawal. There's the question of my successor, for example."

His gaze rested lightly upon me as he reached over to place his hand on an overhanging rock upon the slope that we were precariously perched upon. I said quickly, "I've been meaning to ask you about that, sir, but didn't want to anticipate your departure. I received a letter recently from Carle son of Verne, my friend who lives on a mountain north of the Chara's palace."

"Yes?" Malise's voice was neutral, leaving me with little by which to judge his thoughts. I felt as though I were plunging eye-bound and ear-bound into a dangerous hunt.

But friendship's bindings caused me to step blindly forward. "He turns sixteen next month. He wonders whether there is any chance that the patrol would still be willing to consider his name."

Malise raised his eyebrows and gazed at me sternly. "Consider taking on a boy who gave away the secrets of the patrol to a runaway slave? Are you serious, Quentin?"

I replied with silence, feeling that I ought to have been better prepared than this. Malise allowed me to suffer only a moment, though, before laughing and clapping me on the back as he said, "No, I'm teasing. I won't hold his past law-breaking against him – not when he was so honest as to write a prompt confession to us. He must have been, oh, eight years old at the time of his terrible crime, and he explained that he was prepared to surrender himself to the patrol should we want to summon him on charges. I remember my lieutenant reading the letter with tears running down his cheeks, he was laughing so hard. 'There's a boy who will be a true law-lover,' he said. He meant it in jest, but from what you've told me during your time in the patrol, the prediction has come true."

His light skin was now rosy in the dawn. It was past the time when the day and night patrols usually exchanged duties, but the other night guards continued their patrol, since they had not yet received the lieutenant's signal of release. Malise swung his hand behind his back, pulled a flask from the back-sling he was wearing, and took a sip of water before saying, "If he lives up to your description, he may indeed qualify for the patrol. At any rate, you may extend the patrol's invitation for him to come visit us so that we can look him over. You're willing to sponsor him, I take it?"

"Yes, sir," I said. "I'll need a new patrolling partner anyway, once you retire."

"We may have need of him before then; it seems unlikely that we'll last out the year before losing another guard. So tell your friend to visit us once he has come of age."

I nodded and had turned away once more to start down the mountain when Malise forestalled me with his hand. He said, "You misunderstood what I said before, though. I was not speaking of adding a new guard to the patrol, but of selecting a successor to the lieutenancy."

I scanned his face. He escaped from this scrutiny by turning back toward the horizon, where the sun, still hidden behind the mountains, was causing the southern sky to shimmer like a rosy pearl. Without looking my way, Malise said, "Captain Wystan has asked me to submit the name of the man I consider best qualified to succeed me. If I were to submit your name, Quentin, would you be willing to take on this duty?"

I shifted in my place so that I was standing downslope from him, looking up at his face. "What about Sublieutenant Shepley, sir?"

Malise kept his gaze squarely on the horizon. "I am to name the man I consider best qualified."

My silence caused his eyes to lower toward me finally. His voice, already soft, grew gentler as he said, "I know it is not an easy decision to make. You are three years from retirement, but you would not be free to retire until you had trained a successor. And your duties, I need hardly say, would be arduous. I have been lucky enough to live to retirement; you might not be so lucky."

I was facing north, my view of Emor blocked by the mountain on which I stood. Slowly, like a weaver unpicking a pattern she has painstakingly woven, only to find that she cannot use it, I was unravelling my growing hopes and desires for three years hence, when I would at last be free to do work I enjoyed. Hoping that my pause had not been too long, I said, "If you believe I am the best man for the work, sir, then I would be failing in my duty to the patrol not to accept your offer. You may submit my name if you wish."

Malise sighed as he looked down at me. "By the Sword, Quentin," he said, "on the day I learned of my elevation to patrol lieutenant, I could scarcely contain my excitement at being so honored. Do you receive no joy whatsoever from your patrol work?"

I closed my eyes to the sight of Malise's puzzled face. Ignoring the soft sounds which I knew could not be heard even by my lieutenant but which arrived at my ears with ease, I drunk in the mountain silence as though making it my reply. Malise's voice broke through my self-imposed barrier, saying, "I apologize; that wasn't a fair question to ask. Well, Quentin, since you have long since known my job better than I do, I leave you with only one suggestion: that you keep Shepley on as your sublieutenant. I know that you would prefer to choose your own sublieutenant, but it isn't Shepley's fault that a man of your talents is available for the Chara's service. I'll let him know ahead of time of my decision. I'm sure that, if you choose him, you'll find him just as loyal to you as he has been to me. Shall we head back?"

This time, it was I who hesitated. Turning to look south, I stood for a moment, feeling the weariness that sagged my body at the end of every night's patrol. I said, "Sir, may I have your permission to search a little longer for the hunted? It's possible that he has not yet escaped beyond our patrolling points."

From behind me, I heard Malise's soft chuckle. "You know, Quentin, I pity the other guards. Once you take over the patrol, they'll never hear the Hunted is Lost whistle again. You will never admit defeat." He gave the quick whistle calling the night patrol back to the hut before saying, "I'll see the day patrol out, and then return to help you search. Good hunting, Quentin." He saluted me with his sword as though I were his official, then started down the mountain, leaving me staring toward the south, listening for the sound that would lead me to the hunted.

o—o—o

The dream ended there. I awoke and lay for a moment, looking up at the darkness on the ceiling. Then I pushed the blankets aside and began to dress.

o—o—o

The seagulls still battled the winds that blew off of the Western Ocean, but fewer ships accompanied them in their struggle. Under the bright moonlight, I scanned quickly the half dozen vessels that were anchored to the pier, while a small crowd of refugees made their way past the sailors carefully checking the refugees' tokens of passage. As I watched, one of the ships slipped away from the rest, heading toward the dark ocean waves.

So desperate was my feeling that every moment counted that I did not even hear him slide up next to me on the nearly deserted pier. My first knowledge of his arrival came when a light voice said, "Seeing friends away, lieutenant?"

My hand travelled quickly to the dagger at my side and then even more quickly away as I turned my head to see the amber-eyed jeweller standing beside me, smiling brightly.

"How did you know who I was?" I asked curiously.

"Tryphena described you to me," he replied simply. His voice was as airy and buoyant as his smile. His hand, as he pulled the sea-sprayed hair back from his forehead, moved with the grace of a leaping deer. At this distance, close up, I could see that his hair shone faintly with gold, the tell-tale sign of his mixed blood.

"I see." Looking back at the refugees, who huddled miserable in the cold wind and colder spray, I tried to clear my mind to figure out the most tactful way to approach the topic with Griffith's blood brother. Finally I surrendered all subtlety and said, "I came to see Tryphena. Do you know whether she has left yet?"

In reply, Emlyn lightly gestured toward the ship which was just leaving the harbor. As I watched, the ship passed the sandbar. All but its mast disappeared from view. A few gulls trailed after it, eager for scraps of food from the sailors.

"Will you follow her?"

Emlyn's voice startled me out of my darkness. I looked over and saw that the jeweller was still smiling, and that he was watching me with eyes that held no suggestion of anger or even wariness. For a moment, I was silent. Then I said, "I do not believe that I can. All of my passage money is bound over to a banker until spring."

Emlyn's hand moved again, springing with such quickness into his cloak as to suggest that he had only been waiting for me to say the words. When it emerged again, he was holding a passage token.

"I was planning to go south tomorrow," he said, "but I have had a change of mind. I think that there may be more business for me if I stay in the borderland – all those rich Emorians, you know." His smile grew brighter as he held forth the token.

I looked down at the wooden token, painted black to indicate that the the destination was Lower Straits Port, near the capitals of Koretia and Daxis. Sea-spray landed on the wood, causing it to shimmer with bits of light, as though it were a star-studded night sky. I said stiffly, "Thank you, but as I have explained, my money is bound."

"It is a gift," Emlyn said blithely. Then, as I opened my mouth in protest, he added, "A gift for Tryphena."

I looked down at the dark token again, resting upon Emlyn's unwavering hand. Then I reached over and took the cold wood. "Thank you. I will pay you back as soon as I can."

I raised my eyes and felt as though I had just stepped off the edge of a cliff.

Now, for the first time, I saw Emlyn without his omnipresent smile. There was no hostility in his expression, but the contrast with his usual tranquil look was so great that I felt my breath jerk out of my body. I had to restrain myself from grabbing for my thigh-dagger. For a moment more, Emlyn gazed at me somberly. Then he said quietly, "Of course, the journey is likely to prove dangerous. Because of the storm-winds, I mean. If you value your life, it would be better for you to wait until spring."

His voice was as serene as before; I could not read what lay behind his expression. So I simply said, "I do not think I can wait until then, but I thank you for your concern."

For a moment more, Emlyn looked upon me with grave, golden eyes. Then his expression suddenly flared into a smile, like a torch catching light in the dark. He took a step backwards, and his hand carved the air in the free-man's greeting. "Good hunting, lieutenant," he said. "May the gods watch over you during your journey."

I nodded in absentminded thanks. Already my attention was drifting back toward the storm-clouds bringing in cold rain from the west. Pulling my cloak tighter around my shoulders as the first heavy drops began to fall, I looked over at the tiny, dark ship that was carrying the hunted rapidly away from me.

Thus it was a few moments more before it occurred to me to wonder why, if Emlyn knew me only from Tryphena's description, he had greeted me before I met Tryphena.

I turned quickly, but I was alone on the pier. All that remained as the last refugees made their way onto the ships was a gull that circled overhead, piercing the stillness with a high cry that lasted for a long time.

Chapter Text

Death Mask #3
IMMEDIATE DANGER WHISTLE
 

CHAPTER ONE

On the day on which I ended my life, the last thing I expected to find on the hilltop crowning Koretia's capital city was beauty.

Koretia had long held the reputation in the Empire of Emor of being the most barbaric of the Three Lands in the Great Peninsula. For elegance of law and engineering, travellers would visit Emor; for strength and courage, the Emorian dominian of Marcadia; for beauty of women and crafts, the Emorian dominion of Arpesh; and for depth of tradition and song, the land of Daxis. By contrast, the land of Koretia had nothing to offer but the keenness of its blades.

Or so I thought until the day I found myself staring at the glowing golden pavement of the courtyard of the Koretian council.

I had heard of the pavement before, of course. It was said to be one of the wonders of the Three Lands: rock taken from a cave in the mountain that separated Koretia's capital from Daxis's capital – rock that was soft golden in daylight and glowed vividly like fire during the night.

It is hard to impress an Emorian with such tales. Like many other Emorians, I had grown up within sight of the Chara's palace, the largest building in the world and without doubt the most beautiful. Emorian engineers, Marcadian defense planners, and Arpeshian craftsmen had combined over the centuries to make the palace worthy of housing the embodiment of the law, the Chara. By contrast, a glowing pavement sounded like a common folks' toy.

But standing on that pavement on a winter's dusk, with the stone casting its glow upwards onto me like shower of golden droplets, I began to perceive how a barbaric land like Koretia had produced someone like Adrian.

I shook my head free of the wonder – and also the dark memories of my murdered friend – and looked around. Although the sun was setting, the buildings at the top of Council Hill remained astir. Lesser free-men, masked slaves, and an occasional noble walked across the courtyard, illuminated not only by the pavement but also by the torches perched on the buildings next to me. Dressed as I was in a Koretian tunic, bought from a fellow voyager on the ship that had brought me here, I was inconspicuous.

I wore no cloak. Having spent my late autumns patrolling in the black border mountains, and my winters relaxing in Emor, I found southern Koretia's climate surprisingly mild. The people too were friendlier than I had expected. Since my previous contacts with Koretians had been almost entirely confined to uncommunicative merchants and blade-wielding border-breachers, I had received a skewed picture of a land that, it now appeared, was filled with warm and generous people. Adrian, it was becoming increasingly clear, owed as much of his generosity and affection to his native land of Koretia as he did to his adopted homeland of Emor.

Generosity, alas, had not given me the information I needed, and I was feeling the impatience any patrol guard feels on a long hunt. The voyage south had taken longer than I had expected. Emlyn, it turned out, had booked passage on a ship that, while captained by a barbarian, was made up largely of Emorian sailors. When I arrived at the ship, all the Emorian sailors were drunk – not because of delayed festivities for the New Year, but because they had just learned of the successful birth of the Chara To Be.

I was as pleased as any Emorian would be to hear that the Chara's Consort had given birth to his heir. But I had been forced to wait for the sailors to celebrate young Peter's arrival, and then forced to wait still further for the sailors to sober from their celebration. It was beginning to seem that Emlyn was right, and my journey would be filled with ill fortune.

But now at last I was in a position where I might pick up the lost trail again. Having abandoned hope of obtaining information about Tryphena's whereabouts in any other manner, I had dared to make this evening visit to the center of Koretia's power. I looked slowly around, trying as best I could to appear to be nothing more than a villager awed by the sight of Koretia's hallowed Council Hall.

In fact, the hall lived up to Koretia's reputation in Emor. It was made of wood, blending in with the trees on the hill's slopes. Only the King's chambers within Council Hall were housed in a building made of the same glowing stone as the pavement. Council Hall ran along the east end of the courtyard; arches at the north and south entrance of the courtyard connected the government building with a yet more ramshackle wooden building where, I had been told, the slaves were housed.

All this I had learned through seemingly casual conversations in a tavern in the city. Though my duties as one of the Chara's soldiers had been confined to the border, Carle and I had spent many hours discussing his work as a spy in Koretia. From him, I knew well enough the importance of surveying enemy territory before proceeding into it. Life-saving importance.

That this was enemy territory I had no doubt. Evidence that the King's army was housed in a camp at the bottom of Council Hill could be found in the soldiers strolling across the courtyard. Most of them were council guards rather than regular soldiers; the bulk of the King's army was stationed in the north, holding back the Emorian army from expanding the territory of the new Dominion of Koretia. But guards trained to arrest, I knew, could be more dangerous to my purposes than soldiers trained to kill, for such guards would be on the lookout for someone like myself.

I had taken pains already to establish my legitimacy for being here. I had an appointment to meet with a clerk for the King's Council, who might be able to provide me with information on the whereabouts of a certain baron and his sister. I was not placing all of my hopes in that appointment, though. Years of experience with the army had taught me that, where information is to be found, it is usually the servants who can provide it, rather than their masters. Carle had said as much the previous autumn.

I had debated in my mind the possibility of approaching one of the free-servants but had eventually dismissed the idea. Good free-servants are notoriously loyal to their masters. The last thing I wanted was for a zealous free-servant to inform his master that a borderlander was making enquiries about one of Koretia's nobles. A slave was likely to be more cautious in reporting the activities of a suspicious free-man. History told many tales of slaves who had tried to aid their masters against villains, only to find themselves beaten when the villains protested their innocence to the masters.

A slave, then; but against that I had the knowledge of the slave-burning in Daxis. Not only was I reluctant to place a slave at such risk, I was reluctant too to break the laws of Koretia – if that land's odd customs could be said to qualify as law. However strange Koretia's laws were, I was a guest in this land and ought to behave with as much courtesy as I would if I were back in Emor, following sensible laws.

I could see a slave nearby, his mask turned golden by the pavement's glow. He was checking a torch that was sputtering. Looking at him, I remembered Tryphena standing in the glow of the fire, watching the slave scream his way to death. Then, like a whisper in the night, came a second image, of Griffith watching the slave.

Griffith. Griffith, who had taken away the woman I loved. I felt my body ache from the loss, and anger began to fill me. A cursed Koretian baron had torn my beloved away from me; I was not going to let the Koretians' cursed laws stop me from finding her.

I was holding in my hand the piece of paper giving me the time of my appointment to see the council clerk. Under cover of trying to read the paper, I stepped near the torch. If I kept my body turned slightly to the left, I would be able to see everyone walking in the courtyard, but with the paper placed before my face, they would not be able to see me speak.

The slave did not turn to look at me as I came to stand beside him; his attention was focussed on the sputtering torch. Holding the paper up, I said in a low voice, "I am seeking information."

A direct approach; I did not have time to be subtle, and I doubted that a slave would understand subtlety in any case. This slave, at least, was intelligent enough not to turn my way. He continued to stare up at the torch as he sought to increase its flame.

"I am seeking a kinsman," I said. "A village baron named Griffith. He may have visited here with his sister a few days ago. They are both borderlanders, with streaks of golden in their hair."

The slave made no reply. Perhaps he was deaf; perhaps he was more loyal to his master than slaves usually were. Or perhaps he was simply waiting for proper incentive. I began to slip my finger under my tunic in preparation to extracting my only remaining gold piece.

And then turned away, alerted by the same instinct that had kept me from being murdered by dozens of border-breachers over the years. I took care to appear absorbed in the paper as I did so.

I had possessed a full view of the courtyard all this while; I had not possessed a full view of the south entrance to the courtyard. A necessary risk, but one that had cost me. I was now facing a Koretian lieutenant, a sublieutenant, and no less than eleven guards, all of them evidently on their way to relieve the present guards from their duties.

They were all armed with swords; the lieutenant was gripping the hilt of his. He waited long enough for me to raise my eyes from the paper; then he said crisply, "What is your business here, sir?"

Using my racing heartbeat as a guide, I timed my answer. Too short a time, and the lieutenant would be suspicious that I was so eager to reply. Too long a time, and it would appear that I was preparing a tale.

"I have an appointment with the council clerk, sir," I said, resisting an impulse to give him the free-man's greeting. I was not a fellow lieutenant – not here. "I was checking just now to see whether I had arrived here at the correct time." I showed him the paper.

He took it but did not bother to read it, handing it instead to his sublieutenant, who immediately folded it and tucked it under his belt, without moving his right hand from where it hovered, above his hilt. "You're from the borderland?" the lieutenant said.

"I am," I replied, praying that none of the other guards were from the borderland and would therefore be able to tell from my accent which side of the border I had arrived from. "I travelled down here recently, due to the troubles up there. I was separated during my journey from a kinsman, whom I hoped the council clerk might know."

The sublieutenant, about ten years younger than the middle-aged lieutenant, had been watching me with unwavering eyes during my recital. Now he leaned forward and whispered something in the lieutenant's ear. The lieutenant nodded, then asked me, "Which village are you from?"

"Mountside." The reply came easily to my mouth. That had been Adrian's village, and if need be, I could provide details about life there.

"And your kinsman?" said the lieutenant. "He is from the same village?"

Too late, I realized that I had spoken hastily. Adrian's father was of the new nobility, kin to the King, but Griffith was a member of the old nobility; that was why their villages had been in a blood feud together. I dared not claim now that my kinsman was kin to the King. My story might be checked with the clerk.

Behind me, the slave was continuing to struggle with the torch. I thought to myself that he had the easier of the two tasks, pretending that he had not noticed I was there. As I cleared my throat to gain time, my mind lit upon the true story of how Adrian had come to have a kinsman in the village his family was fighting.

"He is a kinsman by blood vow only," I said. "My mother was born in a village nearby; my cousin in that village took a blood vow of friendship toward the village baron, whom I am seeking."

"I see." The lieutenant appeared to consider this fact, giving the sublieutenant a chance to whisper in the lieutenant's ear. Beyond the two officials, the other guards were beginning to look bored.

"I apologize for the reading light," said the lieutenant suddenly. "I trust that you were able to read your paper properly." He smiled.

I did not trust the smile at all. It was obvious that the lieutenant wanted an explanation for why I was standing beside the slave when I was found. Perhaps the only thing that could save me was a direct acknowledgment of the peculiarity of my situation.

"I do seem to have picked the wrong place to stand," I said, looking back at the masked slave, who was continuing to show great skill in ignoring the conversation. "That slave does not seem to be having much luck in lighting the torch." I turned back, and my world shifted.

o—o—o

I did not yet realize to what a degree it had shifted, but I knew that something was wrong. The guards were exchanging looks with one another, while the sublieutenant, for the first time, placed his hand on his sword hilt. He moved his free hand slightly, and a moment later, the guards moved as well. They were slowly moving to the back, to prevent me from escaping that way.

The lieutenant, less skilled than his sublieutenant at hiding his expression, was gazing upon me as though he had just happened upon me ravishing his sister. I cursed myself inwardly, wondering what mistake of mine had revealed my true origins. Probably it was the reference to Adrian's family link with Emlyn. Koretians, with their concern for blood ties, have a passion for genealogy that is reflected in their language. The Common Koretian tongue contains no less than one hundred and thirty-four separate words for the relationship that can only be translated into Emorian as the word "cousin." If I had used the wrong word to describe Emlyn's relationship to Adrian, it would be immediately obvious to the guards that I was an Emorian.

The sublieutenant spoke for the first time. His voice was as cool as the evening breeze blowing upon the sputtering torch behind me. "The reading light does seem to be poor," he said. "Perhaps we should offer to help that slave with the torch."

The liutenant gave him a sharp look; I felt a yet sharper blade of concern enter my belly. It was the slave, then. They had thought they had heard me talking to the slave, and now they were trying to ascertain whether this was indeed the case.

I could deny it, of course. They must not have proof at this juncture; if I denied firmly that I had spoken to the slave, they could not hold me.

Deny it like the villains in the tales. I had no doubt now that the slave would be questioned for his part in this affair. If his story contradicted mine, then he was the one most likely to be punished. He might even be suspected of speaking back to me, and I had already seen the consequences of such an act.

I could not risk having the slave placed on a funeral pyre for my sake. On the other hand, neither could I risk being taken in for close questioning. I hesitated, torn between two evils.

I hesitated too long. The lieutenant, after exchanging another look with his sublieutenant, said politely, "This is a chilly place to discuss matters. Will you come with me, sir?"

I would have sooner followed him into the Land Beyond. I could see the guards reaching for their swords, and I knew that the questioning to follow would not be an equally polite enquiry into the best taverns in the borderland.

I stood very still. The lieutenant had not yet disarmed me, but I knew that was of no significance. It had taken one of my patrol guards a dagger thrust through his side to learn why you do not relieve a Koretian of the symbol of his manhood unless he is under formal charges. I did not want to make any movement that would suggest to the lieutenant that I was trying to resist arrest.

And then, on second reflection, I decided that I did. To gain time, I put on my best lieutenant's voice and asked quietly, "Are you placing me under arrest, sir? And if so, why?"

My best voice appeared to work. One of the guards took a step backwards, and the lieutenant looked less certain than before. He hesitated before answering. I could guess why. Prisoners can be questioned more effectively if they are ignorant of the precise charges placed against them.

Finally he said, his voice still courteous, "We have reason to believe that you are not from this land, sir. We would like to know what brought you to Koretia, so that we may best serve you."

A reply worthy of one of the Chara's spies. I smiled, but my smile was not directed at the lieutenant's courtesy. Rather, he had given me the opening I needed. "Now, really, sir," I said. "You accuse me of being a foreigner, yet what else could I be but a Koretian, wearing this tunic?" With my left hand, I waved the bottom edge of my tunic back and forth to demonstrate the cloth.

And moved my right hand toward my blade.

The lieutenant's eye, just as I had hoped, followed my right hand. With a flicker of motion, my left hand slid under the tunic edge and pulled my thigh-dagger from its sheath.

A thigh-dagger is a tiny, thin blade, easily concealed in a thigh-pocket, and honed to a razor-sharp edge. It is the favored weapon of spies and murderers. It can be concealed in the palm, though if you try to run with it that way, you will slice your hand open, as I had once learned. It is utterly inadequate for dagger-play with another blade; its only purpose is to kill, and to kill quickly. Placed in the right spot, its very touch is death.

The easiest way to wield it – as my grandfather had taught me long ago – was to slice it straight up from the thigh-pocket. If your enemy is close enough, the result will be a wound that extends from the testicles to the breastbone.

My grandfather had cautioned me to use this defense only in the direst circumstances; patrol guards are supposed to capture, not kill. But I had remembered the movement of the blade, as I remembered all the movements of my grandfather's thigh-dagger, which had passed a finger's span from my flesh during his demonstrations. I had endured many nightmares about blades that cut into my privates.

Now I brought the blade upwards in one swift move.

My plan would have worked, but the sublieutenant, more keen-minded than the lieutenant, had watched my left hand instead of my right, and he saw when my fingers slipped under the tunic. Not wasting words, he dragged the lieutenant back at the very moment I brought my thigh-dagger forward. The dagger whispered through empty air.

I had accomplished my task, though, which was to gain a moment for escape. The lieutenant was under the grasp of the sublieutenant; all the other guards had stepped backwards. The sight of a thigh-dagger will bring fear even to a patrol guard, much less to an ordinary guard. I noted where the gap in the encircling guards was the greatest – to the northwest – and then I was past the guards and running.

o—o—o

The first thing I did was rid myself of the thigh-dagger, tossing it into a well in the courtyard. I might have need of a blade again, but I was not going to risk cutting my palm open while I ran. My dull-edged belt-dagger would have to do. Besides, my hope was to have no encounters with guards after this point.

My hope was high. Though the southern entrance to the courtyard remained guarded, the guards at the northern entrance, curious about the conversation I'd been holding with their lieutenant, had begun to drift away from their posts. I need only dart through the gap this had created, run down the hill, skirt the army headquarters at the foot of the hill, and lose myself amidst the thousands of Koretians on the capital streets.

Unhappily, another set of curiosity-seekers had arrived. A group of soldiers from the army camp, who might simply have been using Council Hall's courtyard as an easy shortcut to the market on the other side of the hill, paused as they reached the north entrance, clearly interested in the hunt. Although none of them had yet drawn their swords, I did not want to test whether they could be lured into joining the hunt; I veered off, darting into the first open doorway I saw in Council Hall.

I had started closer to the slave-quarters, but that building doubtless had no windows. It was a window I was seeking – one large enough for me to dive through.

I found myself in a corridor leading east. Reflexively, I checked the first door in the corridor. It led to a dining room, expensively decorated. The High Lord's quarters, perhaps? A free-servant and and a group of slaves were in there, setting out food; the free-servant and a few of the slaves looked up as I opened the door.

I slammed the door shut. Too many slaves; if even a few had any loyalty to their master, they would move forward to block the intruder. Besides, I had seen no windows in the room – not even a hood to guide hearth-smoke upward.

There was light ahead; I sped toward it, acutely aware of the shouts approaching behind me. The corridor turned right, and there, finally, was a window, shuttered for the winter. I stopped, pulled open the shutters—

It was thus that I learned that Council Hall's architect had placed bars across ground-floor windows that faced outward.

No time to think; I could hear the hunting party in the portion of the corridor I had just left. I glanced through the open doorway behind me and saw only a receiving room, with its courtyard-facing windows shuttered. Then I continued my run down the corridor, which jogged west after a short time. This would take me straight back to the courtyard, but I had no choice but to run in that direction, for the hunt was hot at my heels.

The corridor turned south again. I was beginning to discern the pattern: rather than have a straightforward, linear corridor, such as Emorian buildings favor, this Koretian building's corridor weaved up and down, around each room, as though it were a thread being sewn first above, then under the cloth. I could think of no reason for such a meandering except that it made my job of escaping marginally easier. As I turned south again, the guards were still in the portion of the corridor with the window.

Now I had reached a door that led out to the courtyard. It was open, but what I saw was not reassuring; guards were spread everywhere in the courtyard now, their swords unsheathed. That was the work of the sublieutenant, no doubt; I could hear the lieutenant shouting orders to his men in the corridor behind me. Cursing the sublieutenant for being born in Koretia – if he'd been Emorian, I'd have gladly assigned him duties in the Chara's border mountain patrol – I whirled round and tried the door behind me. Locked. In any case – my mind thought feverishly – if the council's receiving chamber was nearby, this would doubtless be a room intended for service preparations. If the door had been open, I might have encountered more perhaps-loyal slaves, who were beginning to seem as much an impediment to my progress as the council guards.

All this went through my mind in an instant; then I was off again. An open doorway stood directly in front of me, at the point where the corridor jogged left. It too – I saw at a glance – led to a receiving chamber, perhaps for the King. At any rate, its only windows faced the courtyard.

The corridor ended here, but where it ended were stairs.

I raced up them with all the instincts of a patrol guard who seeks higher ground on which to fight a breacher. The hunt was closer behind me now; I heard the cry as the pursuing guards caught sight of me. I turned south as the corridor did and sighted a set of unshuttered windows—

—which were barred. Cursed be the Council Hall's architect for having such concern to keep away thieves and murderers. I simply wanted a way out.

I glanced – not very hopefully – through the doorway opposite the windows and then was struck still, despite the sound of the soldiers' boots on the stairs. I had happened across Koretia's council chamber.

That was what it must be, though it was very small and had a dusty smell to it. In the middle of it was a long table with chairs on all sides. The walls were lined with bookcases. Not a dining room – this was the ancient room where Koretia's council had met since the early days of the land's founding.

But I did not have the luxury of lingering in what Koretians considered one of their most sacred chambers. A group of soldiers had just rounded the corner from the stair landing; for the first time, they were within close reach of me. I took off like a hare on the run as their cries rose in triumph.

Turn right. Run west. Turn left. Run south. And there in front of me was the end of the corridor. It led to a door set within the same golden stone that made up the courtyard. On the door, I saw as my stomach sickened, was the image of a shield with the masks of the seven gods and goddesses upon it. The symbol of Koretia's King, signifying his divine protection.

Even I did not quite have the courage to burst into Council Hall's sacred-most chamber, which housed a King who had killed a quarter of his countrymen in a blood feud that had spanned eleven years. If the bloodlustful King himself was not there, surely the room would be filled with guards or free-servants or those cursed slaves.

I had no time in which to think. In a second, the hunt would be upon me. I looked right – saw only a window overlooking the courtyard, with two guards stationed below, no doubt at the orders of the alert sublieutenant, who had anticipated this possibility. I looked left – found only a locked door. And then, in the bare instant before despair, I noticed a second door, partly open.

I was through it immediately. It led to a tiny, dark storage room filled with brooms and mops and other such domestic service items. Taking care not to dislodge them, I darted behind the door. Then I pulled the door open as wide as I could.

I had barely finished this act by the time the hunt reached me.

They rushed past, a mass of shining blades held by men with grim expressions; I saw all this through the crack between the hinged door and the wall that held the door. One of the soldiers kicked the door, which promptly rebounded from the tips of my boots, but the soldier did not stay to inspect the results of his kicking. He was past the door, and so were the soldiers, now humming in a confused manner, like bees that have gone into the wrong hive.

Someone else was trying the locked door nearby. I heard someone say, "Window?" There was a sound of a knock – a surprisingly quiet knock, after all that had occurred – and then a low conversation, presumably with whichever servant was tasked to answer the King's door.

I considered whether to make my move now. It could only be a matter of time before the soldiers searched more thoroughly the corridor in which I had disappeared. But there were too many guards, too close; they would reach me before I had gone a dozen steps.

The sound of the door closing; the bark of an order; and then the guards were running again, this time in the opposite direction.

I had a moment to thank every fate I had ever encountered that the sublieutenant was not leading this chase. He would not have made such a careless mistake.

And then I was out of the storage room and running behind the guards. I must risk the possibility that the hunt heard me at their heels. The upper storey of Council Hall was a trap; I needed to get back into that courtyard.

Round the council chamber again, then down the same stairs that the guards had clattered down a minute before. The guards had turned north, refollowing the route they had taken before. I darted through the door to the courtyard that lay opposite the room for service preparations.

I was sighted at once, of course. The guards there gave chase in an ominously quiet manner, led by their sublieutenant. A quick glance told me that the soldiers from the army camp were still stationed at the north entrance; now they had their swords out, aiding their council colleagues. That left the south entrance, which was still guarded, but more thinly than before, since the sublieutenant had drawn most of his guards into the courtyard.

I pulled my dagger from my belt as I ran. It seemed I would need it after all.

o—o—o

Four guards at the southern entrance, shadowed by Capital Mountain. Four swords against my single, dull dagger. I read the guards' stances as I ran toward them. It was not the first time I'd been forced to fight more than a single man at a time; Koretian border-breachers I'd encountered sometimes travelled in groups, under the theory that they could breach their way into Emor through the sheer weight of arms. Some of those breachers remained alive afterwards, to bring the sorry tale back to Koretia that the border mountain patrol deserved its high reputation.

Four guards, and these were under the control of the skilled sublieutenant, so I could not hope that they were ill-trained. Already, they had shifted into position, their swords ready to repel my attack.

And then – then, of all the times my fate might have chosen – a group of slave-women walked in front of me, their sex clear from the length of their tunics.

I had no idea what was in their minds. They must have noticed that a hunt was in progress and that the hunted was armed. Perhaps they simply thought that, being women, they were immune to attack, even if they were slaves.

As it happened, they were correct. Some instinctive part of me – I would later identify it as my spirit's last-gasp attempt to cling to my honor – caused me to swerve my path, so that I was now running east, toward Council Hall again.

One door remained that I had not yet travelled through. It was directly below the King's chambers and was surrounded by the same golden stone I had seen upstairs; no doubt the door led to the King's dining room. But I had no choice but to fling open to the door.

It led to blackness.

If I had been anyone other than who I was, I might have shrunk back, and in that moment of uncertainty, lost my chance. But I was the Lieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol. I had hunted breachers over the black rocks of the border mountains on nights when the moon was down and the stars were covered by clouds. I did not need to see where I was going in order to travel through the dark; my feet found their positions on the rocks by touch alone. And this particular blackness – I could see from where light touched it at the entrance – was simply another corridor.

I took three steps into the corridor. Then a thought occurred to me. I turned, saw the guards a mere spear-throw from me, slammed the door shut—

—and dropped the door-bar into its slot. The architect who had built Council Hall with defenses against intruders had not neglected the doors.

There was a thump as one of the guards, unable to stop himself in time, slammed against the door, howling his misfortune. I leaned my back against the corridor wall, breathing hard. I needed the time to rest. It had been a hard hunt.

Unfortunately, this also gave me time to think.

The guards of Emor's border mountain patrol are accustomed to dividing border breachers into different categories. There are the Ignorants: breachers, usually mainlanders, who don't realize that the border is guarded and that the attacking men are appointed by the Chara to arrest all travellers who try to cross the border without proper credentials. The Ignorants are not to be underestimated; I lost one of my men to such a breacher, shortly after I won the patrol's lieutenancy. But Ignorants are rare; virtually everyone in the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula, and many travellers from the mainland, have heard of the border mountain patrol.

Then there are the Desperates: men such as Adrian had once been. These otherwise lawful men lack the proper credentials to cross the border, but their circumstances leave them desperate to do so. If Adrian had not chosen to throw away his blade rather than fight me when he tried to breach the border, the results would have been bloody – and, quite possibly, could have led to my death. Adrian was that good a bladesman.

But most Desperates can be subdued or, in some cases, talked into voluntary submission. To the Desperates who surrender, as Adrian had, the patrol sometimes mercy, for the patrol has greater powers than most breachers realize; patrol guards can allow travellers past the border, even without proper credentials, if the guards judge the intended immigrant's circumstances to be dire. During my time as the patrol lieutenant, I had allowed Adrian entrance into Emor, as well as many more men who deserved refuge from whatever they were fleeing – usually Koretia's bloody civil war. The Desperates almost always prove themselves to be fundamentally honorable men.

Then there are the Bladeless: men who have committed a crime, or who seek to commit a crime, but who have sense enough not to draw their blades when they are on the point of capture by the patrol. The patrol respects such breachers, though duty requires patrol guards to turn the breachers back at the border or, in some cases, hand them over to be placed on trial for their original crimes.

In fact, there is only one group of breachers that the patrol thoroughly despises: the God-Cursed.

Devin – a fellow borderlander who worshipped the Koretian gods – had given the God-Cursed their name. These men are law-hating breachers who are held back neither by honor nor by fear nor by simple common sense. They draw their blades against guards who are simply fulfilling their lawful duty. The God-Cursed are murderers or would-be murderers, willing to shed the blood of lawful guards in order to fulfill their own selfish aims. The patrol treats them with the contempt that such dishonorable men deserve.

And now I was the God-Cursed.

I traced with wonder the steps that had led me into a cold, black corridor, with guards hammering against the barred door nearby. The council guards were simply fulfilling their lawful duty, as the patrol did. And I had drawn my blade against them. . . . I had sought to murder one of them. . . .

There was a sharp bark of an order. The sublieutenant's voice; I recognized it by now. And then a space of silence, followed by a single, loud thump. The door-bar jumped in its slot; the door's boards bowed inwards.

The guards were using a ram to break through. It was time I was on my way.

I ran down the corridor lightly, attentively. I could see nothing ahead of me except blackness, which undoubtedly meant that the corridor ended in another door.

I was right. My outstretched left hand touched the door, and I skidded to a stop. The door, thankfully, was not barred from the other side. I burst through the doorway—

—and stopped dead. I had not, it seemed, avoided entering the most sacred chamber in Council Hall.

o—o—o

It was a sanctuary. I knew that at once, not only from the masks above the wall-shrine and the many lit candles on tables nearby, but from the great slab of stone in front of me, and the man standing in front of it.

The priest who had been facing the central altar whirled round. He was dressed in a coarse, commoner-brown robe with a hood, presently down. I had never before stood face-to-face with a priest, unless I counted Emlyn; I recalled Tryphena telling me that Griffith's blood brother had taken priestly vows in his youth before deciding to take up work as a jeweller. Emlyn, though, had possessed an appearance of worldly wisdom. This priest looked utterly innocent, like a child. He was a middle-aged man with chubby features. He was bladeless, as all priests are unless they are making sacrifices to their gods. He stared at me with wide eyes, his face filled with fear.

I did not blame him. In Koretia, death is ever around the corner. I knew of one priest who had died in this land's terrible blood feud.

And I was still holding an unsheathed blade.

There was a crash, then shouts as the guards made their way past the ruined door that had served as my only barrier from them. I did not bother to look around for an escape. Koretian sanctuaries are windowless, and even if the door behind me could be barred, it would only spare me a few minutes of safety before it too was rammed open. There was only one route to safety for me, and it stood before me, staring at me with terror.

I knew how this worked, of course. It is the last hope of a God-Cursed breacher who is cornered: to take a hostage. I had nearly died from such a breacher, who had held his cutting blade against my bleeding wound. I would have died, if it had not been for Adrian—

Adrian. Adrian throwing away his blade as he refused to fight me, the Chara's lawfully appointed guard.

I turned in one swift motion then, the blade flying from my hand as though the mere momentum of my body had caused me to lose hold of it. I had time enough to hear the dagger crash against the wall, under one of the candlelit tables. Then the guards were upon me.

o—o—o

They handled me with no greater severity than the patrol would have shown – which is to say, I was still conscious when they pulled me from the ground. My mouth was bleeding, my head was hazy from being kicked, and I felt as though every bit of my skin was covered in bruises; but my teeth felt intact, and I did not think I had lost permanent use of any of my inner organs.

I simply felt as though the torturers in the Chara's dungeon had worked me over for several hours. I clamped my mouth tight to prevent myself from making any sounds of pain. There were guards at my sides and my back; one of the guards had the edge of his blade against my throat. A single sound or movement from me, and the guards would have the excuse they needed to kill me. I must not give the slightest indication that I was resisting arrest again.

That I was still alive was a tribute to the sublieutenant's discipline over his men, I thought. The sublieutenant gave a sharp order, and the blade at my throat was raised slightly. I could feel blood trickling down from where the blade had touched my skin.

The sublieutenant was standing by the door, assessing me. I could guess why; I had been in his position often enough. Behind me, my hands were being tied – with rope, from the feel of it. The two guards flanking my sides, clearly seeking to be helpful to their sublieutenant, stamped down hard on my feet to prevent me from using my legs as a weapon. Pain shot through me as though they had skewered my feet with their swords. I bit back a shout and felt another trickle of blood start, from where I had punctured my lip with my teeth.

The sublieutenant moved forward then, never removing his gaze from me. He was slower than I would have been, but I did not feel particularly competitive at the moment, with blade-wielding captors glaring at me. The sublieutenant knelt to check my boots first – I did not, as it happened, have a third blade hidden – and then he ran his hands over the rest of my clothed body before ending with the thigh-pocket, which he yanked off so hard that I was left breathless.

Then, wisely, he retreated out of reach of me.

By the time the lieutenant arrived – red-faced and breathing hard – the sublieutenant had finished extracting objects from my thigh-pocket. Seeing that his superior had arrived, the sublieutenant ceased examining the paper he was holding and handed it over to the lieutenant.

The lieutenant glanced at it. "Some form of Emorian," he declared, pointing out the obvious. "I suppose it's Old Emorian – I hear that their law documents are written in that language. Can you read it?"

He looked at his valuable sublieutenant as he spoke. The sublieutenant replied, "No, sir." Then, evidently fearing that his superior would miss what was obvious, he added, "But that's the Chara's signature and seal at the bottom of the document."

"I know what it is." The lieutenant folded closed the Chara's proclamation of my release from his army, which I had carried with me from Emor so that I would have proper credentials to re-enter the empire after my trip. "I'll give this to the King. He'll want to see it."

"That's a bit of good luck, him turning out to be a spy as well," the sublieutenant observed.

"Why were you chasing him?"

I nearly drove myself into the Land Beyond by jumping as the priest spoke. I had forgotten about him.

Fortunately, it appeared that everyone else had also forgotten him. All the guards turned their heads to look in the direction of the priest. The guard who was holding my arms slackened his grip, while the blade in front of my throat wavered. I had a split instant in which to formulate a plan for escape.

Unfortunately, every plan I could think of involved either murder or hostage-taking. With the final tattered remnants of my honor, I forced myself to remain still.

It was the lieutenant who replied. He said, "This man spoke to a slave."

The priest had moved forward to where I could see him. His childlike face grew grave as the lieutenant spoke. He turned his eyes toward me. "I shall pray for him," he said simply.

Then the sublieutenant barked another order, the guard's grip on me tightened, and I was thrust forward, out of the sanctuary and beyond my final hope of escape. At least, I thought bitterly, I knew what the lieutenant meant in his cryptic reply.

It wouldn't be long before I discovered that I had not the least understanding of what the lieutenant had meant.

Chapter Text

Only three days passed before I saw the priest again. I spent those three days in a blackness deeper than any I had encountered in the border mountains.

It was not blackness of the spirit. As I tended my healing wounds as best I could, I retained hope that I would be able to convince the Koretians that I was not a spy. If my dismissal paper had been translated, it would reveal that I was no longer in the Emorian army. In any case, I would have a chance to defend myself at my trial. The question that lingered in my mind, as I sat in my lightless prison cell, was what sort of trial I would be granted under the gods' law. I wished that I had Carle by my side to advise me.

He had at least alerted me many years previously to the nature of Koretian prisons, since he had been a brief guest in one during his spying years. So I was unsurprised when I was hurtled into a cell with no light, no windows, and barely enough cracks in the doorway to provide me with air. Porridge and water were delivered to me at irregular intervals – very irregular – by guards who did not look my way, much less answer my questions. Through the thick wooden door I could hear little. I began to feel as though I were in the night-bound border mountains, silently waiting for a breacher to make a sound that would reveal his location.

It was not a sound but a sight that finally caught my attention: light which flickered through the cracks of the door and fell like golden splinters upon the floor. I pressed my ear against the door. Calling upon all my training, I deciphered what was being said by the muffled voices in the corridor.

"I can't tell you how to do your work, Lovell," said an exasperated voice. "It's for you to decide how to bring the gods' judgment upon him. All I know is that the King left orders for him to be questioned."

My stomach had contracted at the sound of the word "questioned," but in the next moment I heard a familiar voice say, "The gods' law is not an instrument of torture which you can inflict upon an unwilling prisoner. He's Emorian – how am I supposed to give him his god's judgment if he doesn't have a god?"

"Well, you know what the alternative is, Lovell. I would think that you'd be eager enough to save him from that. It's all the same to me."

There was a pause; then Lovell said something so low that I could not catch its sound. The light-splinters shifted on the flor, and I hastily stepped away from the door a moment before I heard the key in the lock. Light flooded into my isolation. It was a moment before my eyes adjusted to take in the figure before me.

He looked much the same as he had at our previous meeting: he wore the same brown robe, this time with his hood up. His expression was tentative as he looked upon me. Standing under the torch that the guard had placed in a hook on the wall, with the door next to him once more closed, the priest said softly, "I understand that your name is Quentin."

So my dismissal paper had been translated; this was a good sign. "Yes, sir," I replied. "I was a lieutenant in the Chara's armies, but I'm retired now. I entered Koretia in order to visit a friend."

I stopped because a slight change in his expression told me that I was progressing too fast. I waited, and after a moment he asked in the same soft voice, "Shall we sit down while we talk?"

I nodded my assent and waited until he was seated on the single wooden bench before I sat down. I was not sure what rank priests were, since none had ever tried to pass the patrol, but I did not wish to take any chances. The priest named Lovell folded his hands tightly together; it was not clear whether his nervousness derived from my presence or from his difficult mission. After a while he said, "Your appearance is southern. You have some Koretian blood in you?"

"Yes, sir. I'm a borderlander."

He licked his lips with a quick flick of the tongue before saying, "I know little about the Emorian borderland. Do you worship the gods there?"

I hesitated at this tricky pass. I did not wish to offend him, but neither did I want to tell him any lies that might endanger me. Finally I said truthfully, "I wasn't brought up to do so, but I've known many borderlanders who are god-worshippers, so I suppose that I've never been certain that gods don't exist. I do believe in fate."

"Fate," repeated Lovell quietly. "Well, I suppose that is close to believing in the gods. The trouble is, you see, that I cannot judge you under the gods' law unless you are willing to accept the judgment of the gods."

I nearly asked him what the alternative would be to a trial, then decided that it would not make a good impression if I did so. The guard had already made clear that Lovell was offering me the better choice. I took time in formulating my answer. I was running through my mind a conversation I had held with Carle some weeks before. In the end, I said, "Sir, I can't say that I believe in the gods, for I truly don't know whether they exist. But I accept that the law of this land is the gods' law, and that you, the gods' representative, have the right to judge me under that law. If I am willing to accept you as my judge, would that be enough for your gods?"

He brought his clenched hands up against his lips and sat that way for a while, his head bowed and his brow wrinkled in thought. He was a few years older than me, and his black hair was burnished with silver streaks near his temples. His fingernails were rough on their edges; he bit his nails, I decided. My suspicion was confirmed in the next moment as his left thumb edged into his mouth. Then he pulled it quickly out and said, "That would be acceptable, I think. But you would have to take a vow."

We were in Koretia; such a statement could mean only one thing. "I don't have a blade," I pointed out.

Without a word, he pulled from its sheath the dagger that was hanging from his belt. I had wondered about its presence, since Koretian priests are normally unarmed, but I had thought that he was simply wearing it as protection against me. Now I realized that he had brought it with him for another purpose.

I took it from his hand, shunting aside in my mind all further temptations to make him my hostage. I had already said that I accepted him as my judge; I was honor-bound from this point on to abide by the laws of this land. I stared with curiosity at the blade before me – it was curved like a crescent moon – and said, "You'll have to tell me what to say."

Lovell looked upon me with some concern. "Do you even know where to cut?"

I shook my head, and with a sigh, Lovell pointed to the correct place on my palm. It was the first time I had ever deliberately cut myself. Though of course I had sustained far worse wounds over the years, it still took me a moment to nerve myself before I parted my flesh with the blade and watched the red liquid well out. Lovell took back the blade, wiped it clean before sheathing it, and said, "You must select a god to whom to make your vow."

Thinking of Tryphena, I said, "The Moon."

Lovell opened his mouth, and then shut it again. Not sure whether I had pleased or disturbed him with my choice, I simply waited until he told me what to say. Then I repeated, "I, Quentin son of Quentin, do swear unto the Moon Goddess that I will offer true witness of the deeds I have done, both for evil and for good."

Having finished my blood vow, I looked over at Lovell again. He did not appear to be carrying any documents of witness.

"Am I to be the only witness in this trial?" I asked.

I worried that I was asking a foolish question, but Lovell promptly replied, "If you deny that you have done evil, then I will ask the arresting lieutenant to come and give his witness before the god of what he saw."

"I do deny it," I replied firmly. "I'm not a spy; I came into this land only in order to find a friend. If you trace my movements for the last few days, you'll find that I have done nothing except to try to locate this friend."

"I see." Lovell pushed the hair back from his brow with a nervous jerk. His hood had fallen back, and I could see that he was wearing his hair long, in the old fashion that I had heard was favored by priests. "Well, I'm glad to hear that you're not a spy, but that is not what your god is judging you for."

"It isn't?" I raised my own hand to wipe away some sweat which had formed on my brow. Lovell had used the Ancient Koretian word for "god," which is without gender; I knew this because the Border Koretian word is the same.

Apparently believing that he was dealing with a beginning student, Lovell said slowly, "Here in Koretia, if you commit a number of evil acts, you are judged primarily for the crime that is the worst."

He waited a moment to see whether I understood, and I nodded. So I had made matters worse for myself by resisting arrest – well, I might have guessed that. I asked, "How does this trial proceed? Do I volunteer my witness, as I would in an Emorian court, or do you question me, as a Daxion judge would do?"

"I question you," said Lovell, looking faintly surprised that the issue would arise. "Are you ready to offer up your witness?"

I thought of the hundreds of prisoners I had judged over the years. This ought to have made my trial easier for me, but I found my throat clogged and had to nod my answer.

Lovell asked softly, "Does your family own any slave-servants?"

It took me a moment of staring at him to be sure that I had heard the question correctly. Carle had told me that trials by the gods' law proceed in a seemingly aimless manner; here, then, was the proof of what he had said. "My family is dead, but we never owned any slaves. I lived in a poor village; everyone did their own labor."

"But if you had been able to afford slaves, you would have had no objections to owning them? You do not object to the idea of slavery?"

I forced aside my curiosity as to where this line of questioning was taking us. All that mattered now was giving true witness to my judge. "I've never thought about it, actually, but I suppose that I have no qualms on the subject. All of the slaves I've known have been either lawbreakers or kin to lawbreakers – criminals or rebels or enemies that have attacked Emor. Since the only alternative to enslaving such people would be to kill them, I see it as a greater mercy that they should become slaves."

Lovell nodded. His eyes were cast down, and he seemed absorbed in his own thoughts. After he had remained silent for a minute, I could not contain my curiosity any longer. I asked, "What relation do these questions have to my crime?"

Lovell raised his eyes again. The torch was beginning to fill the cell with smoke, and there was a haze between him and me. "Well, you see," he said, "it is important for me to discover why you spoke to the slave. Some men might have done it because they thought it wrong for slavery to exist."

Long training kept me from showing what I felt on my face, but I could not prevent my voice from rising as I said, "Are you telling me that my greatest crime is that I spoke to a slave? That this is more serious than a charge of espionage or resisting arrest or attempted murder?"

A look of puzzlement returned to Lovell's face. Once more his voice took on a tone of patience as he said, "If you had actually killed the lieutenant, you would have had to answer to his blood kin, of course. But you didn't succeed in doing so – unless you are referring to another murder?"

I shook my head slowly. I had forgotten how casually matters of murder were treated in Koretia. As the priest had said, I would have faced a blood feud if I had taken the Koretian lieutenant's life, but no soldiers would have arrested me on a charge of attempted murder. Nor was I in any danger because I had resisted arrest, it seemed. Probably any Koretian would have done the same as I did, and would have been praised by his friends if he had succeeded in escaping. Truly, Koretia was a lawless land, as Carle had always said.

And yet . . .

"So it is a serious crime in Koretia to speak to a slave," I said.

Lovell's face suddenly brightened. "Perhaps," he said, "you did not realize that you were breaking the gods' law."

I remembered my oath and forced myself to say, "No. No, I did not realize that my crime was serious, but I did realize that I was breaking Koretian law by talking to the slave."

"Then why did you do so?"

I hesitated, then said, "I was searching for a friend. I thought that the slave might be able to tell me where she was."

"This friend – is she in some sort of danger? Is that why you broke the law in order to find her?"

I shook my head and said in a low voice, "I am not even sure that she would want me to find her."

Lovell appeared to consider this confession as he frowned with concentration. The door and walls of my cell were so thick that I could hear nothing besides the sounds within the room: the crackle of the torch-flame, the rustle of floor-straw as Lovell nudged it with one twitching foot, and my own heartbeat, growing steadily louder.

The priest asked, "Are there any other reasons that you spoke to the slave?" Then, as I looked at him blankly, he added, "Men often have more than one motive for what they do. In the moment that you decided to break the law, what thought was in your mind?"

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. Lovell waited patiently. I finally forced myself to say, "I was thinking that I didn't care about the Koretians and their cursed laws."

I broke the silence that followed by adding, "It was only a passing thought. I have always tried to be a law-lover."

"Well," said Lovell, "the fact that the thought was only momentary may be important in itself. You did not remember that you had thought this until I asked you?"

"No," I said quickly. "I would certainly have given you my full witness if I had remembered it before. It was such a brief thought that I barely noticed it occurring."

So deeply did Lovell dive into thought that he had chewed his left thumbnail for some time before he realized what he was doing and pulled his hand from his mouth. Then he asked softly, "Have there been any other times in your life when you have done some evil because of a passing thought such as this? Think hard upon what I awsk."

I felt the blood drain from my face as I stared at the priest who, up to a moment before, I had thought of as a kindly but unintelligent man. I did not need to think very hard at all, for I had spent my weeks on the ship remembering just such occasions; I had a full list of them ready to recite. I hesitated, though, before asking, "Is this part of the testimony I must give?"

Lovell nodded. "I think that Emorian law is different, is it not? A priest I once knew who had lived in Emor told me that men who have committed crimes there are judged only for the crime itself. Here in Koretia, the gods will judge you for what you are – for what sort of man you have become that you would commit such an act. Therefore you must offer up witness of any other deeds you have done in your life that are like this one."

Alarmed though I was by what was taking place, I could not help but feel a strange thrill go through me, as I did on the day that my father taught me how to disarm him. It had taken just a few months under my grandfather's tutelage for me to lose all pleasure from bladeplay, but still I remembered that piercing joy I had experienced with my father, not from the fact that I had proved myself skillful with a sword, but simply from having learned something new and valuable. Bladeplay itself was wondrous: the curve of the swinging blade, the shock of the sword-clash through the arm, the slight move of the enemy's eye which told me where the next blow would fall and which allowed me to pierce through the enemy's guard. If I had been able to spend my life thinking about this, rather than about the fact that I myself was a great swordsman, then I might have been able to enjoy my work as a patrol guard. But my grandfather had never allowed me to forget my talents or forget what debt I owed to them and my father.

I had received greater pleasure from learning Emorian law, though I would never be as great a law-lover as Carle and though my enjoyment was sullied by the fact that I was the guard in the patrol who exacted the law's vengeance against lawbreaking breachers. Now I was the lawbreaker, and what guilt I felt at my deed was not enough to prevent me from delighting in the fact that I was becoming acquainted with a new sort of law, one with rules very different from the law I already knew. No matter what Carle thought, it was evident that the gods' law was a true law, with its own strict rules of discipline.

So I gave my witness, and my thoughts about the gods' law shielded me somewhat from the pain at describing my many careless deeds of evil and my growing doubts about my own self-worth. Only at the end, when I looked over at Lovell and saw him watching me with his brows drawn down in a serious manner, did I fully take in what I had told him. Then I felt the breath drawn from me as though my spirit was leaving my body.

I did not have to wait long for Lovell's reaction, for he said immediately, "I do not think that you have given me your full witness."

I pushed aside the straw with my foot and scratched at the filthy earth with my boot tip. "No doubt I have done evil in many other ways, but these are the only occasions I have been able to remember."

"You don't understand," said Lovell quietly. "You vowed to your god to give witness to all that you have done, both evil and good."

I raised my head to look at him. It was my job as patrol lieutenant to judge the character of border-crossers, and I had judged this man to be a simpleton. I still could not believe that I was far gone in my judgment. So it appeared that the priest was drawing upon some wisdom greater than his own as he questioned me, much as Emorian judges draw upon the full strength of the Chara's law in making their judgments. The Koretians had always claimed that their gods were the real judges at their trials; this must be what they meant.

I said, "People have told me that I'm too modest and that I fail to recognize my own strengths. I suppose that they are right to some extent, but I don't think it's humility that causes me to be this way. Rather, I feel guilt that there is so much evil in me which other men fail to recognize. Only my grandfather knew about this part of me, and his solution was that I should simply fight my evil side and kill it. He made it sound as easy as killing a violent border-breacher. I've tried to fight in that manner, but it doesn't work. I have been growing worse and worse as the years go on."

Lovell shook his head. "No, it has gone beyond the point where you can fight this alone. You have a demon within you; only the gods can destroy it now."

The winter air in the cell was dry. I had to swallow to moisten my throat before I could say, "A demon."

Lovell nodded and scratched at his beard with his ragged nails. "Any one of the things you say you did – trying to kill a guard whom you believed to have a lawful duty to arrest you, endangering a slave by speaking to him, bedding a maiden and failing to protect her afterwards from the possibly murderous fury of her brother, abandoning your family at a time when there was danger that the King's army would attack . . . Any one of these things could be excused. The weaknesses you showed as a soldier could be excused as well; you had good reasons for committing all of those acts. But from what you tell me, there has always been a voice whispering to you at such times, advising you to follow your selfish desires. Even in cases where you did the right thing, such as warning the Emorians of the attack of the King's army, you did so for evil motives rather than for good ones – you know this, though you have failed to recognize what the voice is. It is the voice of a demon; he has taken so great a hold on you that you are not even sure later why you have done what you did. He has captured your spirit. You are now a prisoner to his lust for evil."

My heart was beating against my rib cage like a battering ram against a city gate. I said, "If this is true, how can I fight such a demon?"

"Not as your grandfather advised," said Lovell, absentmindedly brushing his robe with his hand. "You are bound by the demon; you cannot fight him on your own. Your captain was also right in saying that you must recognize your own worth, but as he is an Emorian, he did not understand the proper manner in which to do so. As long as this demon is within you, it taints all that is good about you; even your virtues become tools in its hands. You must exorcise the demon from your spirit."

"How do I do that, sir?" I asked.

Lovell gave a sober smile. "Well," he said, "there are some priests who say that it cannot be done – that a man claimed by a demon is doomed to have his spirit destroyed. Because of this, demon-possessed men in this land are stoned to death."

I had known of this Koretian custom, of course, and had therefore known where the conversation was leading us from the moment that the word "demon" was first spoken. That did not make it any easier for me to face this news. I grasped at the one hope he had left me. "You do not believe this?"

Lovell bowed his head. "I have my doubts about that, as I have my doubts about whether it is right to punish you in the way that I must do, but it is not my place to question the wisdom of the gods' law. You will not be stoned, though. You have been accused and found guilty of speaking to a slave, and you must receive your god's punishment for such an act. Having said that—" He raised his voice because I had opened my mouth to ask him what the punishment was in such cases. He continued, "I think that this punishment, terrible though it is, may be the gods' way of helping you to exorcise your demon. I have known other cases like this, where a man with a demon was punished in this way. The demon has always left him afterwards. Demons, you see, cannot dwell in spirits which are utterly given over to the will of the gods, and that is what will happen to you. If you remember that, it may give you some comfort during what I must now do."

He rose to his feet. I followed suit, swallowing my questions, since it was evident that my sentence had already been decided and that my punishment, whatever it would be, was certain under the gods' law. Lovell reached out his hand and placed it upon my forehead. Speaking in a voice suddenly clear and loud, he said, "In the name of the gods, I declare that this man standing before me has done evil in the sight of the gods, and that he has not merely done evil but has turned his face from the will of the gods. He is therefore cursed by the gods and must receive the punishment reserved for those who are the gods' enemies."

His hand pressed hard against my forehead. I could feel sweat forming on my brow under his palm. These words, I knew, were the ones that Adrian had heard seven years before. I knew also that Adrian had been lucky to receive a quick death. Stoning now seemed to me a mercy in comparison to what I faced.

Lovell let his hand drop. There was sweat on his brow as well, and misery in his eyes, but his voice remained firm as he said, "Now you must choose the manner of your death."

I nearly gasped from the release in tension. I kept my voice as cool as possible as I asked, "Do I have a choice? I thought that the god-cursed were always burnt alive."

Lovell shook his head again. "If you had refused to receive your god's judgment, I would have had no choice but to give you that death. Even now, you may receive it if you wish. But since you have admitted to your evil and wish to conform yourself to the will of the gods, you may instead request a Living Death."

This did not sound much better; I had visions of being buried alive. "A Living Death? What is that?"

This time, Lovell's look puzzlement reached the point of consternation. It was clear that I had just shown some tremendous ignorance of Koretian life. "It is enslavement," he said softly.

It took me a moment to regain my breath. He mistook my relief for fear, saying, "I know that it is a hard choice to make."

"I wish enslavement," I said quickly. His eyes were still upon me, so I felt that I must justify my choice to both of us. I added slowly, "I know that some men would consider it better to die than to live a life without honor. I cannot say that it is easy for me to lose my honor in this way, but it seems to me that there is greater honor in doing your duty than in appearing honorable in the eyes of other men. And I think that I do have a reason for preferring enslavement, aside from my fear of dying. I have always believed that my spirit was sent to the Land of the Living for a purpose, and that I should make every effort to stay alive as long as possible, lest I die before that purpose is fulfilled. If I have the choice whether to die or to be a slave, I think it is my duty to say that I wish to be a slave."

Lovell mused upon this a moment and then said, just as slowly, "So you wish your spirit to live."

It seemed to me that I had already made this clear by saying that I wished to be enslaved, but I nodded. Lovell reached for the door, opened it – I could see the guard standing nearby, with his sword at readiness – and said, "I will take that into account when I perform the Death Rite."

I must have gaped. Lovell, perhaps aware by now that he was dealing with a simpleton, added softly, "I'll be performing the Rite of Death on you in a few days. You see, you can't become a slave until you have died."

Then he walked out of the cell. I was left with my questions and with a growing uneasiness as to what sort of mercy I had actually been given.

Chapter Text

More time passed – it was only a few hours, I believe. During that time, I remembered with dark amusement the struggles I had undergone the previous autumn when deciding whether to request a Dismissal with High Dishonor. It had been painful for me to decide to throw away my honor; now I would have no choice but to lose it. No choice, that is, except death, and my words to the priest had been sincere. The more I thought about all the slaves I had seen in my life – especially the masked Koretian slaves – the more attractive death seemed to me. But I did believe it my duty to stay alive. And whenever I began to doubt that and began to contemplate asking for death instead, I remembered the funeral pyre in the Daxion square, and how its victim had spent his last minutes. Even decades spent in slavery would be better than that sort of death.

So I thought at first. It took a visit from another Koretian to make me realize how wrong I was.

I had fallen asleep finally, but my instincts as a patrol guard caused me to jerk up and reach for where my thigh-dagger had once been. The man standing before me had not spoken; the light from the open door behind him was what had awoken me. I rose to my feet and took in the appearance of the Koretian who was silently watching me.

I could tell that he was Koretian from his dark skin and his southern sandals; I could not have known this from his hair, which was as white as midwinter ice. I could tell that he was old from the wrinkles on his hands; I could not have known this from his face, which was disfigured with broad scars, as though he had been tortured through flaying. I could tell also that he was a man of some importance, for his chin was raised high and his back was straight with the dignity of a nobleman; I could not have told this from his tunic, which was that of a lesser free-man, nor from his dagger, whose hilt was plain iron. His hand was gripping the hilt, but his eyes were in no way hostile. Rather, he appeared to be silently assessing me.

The silence lingered so long that I began to feel uncomfortable. Taking the chance that I had judged the man's rank correctly, I stood and raised my hand to my heart and forehead. It was only when a small smile appeared on the man's face that I realized what I had done.

My hand dropped heavily to my side as I said, "I ought not to have done that."

"Oh, don't worry," responded the man in an informal fashion, smoothly returning my greeting. "You're still a free-man. If you weren't, I wouldn't be speaking with you. My name is Kester son of Hoare."

"Mine is Quentin son of Quentin," I said, "but I prefer to be called 'lieutenant.'"

For some reason, this statement caused Kester's smile to deepen. "You don't care for your name?"

"Not particularly."

"Well, this is the first time I have ever met a man who will actually benefit from being enslaved."

Kester's voice was light but not mocking. I could make no sense of what he was saying, so I asked, "Are you to be my master?"

Kester shook his head as he leaned against the splintering planks of the cell wall. "You are assigned to work at Council Hall and therefore your new master is Lord Logan. I'm here to train you in your duties. I am one of the Reborn."

It was a title I had not heard before, but something about the manner in which he pronounced the word led me to understand that this was what gave dignity to Kester. It was not that he spoke the word with pride. Rather, his voice grew suddenly quieter, as though he were embarrassed to reveal something that was so much to his credit.

I said, "You must forgive me, but I am Emorian, and I am ignorant of some Koretian customs. Who are the Reborn?"

Kester raised his eyebrows. The white hairs there were dry and kinked with age, but still smooth in contrast to the ragged skin of his face. "You know nothing of the Reborn? What do you know about Koretian slavery?"

"Only that one mustn't speak to a slave in another man's household. Oh, and I know that slaves are also forbidden from speaking to anyone outside their household."

Kester's hand continued to rest on his hilt. He fingered the iron slowly for a minute before saying, "I wonder whether a week will be long enough."

"Your pardon?"

"I have a week in which to train you; it may take me that long just to awaken you to what you are facing. Tell me, are slaves ever freed in Emor, and if so, under what circumstances?"

I tried to read the dark eyes looking out from the scarred face. Failing this, I said, "Slaves are sometimes freed in Emor. Usually it is because they have shown long and faithful service to their masters."

"How long?" Kester promptly asked.

"It depends on the slave. Some slaves are freed after fifty or sixty years of service, but I've heard of slaves who received their freedom after only twenty years of service."

Kester's eyes glittered as a smile returned to his face. "It is much the same here in Koretia, except that the slave is rewarded, not only for long and faithful service, but also for the ability to survive his slavery. The Reborn are those who have been freed from slavery. We are the ones who survived long enough to gain our freedom."

Something about Kester's steady gaze caused me to ask, "How long was that?"

"Oh, it varies. As far as I know, I lasted longer in slavery than anyone else in my lifetime. I was a slave for ten years."

I felt a heaviness on my chest. To push it away, I spoke louder than I'd intended. "Are you telling me that slaves in this land are so harshly treated that they only live for ten years?"

"No," said Kester quietly. "My case was unusual. Most slaves are lucky if their spirits are still alive after three years."

My gaze fell. I stared down at the floor, then forced myself to say lightly, "It is like being in the mountain patrol again. That is how long most patrol guards survive."

"You were in the Chara's border mountain patrol? For how long?"

I looked up to say, "Eighteen years."

Kester released his hand from his dagger long enough to scratch the back of his neck in a contemplative manner; then he quickly rested his hand on his dagger hilt again. "I see," he said. "Then you may have a chance of winning your freedom. But I'm afraid that you cannot count on it. I've known cases of slaves who survived very long indeed – seven or eight years – yet were never allowed to be Reborn. It all depends on the whims of your master, and whether the gods are watching over you."

I considered this. The door to the cell was still open; through it I could hear faintly the footsteps of guards on patrol. I could not hear any sound from the other prisoners.

"This place is as quiet as a tomb," I said with irritation, trying to steady my breath.

Kester smiled again, a smile that I now recognized as one of irony. "It would be. This is where the slaves are imprisoned when they are punished."

I said slowly, "The priest, Lovell, told me that he would perform the Rite of Death upon me. Is that why? Because it is so likely that I will die?"

"It is more complicated than that," said Kester. "In fact, being an Emorian, you will already have misunderstood what I have told you. I think that it would be best for me to take you to see some of the Living Dead. Then you will be able to see for yourself what you have been condemned to."

o—o—o

Some time later, we stood in the meeting chamber of the King's Council, watching a group of masked slaves methodically clean the furniture there.

I was standing unbound and unguarded, unless you could count the fact that Kester's hand remained on his dagger hilt. Guards had briefly greeted Kester as they allowed us through the prison doors, but they had ignored me altogether, as though they were used to prisoners walking freely out of their cells. In my case, they were right not to worry. Having accepted Lovell's judgment, I felt honor-bound to accept his sentence as well. I made no attempt to escape as we walked across the open courtyard of Council Hall.

Now, as I watched the slaves silently concentrate on their work, I said in a low voice, "I find it hard to believe what you have said. A friend of mine who owns slave-servants told me once that it is in the master's best interests to treat his slaves well. It seems absurd for Koretian masters to keep driving their slaves to death. Isn't it troublesome for them to have to replace their slaves every few years?"

"It all depends on how you define death." Kester did not bother to lower his voice. Several of the slaves looked up toward us, exchanged glances, and continued with their work. When I looked back at Kester, I saw that he was watching me rather than the slaves.

"I don't understand," I said, irritation entering my voice. I was growing tired of being ignorant.

Kester smiled. "You were the patrol lieutenant; you know how to judge men. Go up to that slave and look at his eyes. You'll find the answer to your question there."

He did not even bother to turn his head as he pointed to one of the slaves who had failed to look toward us upon our entrance. Swallowing my questions, I walked over to where the slave was dusting the dirt off a lengthy wine-stand.

He did glance up as I came over toward him, but only long enough to move himself out of my path; then he returned to his work. I could see out of the corner of my eye that several of the slaves had stopped their work and were watching us unabashedly. I surmised from this that Koretian slaves were not required to lower their eyes in the presence of free-men. This was a relief to know, since I had not liked the idea of spending the rest of my life dipping my eyes before my superiors.

I reached the slave. He looked up again, edged away slightly, and continued his work. I could not read his expression through the mask, but I could see his eyes. Shock entered me. The eyes were unblinking and steady; they did not move, though the slave's head moved as he worked. Neither did the pupils shrink as he moved into the path of the bright daylight. The eyes remained unchanging: as still as a barren pool of water. I had seen eyes like these many times, but in the past, the bodies around such eyes had always been motionless as well.

I walked slowly back to Kester, using the time to steady myself. Then I announced flatly, "His spirit is dead."

Kester bowed his head, as a servant does to his master. "I see that the mountain patrol's reputation is well deserved. I had not expected you to find the answer to your question so quickly. Yes, his spirit is dead except for the ability to follow the commands of the gods and his master. He has no will of his own; he cannot think for himself, and he cannot do anything unless he has been told to do it. Yet his body continues to live and do work. His master has no need to replace him."

I thought this through, leaning my cheek against the sun-warmed doorpost and gazing out upon the slaves dressed in funeral grey. The chamber about us was small in comparison to Emor's Council Chamber, but it had an air of spaciousness to it, for the south wall was taken up almost entirely with one of the enormous windows that can be found in every Koretian building. As I watched, the tallest of the slaves finished his work and walked over to the window, leaning out toward the roses crawling up the golden stones outside. He stood that way for a moment; then he returned to his dust-rag, picked it up, and moved to another part of the room.

I said, "But your spirit is alive."

Kester nodded, pointed at the slave who had refreshed himself at the window, and said, "Go and look."

I followed his instructions and found that the slave was already awaiting me. He had paused in his work; he gazed back at me silently as I looked him over. Feeling somewhat foolish, I wondered whether it was safe for me to talk with the slave, since I was now in the same household as he was, but I decided to take no chances. Instead, I returned to Kester and said, "His eyes are normal. His spirit is alive."

Kester nodded. Throughout the room, some of the slaves continued to watch us silently. They were no doubt more interested in finding out about the new slave than they were in conversing amongst themselves. Kester was still watching me rather than the slaves. He said, "At the time of your Death Rite, Lovell will ask you if you willingly offer up your sacrifice to the gods – that is, if you wish your spirit to die as payment for your crime. If you say that you do not, the gods will not take your spirit from the Land of the Living. Your spirit will remain alive . . . for the moment. But you will be able to offer up your sacrifice at any time. This is what most slaves do in the end."

One part of me – the Emorian half I had inherited from my father – was trying to make rational sense of the supernatural events Kester was describing. But I thrust such an attempt away in order to say, "I thought that Lovell was offering me a single choice, whether to live or to die. But I see that I have an additional choice: my body and my spirit can live, or my body can live and my spirit can die." As Kester nodded, I asked, "But why would any slave choose so terrible an existence, with one's body in the Land of the Living and one's spirit in the Land Beyond? What is done to these slaves to make them want to let their spirits die? Are they badly beaten?"

Kester's gaze did not follow the gesture of my hand as I pointed toward the slaves. He began to speak but halted as a bell rang in the courtyard. Pulling me back into the corridor, he said, "That question is well timed. If you follow these slaves, you'll find the answer you are seeking. They are about to have their noonday meal; there will be no free-men present, so they will be as free as they ever are to do as they wish . . . within the bounds of the commands that they were given when they became slaves. If you want to see a Koretian slave when he is most free, most unbound from his master's desires, here is your opportunity."

The slaves were already streaming out the door and walking quickly to the staircase. Several of them glanced our way as Kester spoke; one, without asking, moved to the side to give me room to join them. I knew from his height that he was the one that I had exchanged looks with before; otherwise I would not have been able to tell, for all the slaves were dressed alike, and their masks hid their faces.

I glanced over at Kester, but he had drawn out his dagger and was using it to trim a stray thread on his tunic, so I left him where he was and walked beside my new work-mates as they made their way down the stairway, through the courtyard, and into the decrepit building I had already identified as the slave-quarters.

As I reached the doorway, I paused to look at the scene before me. I was standing in a cramped room, sparsely decorated in the fashion of a commoner's cottage. Through a door in the back, some slaves were arriving with platters of soup and bread and nuts and berries – the smell of the meal made my mouth water. The remaining slaves were seated along long trestle tables. There were no cloths or decorations on the tables, but again, they did not appear to be any worse off than poor commoners would be. There was a domestic feel to the scene, what with the softened thumps of wooden spoons touching the bottoms of wooden bowls, and the friendly manner in which the slaves were handing the bowls from one person to another. There were a few women here, dressed in grey like the men, but wearing floor-length gowns rather than short tunics and breeches. All in all, the scene reminded me strongly of mealtime at my grandfather's hall.

Except in one respect. As Kester came up to my side and leaned against the doorway, still looking at me rather than the slaves, I said in a voice that remained cool only because I was well-practiced in such matters, "They aren't talking."

"No," he said. "They will never talk, not as long as they are slaves. It is forbidden."

o—o—o

I think I already knew what he was going to say, for he had not even finished speaking before I turned my face against the wall, half-smothered my mouth with my hand, and began laughing. Behind me, the sound of wood against wood halted; I knew that the slaves had stopped eating to watch me. I did not stop laughing, though, until I tasted salty liquid dripping onto my hand and realized that my laughter was beginning to turn into sobs.

Immediately I stopped, wiped as much moisture as I could off my face, then turned to Kester and said soberly, "I'm sorry. It's just that a friend told me I didn't know anything about Koretian slavery. I see that he was right."

The soft sound of wooden spoons and sipping mouths began again. Kester let go of his dagger long enough to put his hand on my arm as he said, "There is more."

I nodded wearily. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that quite a few of the slaves had their heads turned our way. I could imagine that this was more entertainment than they usually received during their meals. I said, "I thought that slaves could talk to people within their own household, and I was wrong. So I suppose I was wrong about my other assumption as well. Free-men can't talk to slaves under any circumstances."

"Your master can speak to you," said Kester, letting his hand fall back to his dagger, "and the overseer whom your master appoints to watch over the slaves. But those men will do so to give you orders. Otherwise you will not communicate with free-men – not in any way."

I leaned my head back against the doorpost. "What do you mean?"

"Watch." Without looking at what he was doing, Kester reached out his hand toward a slave who was passing by. The slave jumped sideways to avoid Kester's touch, spilling the bowl of berries which he was carrying. His eyes showed that his spirit was dead; he did not even look our way but knelt down to pick up the fallen food.

"He cannot touch you," I said.

"Nor I him," said Kester. "The prohibition applies to me as well. We are forbidden from touching each other."

I looked over at the slaves, who were continuing to pass food amongst each other. "The slaves can touch one another."

"It is sometimes necessary in their work, so they are allowed to do so. There is one other thing that they can do, but I, a free-man, cannot."

He was watching me steadily, his gaze focussed directly upon me, as it had been this whole time. I said, "You cannot look at them."

He nodded. "Not for more than a moment. If you ever chance to meet a small child in this land, and that child is with his mother, you will hear her give him the lesson that all Koretians learn as children: don't look, don't touch, don't speak. Don't do any of these things with a slave. A free Koretian would no sooner break such a rule than a slave would disobey his master. It is well known how the gods judge free-men who pretend that slaves are anything but what they are: corpses waiting to be burnt."

I looked back at the slaves who were watching us with unlowered eyes – unlowered because in this land it was the free-men who adopted the responsibility for averting their eyes. I saw a sea of grey before me: grey masks, grey cloth covering all skin, with just a foam of dark hair at the back of the head to reveal that a human lay underneath. I said, "They all look alike."

"They are all alike. None of them may speak, and none of them may touch a free-man or be looked upon by a free-man. They are the Living Dead: death spirits doing work in the Land of the Living, but ignored by all living men and not allowed to communicate even with each other. They wear funeral bindings which hide their bodies, and death-masks which hide their expressions, lest their thoughts be revealed in such a manner. Whether their spirits are living or dead is of no importance. They are all dead to the world, and to prove this, they have no names."

He stood on the opposite side of the doorway, dressed in his lesser free-man's tunic and touching the free-man's blade that reminded him of who he was now. Looking at the scars on his face, the ugly ruins of his past,  I said, "How did you manage to live for ten years?"

He smiled then, a smile untouched by irony, and said quietly, "The gods watched over me. I would not have had the strength to survive on my own."

o—o—o

I lay on the bench, feeling the mask tight upon my skin, enclosing all of my face except for the slits admitting air and light to my eyes and nose and mouth. My eyes were closed. I was aware only of the sound of clanging metal, the smell of burning wood, and the touch of the mask. Then a man's fingers began slowly to peel the plaster mask away.

When he was done, the royal blacksmith silently handed me a bowl of water. I scrubbed the remaining bits of plaster off of my face. As I did so, Kester asked, "How long will it take?"

"With all the extra orders I'm getting from the army? Five days, maybe four if I hurry."

"There's no rush," said Kester. The smith chortled before he went over to the other side of the smithy to place the half-dried mask-mold on a drying rack.

I said, "I never imagined that Koretian noblemen would go to the trouble to have individual masks made for their slaves."

"It's worth their trouble. A badly fitted mask can tear a slave's face apart in half a year. Your master cares about your bodily health, even if he has no concern about your spirit. You're lucky to be assigned to Lord Logan; he uses the latest, most comfortable masks. In my time, slaves were always dying of mangled faces. Here's what you'll wear."

Kester was sitting atop a closed water barrel with the ankle of his right leg casually resting upon his left knee, but his right hand was as rigid as always as it gripped his free-man's weapon. He reached over to the side with his left hand and pulled off the wall a death mask which was hanging there, then released the dagger long enough to trace his fingers over the mask.

"Good eyeholes," he said. "You'll be able to see well in this type of mask. A mouth-hole large enough to allow you to eat decent-sized chunks of food, though not large enough to allow anyone to guess whether you are smiling or frowning. A hinged nose-piece – " He demonstrated how the nose-piece swung up. "That's a very nice feature – you can blow your nose while wearing this mask, though not while you are in the presence of free-men, of course. Tiny air-holes to allow air in to your face and sweat out – that alone makes this mask worth its weight in gold. But this is the feature I really like: leather padding along the inside edge of the mask and the bands behind. If your mask is ever removed, you'll have scars on your face, but not as deep as mine."

I looked at the thick iron bands which curved around the back before meeting at the front of the mask, where, I knew, they would be welded in place. "Can such masks be removed?"

"Only by a blacksmith, and no smith in this land would perform such a task unless he had proof that you had been freed by your master. So if you're planning to run away, I advise that you do it now, before you are masked."

Kester spoke quietly, so that his words could not be overheard by the smith or his young assistant, both of whom were pretending to ignore us as they hammered a sword into shape over the central fire. I shook my head. Then, remembering I had little time left in which to use my voice, I asked, "Are these masks uncomfortable to wear?"

"Very, but they're not quite the instruments of torture as the old-fashioned ones. You can protect your health considerably if you follow one simple rule: wash your face every day."

I looked at the metal veil. "Through that?"

"The mask is treated with a solution to prevent rust; you don't have to worry about that. And there are gaps at the top and bottom of the leather padding to allow water in and out." Kester indicated the spots. "Bathe your face as much as possible. I can't convey to you how agonizing it is to have boils on your face that you can't touch. I've known slaves to offer up their sacrifices for that reason alone."

I scratched at my beard. I had stayed beardless during my years in the army – a small defiance of the military tradition in my family – but my beard had begun to grow during my time in prison. Sensing my question, Kester said gravely, "Your beard will be removed from you at the time of your Living Death, by a mystery that is known only to the priests. It will not grow back, even if you are released from slavery."

I could see the young assistant eyeing Kester as he spoke. I wondered how keenly it cut into Kester, to live his life as beardless as a boy. Here in the south, all young men grew beards as soon as they were old enough. It was a sign of their manhood, as much as their blades.

Fortunately, I came from Emor. It was said that one of the Charas during the archaic period of Emorian history had set the fashion for clean-shaven faces; more likely, I thought, this fashion went all the way back to the earliest years of Emor, for beards were rarely seen on the mainland, where the Emorians had once lived. Emorian soldiers often grew beards; conditions on the battlegrounds were not ideal for shaving. In that respect – if in few others – patrol guards had greater flexibility than soldiers in the regular army. Some soldiers, like Carle, grew a beard in conformity with army tradition; others, like myself, exchanged barbering tasks with fellow soldiers. Not having to shave myself in the future seemed more of a relief than a burden. I opened my mouth to say so.

Kester responded to my open mouth with a punch to the stomach. "You will of course be stripped of all your clothing and jewelry."

I said nothing. My hand had closed into a fist, as though I might protect the ring thereby.

Kester flicked a glance at my ring, then away. He said in a soft voice, "That is of importance to you?"

I hesitated, but the young assistant had lost interest in the conversation; he was busy listening now to a particularly intricate bit of instruction by the smith. Keeping my voice as soft as Kester's had been, I explained.

"Something like the nick of a blood vow of friendship." Kester translated my words into his own land's equivalent. "I will talk to Lovell, but I fear I can make no promises. Married men and women are routinely stripped of any tokens they may carry of their marriage; the rationale is that they are dead to their old lives and must not wear anything that would remind them of the days when they were living." Kester rose to his feet, tossing the mask into the hands of the smith's assistant. "I think we're finished here. Let's go into the courtyard."

It was a beautiful winter's day, cool and crisp. From where I stood, I could just see the peaks of the soaring black border mountains, far to the north. The courtyard was touched by the shadow of Capital Mountain, where my ancestors – where the ancestors of all men with Koretian or Daxion blood – had made their home in ancient times. The trees of Council Hill swayed in a light breeze, while below in the city came the hum of peaceful Koretian life.

Here in the courtyard, all was quiet. Guards stood at their posts at the two entranceways, and the occasional free-servant walked in a unhurried manner from one doorway to the next. At the southeast corner of the courtyard, slave-women were hanging up clothes to dry upon wooden poles.

I tried to imagine such a scene within the grounds of the Emorian palace, and failed. Koretia's royal grounds had a domesticity to them that was entirely unique to Koretian life. As I watched, a couple of city boys darted across the courtyard, laughing together. The guards made no effort to stop them.

"Now, then," said Kester, drawing my attention back to him. "As I mentioned before, the only two free-men who will be able to look at you or speak to you will be your master and his overseer of slaves. For the most part, you will be dealing with Hyrne, Lord Logan's overseer. You need only show toward him the same courtesy that any servant would show toward the man who supervises his work." He paused, evidently seeking sign that I understood that part of my duties.

I did, in fact. While my family had been poor, most patrol guards – such as Carle's – came from better-off families. I'd visited the homes of many of my men, and there I had observed how both slave-servants and free-servants behaved. I said as much to Kester.

"Erase in your mind all previous lessons concerning slavery," Kester replied dryly. "From your state of ignorance when I first met you, I gather that the treatment of Emorian slaves is very different. . . . Well, then, bow at appropriate moments to Hyrne. In the case of your master, however, a greater gesture of humility is required. Kneel down."

The courtyard pavement was filled with patches of ice, one of which lay directly in front of me. I was quite sure Kester was aware of that fact. I knelt and felt the ice shatter, its jagged teeth cutting into the cloth of my winter breeches and piercing my skin with its sharpness and its coldness.

"Now lean forward," instructed Kester. "More. . . . More. . . . Move your backside further behind you, and lean more. Pretend that your back is carrying delicate glassware, and that your back must provide a level surface, lest the glassware crash. . . . No, move your head further toward the ground than that. You should be close enough to see the specks of dirt on the ground. . . . No, don't rest your torso on your thighs; you are kneeling, not relaxing. Keep your arms parallel with your back. . . . Good. Now hold that position."

I did my best. By now, I had recognized the posture I was adopting. It was the Obeisance, practiced in ancient times towards the gods, when they still roamed the Three Lands. I had seen some of the ancient stick figures of the Obeisance that were painted on the cave walls of the black border mountains. I had thought, however, that the practice had long since died out. The notion of performing the Obeisance, not toward a god, but toward a mortal man, disturbed me.

"Good enough," pronounced Kester in the moment before I would have collapsed. "Can you count to a thousand?"

Straightening up and placing my palms on my thighs as I struggled to regain my breath, I nodded. My schooling was not as good as Carle's – he had been tutored by a well-educated servant – but my grandfather had ensured that I possessed as good a memory as any patrol soldier should have. My way of counting large numbers was to recall in my mind all the patrol's whistle-codes in order, multiplied by the number of times needed to make the full count.

Kester continued, "When you are back in your cell tonight, practice until you can hold that pose for a thousand beats. Then twice that. Masters sometimes become distracted when speaking to their slaves and leave them alone for a time. You will be expected to remain in position until your master's attention returns to you." He gestured me to my feet.

I rose, my body aching. I felt less happy about the winter weather than I had before. The lower portion of my breeches was now soaked cold, and I knew that I would receive no replacement for them. Kester's training was unrelentingly strict, which provided me with all too gloomy a picture of what he was preparing me for.

To make matters worse, I was aware that some of the slave-women had been watching my awkward attempts to follow Kester's lesson. I felt my face turn hot. To cover my embarrassment, I said, "That is the Obeisance, isn't it? Is it meant to suggest that my master has sacred power over me?"

"Perhaps," Kester replied, his voice turning dry once more. "However, it possesses the practical purpose of ensuring that your eyes do not meet your master's when he is speaking to you. You will find that even the overseer dislikes meeting your gaze." He gestured, and I joined my step alongside his as he said, "You have already seen the slave-men's dormitory. At the moment, the council's slave-men and the King's slave-men are both housed there."

I glanced at the doors to the shoddily built slave-quarters. "And the slaves of the King's heir?" I asked. I knew that the King of Koretia was childless, but I held a faint memory that he had proclaimed a cousin-once-removed (the Koretian word for the kinship was more complicated than that, of course) as his heir presumptive. As in Emor, the heir would require confirmation from the land's council before he was permitted to take the throne.

"The King's heir has charge of the barony of Valouse, a nearby town." Kester gestured toward the northwest. "He remains there at present. . . . Tomorrow I will introduce you to your labors. Mainly, you will be doing heavy duties unsuitable for free-service. Kitchen tasks, for example."

He held his gaze steady upon mine. I was not surprised. Throughout the Three Lands, lowly kitchen tasks are traditionally assigned to women. I was not upset at the idea of doing such work, though. As soon as Quentilla had grown old enough to realize that she alone, of the two of us, was expected to prepare food, she had taken to dragging me into our family's kitchen so that I could help. I hadn't minded; it had given me an opportunity to speak privately with my sister, without our grandfather listening in.

Now I briefly summarized my experience, and Kester nodded. "You will not need to assist with the food, however. All food preparation is done by the free-servants."

As we paused our steps, close to the north entranceway to the courtyard, I cocked my head, considering this statement. Then I said softly, "There have been cases of slaves poisoning their masters?"

"One." Kester's reply was terse.

Only one? I wondered how terrible the slave's punishment had been. Then I pushed aside that thought. There was no point in worrying about a punishment I wouldn't receive. I had no intention of trying to murder anyone again.

"If you prove obedient and skilled at your work, you will be granted lighter duties," Kester added. "The highest duty of all for council slave-servants is serving the council lords and their guests in the council's receiving chamber."

In other words, being trusted to deliver food and drink. I nodded to show I understood.

"Any last questions for today?" Kester spared a brief glance toward the north entranceway. I knew by this point that he lived in a rural home close to the city. Nobody slept at Council Hill except the King, his High Lord, their personal free-servants, the slave-servants, and the slaves' overseer.

I thought, and then I replied, "One question, if I may be permitted. Why did you take up this work?"

From the surprise on Kester's face, I gathered he wasn't normally asked this question by the men and women he trained. He recovered quickly, though. He glanced again toward the northern entranceway – this time at the listening guards, I guessed. Then he beckoned.

There are very few places on Council Hill where privacy is to be found. Kester took me upstairs to the Council Chamber, abandoned on this day as on all days. I had gathered, from a passing remark made by Kester, that the current King's Council preferred to deliberate informally, in the luxury of its receiving chamber.

I looked around the chamber more carefully than I had on the first occasion I was there. This chamber struck me once again as being much smaller than the chamber of the Great Council of Emor. The council table was barely larger than Carle's dining table. It gave a sense of the relative scale between Koretia and its northern neighbor. For the first time since my arrest, I wondered how matters were faring between Koretia and Emor. Was there any hope that my enslavement would be cut short by the Chara winning full victory over the Koretians? For a reason I could not yet explain, that thought made me uneasy.

"Well, I will tell you, lieutenant." Kester had relaxed onto one of the chamber's windowseats; he gestured me to seat myself. The only chairs in the room belonged to the council, so I sat on the floor, resting my back against the wall.

Kester continued, "I had not planned to work for the council. I was arrested, at age nineteen, for drawing blood with my blade against the baron of my village in central Koretia. When I was brought for judgment, it was unclear to the village priest whether I had offered sufficient notice of my intention to duel. Normally, I would have received nothing but a reprimand – at worst, a public beating. Unfortunately, my baron was kin to a council lord who was visiting him at the time. The lord demanded that I be tried by the council priest – Lovell's predecessor. The next thing I knew, I was masked." He turned his head toward the breeze making its way into the chill room, and I saw again, clear in the sunlight, the scars upon his face. "I mention all this to explain that I had good reason to believe that my family would welcome me back afterwards, despite my years as one of the Living Dead. And indeed they did. The baron I had harmed had since died in a duel he had initiated. His eldest son, who was now the village's baron, bore no grudge against me, and the rest of the village respected me as one of the Reborn. I was singularly fortunate."

His gaze was steady upon me now. I understood why, but he need have no concern toward my own fate. I was Emorian; after my sentence was fulfilled, I could return home, knowing that none of my official records in Emor would take note of this foreign episode. Thanks to the Koretians' reticence, very few Emorians knew the customs of slavery in Koretia. Therefore, very few Emorians would be able to guess, from any facial scars I retained, how I had spent my time abroad.

Evidently reassured by my expression, Kester continued, "I was welcomed home with great courtesy. A week later, I left my village, returned to the capital, and requested permission from the King to become a trainer of men and women who had been condemned to a Living Death."

The shadows in the room were growing darker as the afternoon sun dipped behind the mountains that formed the western border of Koretia. The room darkened, except for Kester, who remained lit by the sun. The sunlight glinted upon his dagger of manhood.

"Only a month before, you see, one of the King's slaves had been executed," Kester said. "He had only been enslaved for a brief time, but he had broken the gods' law by allowing himself to be touched. He had not understood that he could be condemned, not for touching a free-man, but for being touched. In those days, slaves were never trained. They were given brief orders concerning specific tasks and were expected to figure out the rest on their own. Fully a quarter of new slaves were executed for mistakenly breaking the gods' law." As I drew in my breath sharply, he added, "And another quarter offered up their spirits to the gods within a short time of being enslaved, simply out of fear of making similar mistakes and being condemned to the same fate. Slaves with dead spirits, you see, are not executed, since they are entirely dead. But the gods will not accept a slave offering his spirit in order to escape from the imminent torment of a planned execution. Therefore, many slaves chose the preemptive act."

I said quietly, "So you set out to save the live-eyed spirits from a complete death."

There was a small smile on Kester's face now. "I thought I would only be working for the council for a year or two. It grew into something more valuable than that: a task far worthier than anything else I might have done with my life."

"It cannot have been easy for you, though."

Kester turned his face toward the sun once more, his gaze now upon the sky. "No."

I pulled myself to my feet, feeling that this conversation required a greater sign of respect than sitting. Not until I had made my way over to stand near Kester, though, did he say softly, "The most difficult part is not to break the gods' law myself. Not to speak to or look at or touch the men and women to whom I have been bonded during the brief but intense period of the training. It can be difficult, sometimes."

He did not look at me as he spoke – the first time, since I had known him, that he had turned his gaze away from me for any lengthy period. Keeping my voice quiet, I asked, "How do you manage it?"

This was not an idle question. Since Lovell had helped me to recognize how seriously endangered my spirit was, I had been seeking tools for my own self-discipline – anything to keep me from travelling further down into a bottomless pit of destruction.

Kester's smile suddenly sprang back. Turning his head to look at me again, he allowed his hand to move down to the hilt of the dagger that he rarely released. He pulled the blade free of its sheath and showed it to me.

I looked at the dagger. It was nothing special – plain iron all the way from the blade to the hilt. And though it would be unusual in Emor for any man who was neither noble nor soldier to carry a blade, here in Koretia it would have been strange if Kester had not carried a blade at his belt. Among grown Koretian men – and most Koretian boys as well – only priests and prisoners and slaves remained bladeless.

I said, "The blade reminds you of the gifts you receive from your freedom?" It was a guess. I could imagine how keenly the Koretian slave-men must feel shame for the loss of their blades.

"Oh, that too," Kester replied lightly, as he turned the dagger in the light until the sun blazed upon it. "But mainly, I wear this blade as a reminder that, if I ever break the gods' law again and am noticed, I will slide this dagger into my heart before I allow myself to be made a slave once more."

Chapter Text

Kester left me at the entrance to the passage. I thought he might offer me a prolonged farewell, or even a prayer over me. But he gave me a only a nod, as though we would be meeting again soon to chat.

I was glad for the opportunity to make my own way to the sanctuary, and not only for symbolic reasons. I needed time to think.

I did not have to worry about making a last-minute decision over whether to offer up my spirit to the gods. I had seen enough dead-eyed slaves by now to be sure that such a sacrifice was real and potent, whatever its cause. But from what Kester had said, I would be provided the opportunity to make such a sacrifice, not merely once, but every day. If I came to regret my decision to keep my spirit in the Land of the Living, I would have the chance to easily reverse that choice.

As for my body, I knew that I would not spend my final moments as a free-man searching for an instrument of death. After ten days of consideration, my mind remained firm on this matter: it was my duty to remain alive if I could.

It took me some time to determine the actual cause of the sickening of my stomach. Then I recognized the sensation, though it had been nineteen years since I last felt it.

It was the panic I had experienced as a young man of sixteen, on the day I left my village to join the patrol. It was the panic of knowing that I was willingly walking into a trap.

I had reached the door to the sanctuary. I took a deep breath and pushed open the door.

The sanctuary was much brighter than it had been on my previous visit. Candles were lit everywhere, while burning oil lamps surrounded the floor around the altar. The room was more crowded too, filled with boys in peasant-brown, loose-waisted tunics. A couple of them noticed me and nudged each other, but they were apparently too well-trained to voice their interest. I gussed that these boys must be a few of the orphans that the Koretian priests were said to care for at their central house of worship, which was located on Capital Mountain, just outside the city.

Lovell had been busy lighting the last of the candles, but as I closed the door behind me, he turned. He was dressed in the same manner as I had seen before, in brown cloth matching that of the orphan boys. His hood shadowed his face. At his beckoning I came forward, wondering at what point the rite began.

He must have read the uncertainty on my face, for he said, "You may continue to speak until the rite begins. I understand that Kester has been giving you instructions for your time as the Living Dead. Do you have any questions about that for me?"

"No, sir. He has been most helpful."

Unexpectedly, Lovell smiled, his smile a faint shining amidst the shadows over his face. "He is a good man – a very good man, blessed by the gods. Would that all men who are condemned to a Living Death ended up like him."

I bit my tongue to refrain from pointing out that, if most slaves did not live long enough to be reborn, that was hardly their fault. Lovell's smile faded as he said, "I understand from Kester that you wear a ring."

In the same manner as Kester, he was keeping his voice low – too low to be heard by the boys nearby. I nodded, my stomach tightening, and began to pull it from my hand.

He forestalled me with a gesture, though. "As Kester has explained it to me, this ring symbolizes to you your need to carry out your duties – is that correct?"

It seemed that Kester had been selective in what part of my tale he passed on to the priest. I nodded.

"Kester believes that having a physical reminder of your duty to the gods will help you to remain obedient to your master," Lovell said, still softly. "For that reason, I have decided that you may retain the ring in your Living Death. You must be careful, though, to keep the ring hidden at all times. Never remove your gloves in the presence of anyone else, living or dead. Do you understand?"

I did. I understood that I had been very fortunate to know a man of such honor, courage, and wisdom as Kester. It was a great shame that our relations must end on this day.

I contented myself with saying, "Yes, sir." I slipped my left hand within a fold of my tunic, so that the ring would not be seen by the boys.

Noticing this, Lovell relaxed visibly. He added, "You will not need to say anything throughout most of the rite. At only one point in the rite need you speak. I will ask you, 'Do you willingly offer up your sacrifice to the gods?' The answer to that question is yes."

I drew in a breath, then hesitated, the objection clear in my mind but without formation into words.

Lovell had not finished. "Then I will ask you, 'Do you willingly offer up your body as a sacrifice to the gods?' The answer to that question is yes as well. The final question is, 'Do you willingly offer up your spirit as a sacrifice to the gods?' The answer to that question . . . That answer is for you to decide. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," I replied, relieved to have my question answered.

Lovell nodded; then he turned back to the table next to him. Standing closer now, I could see that the table held a number of the masks that symbolize the gods and goddesses of the Koretians. Picking up a mask with a crescent smile and star-shaped eyeholes, Lovell placed the mask on a hook that jutted out from the wall. He murmured a short prayer under his breath, then reached across the table for a golden chalice, jewelled. Lovell removed the cloth covering its brim and offered the chalice to me.

I looked at it warily. It was filled with neither the pale yellow-green of Emorian wall-vine wine, nor the deep gold of Daxion cider, nor the purple-red of Koretian wild-berry wine. Nor did it look to be ordinary ale or beer, the everyday drink of commoners.

Once again, my uncertainty must have been manifest, for Lovell said, "It contains nothing harmful; it is but water with a sleeping potion in it. You must be asleep for the final portion of the rite."

I glanced around the room, just in time to see the smith enter, along with his young assistant. The assistant was holding a bag that sagged from something heavy within.

Understanding now, I swallowed the bitter drink. The drug, whatever it might be, had no immediate effect on me. Taking the cup back from me and handing it to a boy, Lovell said, "Now go lie on the altar, please. Beware the lamps," he added in a practical manner, then turned to scold lightly the boy, who was holding the chalice carelessly as he took it away to clean it.

This time I had to bite back a smile – a most unexpected smile, given my circumstances. I went over to the altar, which was simply a large slab of rock, polished. Carefully avoiding the lamps on the floor, I slid into a sitting position on the altar. As I lay down on the surface, I realized the altar was covered with bands of cloth. Grey bands of cloth, the color of mourning.

Around me, obeying some signal from the priest, the orphan boys were beginning to hum tunelessly. No Daxion ballads for my funeral, it seemed. I stared up at the ceiling, which proved to be made of a metal so finely polished that I could see myself clearly in it.

Lovell appeared at my side. He was armed now, a sheath at his belt holding the curved blade that I knew Koretian priests wore only during their sacred ceremonies.

"You must remain silent and still throughout the rite," he urged me in a whisper. "If you speak or move, I must begin the rite from the start, and this rite can only be performed twice on the same man. If the rite fails once, I will have no choice but to hand you over for execution."

I nodded to show I understood, and then, to show that I still could, I spoke my answer: "Yes, sir. I will follow the dictates of the gods' law."

Lovell took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then said softly, "The rite is begun."

What followed I could not understand, for the most part. From the bits spoken in modern Koretian, I gathered that the beginning portion of the rite was a blessing for a dying man, but most of the rite was in the desert tongue, the oldest language in the Three Lands. Any borderlander can read the desert tongue, for Border Koretian is descended from it, but understanding it spoken is another matter. Unable to move, speak, or understand the rite, I concentrated my thoughts on the image above me.

I had my mother's brown skin and my father's blue eyes – an uncommon combination, even in the borderland, where northern and southern features intermingle. Most of the blade-scars I had acquired over the years were hidden under my clothing, though I could see a faint line along my throat – a gift from a border-breacher long dead. My face, by some miracle, had remained relatively untouched over the years. I looked no older than my thirty-five years.

Incense filled the room, misting my nose, misting the light. I heard three questions; I answered yes to the first two questions, no to the last. The mist grew thicker, obscuring sight of the man above me. The candlelight dimmed.

Darkness grew till all I could see was a single light, like a moon rising.

o—o—o

I awoke with a jerk, just as I was about to slide off the galloping horse. Clinging with desperation to consciousness through the haze of pain that dulled my senses, I lifted my head from the horse's mane where I had rested it a moment before. The horse – an intelligent creature who had not required much instruction from its half-dead rider – was beginning to slow as we approached the closed gates of the city.

A crescent moon veiled by clouds revealed no movement atop the gate towers. I waited until I had reached within shouting distance before I called out, "Open, in the name of the Chara!"

My horse came to a halt abruptly, having reached the path of round logs over which horses must be led slowly, if they are not to break their legs. I gave another shout, but my voice grew fainter this time, and my words did not carry far. The tower above was black with night. I could feel the blackness beginning to swallow me.

I pulled myself up deliberately, allowing the pain to slice me back into consciousness. As I did so, the blood began to ooze out of my belly once more. Its only barrier throughout the ride had been the warm skin of the horse.

The horse was trained for the army; it stirred at the renewed scent of blood, but otherwise made no move. Cursing inwardly the laxness of the watch guard, I wondered whether I could make it back onto the horse if I dismounted. But I had no choice. Sliding off the saddle – falling off it would have been the more accurate way to describe it – I led the compliant horse over the log path and collapsed against the wooden gates. Still clutching the horse's reins with one hand, I began pounding the gates with my other fist.

"Open up!" I cried. Then, feeling myself begin to slide toward the ground, I lapsed into my childhood tongue and said, "In the names of the gods, open!"

There was a shuffling sound above. Tilting my head, I could see at the top of the circular tower a soldier leaning over the stone battlement. His sleeves were edged with a blue border.

Glancing down at my plain black tunic, which had no colored border to identify my rank, he said with a grin, "You're too late, soldier. You shouldn't have stayed so long with your girl; the gates are closed for the night."

"Open up, I tell you!" I said with a choke. "The Koretians are attacking!"

The subcaptain of the watch frowned with puzzlement. "What did you say?"

I turned my head to look back. Beyond the late-summer fields, black in the night – in front of the border mountains, black in their rocks – was a small golden light, no larger than the village it now engulfed. As I watched, a second fire began.

I was beginning to slide down once more; the gate was now slippery with my blood. Clawing at the wood and feeling the splinters in my fingers, I made one last effort. "I'm the Lieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol – let me through!"

The subcaptain of the watch stiffened at my words. He looked over his shoulder and barked a short order. I pulled myself back just in time to keep from falling on my face as the great gates of the city swung open. As the gates creaked inward, I saw the quiet houses of the city dwellers, ash-grey in the faint light of the moon. Behind me, I thought I could hear the Koretian army as the soldiers bought victory through blood and fire. Before me was only peaceful serenity.

"Enter, lieutenant." said the subcaptain above me. "Enter if you wish."

I took a step forward and then glanced up. The subcaptain's eyes were not on me but on something behind me. I turned and felt the coldness travel through me, as though all of my life's blood had finally drained from me.

Who would have thought that the Koretians would reach the city so quickly? I could see them racing toward me, the high officials on horses, the other soldiers on foot, all holding spears or naked blades. They were still far enough away for me to make my escape, though. I need only step through the gates, and I would be safe, free from punishment and pain. I took a step backwards, and then I hesitated.

The Koretians continued their attack; they had almost reached the city now. They hacked down everything they met. The wheat fields turned black at the Koretians' touch, so that only stubble remained, as though the soldiers were Koretian cicadas eating everything in their path. As they came closer, they passed a wall of rock; a head emerged from a hidden entranceway in the rock. My breath travelled in swiftly.

The head turned, and the figure took a step out of the refuge where I had left him and the others. His bloody sword was still naked in his hand. He waved me back with it, saying, "Hurry, lieutenant! You're the only one who can save our land – leave us and alert the army!"

I took another step back, then stopped and said hesitantly, "Sublieutenant?"

"For the gods' sake!" cried Devin in his borderland accent. "You took the spear-wound in my place; you've led the patrol for eighteen years. Why should you endure more pain when it would be of no use? Why sacrifice yourself when you have already sacrificed so much?"

The Koretians had slowed. I could see their faces now, bronze-colored or darker brown, twisted with the passion of men who wish to cause pain. They came no nearer; they seemed to be awaiting the order to attack.

I took another step backwards and stopped. Devin ran up to me. Crying aloud in a high voice the words I had heard in my mind not long before, he said, "You have always put others first – your family, your soldiers. Why not think of yourself for once? If you enter the gates, you will find physicians who will heal your pain. If you stay where you are, you will receive wounds that may never heal. Leave! Leave your duty!"

I stared at my sublieutenant. His face was as it had always been, quiet and competent, but his words had an edge to them I had not known. I gazed at his eyes, small and red, and then I knew what I was facing. I pulled my sword.

He laughed, and with one stroke disarmed me; then his sword-point rose to my throat. "You are mine, lieutenant," he said softly in a voice that was my own. "You are my prisoner. Surrender yourself to me, or there will be nothing left for you to surrender. Your spirit will be extinguished as though you had never lived. Surrender to me, and I will bring both of us to safety beyond the gates."

In reply, I sent out a single high, piercing whistle, a whistle that cracked through the sky like lightning and was followed by the low rumble of fire. Another borderland village was ablaze.

The man who wore my sublieutenant's body gave a low-throated chuckle and stepped forward so that his sword-tip burnt at my throat. I took a step backwards, but the gatepost was against my back. Further down, my hand was pressed against my side, trying to stem the flow of blood. "There is no one here to help you, lieutenant," the man said softly. "Your men are all dead or wounded. You have no choice but to surrender."

"No," I whispered, and stood motionless as I felt the blade begin to cut into my throat.

"Lieutenant!" I looked up. There, where he had stood before, was the subcaptain. Reaching into the sky, he grasped the crescent moon above and pulled it from its place. He tossed it down to me. "Here!" he said. "A gift from your mistress."

It landed in my hand as a dagger with a curved blade, its hilt cool to my touch. The man before me was still holding his blade, but I knew how to fight dagger against sword. Not giving him time to think, I cut through his defenses. I plunged the blade into his heart.

His face began to change from the moment the silver blade entered his body. His skin turned from smooth to wrinkled, like paper curling in on itself in a fire. His hands became gnarled like roots, and he began to slobber and spit. Moving back in disgust, I watched as his body closed inward, like a beetle that is dead. His clothes fell away to reveal the hideous form underneath.

I stared for a moment at the demon, feeling his death like a cool wind in a summer's night. Then I looked up. The Koretians had watched all this silently. Now a captain in a red-bordered tunic raised his arm in the signal readying his division to attack.

A voice, neither male nor female, too loud to be human, too low to be thunder, said, "Do you willingly offer up your spirit as a sacrifice to me?"

I turned to face the sound of the voice. It had come from the land beyond the gates, from the quiet streets and the peaceful houses. The dagger slipped out of my hand; in the same moment, a full moon rose over the horizon, casting cool light upon the scenery before me, as though flooding it with refreshing waters. Behind me, I could sense the bloodlustful Koretians awaiting my reply.

The question puzzled me, for it made no sense. Here was my sacrifice: to stay where I was, amidst the pain and the battle. Beyond the gates was my peace. If I entered that land now, I would be healed of my wounds and endure no more punishment. It would be no sacrifice, no sacrifice at all.

"No," I said. "It is the lieutenant's privilege."

The gates swung shut with the rapidity of a rock falling down a mountainside; the peaceful land beyond disappeared from view. Behind me I heard a shout, and the horse that had been standing beside me whinnied and raced away in panic. I turned, trying to draw my sword, but it was too late. They were upon me; their swords and spears entered my body. Choking on blood, I fell to the ground and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, I was facing a slave.

It was silent and nameless and without any marks to identify it. It was covered all in grey, as though its body had turned to ashes, and its face and expression were hidden behind a death mask. All that I could see was a bit of its brown skin and its eyes, blue and alive and looking at me with curiosity.

After a while, I realized that I was looking at the reflected image of myself.

I turned my head. The smith and the orphan boys had left; no one remained in the sanctuary but Lovell, and he had his back to me. I could hear him murmuring soft prayers as he stood in front of the hook before the shrine, but the mask on the hook had changed, and the prayers were no longer for me.

Remembering the instructions that Kester had given me, I stood up from the bed, felt my head whirl with dizziness from the drug, then made my way unsteadily to the door. The priest did not look my way. I pulled up the latch, walked into the passage, closed the door behind me, and then stopped.

There at the end of the passage, leaning carefully back against the wall so that I would not brush against him, was Kester. His hand was fingering the hilt of his dagger, and his eyes were focussed directly on the wall he was facing. His gaze did not waver as I slowly stepped forward and stopped beside him.

I felt cold anger rising inside me. This was not part of Kester's duty; he might have spared me this. It would have been hard enough for me to meet him months from now and have him act as though I were not there. To encounter him now, when I was newly masked, was more than I could bear. I heard my breath whistle in as I prepared to tell him what I thought of his behavior.

His eyes did not move; only his hand, curling tight around the hilt of his dagger, revealed his thoughts.

I understood then.

He would sacrifice even that for me; he would allow me to speak to him, though my words would place him in unendurable temptation. He would do this if it would help me, just as he had gone beyond his duty and stayed here, so that my first temptation to speak would come when I was in the presence of a free-man who would not report my disobedience.

I stood motionless a moment; then I bowed my head in acknowledgment of his gift. His gaze did not waver, nor did he look my way as I walked past him and entered into my Living Death.

Chapter Text

I was cold. I had been colder before, for there is no coldness like that which cuts a man who is trapped in the snowbound black border mountains. But I had never been cold for so long. Every morning that I awoke in the unheated slave-quarters and knew that I must push away my blanket and go cloakless for the rest of the day, it took greater effort for me to rise. And always at that moment, I heard a question put to me. But so far I had found the strength to say no.

I told myself that I was lucky – that the winter weather was mild in comparison with what I would have had to endure in Emor. But it was hard to remember my good fortune as I knelt in the water filled with mud and half-formed ice and tried to scrub the floor clean with hands covered with ice-encrusted gloves.

There was a wind as well, blowing southeast from the winter-cold sea, buffetting the slaves bringing in the wood from the fuel-cart outside, slicing the slaves cutting the wood, and scraping against me as I cleaned up the dirt that the slaves had tracked in. The slave-keeper liked the storeroom kept tidy.

I had placed myself as far as possible from the open side door that led out to the cart path, so I had to bite away a curse that rose to my lips as the courtyard door in front of me suddenly opened, bringing with it a shower of chilling sleet that drenched my bowed head and shoulders. Without looking up, I moved out of the grey light falling through the door. As I knelt down again, I automatically placed the bowl to the right of me. Then I remembered, and brought the bowl back to my place.

Two shadows lay on the ground in front of the courtyard door. One of them swung an arm across, breaking the door-light in half, and said, "Now, here we have a large number of slaves, and by watching how they work, you can tell how long they have been here. That slave there, for example, has been dead for many years. He works with great skill in chopping, since he has done that so often, but it would be very hard to train him to a new task. That slave over there, on the other hand, has only been here for one year and is still learning his work, but he has proved himself so flexible and so easy to train that he is often assigned tasks no other slave would be expected to undertake. Thus, in choosing not to offer up his sacrifice, the slave has shown great faithfulness to his master and to the gods."

I looked up to the doorway where Kester stood, leaning against the doorpost, staring at the young man beside him, and pointing with unerring accuracy at me. This was only the second time I had watched him train a new slave, but it had not taken me long to recognize what I had failed to see in the days when I stood there beside him: how he used the words of his training as a way to praise the slaves whom he dared not address directly. I kept my gaze upon him for a while so that he would know I had heard his words; then I bowed over my work once more.

"That slave over there," said the young man. He was actually not much younger than I was, but he looked like a child in comparison with Kester. "Is she—? I mean, is it—?"

"She is with child, yes. In fact, she is due to give birth any day now." Kester began to reach up to wipe some sleet from his hair, then quickly gripped his dagger hilt once more.

"Does this happen often?" the young man asked hesitantly.

Kester gave one of his quiet, ironic smiles. "To have heard the fuss made when her condition was discovered, you would have thought that it hadn't happened since the world began. No, it is not supposed to happen; the slave-women sleep separately from the men. This slave managed with her lover's help to keep her pregnancy secret until a month ago. At that point, there was a tremendous tumult over what to do. Everyone from the priests to the King was consulted. The conclusion finally reached was that the child of this union would not be a slave but a free-child, and therefore he or she must be dedicated to the gods and sent to the priests' house to be suckled by one of the healing-women there. Of course, this is an unusual case, since the palace priest knows when the child is due and therefore will know, when a baby arrives at the doorstep of the priests' house, who the child's parents are. However, he has taken a blood vow not to reveal the baby's identity to anyone. And so the baby will belong only to the gods, just like any other child who is left at the priests' house."

I knew that this lengthy recital was less for the benefit of the young man than for the benefit of the slave-woman, since all of us had been forced to learn the fate of the child by eavesdropping on free-men, and what one of us knew, we could not pass on to the others.

"Any questions, Wilfred?" asked Kester.

The use of the new slave's name was deliberate too. Once masked, Wilfred would be stripped of his name . . . but thanks to Kester's habit of naming new slaves in our presence, all of us in the slave-quarters knew the names of any man or woman who entered into slavery after we did.

Except my name. When I first met him, I had asked Kester not to use my name; therefore, I was nameless to everyone here except Kester.

Wilfred hesitated. He had a look of a young man who was prone to impulsive behavior and had come to regret that. I wondered what his misdeed had been. I knew by now that, unlike me, most of the palace slaves had lost their freedom, not by committing any serious crime, but simply by attracting the wrath of a nobleman. The slave-quarters therefore had a very different feeling to it than a prison cell. We were united, not by deeds of great evil, but by our desperate attempts to stay alive.

Those of us who were still alive, that is. Slaves who were newly dead-eyed were usually reassigned to simpler tasks. I looked again at the empty space beside me. The live-eyed slave I had worked alongside since my arrival in the slave-quarters – the one with whom I had first exchanged looks in the Koretian Council Chamber – had been missing when I awoke that morning. I had no idea what had happened to him.

"Obeisance!" said Kester sharply. "Your master is approaching!"

All of us who had been allowing our gazes to wander looked quickly down at our work. In our crouched positions, those of us who worked for the High Lord had no need to adopt the Obeisance, so I occupied the next few seconds by watching Wilfred struggle into the position he had been recently taught. He was very poor at it.

Fortunately, Lord Logan took no notice of him as he approached. I had seen the High Lord only once since my entrance into a Living Death, shortly after I received my first assignments. Since then, I had remained in the slave-quarters, permitted to enter the courtyard only when moving between duties. For his part, the High Lord rarely left Council Hall, where he and the King lived and worked. Lords and lesser free-men came to him, rather than the other way around.

Yet as on the first occasion when we had met, Lord Logan struck me as a man relaxed about formalities. "Ah, Kester," he said in a friendly manner, as though he were not addressing a former palace slave. "You are joining us for the rite?"

Around me, most of the slaves sucked in their breaths. It was then that I saw my nameless companion in work.

He had his head bowed, which might merely have been because he was accompanying the High Lord, or which might have meant something far worse. I could not see his eyes, so I could not tell whether they were still alive. He was flanked on both sides by guards.

"The Rite of Death?" Kester's voice was very even. I felt a chill cover me as I realized what it was that the other slaves feared.

Not the death of my companion's spirit. The agonizing death of his body.

"No, no." The High Lord waved away this suggestion. "Did you not see the notice? Come forward, slave."

My companion stepped forward and obediently knelt, though without making the Obeisance. His head remained bowed, but I thought I could see a glimmer of his live eyes.

"There you are, Lovell." Lord Logan turned to greet the palace priest, who had just arrived, book in hand. "Shall we start? I have a council meeting in a short while."

Lovell paused before speaking. Him I had seen more than once since my enslavement, though we had not met face to face. He had a tendency to stop by when Kester was holding his lessons. He never interrupted those lessons; he merely watched. I could not make up my mind whether he hoped to educate himself as to the spiritual state of his enslaved charges, or whether he was hoping to catch Kester if the reborn slave made contact with the Living Dead.

If Kester suspected he was under scrutiny, he hid it well, smiling as Lovell halted in front of the High Lord. Giving a nod of greeting to the High Lord – Koretian priests bow only to the gods, I had learned – Lovell said, "I thought you might wish to conduct the rite yourself, sir. It would be of greater meaning to your slave if you did so."

"To be sure," replied the High Lord as he took the book from Lovell's hand. "It has been a few years since I last did this; I'd forgotten that this is the one rite I can conduct." He smiled briefly at the slave who was kneeling in front of him.

There was a collective sigh around me as the other slaves straightened up. I followed their cue, relaxing. Clearly this was not going to be the Rite of Death, which only priests could conduct.

Lord Logan rapidly flipped through the book before finding the page he wanted. He must have been well familiar with the rite, for he started without hesitation: "'As the gods ordained that all of us should die and pass into the Land Beyond, so too have they ordained that, after death, our spirits should live again amongst the gods. Therefore, as a symbol of this rebirth into a new life, I bring forward this corpse, that it should undergo a reawakening—'"

My gaze had switched to Kester. He was whispering the words alongside Lord Logan, though I knew that only a priest or a slave's master could speak these words with any effectiveness. Beside Kester, Wilfred was very still, hope growing in his expression as he envisioned a possible future for himself.

My own heart was pounding. I looked down at my hands, cold and stiff. Perhaps not forever. That was what the rite I heard told me.

"'. . . and therefore, I do declare on this day that—' What is the name again, Hyrne?" He looked at the slaves' overseer, who had wandered over to watch the rite. Hyrne shrugged.

"Manoel son of Shaw," murmured Kester.

"Thank you, Kester." The High Lord gave a gracious bob of his head to the former palace slave. "'I do declare on this day that Manoel son of Shaw is once more a free-man, beloved by the gods. May he use his freedom wisely.'" He snapped the book shut. "Stand up, man. I don't expect my free-men to kneel to me." He smiled down at the former slave.

Manoel rose to his feet slowly. His eyes looked as stunned as I expected mine would have, under similar circumstances. He looked around cautiously, as though uncertain where to go next. His eyes caught mine and held them. Then he remembered, and jerked his gaze away.

Kester took matters in hand. "The smith next, to get your mask removed – that's right, isn't it, Hyrne?"

Hyrne shrugged again. It appeared that, once a slave was freed, Hyrne held no further interest in him.

Kester took the arm of Manoel, who instinctively flinched. Kester took no notice of this, gently drawing Manoel away as he said, "Religious rites can be quite tiring, I've found. Let us go some place quiet where we can talk; then we will deal with your mask. Wilfred, you can find your way back to your cell, can you not?"

Wilfred hesitated, which Hyrne found reason enough to beckon forward the guards. The guards grasped Wilfred tightly by his arms and escorted him back to the prison.

"Oh, dear," said Lord Logan mildly as he returned the book to Lovell. "I had entirely forgotten. I have just stripped myself of the servant who tends the council. Who should I appoint in his place?" He looked around in a general manner, inviting suggestions.

I suddenly became aware that I was neglecting my duties and bent down again to scrub the floor. The other slaves remained upright; it might or might not have been my imagination that their postures looked hopeful.

Lovell appeared confused, as though uncertain how he should identify one slave from another. Hyrne frowned as he scrutinized us. Over his shoulder as he departed, Kester offered the thought, "Perhaps you should choose the slave who is most diligent, sir."

I felt the words enter me like an arrow. The other slaves quickly – though belatedly – bent to their work. Hyrne gave a harsh laugh. "Kester always has his favorites," he told the High Lord.

"Is it a poor choice?" asked the High Lord, still mildly.

Hyrne shrugged yet again.

"Well, then, send it up to the council's reception room at once." The High Lord turned away. "But see that it is clean when it arrives. This meeting is special; we have a new member to the council."

o—o—o

"Three years," said Lord Logan. "That is the length of time I consider appropriate for a Living Death. I always release my slaves after they have spent that much time in atonement."

Lord Gaillard, sipping from the wine he had just received, made a face as though tasting something sour. "Considering the seriousness of the crimes that some of these slaves are atoning for, I would have thought that seven or eight years was more appropriate. What do you think, Drugo?"

"Mm?" Peering out the window at a passing free-woman, the lord looked vaguely round at the sound of his name. "Oh, perhaps, perhaps." It was his standard response to any enquiry. Anything more would commit him to a position. "I'm sure that Kenneth has thoughts on the subject."

Lord Kenneth, his temples beginning to grey, considered the question at length before replying, "I would say that it depends on the slave in question. Wouldn't you agree, Somerled?"

"I admit that I have not given a great deal of thought to the subject," said the middle-aged lord quietly. He was sitting inconspicuously in the corner, taking little part in the conversation. "I would be interested, though, in hearing Lord Blackwood's thoughts on the matter."

Everyone's head swivelled over to the light-skinned lord who was occupying one of the low, broad windowseats for which Koretia is famous; he had opened the window behind him, letting in light and cool air. Several of the younger lords leaned forward, as though prepared to take their lead from him – which was hardly surprising.

Lord Blackwood was, of course, Blackwood of Blackpass, baron of the borderland town that now lay in Emorian hands. He was of mixed ancestry, as attested by his skin color, but the Koretian blood derived directly – far too directly for King Rawdon's peace of mind, it was said – from King Yoktan, the last of the Koretians Kings from the old line. Yoktan had been killed in a feud by Boyce, the first of the new nobility; Boyce had promptly ascended the throne and scattered noble titles among his kinsmen. Rawdon was his grandson.

Since that time, blood feuds had simmered between the old nobility and the new nobility, a fact that the Chara had hoped to exploit. No sooner had he forced Blackpass to surrender than he had offered to make Blackwood governor of his new dominion.

Blackwood's response had been swift. Scorning the man who had slaughtered his kinsmen in the Koretian borderland three days before, he had hurried south and offered his allegiance to the man who had slaughtered his kinsmen in the Emorian borderland six weeks before. The deciding factor in his choice between the Chara and the King, it was said, was that the King worshipped the gods, while the Chara did not.

Whether that tale was true or not, it was common knowledge that Blackwood's piety was so great that he had sought cleansing at the hands of the High Priest for his decision to break his blood vow to murder. The High Priest, as it happened, was the man Blackwood had vowed to murder, King Rawdon.

Now Blackwood set his cup onto the table nearby with a decisive click. "One hour. As you might have guessed, Somerled."

Somerled raised his left eyebrow but said nothing. It was left for Gaillard to say with a twist of the mouth, "One hour? What reverence you show for the gods, Blackwood. So certain are you of the gods' power that you believe it takes only one hour of punishment for the Living Dead to repent of the terrible crimes they committed and be purified of their curse."

There was a cough from Logan, who shot a glance at Gaillard before saying, "We have discussed this topic on many occasions. I think that the views of Blackwood and his kinsmen are known to all of us here."

"Not well enough known, it appears, if the new nobility remain wedded to their innovative ways," said Blackwood.

There was a stirring among the lords, whether of new nobility or old, as they exchanged glances with each other. "Innovative?" said Kenneth. "That is a strange word, Blackwood. Those of us who support the gods' law do so because of its antiquity. Living Deaths are a tradition that go back to the early years of Koretia."

Blackwood tilted his head back, as though staring at the winter sun. "In the days of old, a man who had raped and murdered his sister was brought before the priests and condemned to die, as the gods' law required in such cases. Weeping, the man pleaded with the priests that his punishment was far too mild for the dreadful crime he had committed. Instead, he begged that he might enter into a Living Death, in which his spirit and body would be separated for a time – his spirit dwelling in the borderland of the Land Beyond, as yet uneaten by the Jackal, and his body following the commands of the priests and easing their labor for however long they should wish. That is the tale that we are told by the priests, and there is no reason to doubt its truth."

Blackwood's gaze fell suddenly upon the listening lords, and his eyes narrowed. "And where, my fellow lords, does it tell in that tale of slaves serving nobles? Where does it tell of men being condemned to a Living Death, not because they have committed crimes mentioned by the gods' law, but because they have rebelled against the King and his council? Where does the tale tell of men who do not offer their bodies and spirits willingly, but are forced into slavery against their will, refusing to offer up their sacrifice as all true members of the Living Dead do? The very eyes of the slaves who serve the council should tell you the tale of today's slavery. More than half of the men and women enslaved have spirits that remain living."

"Really?" murmured Somerled from the corner. "I hadn't noticed. How great a percentage would you say are alive, Lord Blackwood?"

Blackwood turned his face to the quiet lord and looked darkly upon him for a moment before saying, "If you wish to see me killed, Somerled, you will have to set a better lure than that. I am not likely to risk execution for breaking the gods' law by announcing to a room full of council lords that I have been watching slaves. As it happens, I discussed this matter with the council priest, Lovell, and he informed me that less than half of the slaves he has performed the Rite of Death upon have chosen the old way – the old way, Kenneth. These other rules – the rules expanding who may be committed to a Living Death, the laws forbidding free-men from communicating with slaves – are innovations arising from the time of the new nobility."

"They are rules promulgated by the High Priest," Kenneth pointed out, raising his hand – without looking away from Blackwood – in order to place his empty glass upon the tray a slave offered him.

"Perhaps our Lord Blackwood would prefer a new High Priest," said Gaillard, attempting a look of innocence.

Blackwood stared at him for a moment before saying, in a surprisingly mild voice, "I suggest that you take a few lessons from those who are junior to you in age and council years, Gaillard. Somerled sets far better traps than you do."

Gaillard's hand tightened on his cup as everyone in the chamber laughed, save Somerled, whose expression was always serious. Logan, who had been looking distinctly unhappy throughout the exchange, relaxed his muscles as he said, "I doubt that we'll see Blackwood rushing off to join the Jackal's thieves any time soon."

"But the Jackal is right about the gods' law," said Lord Colborn quickly. He was the youngest lord in the room, of about age thirty. "However confused he may be on matters concerning his own place in this world, the Jackal is right when he says that the innovations in the gods' law that have been introduced since the time of King Boyce are against the gods' will."

"Is that your view, Blackwood?" Gaillard asked, seeking to regain ground. "That the Jackal-man is confused when he claims he is both god-man and High Priest of Koretia, but singing sweet truth when he says the rules our High Priest has passed are wrong?"

Blackwood leaned back in his windowseat once more, shrugging his hands. "Colborn expresses the matter in a less sophisticated manner than I would, but yes, I believe that the Jackal is right in his views and wrong in his claims. A madman may speak the truth – and the Jackal is far from a madman, though his claims to the godhead are false."

"I am relieved to hear you say that," said a voice from the open doorway. "I was beginning to think that this was a meeting to plot treason."

Several of the younger lords rose hastily. The older lords rose more slowly or remained in their seats, nodding their heads in acknowledgment of the man's entrance. Blackwood stayed where he was, gazing silently at the man. Then slowly, formally, he rose to his feet and raised his arms.

I recognized the gesture; Adrian had showed it to me once. It was the manner in which Koretians pray when they are in the presence of their gods. It was also, I knew, the ancient Koretian sign of homage to the King, rarely used.

The lords in the chamber murmured amongst themselves; Colborn's eyes grew wide. A smile played across Rawdon's lips. He acknowledged Blackwood's gesture courteously with the free-man's greeting, exchanged only between equals.

"I will say this for you, Blackwood." Rawdon spoke as he entered the room, closing the corridor door. "You always give a direct reply to my questions."

"If ever I rebel against you, you may expect an equally direct statement of my intentions," Blackwood said dryly as he lowered his arms and returned to his seat. "Even when I was planning the removal of your life's blood, I never disputed your claim to the throne. And if I were to claim the throne, I would do so at some time other than when we are being attacked by the Emorians. This is not a time for quarrels amongst fellow god-lovers."

"You voice my sentiments neatly," said Rawdon, taking a cup from the tray the slave offered him. "Lords, I came here today expecting to hear you discussing how we may best defend our land against the godless encroachments of the Emorians. Instead, I find you bickering amongst yourselves over old feud-disputes. Logan, surely you can keep your lords in better order than this." His gaze switched to the High Lord.

Logan, who was still sitting, acknowledged the reprimand with a nod. "I do apologize, Rawdon. You know that my views on this matter are the same as yours – that this is a time for unity rather than dispute."

"But your views on discipline are not the same as my own. You allow your lords to fight one another, in faint hope that common ground will be found. . . . Well, that is an old dispute as well." Rawdon dismissed the matter with a wave of the hand as his High Lord began to reply. "I see that Tristan has not yet arrived?"

"He should be here shortly," Logan said as Rawdon came forward. "He only arrived at Council Hall last night. I expect that he has been busy settling in."

"We are looking forward to getting to know him, Rawdon," said Kenneth, waving his hand to the side. A slave quickly appeared next to him, bearing the tray filled with cups.

"As am I," said Rawdon, easing himself into a cushioned chair. The king was a big-boned man, approaching sixty, with scars on his arms from duels in his early years. Like all of the men there, he was dagger-armed. Koretian nobles, I had learned, wore swords only on formal occasions or when they were on the point of issuing a duel-challenge. His dagger sheath was made of whorled gold, but the only other sign of his title was the slender diadem half-hidden in his silver hair. Like the other men, he wore a small god-mask badge pinned to his tunic. The brooch's spiralling rays revealed that the King had taken the Sun – the god of healing – as his god.

"I know little about the boy," Rawdon said. "I had expected that my cousin Raeburn would take on the duties I am burdening Tristan with, but since Raeburn died in our recent feud, it seems best to train his son."

"A dangerous course, is it not, trusting an unknown young man with such duties?" said Colborn.

Rawdon smiled at him, evidently unoffended by the remark. "Somewhat dangerous, yes, but I like what I've seen of Tristan. He is perhaps a bit immature for his age, and more diffident toward his elders than I would have expected, but that will pass. I had Lovell speak to the priest at Valouse, and apparently there was some difficulty at Tristan's coming-of-age rite four years ago. The priest wouldn't go into the details, of course, but I expect that it involved the confessional portion of the rite. I remember my own rite." The King lowered his voice so that it would not be heard by those outside the room. "I confessed that I had bedded whores not once but thrice, and the priest gave me a lengthy lecture on the importance of fathering heirs only to one's own wife. He left me shaking with fear at the wrath of the gods."

Amidst the laughter, Colborn could be heard muttering, "Would that the priest's lesson had taken hold."

Silence slammed down upon the room. Swinging his legs out from the windowseat, Blackwood said sharply, "Colborn, enough!"

Colborn's face suddenly flushed red in the chill chamber, but he said nothing. The King beckoned carefully to a slave, set his empty cup upon the tray, and only then said softly, "You may not recall this event, Colborn, because you were barely out of your swaddling cloths at the time, but many years ago I consulted with the priests concerning my late wife's inability to conceive heirs. The priests conducted their examinations, consulted with the gods, and told me that, for reasons known only to the gods, I was unable to father children. I commanded the priests to proclaim their judgment to my people, so that my wife would not be forced to carry the shame of being thought a barren woman." Yet more softly, the King asked, "I wonder whether you would be willing to make such a sacrifice for your wife, Colborn? Or is your courage confined to mocking the manhood of other men?"

There was an uncomfortable pause, broken only by Colborn's muttered apology. His gaze was now fixed to the rug beneath Rawdon's feet. Finally Logan said, "I must apologize a second time, sire. I would not have imagined that any of my lords would be so unruly."

Rawdon fingered his beard a moment before saying, "Discipline, High Lord. I have said to you before, and I say it again: You allow your lords too much freedom to speak silly and ill-formed thoughts. Kenneth or Blackwood, or even some of our younger lords such as Somerled, can teach you what you need to know about discipline . . . to supplement your fine mastery of the arts of diplomacy and tact."

Logan bowed his head, acknowledging both the compliment and the criticism. At this inopportune moment, the door burst open to reveal a gangly young man.

His muscles had not caught up with the growth of his bones, and his beard was still struggling to cover his face. He was dressed with greater formality than anyone in the room; the gold thread bordering his tunic shone in the late afternoon sun, and the blade at his side was a sword. As the lords turned as one man to look at him, the young man appeared, if anything, more abashed than the unfortunate Lord Colborn.

"Oh!" he said, looking around the chamber somewhat wildly before focussing upon a man he knew. "I apologize, High Lord. I thought— That is, my father had a vestibule before his receiving chamber. I thought I would find servants here to show me to the council's receiving chamber—"

"We seldom indulge in such formality, Tristan," the King said, rising to his feet, "though knocking at other men's doors is always a good practice."

"Sire! I— That is, I didn't see you." Tristan looked for a moment as though he were about to raise his arms, but the words the King had spoken about lack of formality evidently penetrated his mind. He remained motionless as Rawdon walked over and draped his arm over Tristan's shoulders.

"Lords," said the King, "I wish to present you to Tristan, Baron of Valouse, Lord of the King's Council, Prince of Koretia, and heir presumptive to my throne – heir confirmed, I trust, once you have come to know him." There was a noncommital murmur among the lords as they offered the free-man's greeting to Tristan.

"You are most welcome to the King's Council," said Logan from where he sat, at the head of the room between Blackwood and Kenneth. "Please join us, if you will."

The King's heir took another hasty look about the room, which was crowded with chairs and stools. His gaze lit upon the youthful Lord Colborn, seated on a bench near the serving area. Tristan began to step toward him.

From the window came the dry voice of Blackwood. "You may wish to choose your location with care, Prince Tristan."

There was a scattering of laughter at his words. Tristan stared at Blackwood with mystification, then at his cousin the King, who was now grinning. Then Tristan slowly looked round the chamber, focussing finally on the pathway down the middle of the room, where there was a gap in the seating.

It was clear that, had Tristan been a light-skinned man, his face would have turned bright red to the roots of his dark hair. Amidst the renewed laughter, Tristan quickly abandoned the side of the chamber where the old nobility was seated and took the last empty chair for the new nobility, next to Somerled.

He looked with hesitant enquiry at Logan, whose chair was placed squarely at the end of the gap. Logan gave a small smile. "I am not noble-born," he explained. "That is one of the reasons I was chosen by the King as his High Lord – because I have no strong kinship ties with any of the men on the council. I can therefore be impartial during the feud-disputes that separate the members here."

"Feuds that I trust will be suspended for the duration of this war," said the King, reseating himself at the opposite end of the room from Logan. "Lords, I was in killing earnest just now when I said that we must put aside our differences and work together for the defense of our land, against the god-haters who have invaded us. So much in earnest am I, in fact, that I am willing to cede some of my power to the council to accomplish this task."

Evidently recovered from his discomfiture, Colborn broke the silence by saying, "Well, that will be an innovation."

"An innovation indeed," murmured Blackwood amidst the laughter. He was not smiling. "What did you have in mind?"

Rawdon shrugged his hands. "As a matter of fact— Tristan, being forbidden to touch the Living Dead doesn't mean you're forbidden to accept their service. That slave who has been standing next to your chair for the past two minutes is there for a reason."

Biting his lip, Tristan hastily reached forward to take a cup from the offered tray. Around the chamber, the more kindly of the lords covered their mouths to hide their smiles.

"In fact," continued Rawdon, "Logan and I have worked out this matter together, so perhaps the High Lord would care to explain the changes we plan to make."

"I delegated the details of the research to Somerled, so it might be best if he described our plan," said Logan.

Gaillard yawned and leaned back in his seat, resting his ankles upon the rungs of Kenneth's chair. "Wake me when you've finished passing the responsibility for the speech onto the proper person," he said. "I expect that the slave will be the person delegated in the end. I'm sure that he will give a most eloquent lecture."

Nervous laughter rippled through the room. Even Somerled seemed on the point of smiling before he said, in his usual serious manner, "It will not take long to explain. The King and the High Lord have decided, in their wisdom, that the King's Council is too often deadlocked in its present form." He hesitated, shooting a glance over at Logan.

"By me," said the High Lord calmly. "The King and I often do not see eye to eye."

"It is an old problem," demurred Somerled. "Under the traditional form of the council, the lords and the King meet together to come to agreement on matters involving the running of the government. This means that the entire council – the King, the High Lord, and the other lords – must be in agreement before action is taken. An overly lengthy process, alas. That is why the King and the High Lord have chosen to adopt the Emorian division of powers and separate the powers of the King and the council."

Colborn dropped his cup. As the slave hurried forward to mop up the wine, voices began to compete to be heard. Gaillard, in the end, won the victory. "Which powers?" he shouted over the others.

The King looked at Logan, who belatedly gestured for silence. When the only sound was that of the slave wiping the floor with a rag, Rawdon said, "The council will be given powers it has never possessed before in the history of Koretia. It will have the right to make decisions concerning this land independently of the King – decisions such as regulation of internal trade, laws governing local councils, and determination of taxes. These matters you alone will decide. You may consult me for advice, but I will no longer have the right to overturn your decisions."

The slave rose from the ground, cradling the cup that had fallen. No one noticed the slave except Tristan, who flicked the briefest of glances at it as it passed by.

"Why are you being so generous, Rawdon?" asked Kenneth, leaning forward. "I can see that such an arrangement would prevent daily conflicts between the council and the King; the council would proceed independently even if you should be opposed to our decisions. But surely you must have more reasons than one for making such a great sacrifice."

"A message to the Emorians – is that not how you put it, sire?" murmured Somerled from his corner.

"Indeed," said the King. "The Emorians claim they are fighting this war, not out of the land-clutching impulses that have caused them to conquer all of the northern peninsula, but out of an altruistic desire to enrich us with their splendid law. Well, their law indeed has its good points – no man of sense would deny that. The Emorians' error comes in believing that their law is superior to ours. Through this action we will demonstrate to the Emorians that we can adapt the good portions of their law to our own needs, while at the same time retaining the gods' law that keeps this land blessed by the gods of day and night. As Somerled says, this will be a message for the Emorians."

"And for the old nobility."

Heads turned once more toward the windowseat in the room, and toward the light-skinned lord sitting there, sipping his wine. Blackwood's gaze was dark as he said to the King, "It is a clever message indeed to the Emorians; I believe I see Somerled's mark on what you have decided. But it is yet more clever a message to the old nobility, is it not? All these years we have expressed our anger at the innovations you and your father and grandfather have made to the gods' law. Now you will go beyond what you have previously done and make changes to the time-honored rules governing the King and his council. Oh, your plan is clever indeed, Rawdon. Forgive me if I do not rejoice in your generosity. Perhaps it is because, unlike most of the other lords here, I have read the Emorian division of powers. I therefore know that this division not only grants the Emorian council the powers you have described, but it also grants the ruler the power to overturn judgments made by his barons, to negotiate with foreign lands without consulting his council, and – this is the hidden thigh-dagger – to have absolute control over the army of Koretia. The army presently made up primarily of men owing loyalty to me and my noble kin." And with those words, Blackwood was suddenly on his feet, his dagger unsheathed.

Throughout the chamber, chairs screeched on the stones as the lords jumped to their feet to face each other; several daggers were already unsheathed. Tristan, nearly stabbing several lords in his eagerness to draw his sword, rushed over and skidded to a halt in front of the King, shielding him from Blackwood's blade. The King had not moved.

From one of the chairs came laughter.

Everyone turned to look at Gaillard, who was wiping tears from his face. Blackwood's gaze grew yet darker. "You consider this a matter for laughter, Lord Gaillard?" he said sharply.

"I imagine that Gaillard is considering how this scene would appear to the Emorians," Rawdon responded coolly. "I'm sure that the Chara too would be amused by the sight of the second-most powerful Koretian noble drawing his blade against the King who is leading his land in battle against invaders. You make the Emorians' task considerably easier if you strike me with that blade, Blackwood. —Tristan, I thank you, but you are blocking my view of Lord Blackwood, and I have not yet reached the age where I am incapable of fighting my own duels."

Tristan moved slowly away, but his sword remained unsheathed, and his gaze stayed fixed upon the leader of the old nobility. The King said formally, "Do you challenge my honor?"

Blackwood's gaze remained as dark as shadows, but after a moment, he slid his dagger firmly into its sheath. A collective sigh carried throughout the room. Blades were sheathed and chair legs screeched once more as the lords returned to their places.

"Not your honor," said Blackwood quietly, taking up his abandoned cup. "The honor of those who advise you, perhaps." His gaze switched to Somerled, who had remained quietly in his corner throughout the crisis.

Now, with equal quietness, the lord said, "As I'm sure the King would have explained if you had offered him the chance, a second message does indeed lie in the King's decision, but it is aimed toward the Jackal, who seeks to deny the King his right to rule as High Priest and as representative of the gods. This action will make clear to all who do not follow the Jackal's god-cursed ways that the King, not the Jackal, speaks for the gods in this land."

Gaillard smiled into his cup, as did several other lords of the new nobility. Blackwood paused to gesture into silence Colborn, who was rising from his seat in anger. Then Blackwood turned to Somerled and said, "Even the rebel-leader admits to being fallible, Somerled. I doubt very much that you are unaware that the King can make mistakes – especially when he is advised by men whose ultimate goals are different from the King's. In any case, I fail to see how making our government Emorian will show the Jackal that we are god-lovers."

"But you're from the borderland!"

Cloth rustled as the lords shifted in their seats to look at the speaker; even the slave paused in collecting the cups. Blackwood waited expectantly. Tristan glanced swiftly at the King for permission before continuing, "Forgive me, Lord Blackwood. I know that I am the youngest man here, far too young for the honor I have been granted. I do realize that the only reason a twenty-year-old man has been appointed to the council is so that I might thereby learn from the wisdom of my elders. But I cannot help but wonder how a borderlander can hold the views that you do."

A smile began to arise on the King's face. Again Tristan hesitated, looking toward his cousin for permission. Again Rawdon nodded, causing his heir to say, "It is the borderland that has done the most to combine the riches of Emor and Koretia into something better than the two lands can be when they remain entirely separate. And this in itself is an ancient tradition, for the priests' records say that none of us in the Three Lands – not myself or the King or even the Chara – is of unmixed blood. Koretia and Daxis's peoples came from the mainland desert to the east of the Great Peninsula, it is true, and we live in the southern portion of the peninsula now. Long ago, however, we met with the people from the northern portion of the peninsula, and there in the borderland our blood was mixed, so that every northerner has southern blood within him, and every Koretian here is a little bit Emorian. Why should we not follow this tradition – a tradition so nobly upheld in your own town of Blackpass – and continue to borrow from the good of Emor, as a way of showing the Jackal that we can learn from others without straying from our service to the gods?"

Blackwood sipped from his cup without responding as Tristan's impassioned speech came to an end. Deflated by the lack of response, Tristan's allowed his shoulders to sag. He began to look forlornly toward the King. At that moment, Blackwood said quietly, "Rawdon, I predict that, within a dozen years, this heir of yours is going to turn into a very dangerous force. Are you sure that you'll be able to control him as well as you've planned?"

Tristan's face was filled with puzzlement at Blackwood's words. Rawdon, though, smiled and said, "If I could control him completely, he would not be worthy to take the throne. Lords, perhaps this is an appropriate moment for us to end this afternoon's meeting. I know that some of you have wives holding supper for you."

"Indeed we do," said Logan, rising. "Although my own wife is visiting friends in the city presently, I expect that Lord Colborn's young wife will be drumming her fingers impatiently for her husband." Colborn shrugged at the laughter, giving a half-smile. Around the chamber, men began to rise.

"I alert you, lords," added Logan. "In accordance with changes being made to the council, we will hereafter no longer meet in this receiving chamber, but in greater formality in the ancient Council Chamber. Tomorrow the King will attend the council as our guest, in his new advisory role, and at that time the Emorian rules governing council procedures will be explained. I doubt that even Blackwood will consider them blasphemous."

Blackwood smiled as he reached the door, but his smile was unmatched by the look in his eyes as he watched Somerled rise from his inconspicuous seat. Then Blackwood left the chamber, and in a short while so did most of the lords, including the High Lord himself, stating that he had arranged to meet his wife at the city market, but begging the King to remain in the chamber at his leisure.

All that were left in the end were the King, Somerled, and the slave.

I tried to move quietly, though I knew that, even if I smashed every bit of pottery in the serving area, neither man would look my way. My heart was racing, and it was not for reason of what I had heard. My feelings were more complex than that.

I had been raised as a child knowing that, if my grandfather's plans for me were fulfilled, I would receive privileges that few other Koretian men receive. I would serve in the most famous army unit in all of the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula. Unlike most soldiers, I would be offered the opportunity to talk with the "high noblemen" of the army, the captains. I might even have the chance to briefly glimpse in the army headquarters a real high nobleman or two, including the Chara himself.

None of that, though, had prepared me for my present position. I had spent the afternoon in a room filled with the most powerful noblemen in the Land of Koretia, and I had served wine to the King himself. Although he was not my ruler, I could not help but be overwhelmed at this privilege. It struck me, with bitter irony, that my greatest honor seemed to have come at the moment when I was least honorable in the eyes of the world.

I was not unaware, by this point in my service to the council, that the honor I was receiving was shared by many other slaves and lesser free-men. Unlike the lords of Emor, Koretia's highest noblemen did not lock themselves away in an inaccessible palace. Indeed, the lords here seemed utterly unconcerned to distinguish themselves sharply from the lesser free-men. Belatedly, I had come to realize that my lesser rank had probably never been an issue in Griffith's decision to deny me Tryphena's hand in marriage. Although an Emorian baron would have been horrified at the thought of his sister marrying a common villager, that aspect of the matter had likely never occurred to Griffith. If I had been able to overcome my fear and approach him, I would soon have learned this.

These were old sorrows that still tore at me late at night, as I lay awake wondering what Tryphena's life was like now. Whatever turn her path in life had taken, I could not help her – could not have helped her even if I had been unmasked, I had finally acknowledged to myself. Griffith had been right: the evil that lay within me would only cause destruction to those I loved until it was conquered. For now, my demon was dead, but I was all too aware that only my decision to submit myself to the discipline of slavery had permitted me that victory. If that victory was to remain, I must continue under my present discipline until its end. Until the end that was now nearer than it had been before.

As I wiped the cups clean, I became aware that, behind me, the King and Somerled had gathered together on a bench to look at a piece of paper. The lord pointed at it and said, "These are the men."

Rawdon frowned. The afternoon light was growing dim, and he squinted as he looked at the paper. "You are sure?"

"We cannot be entirely sure, sire," said Somerled as I moved toward the only lit lamp in the room. "Your spies believe that these men are working for the Jackal, but until one of the rebels betrays himself, we cannot be certain. The Jackal picks keen-minded men to be his thieves."

The King leaned forward further as I took a twig and lit it, then moved on to light the other lamps in the chamber. He stabbed his finger at the paper. "That name looks familiar. One of Blackwood's kinsmen?"

Somerled nodded. "And under Blackwood's direct control in the borderland. That could be important."

He said nothing more, but Rawdon shot him a glance before saying, "He is no longer in the borderland, as I recall. Didn't you tell me that he visited the council last year while I was in Daxis, meeting with King Leofwin?"

"Yes, the High Lord asked me to deal with the matter, since he was busy at the time. It appears that the man lost his village to the Emorians. He wanted you to grant him a new village in the south."

The King chuckled softly. "And what did you tell him?"

Somerled's expression was bland as he said, "You may recall that the baron's previous village was the source of your feud with Blackwood. I told the baron that I was sure the King would be most happy to finally meet him, having heard so much about him over the years."

The King's chuckle was louder this time. Under the lamplight, his mouth twisted into a grin. "He discerned the hint?"

"I would say so. He departed immediately and is now, I am told, dependent on the charity of his noble kinsmen in the south, moving from home to home. I doubt that he will return to make a second appeal to your good will."

I had paused in my steps a while back. Now I leaned forward and lit the lamp next to the King. It gave me the opportunity to look at the name that Rawdon was still pointing at.

The King ignored me, though I was perilously close to touching him. "What evidence do my spies have against him?"

"Very little, I sorrow to say. He is known to have shared blood with a man who caused trouble in the priests' house during his time as an orphan there, demanding that changes be made to the gods' law. Among other things, he protested against the rules you instituted governing contact with the Living Dead."

Rawdon frowned but said, "Young men are often fiery with their words, but that was a number of years ago. Has there been any evidence of treachery since that time?"

"No direct evidence, no. The man has been careful in his actions, taking up respectable work as a jeweller. His blood brother the baron, though, is known to have spoken openly concerning the supposed evils of the rules governing blood feuds. The fact that these two men were often seen in each other's company roused your spies' suspicions."

"You say 'were.' They no longer consort with each other?"

"Not since the invasion," said Somerled. His voice held an odd note of regret. "The jeweller remained in the borderland after the Emorians took control. Your spies have not been able to find evidence of any contact kept between the jeweller and the baron since that time."

The King nodded. "Continue to track both men; it may be that they are working separately for the Jackal. You know that the rebel-leader has made attacks against the Emorians in our borderland?"

Somerled nodded as he folded the paper and placed it in a thigh-pocket strapped to his leg, under his tunic. "The Jackal is a clever man. He seeks through such acts to convince his followers in Koretia that he is a god-lover. All that it means, of course, is that he is a man of destruction, who will attack anything or anyone who opposes him."

The King leaned back in his seat. The ruddy light of the sunset shone upon him. "Perhaps we should attack him with an army of the Living Dead," he suggested lightly. "The Jackal claims to hold the powers of the god of death. Let us see whether he can hold out against a division of dead-eyed slaves wielding blades."

Somerled rose to his feet. Turning his back on the slave nearby, he said quietly, "Even if we could locate the Jackal, I would not recommend that, sire. He is a god-cursed man and is quite capable of turning god-cursed tools to his own use. Indeed, the only recommendation I would make is that, when he is captured, you not sentence him to execution. A Living Death seems more appropriate for a man like that. He already wears a mask."

"Hmm." The King fingered his beard. "I see that I was right to place you in charge of my spies, Somerled. You have the sort of mind that is capable of defeating the Jackal at his own game. Perhaps you could help me with the Emorians as well?"

Somerled bowed his head. "I am forever at your service, sire."

"You and your cursed formal manners," said the King, rising from his seat. "You're as bad as an Emorian. Tell me, are their women really as ugly as it's rumored?"

"You will have to ask your soldiers, sire. I believe that some of them sampled a few maidens in the borderland last year." Somerled's expression was serious as he spoke. The King's roar of laughter carried both of them from the chamber.

I went to the window to draw the shutter closed, cutting the chill in the chamber. It was suppertime; the courtyard was deserted but for two men walking through the south entrance: Kester and Manoel, deep in conversation.

Three years, Logan had said. Surely I had the strength to dwell in death for two more years.

o—o—o

A fortnight later, a baby was born in the midst of death.

The event had not been planned that way. The strategy, carefully worked out by the King, the High Lord, the overseer, and the council priest, had been that the pregnant slave would be removed from the slave-quarters a few days before the child was due and placed in a chamber of its own. There it would be tended by one of the Reborn who had taken up work as a healing woman at the priests' house. This was the compromise the free-men had worked out to the impossible problem of how to assist a slave-woman, who could not be touched by any free-woman, to give birth to a child who could not be touched by any slave.

This was the plan; but the child arrived a week early, one hour before midnight on midwinter's eve.

Rawdon was in Daxis, ascertaining once more that the Daxions did intend to stay neutral in the war; Logan was visiting kin in the countryside; Lovell was staying overnight at the priests' house; Hyrne had decided to spend a night carousing in the city. Thus the only people who paid attention to the screams of the expectant mother were the slaves.

It took time for us slave-men to break through our door, as well as the door to the slave-women's quarters. Fortunately, the guards, seeing our destination, did not try to stop us. Of the five women in the slave-women's dormitory, four had dead spirits; they were huddled in a corner, clearly made uneasy by the unusual events. The fifth woman was screaming on her pallet. Within moments, her head was being held by her lover, who was making soothing sounds to calm her. He looked up with desperate eyes at the rest of us.

I delivered the baby. My grandfather owned horses; babies, it turned out, were not much different from colts in the manner of their arrival.

The plan, we all knew, was for the baby to be taken away immediately to the priests' house, in the hope that its nine months' contact with its mother's womb would not cause it to be cursed by the gods. That was the plan. By the time that Hyrne arrived bleary-eyed in the morning to discover the broken doors, all of us had had a chance to hold the child, and the babe was nursing at his mother's breast.

Hyrne was angry, Logan was distressed, Lovell was alarmed. As soon as all three had arrived, they went into hasty consultation with one another, while the baby's father prudently placed the child in a carrying basket brought the previous day by the foresightful midwife.

None of us dared touch the child now, but all of us whose spirits lived – including the Emorian-born slave who had witnessed such customs in his borderland village – knew the proper thing to do. The usual gifts for a boy-child were food and heirlooms and daggers for his manhood. These gifts we could not contribute: heirlooms were conspicuously missing from the slave-quarters, while none of us had touched a free-man's blade since our deaths. Food we might have given, had we been prepared, but it was clear that the baby's departure would not be delayed long enough for the slaves who had charge of the kitchen to fetch the appropriate items.

So we gave what we had. A bit of colored paper that had strayed into the courtyard in the wind. A glass fragment swept from the High Lord's floor and treasured for the rainbows it emitted in the sunlight. A rain-rusted pin that had evidently fallen from the hair of a noblewoman and had been found later by a keen-eyed slave. All the riches of the world that we had hoarded inside our gloves and boots – too small to be noticed by Hyrne's vigilant eye, but enough to give us pleasure in our moments alone.

The newest slave, whom I had seen naked-faced when he stood by Kester two weeks before, hesitated before placing in the carrying basket a tiny, dull bead from the strap of a boot. I recognized it as being from the boots he had worn before his death. Somehow Wilfred had managed to conceal the bead and had kept it as a reminder of his old life.

I wondered then whether I ought to give the baby my ring, but I knew that its worth lay in the story behind it, and that story I could not tell to anyone. Instead I placed in the basket a broken bit of red-veined green stone that I had found embedded in my boot-heel the previous day. A bloodstone, not a valuable stone by the standards of the jewellers, but much treasured by Koretians for its symbolic value, which had been explained to me long ago by Carle.

The baby's father was the last to offer his gift. By this time, the basket was crowded with its small treasures. I would have worried for the safety of the child, but the swaddling cloths that had been left by the midwife protected him like armor and prevented the child from moving far. The baby's father looked first at the mother, who was hovering over the top of the basket, clearly yearning to touch her child again. Then the father reached forward. With great care, weighting it down with the bloodstone, the father gave his gift, a white feather.

I remembered the conversation with Carle and realized the significance of this gift. This was the father's message to the priests that he wished his child to be placed under the care of his own goddess, the Owl.

The baby's mother was beginning to make small noises. The baby's father took a step toward her, and then stopped, looking back at the entrance to the slave-women's quarters, where the door still hung half-broken on its hinges. The voices of the free-men were very near.

At that moment, a shadow fell through the doorway, causing all of us to stiffen. The figure at the doorway bent his head to duck under the lintel, and we saw that he was Kester.

He did not look at any of us; his gaze was fixed upon the child in the basket, gurgling sleepily. As Kester walked forward, all of us instinctively stepped back except for the mother, still softly crying at the head of the basket, and the father, standing awkwardly nearby. Kester looked at neither of them.

Instead, he unsheathed his dagger.

There was a collective intake of breath around the room. For a moment, it looked as though the father would take disastrous action. Perhaps sensing this, Kester moved quickly, placing the dagger in the basket amongst the other gifts.

"May the gods watch over you, child," he said quietly, "and if the day should come when you must take up your mask, may the gods grant you the courage to fulfill your duties."

It was a message, not to the free-born baby, but to the slaves surrounding him, as all of Kester's messages were. The free-man's dagger too, I knew, was a message to the baby's parents: that even if they were never reborn, their son, at least, would be free.

The baby had been sleeping until now, lulled into dreams by his mother's milk, but now his eyes flew open suddenly, and I felt my breath catch in my throat. The baby's eyes were black. Not hazel, not brown; the eyes were the color of deep night, such as I had never seen in any child before.

The mother began to sob louder, and the father took another step toward her. Then he stopped abruptly; he had seen the other shadows at the doorway.

Kester kept his gaze fixed upon the child as he stepped back to allow Hyrne passage. Hyrne barely glanced his way. As the overseer reached the basket he gave an explanation of disgust, and then he began throwing from the basket all the gifts we had given.

The mother screamed then. The father moved swiftly, grabbing her and pressing her mask against his chest so that any words she spoke would be muffled. Hyrne looked sharply at them – I could guess that his rod would be put to use soon – but for the moment he was occupied with other matters.

I saw Wilfred flinch as Hyrne tossed the bead to the ground, then flinch again as Hyrne put his heel upon the bead and ground it to dust. My bloodstone skittered across the floor; the owl feather narrowly missed being stomped by the overseer. Soon the basket was empty, but for the baby and one other item.

Hyrne picked up the familiar iron dagger and hesitated, first glancing at Kester, who had been watching the proceedings without expression, and then at Lovell and Logan, neither of whom looked happy but who were making no move to interfere with Hyrne's decision on how to handle the situation. Logan looked quickly at Lovell for confirmation, and then nodded; the dagger was returned to the basket. Hyrne lifted the child's basket.

The mother tried to reach forward; the father quickly pulled her back, earning them another sharp look from Hyrne. The overseer walked past Logan and then past Lovell, who, by the gods' law, was not supposed to know of the existence of this child until it arrived at the priests' doorstep. I found myself wondering whether Lovell would be able to keep his oath never to tell the child of his origins.

The free-men were gone now, except for Kester. The baby's mother was still crying; the father was looking bleakly at the doorway, as though expecting to see the child returned. Kester's gaze was on the floor. Swooping down, in a seemingly casual manner, he picked up the dirtied owl-feather that was trembling in the early morning breeze. Without a word, he placed the nib of the sacred object between his god-mask and his heart. Kester's god-mask was of the Moon, not the Owl, but his message was clear enough.

He left then. After a moment, some of the more resourceful slaves began to kneel on the floor to rescue what treasures hadn't been destroyed. Wilfred, from the sound of it, was struggling not to join the mother in tears.

The bloodstone had landed at my feet. I stooped, dusted it off on my grey breeches, and then I dropped it into the hand of the father of the black-eyed baby. It was a sorry gift in exchange for what he had lost, but it was all I had to give.

Only as I stepped away to start my duties for the day did it occur to me that a stone symbolizing the power of the god of the dead was not the most propitious present to give a slave.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIX

"Till the body dies," said Lord Logan. "That is the length of time I consider appropriate for a Living Death."

It was night-time, nearly four years after the beginning of my enslavement. The King's Council had gathered in its receiving chamber to welcome in the New Year. I had spent much of the evening feeling selfish gratitude for the fact that I was no longer assigned duties in the slave-quarters. The previous summer, King Rawdon had hired Emorian engineers – willing to work for anyone who paid the money, regardless of the war – to install in Council Hall the hearths and chimneys that Emorians had been using for several decades. Now all of the council lords were circled around the central hearth in the room, while the cold wind rattled the shutters, and ice grew on the glass windows, a long-ago gift from the Daxion government. I moved throughout the room, lighting braziers near the walls so that the lords' backs would remain warm. This brought me close to warm flames myself.

So it could not be the winter weather that sent a chill down my spine as the High Lord spoke.

Everyone else in the room looked as dumbfounded as I felt. It was Tristan who broke the silence. He was sitting as near as he could to Logan, having shown time and time again that he disliked taking part in the disputes between the new nobility and the old nobility. Now he said, "You have changed your mind, sir?"

Logan smiled at him. Like the other lords, he was holding a cup of cider, imported at some expense from Daxis. I had spent much of the afternoon bringing up bottles of honey-sweet cider from the Council Hall's cellar and adding the bitter spices that Koretians required in order to consider a drink palatable.

"You do not own slaves yourself, I believe," replied Logan.

"Er . . . no, sir. My free-servant tends to my needs." Then Tristan added hastily, as though thinking this confession revealed some dereliction of duty on his part, "But I am served by the King's slaves when he invites me to dine with him."

"Which is every day, I believe." Logan continued to smile. "This may be difficult to explain, then, since you do not own any of the Living Dead yourself. Indeed, I came slowly to this opinion myself, and only after seeking the counsel of our High Priest."

"We all know what the King thinks," said Colborn haughtily. "But why should that change your mind, when it has not changed in the past?"

Logan shook his head. "What changed my mind was learning that fully half the men who are condemned to a Living Death these days are rebels against the King."

"The Jackal's thieves?" said Eubule quickly. He was of the old nobility, recently named to the council to replace an elderly lord of the old nobility who had grown too ill to continue his duties. "Those thieves have been a plague around my town. It is all very well for the Jackal to claim that he is only fighting the new nobility, but his pranks and thefts spill over into every town where the old nobility visit. It is really quite tiresome."

"It is more than tiresome; it is treasonous." Logan set down his cup with a sharp snap. "Men like that cannot be reformed; they can only be contained. We at least offer them the mercy of choice between death and a Living Death. That is as much mercy as rebels deserve."

"Surely not all slaves have been thieves for the Jackal," protested Colborn.

"But a settled policy of not permitting the release into freedom of slaves would certainly help to deter men from pledging their loyalty to the Jackal," suggested Kenneth. "Logan, you have converted me. I had been considering whether to buy a few slaves and to release them in a year or two. Now I will certainly buy the slaves, but I will not release them. I will consider that my contribution to our war against the Jackal. Wouldn't you consider that wise, Drugo?"

"Oh, certainly, certainly," said Drugo, sensing which way the wind was blowing. "I never release my slaves. Well," he conceded, "not after this point, anyway."

"Blackwood, you are making no contribution to the conversation," Gaillard inserted. "I would have expected you to have an opinion on this subject."

Blackwood had set his boots upon a stool in front of him and was leaning back his chair on two legs, as though at his leisure. He said quietly, "I was just recalling the many tales I have heard over the years about corruption in the King's government. I must confess that I never expected to witness corruption sweep through the King's Council at the speed of wildfire."

The conversation halted abruptly, as though it had crashed against an iron door. I took the opportunity to refill the cups. My body moved stiffly, as if I had been beaten.

Logan said softly, "Are you accusing me of being corrupt, Lord Blackwood?" It was a tribute to his peacemaking qualities that he made no move toward his dagger.

Blackwood met his eyes. "'Corrupted' is the word I would choose. And I believe I know where the corruption sprang from." His gaze shifted over to the man sitting closest to Logan.

As usual, Somerled remained unperturbed. "If I understand the High Lord correctly, he made this decision after speaking with the King."

"And who persuaded the King that he should never release his slaves?" Blackwood's voice turned dark. "That was certainly not his policy in the past. Oddly enough, the last time that Rawdon released a slave was the year before you joined the council. The King has not freed a single slave since then."

Kenneth coughed into his fist. "This is the gods' feast. I think we should save such debates for the council table."

"I most certainly agree," said Logan. "Drugo, do tell us how your trip to Daxis went. Were the festivities accompanying King Leofwin's wedding impressive?"

"Oh, well . . ." Drugo waved his hand as he took another gulp of his cider. "A bit too much music for my taste. The King's Bard sang some song that seemed to go on forever; I was beginning to think that all of us would end up in our ash-tombs before she'd release us from our torment." As most of the council lords chuckled, he added, "Good food, though. And pretty girls. That's what counts most."

"How many did you bed, Drugo?" Grinning, Gaillard reached for one of the Daxion-style pastries that I had spent the morning preparing – a difficult feat, since I had never before cooked in the Daxion fashion. But the regular cook – a free-man – had fallen ill with a cold, so I had been hastily commissioned to take his place. By this time, Hyrne was apparently under the impression that I could do any work that I put my hand to.

Drugo, who had eaten a dozen pastries already, laughed loudly, not bothering to issue a denial. Tristan looked shocked. Logan cut off the merriment by asking, "And our alliance with Daxis? It remains intact?"

"Oh, to be sure," Drugo said. "Mind you, I gather that their King is still being beaten around the brow by that silly High Lady of his. Apparently, she has never forgiven him for entering into a peace alliance with Koretia without asking her permission. Why in the gods' name the King of Daxis should have consulted with a woman about a matter of war . . ." He shrugged, reaching for a thirteenth pastry.

Unexpectedly, it was Somerled who spoke in defense of the High Lady. "Lady Elizabeth plays the same role as our High Lord does. It is of supreme importance that the High Lord and the King work in harmonized concert with each other, as the Daxions would put it."

As Logan smiled, Kenneth asked, "Where is the King tonight, Logan? I thought he would be joining us, as he has in past years."

"He is spending the evening with the Emorian Ambassador, sir," inserted Tristan. "The King considers that to be of high consequence, for this is the first time since the war began that the Chara has sent an ambassador."

Logan added, "Rawdon did not want the Ambassador to feel abandoned tonight. I believe that the Emorians also celebrate the New Year in some fashion, although they honor their own laws, rather than the law of the gods."

This elicited the usual mutterings from the lords about atheist Emorians who didn't know how to do anything properly. Blackwood, who had not spoken since his criticisms were cut off, sipped his cider quietly, his gaze moving from lord to lord.

"Well, all I can say is that I give thanks to the gods that we're not going to have any trouble from the Daxions," said Gaillard. "That land has seemed far too unstable during the past few years, with all its internal quarrels."

"Matters will be better now that the King has a woman warming his bed every night," suggested Drugo.

"It will be even better once he begets an heir," countered Gaillard. "Any hope of that taking place soon? Does Leofwin appear eager to bring forth a successor?"

Drugo gave an equivocal wave of the hand. "Well, he had a nephew born last year, whom he named his heir presumptive. And he seems to be rather fond of the little bastard girl his slave-mistress bore for him."

"Not the same," said Colborn firmly. "Bastards are neither here nor there, and as for nephews, there's no substitute for a son as your heir."

Colborn always, invariably ended up making some unspeakably poor remark. Kenneth passed his hand over his eyes, while Blackwood made a warning gesture. Colborn stared in confusion, then came to his senses and said hastily, "I do apologize, Prince Tristan. I didn't mean . . . Of course, the matter is different when the King has no choice—"

"I think you have said enough, Colborn," interrupted Logan in a kindly manner, evidently recognizing that Tristan was too embarrassed to respond. "We can all agree that King Leofwin's marriage is a matter for rejoicing. —Well, lords," he added as he rose to his feet. "The moon is beginning to rise, so I think it is time to offer our prayers to the gods."

Everyone stood up, including me; I had been on my knees, trying to coax a recalcitrant brazier back to life. I stood motionless near the a wall as Logan raised his cup, saying, "As we enter into the 954th year after the gods granted us their law, we offer up our gratitude to the seven gods and goddesses of Koretia for all the blessings of this past year. Thanks to our divine masters and mistresses, Emor has agreed to enter into peace negotiations with us. Daxis remains strong in its alliance and is likely to grow more stable in the years to come. The old and new nobilities" – he gestured to both sides of the council – "have not shed each other's blood for four years now. And while the Jackal and his band of rebels remain a danger, at least that danger is no worse than it has been in the past. We offer up our sacrifices, powerful gods and goddesses, and ask that you continue to shower your blessings upon us, your loyal servants." He sipped from the cup and then threw the remainder of his cider into the fire – his sacrifice, I surmised. The other lords did the same.

I was standing nearest to Blackwood, so only I heard him murmur as he tossed his wine into the fire, "And send your blessings upon Koretia's slaves, for their human masters will certainly not bless those poor spirits."

o—o—o

The sanctuary was quiet and dark. Lovell knelt before the shrine. One of the seven prayer-masks – that of the Raven – had been brought forward from the wall and placed on the hook in front of the shrine; Lovell was softly praying to that mask.

I closed the sanctuary door, softly enough that I wouldn't frighten Lovell. He jumped anyway and nearly turned round; then he caught himself in time. He waited, his shoulders hunched up against a possible assault, as I circle round to his side.

I paused there, as Kester had trained me to do if I should ever have this need. Lovell kept his gaze firmly fixed upon the Raven's mask. "Do you have need of the gods' counsel, slave?" he asked.

I bowed my head in a slow nod.

"Is it regarding your duties?"

I hesitated, uncertain whether to nod. Lovell clarified, "Is it regarding your daily duties to your human master?"

I shook my head.

"Is it regarding your duties to the gods?"

I nodded, relieved that our communication was proceeding so smoothly. I had not been certain what to expect when I made my decision, at the finish of the first day of the New Year, to seek the only counsel permitted to me as a slave.

Lovell was silent a while. I wondered whether he had heard of the High Lord's change of mind concerning the release of his slaves. If so, what did Lovell think I was contemplating? Escape? Murder? Blasphemy?

As usual, I underestimated Lovell. He asked, "Are you contemplating whether your duty to the gods requires you to sacrifice your spirit and enter fully into your Living Death?"

My throat ached as I nodded. I wondered what questions Lovell would ask now. Probably he would try to determine what my motives were for contemplating this action, though the immediate cause for the impulse was clear enough.

I was not sure that I could answer his questions. The immediate cause was certainly Logan's announcement, but only because that left my future uncertain. If I was never to be released from my enslavement, what point was there in keeping my spirit alive? Nothing had happened during the past four years that I had been able to affect in any way. I served cups of wine to the council lords, and the world moved on: the Empire of Emor inched its way slowly south, the King of Daxis married his Consort, the lords of Koretia debated religion and politics. I was superfluous; I could just as easily serve wine dead as I could alive and suffering.

Once again, I failed to anticipate Lovell's next move. He asked no questions; instead, he reached forward to a small covered pot. Unsealing it, he removed a single golden granule and dropped it in a wine cup. Then he filled the cup with water, all without moving from his knees.

He pushed the cup over to me. "Drink this, slave."

I looked down at the water. The golden granule had dissolved; what lay in the cup looked like water. Understanding, I drained the cup.

Knowing what would come next, I began to move away but was stopped by a gesture from Lovell. "Who is your god, slave?"

I felt my stomach clench at this indication that Lovell did not remember me; if he did, he would have known who I worshipped. I pointed at the mask of the Moon Goddess.

Lovell nodded. "Lie down and pray to your goddess for an answer."

I complied with his order, going over to the altar and stretching myself across the cold stone. As I turned my head, I saw that Lovell had replaced the Raven's mask with the mask of the Moon, which was painted with stars around the eyeholes, as well as a crescent smile. Lovell began to whisper prayers to the mask. The sanctuary grew darker. Lovell faded away.

o—o—o

It was a dark room, lit only with a central fire, though the fire was bigger than it had been a while before. Crowded about the newly-fueled fire were a dozen men, some of whom were familiar to me and most of whom were not. The youngest ones I knew best: they were under my command and had been with me throughout the struggles of the past thirteen days, as we awaited our rescue.

At present, a scene was taking place that I did not think fit the plans of our rescuers. Although the rescuers had arrived to find all of us little more than skin-wrapped skeletons, it was my men – Payne and Hoel – who were now going from man to man, bearing the recently arrived wine and food that had been warmed over the fire. Even Devin, who had risked his life to try to break out of the mountains and who had met the rescue party halfway, was in the process of removing his cloak in order to wrap it over the shoulders of an older man.

It was no more than what I would have expected from my patrol guards. Nonetheless, something about the scene made me turn suddenly and slide my way through the door of the patrol hut into the white wilderness outside. The snowfall had subsided somewhat: the blizzard winds had diminished, and it was now possible to see the mountains that ringed the hollow in which the hut was placed. Yet faintly still the winds blew, whistling their way through the black border mountains now dusted white with an early snowfall.

It seemed to me as I stood there with my back against the ice-laden hut, that I could hear amidst the winds the whistles of death spirits: the men who had died during the past thirteen days while under my care. I listened as they sent their whistle-codes, each as distinctive as a face. I strained my ears to hear whether I would hear either of two codes from men who might or might not be dwelling now in the Land Beyond.

A hand touched me, and I started. The hand belonged to Subcaptain Malise, who had led the rescue. Raising his voice above the winds, he said, "Come, lieutenant, you're not that far from the gates to the Land Beyond that you can afford to stand out here in this cold. Given your condition when we arrived, you ought not even to be on your feet."

I had been holding all this while a fire-warmed flagon. Now I pressed it to my lips and felt the liquid burn its way down my throat. Melted into it were several crumbs of bread, that being the most food that my stomach could tolerate as of yet. I said, "We're grateful to you for putting yourselves in danger for our sakes."

Malise grinned. "Lieutenant, when word went out that the patrol was trapped in the snowbound mountains, there wasn't a former patrol guard in all of Southern Emor who didn't rush to offer his services. Those of us in the rescue party had to fight the others off for this privilege. I have to admit, though, that we were surprised by what we found."

I wrapped my hands around the warm flagon, keeping my eyes focussed on the mountains around me. "So many dead, you mean."

"So many alive," countered Malise. "Surviving thirteen days on two days' worth of food? In this weather? We thought we'd be bringing your corpses back for burial. Instead, we find four high-spirited guards—"

"Six," I said swiftly. At his look, I amended, "There may be two more of us alive. My sublieutenant's partner slipped out during the night, probably in order to lengthen the odds for the rest of us. My sublieutenant is searching for him."

The relief shone clear in his eyes. "Six, then. Six, when by all the odds—"

He stopped. It was not my sudden grasp that stopped him; he too had heard the whistle, faint among the whistles of the winds. As the whistle ended, I replied with my own, but the winds started up again, swallowing my message. I took a step into the white blanket of falling snow.

"Where do you think you're going?" asked Malise, his voice suddenly stern.

I tried to shake myself free from his hand. "That was my sublieutenant's whistle."

"I heard it," he said. "'The hunted is captured alive'; he has found your man. You can guide us to them – after you have eaten more food, and after these winds have died down again." Then, as I tried once more to pull myself away, his voice grew stern. "That's a command, lieutenant."

I stood motionless at once, only my head turning in the direction of the whistle I had heard. Then I allowed myself to be led into the hut, saying, "They're in a cave under Mount Skycrest. You're right; they'll be safe there until we arrive."

"Without a doubt," said Malise, pushing me forward so that I was forced to join the group near the fire. "As I was saying, by all the odds you ought to be dead. I'm afraid that you will have to reconcile yourself to the fact that this will make you into a major character in the legend of the mountain patrol."

Feeling my head whirl suddenly, I sat down by the fire, my gaze roaming the room again to search out my men. Payne and Hoel, having fed the rescue party, had at last submitted to being fed themselves. My young patrol partner, Devin, flashed me a grin as he regaled our rescuers with anecdotes of our lighter moments during the past thirteen days.

Malise squatted down beside me and said in a low voice that did not reach the others, "I understand that you haven't eaten your share of the rations for four days."

I placed the flagon by the fire to warm it further as I said, "I made my men swear an oath not to starve themselves; otherwise, every one of them would have done the same."

"But you didn't take the oath yourself?" He waited for me to reply. When I remained silent, he said, "Well, that doesn't surprise me. It's the patrol lieutenant's privilege to make the sacrifice, as I well know. What surprises me is that you managed to stay alive. How did you do it?"

I took a sip of the wine. "It was my duty."

Malise gave a faint smile. "That's all? You found the will to stay on this side of the gates to the Land Beyond just because it was your duty? By the law-structure, lieutenant, you must have a sense of duty as strong as the Chara's. Has it never failed you?"

"Not yet," I replied tersely.

Malise chuckled then and clapped me on the back. "No, and I doubt that it ever will. Well, two things you should know. One is that your men are planning to request that the subcommander award you his gold honor brooch; that's how much they appreciate what you've done for them. The other is that I can assure you, this is the worst suffering you'll undergo in the patrol. By the law-structure, it's the worst anyone has undergone in the patrol. Aren't you glad to have the worst experience of your life completed? Now you can relax and not worry about having your sense of duty tested again."

I did not have to reply, for at that moment, someone called Malise over to consult with him. When I was sure no one was looking my way, I walked out of the main room of the hut into the dark storeroom behind, where the last of our meager supplies lay. I closed the door behind me and stood a while in the cold blackness, envisioning in my mind the scene that had taken place in this room four days before: a blade entering the heart of Chatwin, who had been executed on my command for stealing food. He had been only sixteen, and he had cried when I pronounced sentence.

The other men had supported me in my decision – even Hoel, who had been Chatwin's patrol partner. But I had seen Hoel watching me with puzzlement ever since then, as though he was not sure that I was a creature like the rest of them. Perhaps – I heard him telling Payne after he thought I was asleep – I was capable of making such a hard decision only because I was incapable of going against my duty. He did not doubt that I had suffered from what I did, but perhaps I was the type of man who simply had no choice but to do the right thing.

Now, as I stared into the darkness, a dim light began gradually to grow before me. It revealed to me two figures huddled together under a cloak and shivering from the snow near them.

One was a red-bearded man, nineteen years of age, bright-eyed even in the midst of his fasting. He reached over surreptitiously to slip most of his half of the cloak over the young man who was talking beside him. This second soldier was struggling to grow a man's beard; he was two months younger than Chatwin had been. He was dark-skinned like me, and like me he spoke his Emorian with the soft accent of a borderlander. He had quick movements and a plain, blunt-nosed face. His eager, passionate eyes caught the attention of all who met him. His voice was filled always with longing, even at the moments – perhaps especially at the moments – when he was facing his greatest suffering. Now, as his death shadow stretched out plain before him, he was earnestly explaining with a fast-fainted voice why he had embraced yet another opportunity to take on suffering beyond which his duty required.

As the younger man paused, the red-bearded man said in a voice sharp with embarrassment, "In the name of the dead Charas, Adrian – are you saying that you use me as a model? It's the lieutenant who should be your model. He's the man every guard aims to emulate."

"You're not exactly my model," Adrian replied softly. "You're just someone I hold in my mind to help me do hard things. It was hard to go away during the night and leave that note so that you'd think I'd gone mad and wouldn't search for me. I couldn't let you know what I'd really done, and it was almost too much for me to bear: to know that I'd die here alone, without anyone knowing what I was undergoing. But I thought of you, and I thought of how you're my friend and you care for me. Knowing that you would always care for me, even after my death, made it easier somehow. It was as though I had you beside me, helping me through all of this."

Carle grunted in reply. He was staring at the cave floor and turning red amidst the cold. After a while, Adrian said, "I wonder whether the lieutenant has something like that to help him. I can't imagine otherwise how he does what he does."

"Oh, the lieutenant has a strong sense of duty," replied Carle lightly. "I suppose that he doesn't need the devices that we ordinary mortals use – though, to witness the truth, Adrian, if you keep up this propensity for self-sacrifice, you're going to surpass even the lieutenant. Don't burn your flame out. There's a limit to how much suffering any single man can take."

Adrian laughed and spread his arms wide to indicate the surroundings. This caused Carle to grin and say, "Very well, this is hardly the moment for me to be giving you advice on how to spend the next sixty years of your life. It seems doubtful we'll survive the next sixty minutes. I hope by all the law books that the lieutenant is still alive; he was at death's gates when I left him."

Adrian murmured something softly in Border Koretian, and Carle bent his head closer, asking, "What did you say?"

"Oh, I was just wishing good luck upon the lieutenant," Adrian replied sleepily. Placing his head upon Carle's shoulder, he closed his eyes.

But I, standing in the darkness nearby, had heard Adrian's true words: he had said, "May the gods watch over him." I took a step forward, but at that moment a gust of wind blew in through the narrow cave mouth, pulling a curtain of white between me and the two men.

When the curtain drew back once more, standing before me was Tryphena. She was walking out of a door that was nearly closed behind her, but I could just glimpse her smile and could just hear her voice as she said over her shoulder, "I'll remember. . . ."

The door closed. When it opened again it had become the familiar gates I had seen every day for four years. The land of peace spread its darkness before me, like a host tempting his starving guest with delicacies. The voice asked, "Do you willingly offer up your spirit as a sacrifice to me?"

I hesitated. Standing beside me I could almost see Tryphena turning, walking away, but looking back toward me with remembrance. I said in a low voice, "No."

The gates slammed shut. I opened my eyes to find myself lying upon the sanctuary altar, staring up at one of the Living Dead.

o—o—o

I rose, my body stiff and my head still dizzy from the wine. Lovell had his back to me, for he was standing before the altar, praying to the mask of the Moon. I stepped forward and stood beside him; I was within his view, but he did not look my way. With his eyes fixed on the mask, he said softly, "Did the goddess give you the answer you needed, slave?"

So vivid still were the dreams of my past life that I nearly spoke aloud in reply; then I remembered, and inclined my head.

"Then do as she has bid you do and go to your duty, whatever it may be. Be assured that the gods will not leave you alone to your suffering."

I turned and made my way back to the world of silence and pain, but as I did so, there walked beside me the faint image of a smiling woman looking my way.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVEN

The weather had turned mild. Blooming tree-flowers outside the gates to Council Hall heralded the arrival of spring. I felt the restlessness that all patrol guards feel in springtime: the desire to return to work in wide, open spaces after a winter spent inside, huddled against the cold.

Where to work, however, was not my choice these days. As I cast a longing look out the window on this, the seventh year of my enslavement, Lord Logan frowned. "Corruption, you say?"

"Most assuredly, High Lord." Somerled remained standing as Lord Logan paced back and forth. "I am certain I do not reveal anything – for you are most high in the King's confidence – if I tell you that I have occasionally undergone an investigation or two on the King's behalf."

Logan nodded abruptly without slowing his pace. "The King mentioned your past to me. I was not aware that you were continuing to do that work on occasion, but I am not surprised. You uncovered trouble?"

"Deeply serious trouble, High Lord." Somerled's voice was grave. He had positioned himself so that light from the window spilled over him as he stood like an oak: solid, dark, and reliable. "Someone has been ferreting his way into the King's companionship, seeking to turn his path from its true course."

Logan halted, staring at Somerled. "Who?"

"I have not yet determined that, to my great regret. But the pattern is clear: the King has been deviating more and more from his decisions of the past."

Logan's nostrils flared, like that of a war horse. "I had noted that. The disagreements between him and me— Well, that is of no matter." He swept the thought aside with his hand. "You have not spoken of this to the King?"

"I dare not, while I remain ignorant of what man we are fighting. I am of course the King's servant at all times, but sometimes service requires silence."

"Particularly if you have the training of a spy. Yes, I see." The High Lord frowned, staring through the barred window that looked out into the forest of trees that covered most of Council Hill. I had spent one sleepless night contemplating all the ways in which the Chara's spies might make use of those trees, but I was too far away from Emor to know whether any members of the Chara's Division of Disclosure who were acquainted with me had set up outposts on Council Hill.

Besides, the King had ensured that his own spies were plentiful here.

Unaware of this, Logan said, "There seems little that the two of us can do to fight against an unknown enemy, particularly if he has the King's ear."

"On the contrary, sir; I believe that you alone have the ability to fight against this growing menace." Somerled's voice remained quiet. I had never heard him raise his voice, nor seen him draw his blade during the occasional disputes that continued to rock the King's Council. "You are the High Lord – the King's Second Blade in government, so to speak. Your power is nearly as great as the King's. If anyone has the ability to guide the King back to the straight path, it is you."

Logan sighed. "Eight years ago, perhaps. During the first months after our war began with the Emorians, I was high in the King's confidence. But the longer that this war drags on . . . Do you suppose that the King's confidence in me has drained because of this hidden man's guidance?" On the point of turning away again to pace, Logan whirled around to face Somerled.

"I would not be surprised, sir." Somerled creased his forehead in apparent thought. "It is a necessary process of corruption, to destroy another man's confidence in all other forms of guidance. Sir, I see peril here. We must restore the King's confidence in you at once."

"But how?" Logan's pacing had become frenetic. "Even the council has become divided in its confidence in me. You'll have noticed how close the voting has become when I offer proposals."

"Has it, sir?"

Somerled's voice was so mild that I held my breath, but the High Lord failed to notice. He took hold of the bars on the outward-facing window and leaned his face against them, like a prisoner straining for freedom. "It is this cursed divide between old nobility and new nobility. Someone has spread the rumor that I have the blood of the old nobility in me; now, upon every vote we take, the lords of the new nobility vote against me."

"But you are not the only member of the council who began life as a lesser free-man," Somerled reminded him.

The corners of Logan's mouth lifted. "No. And I have been grateful to you for your support of my proposals in recent weeks; I know that it must take courage for you to depart from the united stance of your fellow lords of the new nobility. Did you do this because of your investigations into the King's change of mind?"

"As Lord Blackwood is fond of remarking, it has seemed a moment for needed unity. I have been racking my mind for a way to demonstrate to the King the council's confidence in you. Alas, I have been unable to determine a solution to our problem."

Even I, with my scant knowledge of council law, could guess at the possible solution. As I dusted the metal hood over the fireplace, I watched Logan.

"There is one way," said Logan slowly, still staring out the window. "But, no – it is far too dangerous."

Somerled's expression remained sober, even though Logan's back was to him. "I would not wish you to place yourself in unnecessary danger, sir."

Logan's grip tightened on the bars. Somerled did not break the silence that followed. Finally, Logan said in a low voice, "The King is in danger. That overrides all other considerations." He whirled round suddenly. "You know that Tristan has been pressing us to vote. He wishes the council to declare that the King may select a baron to care for a village or town if the baron's first-born heir dies before the baron does."

Somerled nodded. He remained a solid presence in the dappled, dancing light flowing through the window. "You have not brought the matter to a vote."

"It is a divisive issue," said Somerled. "The King's grandfather essentially began the blood feuds between the old nobility and the new nobility when he killed a King of the old nobility, took the throne, and appointed men of his own blood to take charge of villages and towns whose barons had died without heirs. Even King Boyce, however, did not strip barons of the old nobility of the right to appoint their younger sons or their sons-in-marriage to succeed them in the barony, if their first-born son should die. Tristan's proposal essentially guarantees that, within a few generations, no barony in this land will belong to the old nobility."

Somerled nodded. "A misguided measure, but I suppose that, in his own way, Prince Tristan is seeking unity."

Logan sighed. "Yes, his motives are good; he will make a fine King, once he grows to be a bit more mature. The gods grant that King Rawdon lives long, in order to allow Tristan that time to mature. No, I have no great concerns about Tristan; my concern is that, if I bring this matter to a vote, it may pass."

Somerled cocked his head. "And you do not wish it to."

"I didn't before. Now I do want it to pass . . . once."

A bird trilled in a tree nearby. Another bird swooped past, a limp worm in its beak.

Somerled said, "I fear I do not understand, sir."

"You will, once I have explained at the next meeting. Now, listen." The High Lord lowered his voice. I was at the other end of the room; I carefully made my way over to the High Lord's elegantly carved wooden chair in order to hear better. "You have been stalwart in your support of me during the past weeks. I need more lords like you. If you wish to help the King in the way you say, do your best before the next meeting to make clear to your fellow lords the importance of unity."

"On this proposal, sir?" Somerled widened his eyes.

"No, no – the proposal is of no importance in itself. What is important is what you said: the council's unity, as symbolized by my leadership."

Somerled said slowly, "I think I grasp what you are saying, sir. But how does this relate to the proposal?"

"You will see. Start your work now. —And Somerled," he added as the younger lord began to turn away. "Thank you for bringing this matter directly to my attention. I appreciate your trust in my service to Rawdon."

Somerled bowed. "You are a true servant of the King, High Lord. No one could doubt it." He departed, his expression still somber.

I continued dusting. My master took no notice of me; he had returned to staring out the window at the spring trees, bowing in the breeze. I finished my dusting while I reflected that the Emorian custom of allowing slaves to speak provided Emorian masters with certain advantages.

If I had been in Emor, I could have warned Logan that he was about to walk into a trap.

o—o—o

You may be sure that I was present at the next council meeting.

By now, I was senior-most of the live-eyed slaves who served on Council Hill. This provided me with certain advantages. Supervising dozens of slaves, Hyrne sometimes lacked the imagination to find tasks for us all. Experienced live-eyed slaves were expected to find work for themselves if none had been assigned to them. This gave me a needed excuse to enter the Council Chamber for the first time when it was in use.

As I carefully pushed open the door, cradling a tray with my arms, the council was in the midst of a vote.

"Affirm," said Kenneth.

"Affirm," said Blackwood.

"Affirm," said Gaillard.

"Affirm," said Somerled.

"And I affirm," said Logan.

A man standing near the council table, dressed in old-fashioned livery, was evidently the herald for the meeting, for he declared, "Twenty-four lords affirm. One lord abstains. No lords deny. The proposal is unanimously passed."

"Well, lords," said Logan as many of the lords began pounding the table with their palms in applause, "that is a most gratifying display of unity. Prince Tristan, I congratulate you. By the votes of all the lords – saving yourself, of course – the King's Council hereby confirms you as heir. We all look forward to serving you in the future."

"But not the immediate future, I trust," said Gaillard with a smile, which caused the other lords to chuckle.

Tristan rose from his chair at the foot of the council table, directly opposite to the High Lord. Even I, pouring drinks at the other end of the chamber, could see that the King's heir was trembling.

However, his speech was brief and dignified. "High Lord, I thank you and the other lords for your confidence in me. I promise you: I will do all I can to ensure that you do not regret the support you have shown me on this day."

"Nicely put," said Logan as the lords applauded on the table and Tristan shakily retook his seat. "Only one error was spoken: you need not address me again as High Lord. Now that your heirship has been confirmed by the council, it is council custom that you address me and the other lords as the King normally would: by name."

"Yes, si— I mean, Yes, Logan." Tristan bit his lip.

The lords chuckled again, but I thought it was an amiable chuckle, such as might be voiced by elder brothers guiding a beloved younger brother into a position of high power. Although I had heard concerns expressed – outside of Tristan's hearing – about the young Prince's continued shyness and naiveté, nobody doubted his intelligence and tenacity, two qualities very much desired in rulers. Tristan's clear loyalty to the King, as well as his humility in seeking the advice of his elders, had also won him favor with the other council lords. Koretia had a history of being troubled by heirs whose chief problem was not shyness and naivete but arrogance and corrupt ambition. It was not unknown for an heir to rise to power far earlier than he should have, due to the mysterious, unexpected death of his predecessor.

The lords' relief that they were not dealing with such an heir was so palpable that I felt free to bring forward the drinks. As I placed the first cup on the table, in front of the High Lord, Logan raised his eyebrows. "Imported Daxion cider? Is this your notion?"

The question was of course not addressed to me. Somerled, who sat at the right hand of Logan these days, said, "Not I, High Lord. Perhaps it is the King's gift."

Logan nodded. "Prince Tristan, the King is sorry not to be able to join us on this special occasion, but he has only just returned from a trip north, to check on matters there."

Blackwood leaned forward. "How are matters going in the north?" The concern in his voice was clear. After eight years, his own town of Blackpass remained occupied by Emorian forces.

Logan glanced at Eubule, the lord with highest knowledge of military matters, since he had served as a captain at one time. Eubule sighed. "Poorly."

"Or exceedingly well, if we look at it another way," Kenneth ventured. "Consider, lords: the Emorian army is three times the size of the Koretian army, yet for the past eight years, we have been able to keep Emor from expanding its territory beyond the bounds of the borderland. Our soldiers are to be congratulated for their courage and sacrifice. But if nothing else, this war has taught us the need to expand the size of our army."

There was a murmur of agreement around the table as I finished handing out the drinks and stepped back a few steps, as though waiting to refill any empty cups. But all the lords had abandoned interest in the cider – which I had taken, not from the King's stock, but from the stock of the High Lord.

Blackwood drummed his fingers, saying, "Expanding our army is difficult to do while so many of our soldiers remain occupied in seeking out the Jackal and his fellow rebels. And it is only a matter of time before the Emorians attack again. I understand that we have had no luck with our latest peace negotiations?"

Logan gravely nodded. "That is true. The Chara is demanding that Koretia abandon the law of the gods. Naturally, we cannot grant him that condition."

A rumble of anger travelled through the council, like dark thunderclouds. "How dare he?" cried Colborn, pounding the table. "Just because the Emorians are atheists . . ."

Drugo, who was always glad to contribute to the conversation when it was clear which way the wind blew, said, "Nonsense. Sheer nonsense. The gods' law is what makes Koretia what it is. That, and pretty girls." He grinned.

Everyone ignored this attempt at levity. Logan said, "It is true, Blackwood, that Koretia remains in danger, but I firmly believe that the gods will stand by us and protect us . . . provided that we show ourselves worthy of protection."

Everyone exchanged looks. Tristan enquired, "How shall we prove ourselves worthy, High—? I mean, Logan."

"Through the same fashion that Emor has maintained its imperial power through all these centuries: through unity." Logan looked slowly around the chamber, meeting the eyes of each man. "That is the strength of Emor, and that is our great weakness. If we do not learn to remain unified against outward dangers . . . If we allow our inward disputes to consume us . . . Then the gods will abandon us, and Koretia will die. Of that, I am certain."

The conviction in Logan's voice rang so hard that the lords were silenced for a minute. It was Somerled who finally broke the silence. "High Lord, I could not agree more. This petty squabbling among lords has been like a wound in our body, bleeding us of needed fighting power. We cannot continue like this. We must heed the advice of our King, who is our sovereign lord and High Priest: we must have unity."

I stared at Somerled. Never before had I heard him speak with such firmness and apparent conviction, except when he was speaking about the need to find and kill the Jackal. Clearly, Somerled had hidden depths.

The other lords responded by pounding the table. Smiling, Logan raised his hand. "I am gratified to learn that we are all in agreement about this, for I have decided that this is an appropriate day on which to vote on Prince Tristan's proposal that the King select the baron of a village and town, at any time when the baron dies without a first-born son to succeed him."

Tristan's jaw dropped. The other lords murmured – all but Somerled, who was sitting quietly, watching Logan. Kenneth leaned forward. "Logan, this is a most divisive issue, one that would lend the very opposite message of unity that you are encouraging us to show."

"Unless perhaps you've changed your mind on this topic?" suggested Eubule.

Logan shook his head. "I continue to believe – forgive me, Prince Tristan – that such an act would place too much power in the hands of the new nobility. There needs to be peace between the new nobility and the old nobility, if we are to fight against our enemies."

Colborn muttered something about the Jackal delighting in disunity also. Blackwood leaned forward, frowning. "Logan, are you sure about the wisdom of bringing this matter to a vote today?"

Logan nodded. "I have my reasons for doing so. Lords." He raised his voice over the murmurings. "We have discussed this issue in the past, so I think that no further discussion is needed. Herald?"

The herald – who had been occupying the time by polishing his free-man's blade – quickly sheathed his dagger and straightened. "A proposal has been made by Tristan, confirmed heir to the throne, Prince of Koretia, Lord of the King's Council, Baron of Valouse, to change the rules whereby baronies are inherited. A vote will now take place. The lords will indicate whether they affirm, deny, or abstain."

"Deny," said Colborn, keeping both his hands in his lap.

"Abstain," said Drugo promptly, waving his hands about in an ambiguous fashion. It was his usual response, in any case where the vote was not clearly headed toward unanimity.

"Affirm," said Eubule, placing his right hand on the table to indicate his affirmation.

As the vote proceeded, it became clear that Blackwood's concern had been well-founded. Every member of the new nobility was voting in favor of the proposal. So did some of the old nobility, apparently out of loyalty to the King or his heir. The vote was going to end up strongly tilted toward affirmation, regardless of the final votes.

"Affirm," said Kenneth.

"Deny," said Blackwood.

"Affirm," said Gaillard.

"Deny," said Somerled.

"And I deny," said Logan.

The herald declared, "Sixteen lords affirm. One lord abstains. Eight lords deny. The proposal is passed."

There were grumbles from the lords who had voted to deny. Blackwood said nothing, but his expression was positively thunderous. I remembered then that his first-born son had died in the civil war. Logan's decision to hold the vote now – when he did not possess enough support to deny the measure – had essentially guaranteed that Blackwood's second-born son would be stripped of the barony of Blackpass.

"Thank you, lords," said Logan calmly. "Now we shall hold the vote again."

Tristan, who had been uneasily accepting the congratulations of other lords of the new nobility, was so startled that he tipped over his cup. Wine spilled across the table. Nobody except Tristan took notice. As I hurried forward, drawing a face-cloth from where it was looped around my belt, Gaillard cried, "You can't do that!"

"Yes, he can," said Kenneth slowly as I began to mop up the spill; Tristan edged out of my reach without looking my way. "This was what you had in mind all along, wasn't it, Logan?"

"It was." Logan looked around the table, once more meeting the gaze of every man. "Lords, I spoke before of our need for unity. One reason that Emor has been able to grab territory after territory in the Great Peninsula is that, in time of danger, its council remains unified. And our council? It is a subject for laughter in every tavern of the Great Peninsula. We cannot even agree on the rules for succession in baronies, much less how we should conduct our war."

Colborn frowned. "What are you suggesting, Logan? That we make every council vote a test of our unity with one another?"

"No," murmured Kenneth. "He is not proposing that."

"I am not," agreed Logan. "Council lords will sometimes disagree with one another. That is natural and is part of our function. I am suggesting that, when it comes to matters of high importance, we show the world that we can remain unified. Lords, today I will exercise the High Lord's Privilege."

"Oh, gods," breathed Blackwood.

There was more murmuring around the table, much of it clearly confusion. Forgetting what Logan had said earlier, Tristan raised his voice, asking, "Sir, what is the High Lord's Privilege? I have never heard of that."

"It is a custom in Emorian law." Kenneth drummed his fingers on the table. "Those of us who just voted in favor of this proposal did so out of loyalty to the King. Now Logan is asking us to show our loyalty to him."

"Not merely to me, but to unity," the High Lord corrected. "The High Lord's Privilege is the privilege of a High Lord to overturn any vote made by the council . . . provided that the council agrees that they wish him to remain High Lord. That is what this next vote will be, lords: on whether you wish me to remain High Lord."

"As a symbol of unity, I believe," inserted Somerled. He still had not removed his gaze from Logan.

Logan nodded. "Indeed. Unity symbolized by your decision to be led by a man who is neither of the new nobility nor of the old nobility, but who seeks to unify us all in a force against our enemies. This is the message we will send to our King: that the council is united, with me as its leader."

"Enough chatter." Gaillard looked rapacious at this opportunity to remove Logan from power. "Let us vote."

Logan nodded. "Herald?"

His voice remained calm, but I saw how his hand had formed into a fist beneath the table. I looked over at the herald, who was rapidly paging through the book of council law that he kept close at hand. Finally he found the right page and cleared his throat. "A proposal has been made by Tristan, confirmed heir to the throne, Prince of Koretia, Lord of the King's Council, Baron of Valouse, to change the rules whereby baronies are inherited. The High Lord has exercised his Privilege to overturn the vote. A vote will now take place on whether the High Lord should retain his Privilege. A vote of affirmation indicates that the council wishes the High Lord to remain in his place as their leader. A vote of denial will require the High Lord to resign his title as leader of the council. The lords will indicate whether they affirm or deny. Abstentions are not permitted in votes of this type."

Drugo groaned. Colborn immediately said, "Affirm."

The vote proceeded quickly. It became clear that, whether or not Somerled had kept his promise to speak to the other lords, the vote was going to be very close, and that the vote would be decided along the lines of lineage. All of the old nobility were now affirming their support of Logan. All of the new nobility were denying their support. Drugo voted to deny. Tristan – after a clear struggle over whether to support his King or his High Lord – voted to deny. I held my breath as the vote neared the end. The council was now evenly divided.

"Deny," said Kenneth.

"Affirm," said Blackwood.

"Deny," said Gaillard.

"And Somerled and I affirm," concluded Logan, placing his palm on the table. "Well, lords, this was far indeed from the show of unity that I had hoped for, but I will continue to do all I can to strive for—"

"Deny," said Somerled.

The silence that followed was like that on a battlefield, when the Commander has fallen without warning. Logan turned his head to look at Somerled, whose hands remained folded together on his lap. "What did you say?" Logan asked slowly.

Thus cued, the herald cried, "The lord will repeat his vote."

"I deny your Privilege, Logan." Somerled's gaze remained locked with Logan's.

There was a murmur around the council table. It was the first time that anyone had heard Somerled address Logan without his title.

Logan seemed unable to move his gaze from Somerled, or to speak. Into the silence, the herald declared, "Twelve lords affirm. Thirteen lords deny. The High Lord's Privilege is denied."

Logan finally managed to wrench his gaze away from Somerled. "Well," he said, and then paused. He cleared his throat again before saying, "Well. It seems that my time leading you will be shorter than I had hoped. Lords, I thank those of you who voted in affirmation. The rest of you . . . I think it would be best to end the meeting now. I will go to the King and tender to him my resignation from leadership of the council; he will let you know when he has chosen a new High Lord." Somerled rose to his feet.

Everyone else followed suit and exited the chamber with haste, though Blackwood paused long enough to rest his hand in sympathy on Logan's shoulder – a gracious gesture, I thought, considering that Logan's disastrous decision had cost Blackwood the right to retain his noble lineage into the next generation. Logan appeared not to notice the gesture. He was staring at the council table, his eyes blind to anything but his inner thoughts.

Finally, as I came forward to collect the cups, he gathered himself together and moved toward the door. He had nearly reached the door when a man detached himself from the shadows and went to stand next to the doorpost.

It was Somerled. He said nothing. He simply smiled at Logan, in a manner so chilly that Logan's hand involuntarily gripped the hilt of his sword.

Somerled did not move from where he stood. Finally, Logan stepped through the doorway, leaving Somerled behind. But I could guess that the memory of Somerled's smile would haunt Logan for years.

o—o—o

Somerled stood by the window, watching the bustle in the courtyard as palace dwellers hurried to and fro, carrying the news. He was far enough away from the window that he could not be seen by anyone below, and he was smiling. He had been smiling for the past hour.

I was now on the dozenth dusting of the same furniture, but nothing short of orders would remove me from this chamber. I knew that, sooner or later, there would be visitors.

Even as I thought this, Somerled's servant appeared in the doorway. He had a dazed look on his face, which I thought hardly surprising. At the beginning of the day, he had been Logan's servant.

He cleared his throat. "Sir, Prince Tristan wishes to see you."

"Allow him entrance." Somerled's smile had disappeared the moment that the servant entered the chamber, but he did not turn away from the window.

Tristan poked his head through, like a small boy checking that he is welcome amidst his elders. "Somerled?" he said tentatively.

"Tristan," came the response. "I would prefer that you address me as High Lord."

"Er . . . yes." Tristan took a few steps into the High Lord's sitting chamber. "But I thought . . . Council custom . . ."

"Council custom changes when the High Lordship changes. I am a more formal man than my predecessor." Somerled turned around. "Have a seat, Tristan. What brings you here?"

Not so formal that he would address the confirmed heir by his title, I reflected as I moved out of the way of the flustered Prince. Nor so formal that he would wait until Tristan was sitting before seating himself. The power display was so blatant that I half expected Tristan to challenge Somerled to a duel. Or perhaps simply point out that he, not Somerled, would one day be King.

But that was not Tristan's way, at least not at this stage of his life. He took his seat obediently and perched on the edge of his chair, his hands clenched together. "Sir," he began, "I am grateful to you for conveying to me the King's desire that I propose a change in the rules of barony, but I am not sure . . . That is, I do not think the King anticipated what would happen."

"Have you spoken with the King since the meeting?" Relaxed in the High Lord's chair, Somerled let his fingers play along the intricate carvings of the masks of the gods.

"No, sir. He has been in closed meeting with you all afternoon."

"Ah, yes. Well, I think a discussion with the King will relieve your mind. The King has been highly dissatisfied with the leadership of Logan for some time now. In accordance with council law, the King could not force Logan from the position of High Lord, but he was eager to find a means by which Logan might remove himself from power."

"And you suggested the vote on baronies?" said Tristan slowly.

Somerled nodded gravely. "And some other votes in recent weeks. I could not be sure at what point Logan would claim the High Lord's Privilege, but it seemed likely that, with so many of the votes going against his favor, he would eventually do so. I told the King I thought it unlikely the council would support Logan's continued leadership, if the Privilege was claimed."

Tristan bit his lip before saying, "But half the council did support him. The council is as divided as ever. If it hadn't been for my proposal, Lord Logan would still be High Lord."

It was clear that this – his guilt over what he had done – was what had brought him to Somerled's chambers. Somerled chose to ignore that, saying, "The King and I are aware of the divide in the council and are deeply troubled by it. Like Logan, the King and I wish to bring unity to the council. I will continue that policy of the previous High Lord's . . . in my own fashion."

"Oh." Tristan sagged in his chair. "I was afraid . . . Well, I do not know what I was afraid of, to be truthful." He gave a nervous laugh. "But I am glad to hear that you share Logan's view that the new nobility and old nobility need to remain at peace with one another."

I was close now, dusting the bench near Somerled's chair; I could see that his expression did not flicker in the least. "Your support is most gratifying to me, Tristan. The King has high hopes for you, and so do I. If, at any time, you need assistance in understanding council matters, I would be glad to help you."

"Thank you, High Lord." Tristan rose to his feet. "I will take no more of your time. I know that this has been a long, difficult day for you."

A sliver of a smile escaped Somerled then, but Tristan did not see it, turning away. The servant, appearing promptly at the door, escorted Tristan out before returning to say, "Lord Blackwood is waiting to see you, High Lord."

"Let him in." Somerled's response was brisk. He did not rise to his feet. I moved back a considerable distance. I had no wish to be anywhere near the confrontation that followed.

To Blackwood's credit, he managed to keep his hand away from his blade-hilt when he entered. But without preliminary courtesy, he said, "I overheard what you told our Prince. Every word you spoke was a lie. I do not believe for an instant that the King decided, of his own accord, to toss Logan into the rubbish heap. You are an insidious snake, Somerled – never think I am fooled by you."

I had my eye on Somerled's blade hand, but it did not move. Calmly, Somerled said, "I have always found your candidness to be refreshing, Lord Blackwood. Regardless of how you assess me, however, you underestimate the King. It is the King's wish that, upon my promotion, your status in the council be raised accordingly. You will be my right-hand man, with whom I hold close consultation. If, in the future, I should lose my own Privilege, you will succeed me as High Lord."

Blackwood remained very still, his gaze fixed upon Somerled's face. "This makes no sense. What do you have planned, Somerled?"

"Obedience to the King. If you know anything about me, you know of my loyalty to him." Somerled's tone had turned crisp.

Blackwood said slowly, "I had heard a rumor that you were once a common spy."

"For the King. Yes. He raised me to power, and he can remove me from power too. If nothing else, I have a certain amount of self-preservation. And gratitude, though I doubt that is a characteristic you will attribute to me."

Blackwood remained slow in replying. "I cannot tell whether you are being as honest with me as I was with you, or whether you are entirely too skilled in your deceit."

"It does not matter what you think, Lord Blackwood. You will know soon enough whether I am lying, through the actions I take toward the King. Thank you for coming by tonight; I will meet with you tomorrow morning to discuss our plans for the council."

After a minute, Blackwood bowed – an ironic bow, but not one, I thought, that he would have granted at the beginning of this conversation. "High Lord," he said, and withdrew.

The servant, moving forward to intercept him, followed the order of the High Lord's gesture; I heard him draw the door-bolt and then go down the stairs to his own small quarters in the cellar. The cellar door closed faintly behind him.

From the back of the chamber, a voice said, "I thought you protected yourself better against your enemies."

Somerled's smile returned. Without moving, he said, "You are not my enemy. But if you were, my dear, you would discover that I spent this evening installing in these quarters a dozen traps against assassins, four of which I can trigger from this chair."

Idonia laughed as she came forward into the light, from where she had been sitting in the shadows. My first good look at her caused me to make yet another revision of my assessment of Somerled.

I knew Somerled's tale by now – all the slaves did, for we were more aware than the council lords were of the network of spies scattered by the King throughout the palace and throughout Koretia. At one time, as Somerled had truthfully confessed to Blackwood, he had been a spy for the King – a dirt-poor commoner recruited after the King's spies picked up evidence of his criminal activities and were impressed by his skills at subterfuge. Whether under pressure or out of his own desire to rise in status, Somerled had accepted their offer to join the King's spies.

And then had undermined his rise in rank by eloping with a town baron's first-born daughter.

That was how it must have seemed at the time, and it must have appeared sheer luck that the King, having taken a liking to the young spy, ordered the baron to accept his daughter's new husband, rather than hang Somerled for his impetuosity.

It was perhaps not so lucky for the baron that, within a year, both he and his two sons were killed during the recently begun civil war, as a result of a mission ordered by the King. Somerled succeeded to the town barony, and from there it was a short hop to the King's Council.

I had often wondered what had happened to the daughter who had facilitated this rise to high power. I had always assumed that Somerled had discarded her as soon as it was convenient. She was said to have been ten years older than him and not very good-looking. By now, she must be past her child-bearing years.

And so she was. She looked more like a fishmonger's wife than a baron's daughter – skinny and coarse. Yet seeing how Somerled smiled at her and pulled her head down for a kiss, I realized I had entirely misunderstood the tale.

Somerled's rise to power was not his own plot. He had plotted his rise with the help of the baron's daughter.

Now, as she seated herself opposite him, she said in a comfortable manner, "I have no doubt you have us well protected. I was referring to Blackwood, actually. He is your enemy, if anyone is."

"Not my only enemy, but my worst, because of his high rank," Somerled agreed.

"Then why did you respond with soft words to his challenge?" Idonia asked as she tucked her distaff under her arm. The wool at the top of the distaff glowed in the firelight.

"Aside from the fact that I would prefer not to have bloodstains on the floorboards of my new sitting chamber? The timing would be poor."

Idonia raised her eyebrow as she leaned forward to settle her spindle better in its bowl. "The timing?"

"Let me give you an example of what I mean," said Somerled, tilting his chair back against the hearth-stones. "Do you remember that man who was appointed to the Emorian council this past summer upon the retirement of Lord Godfrey?"

"The one who isn't a baron?" said Idonia, beginning to twist the wool into yarn. At her feet, the spindle hummed as it twirled upon the bowl.

"That's the one. The first lesser free-man in eighty years to be appointed to the Emorian council, and moreover a man who was known for his subservience toward his masters. Emor's devious High Lord was certain that he could keep this new lord safely under his control. But hear what happened." He snapped his fingers.

Grabbing a cup and the bottle of wild-berry wine from the table I was dusting, I brought the drink over to him. His eyes were focussed on the fire in front of him, and the smile on his face told me that the tale to follow would be unpleasant. I carefully poured the purple-red liquid into his cup, placed it on the arm of his chair, and stepped back out of view – an unnecessary precaution, since I was sure that I had never been in Somerled's view.

"Emor has a custom I hope to adopt of not allowing lords to speak in the Great Council unless they are called upon by the High Lord," said Somerled. "New lords are generally not called upon for several months, until the High Lord is sure of their ability not to make fools of themselves in debates. Well, devious Lord Dean decided to take political advantage of this fact. The new lord had been appointed to the council partly because the Chara had taken a liking to him and partly because he knew a great deal about Koretia. Information on Koretia is much valued by Emor's council at the moment. So the High Lord fell into the habit of summoning the new lord to his quarters every few evenings, questioning him on whatever Koretian matter was going to be discussed next, and then presenting the information at the following day's council meeting as though he had acquired it himself. The Chara and the council were pleased with Lord Dean's diligent research and praised him for it."

"Clever," said Idonia, raising her spindle to check that it was looping the yarn properly. "So the new lord did all the work, and the High Lord got all the credit."

"Clever, but not clever enough, as it transpired. Now, if you were this new lord, the junior-most lord of a council of thirty lords, what would you have done?"

"Told the other lords what Lord Dean was doing?" Idonia suggested.

"A fine way to fall on one's sword. If the new lord had admitted that he could be manipulated that easily, he would have been a constant victim of the other lords from that point forth."

"You said that the Chara liked him. Perhaps he could go to the Chara and tell him."

"The Chara would not have thought much of a lord who came crying to him with tales of bullying. The new lord was apparently wise enough to realize this."

"Well," said Idonia, nudging the spindle's bowl further away from the fire, "if he had that much sense, then he also had the sense not to refuse to give information to Lord Dean."

"That's a method I could easily use to get rid of troublesome lords: command them to do something which humiliates them, then punish them when they refuse to follow my orders. No, the new lord was too canny to fall into that trap. Instead, he answered all of the High Lord's questions about a certain matter one night – but he took care not to volunteer any information that would have given a more complete picture of the situation. The following day, Lord Dean presented the information as though it were his own, using it as support for a policy he was trying to persuade the council to accept. Several lords noticed the holes in the information and asked Lord Dean for further facts."

Idonia was now wearing an unpleasant smile which matched that of her husband. "And what did the devious High Lord do?"

"Lost his head and called upon his junior-most lord for the first time, asking him to support what the High Lord had said. The new lord did so – and then supplied the missing information, which completely reversed the picture and made nonsense of what Lord Dean had just been saying. The new lord thereupon apologized for failing to give Lord Dean the full information on the previous night. He said that if he had realized that Lord Dean planned to repeat his remarks verbatim, he would have supplied the High Lord with written notes appropriate for someone who was still learning elementary facts about Koretia."

Idonia crowed with laughter and was forced to jerk back her distaff to keep it from falling into the fire.

"Yes, the other lords had a hard time keeping straight faces," said Somerled with a smile. "Lord Dean tried to bring the council's discipline down upon the new lord, but it was too late for that. By sunset, everyone in the palace knew that the junior-most lord had made a fool of the High Lord. The Chara was so amused by the story that he told Lord Dean that he would be highly displeased if the new lord were not raised several seats in council rank as a reward for his recent contributions to the council."

Somerled's smile faded. He leaned forward to stare deeper into the fire. "So you see the moral of this story. If Lord Dean had attempted to befriend his new lord, the man would no doubt have been so grateful at such condescension that he would have willingly supplied the High Lord with all the information he needed. Instead, this very clever and very knowledgeable man is now a leader amongst the junior lords, a favored friend of the Chara, and likely to have great influence in the council from this point on. It is a lesson which I doubt that Lord Dean will forget, and one which I learned long ago. That, my dear, is why I never make open enemies of a man unless I have the certain ability to oust him from power. —May the Jackal eat his dead!" This exclamation came as a thread from Somerled's sleeve caught on fire. I grabbed the pitcher of water and moved forward, but Somerled had already smothered the fire with his cup. He waved me away, and I retreated to the dust-cloth.

"You'll be safe enough unless one of your enemies learns how easily you catch on fire," said Idonia with a wry smile. "That's the third time this month; you should keep your chair further back. As for this new lord, is he likely to change the Chara's views on the war?"

"Unfortunately, no; just the opposite. I had hopes that the Emorian council was tiring of the war and would press the Chara to withdraw his forces from Koretia. However, this new lord is a firm supporter of the Chara's policy toward us and is likely to rally the junior lords in support of the war. So the tale has a sorry ending for me as well as for my Emorian colleague."

Idonia nodded, accepting the lesson. "What of Logan? He could cause you trouble in the future."

"He could, if he were not such a fool." The scorn in Somerled's voice was scathing. "Too offended to serve under me, he resigned from the council today. If he tries to speak out against me in a few weeks' time, he will discover how little notice is taken by noblemen of the prattle of lesser free-men."

Idonia nodded again. "And Tristan?"

"He is not an enemy at all," Somerled replied promptly as he brushed soot off his tunic. "The King and I share high hopes that he may be shaped into a ruler worthy to succeed Rawdon. All he needs is a helping hand."

Idonia regarded him, her head tilted to one side. "So you were telling Tristan the truth? You really did receive the King's consent to do this?"

"Most assuredly." Somerled folded his fingers together as I removed the empty wine cup from the arm of his chair. "If I had dreamt up an ideal master to work for, I could not have dreamt higher than Rawdon. He is a practical man, he recognizes hard necessity, he listens to my advice, but he is no man's tool. No, it will not pain me in the least to be his High Lord . . . or Tristan's, if he continues in the direction in which I and the King gently nudge him. I hope, my dear, that you were not dreaming of a tiara." He smiled at his wife.

She shrugged. "You know that, if you were still a cut-throat in the alleyways, I would remain by your side."

"I know." The affection in Somerled's voice was clear. "Well, that is enough for tonight, I think. Slave, if you dust that table any longer, you will wear down the grain. To bed."

I managed to pull myself out of my paralysis and offer my bow; then I left the sitting chamber. Fiddling with the door-bolt in the antechamber's door to the corridor gave me the excuse I needed to linger a minute longer in the High Lord's quarters, out of sight of him. In the next room, Idonia asked with curiosity, "Why did you allow him to listen in on all of that?"

"One lesson I learned early on as a spy: it is impossible to keep secrets from slaves. The best you can do is take control of them." Somerled's voice remained relaxed as I began to slide the bolt back quietly. "Unlike Logan, I do not value initiative in slaves. A slave who can sneak several bottles of imported cider out of a cellar and can serve the stolen goods to the very man who owns the cider, without being detected in his theft, can just as easily place poison in my drink or slip into my chambers at night with a blade in hand. I want him to be very clear as to the consequences he will face if he disobeys me. Do you understand, slave?"

He did not bother to raise his voice. I resisted the impulse to return to his chamber and offer him the Obeisance. Instead, I drew the door slowly closed behind me. As I did, I heard Idonia laugh. She said, "I think he understands now."

o—o—o

"Do you willingly offer up your spirit as a sacrifice to me?" They were words I was accustomed to hearing within my thoughts only in the morning, when I woke to the remembrance that I was a slave, and was forced to decide once more whether I wished my spirit to continue in its Living Death.

Now the words echoed in my mind. I shook my head in silent rejection of the offer, though it came hard upon me to do so. Crossing the courtyard to the slave-quarters, I reflected that, if I had known beforehand that Logan's demotion would mean Somerled's rise to be my master, I would have been tempted to do more than dust furniture and serve drinks.

The sun was well set by now. The courtyard lay empty except for the usual guards at the north and south gates, who paid me no mind. The rising moon shone and shattered as I stepped into reflective puddles from the afternoon rain. A soft breeze chilled the air. When I glanced over my shoulder, I saw that Council Hall was dark, except for lamplight in the respective quarters of the new High Lord and the King. For a moment, I sighted Tristan at the window of his bedchamber, which was adjacent to the King's quarters; he was staring down at the courtyard. But when I raised my mask to look up at him, he turned away quickly.

I continued in my path, my thoughts preoccupied. That I had given no thought to my own future was only a part of the problem, I knew. When I stood by, doing nothing as Somerled carried out his deception, I had given no thought either to the future of Koretia. The Chara – who disliked so much the blood feuds of Koretia, which had spilled over into Emor – would be highly displeased when he learned of the loss of a Koretian High Lord who had fought so valiantly to prevent further blood feuds. By the Chara's measure – and by the measure of all peace-loving Emorians and Koretians – I had failed bitterly during the past day.

On the rare occasions when I gave thought to the matter, I knew that I was a better man than I had been before my enslavement. During my days as a patrol lieutenant, I had needed to force myself to remember the physical requirements of my men; now, after seven years as a slave, seeing that my master and other nobles received food and drink and clean clothing and other necessities came instinctively to me. My mind was so attuned to helping others with their physical needs that I no longer had to struggle to remember those duties.

Yet it was not enough, I now saw, to confine my thoughts to the physical needs of others around me. I must keep in mind what the Emorians call needs of the heart and mind, and what the Koretians call needs of the spirit – the needs that rise above bodily necessities. Somehow, I must extend my quest for selflessness to helping others whose spirits were in trouble.

Hyrne was waiting for me outside the slave-men's dormitory. "You're late," he said with a sour expression, and he twirled his finger with his left hand. His rod was ready in his right hand.

I turned quickly toward the wall, burying my masked face in my arms. There was no truth to what Hyrne said; on nights when the King and High Lord stayed up late, Hyrne and the slaves were dutybound to do so as well. But I guessed that Hyrne was eager to leave his duties so that he could convey the latest news to his friends in the Market Tavern. I waited, my heart pounding.

It was four strokes, which was as much as he ever gave me. For a minute afterwards, I struggled to get my breath back and tried to determine, from the nature of the pain, whether my ribs had been broken. Then I turned and gave a low bow of apology for my misconduct.

Hyrne responded by grunting in disgust and thrusting me inside the dormitory with his rod. I was still bowing and nearly fell onto the floor, off-balance. By the time I steadied myself, Hyrne had slammed the door shut behind me and barred it.

I blinked, unsettled by the brightness of the dormitory. Then I realized that this must be the equinox; during the spring and fall quarter-days, moonlight shone brightly into the men's dormitory, through small cracks in the wall. Because the scene was lighted, I could tell that all was not well in the dormitory.

The three dozen dead-eyed slaves were all standing in a tight pack, like sheep surrounded by wolves – their usual posture when they sensed that something was amiss but could not identify the trouble. The two dozen live-eyed slaves were milling around restlessly – all but Wilfred, who was openly crying. As any slave who had survived a month of Living Death knew, crying when you wore an iron mask was a most uncomfortable act. Clearly every live-eyed slave had heard by now of our change of master. Clearly also they feared for their future.

Rightly so. I stood still, watching the others, thinking that, if I wished to make it my mission to help others with their spiritual states, I could do no better than to start tonight. After a minute's thought, I strode forward and did my best to attract the attention of the others. This would not be difficult, I anticipated. I knew all the live-eyed slaves by name; they had all been enslaved after I was. They looked to me for cues on how to behave. None of them, of course, knew my identity.

I had wondered, during my early days as a slave, whether the more rebellious members of the Living Dead might develop a sort of language through gestures. I soon realized how impossible this was. Hyrne kept a falcon's eye upon us for any sign of communication that went beyond conveying important information on duties, such as the need for a work tool. As a result, no slave that I knew had ever developed a silent language.

But still, we were all accustomed to conveying simple messages to each other, for the sake of our work. When I was sure that all the live-eyed slaves were watching me, I placed my hand on my heart – the location where many Koretian free-men wore tiny prayer-masks – and then raised my hands toward the sky, in the Koretian manner of prayer.

Several of the live-eyed slaves nodded, apparently understanding my suggestion. Encouraged, I wrapped my arms together and pretended to rock an invisible baby, cradling it carefully and gently. The black-eyed baby's father raised his hand toward his face, as though about to wipe away a tear; then he let his hand fall, remembering his mask.

I gestured toward all of us, embracing even the dead-eyed slaves. And then – the most difficult gesture of all, for I had no implement with which to write this sign – I carefully drew in the air an inverted triangle. The royal insignia of Koretia, representing a prayer-mask of the gods.

The other live-eyed slaves looked at one another. For a moment, I thought I would have to find another gesture to convey what I meant. Then nods were exchanged in silent agreement. The live-eyed slaves began to form a semi-circle together. They waited for me to join them; then all of us raised our arms high.

And then something extraordinary happened.

The dead-eyed slaves, who had been watching us with dull unawareness, began to shuffle forward. They formed a second semi-circle, joining the one already made. They raised their arms toward the sky. And then all of us – slaves in the Land of the Living and slaves in the Land Beyond – offered our silent plea to the gods, praying that our gods and goddesses would protect us and the people of Koretia.

Chapter Text

"Slaves, here," said Somerled sharply. "No, don't kneel. I wish you to watch this."

I and the dead-eyed slave beside me followed the beckoning of the High Lord's hand and came to stand beside him – at a suitable distance – next to the shelf that held the food and utensils for the afternoon. As we watched, Somerled carefully arranged three bejewelled cups on a silver tray. "Bring out the nuts first," Somerled said without looking at us. "Not the wine; only the nuts. See that they are shelled and well salted. Do you understand?" The dead-eyed slave and I nodded as Somerled's hands deftly arranged the three empty cups so that they were symmetrically ordered on the edges of the tray, like the three points of a death mask. "When I give the order – not before then – bring out the wine. You will offer the wine first to the man sitting on the cushioned seat. Offer him the tray so that the cup with the emeralds is closest to hand. Then, when he reaches for the cup, move the tray swiftly so that his hand touches the cup with the bloodstones. Do you understand?"

The dead-eyed slave nodded without understanding. Certainly I understood, and would have understood even if I had not seen the cluster of golden granules at the bottom of the cup with bloodstones. Feeling a chill travel through my body that had nothing to do with the winter wind from the open window, I wondered whether Somerled thought that his live-eyed slaves had had their intelligences killed at the time of the death rite. Then I realized that it made no difference to Somerled whether I understood. I was a slave; my knowledge of what was to happen was unimportant.

I forced myself to nod. The commands given, Somerled paid no further heed to us, going instead to sit in his chair by the fire. A smile played across his face.

The two guests arrived together. They were in the midst of a debate over the merits of the laws on slavery. Tristan was stiff with anxiety, as he always was when forced to discuss such taboo subjects. Blackwood, by contrast, was as relaxed as he ever was, going so far as to acquiesce to Somerled's polite invitation that he take the cushioned seat next to the fire.

Blackwood was as direct as always, though, once the dead-eyed slave had closed the door to the corridor. "There are too few members of the old nobility on the council," he said.

Somerled, who had been on the point of signalling for food and drink, let his hand drop and raised his right eyebrow instead. He made no reply, though. After a moment, Blackwood continued forcefully, counting on his fingers, "Drugo and Kemp and Brett are retired – persuaded to retire by the King and yourself. Eubule and Colborn are dead—"

Somerled raised his eyebrow yet further. "Are you suggesting that their deaths were anything other than mischance?" he asked quietly.

Now it was Blackwood's turn to raise his eyebrow. "The thought hadn't occurred to me. The thought had occurred to me that, since all of the above lords were of the old nobility, it would have been reasonable for you and the King to select old nobility to replace them. Yet all of the lords selected for the council in the past year – since you took the High Lordship – have been kin to the King."

"And you believe that this is not a coincidence," Somerled murmured, leaning back in his hard chair beside Blackwood's.

"It is far from a coincidence," said Blackwood. Beyond him, the winter fire leapt, brushing shadows across his face and darkening the hollows of his eyes. "The balance of power on the council – carefully maintained since Rawdon's grandfather claimed the throne – has shifted. I wish to know why."

Somerled started to speak, and then appeared to think the better of it. Turning to his left side, he gestured graciously toward the younger lord, saying, "Since Prince Tristan is more privy to the King's ear than either of us, perhaps it is best for him to answer the question. Can you tell us, Prince Tristan, why the King has chosen not to select any members of the old nobility for the council in recent years?"

Tristan hesitated. In the silence that followed, the fire-log shifted in the irons embracing it, causing charred wood to roll out of the fire. One of the slaves moved forward to brush the charred wood back into the fire with his gloved hand.

"I hadn't noticed the imbalance of power you mention, Lord Blackwood," said the King's heir carefully. "I know, however, that the King has grown weary during the past few years of always having to fight members of the old nobility such as yourself over matters unrelated to the war. This is a time when Koretia is struggling to survive against the godless lust of the Emorians to destroy us. This is not a time when we should be bickering over internal matters; we should be united in thrusting back the enemy to our border."

Tristan had taken the trouble to alter one or two words from the King's speech to the council a fortnight before. From where I was positioned, kneeling at the hearth next to the cushioned chair, I could see Blackwood's mouth twitch. But he replied in a serious manner, "I trust that, despite the many times we have turned our faces from the gods, the gods will shelter us in their mercy and permit us the final victory over the Emorians. My concern, though, and the concern of all the old nobility on the council, is to ensure that when the victory comes, we still have a land worth fighting for. That cannot happen if the King is surrounded only by advisors who say 'yes' and 'no' in accordance with what the King wishes to hear. Division among the council lords on important matters is the lifeblood of this land. That blood is drained further and further each time the King appoints another member of the new nobility to the council. I say this in all sincerity, Somerled: if the King were of the old nobility and all of his council lords likewise, as it was in the old days, I would be just as unhappy as I am now. The king needs lords who will disagree with him."

I rose from the hearth, a piece of cold charcoal cradled within my gloved hand, and moved over to the shelf. A scrap of paper lay there, abandoned next to the water pitcher. Ignoring the dead-eyed slave, who was pouring wine into the cups, I carefully turned the paper over to its blank side. None of the lords were looking my way.

Unperturbed, Somerled said quietly, "As I have tried to warn the King, a council made up of kinsmen is no guarantee to unity. Family quarrels can be more than a little noisy." As Tristan laughed nervously, Somerled continued soberly, "I myself have done my best to advise the King on the dangers of a homogenous council. As Prince Tristan can tell you, I have suggested a number of the old nobility to take places on the council – even that young baron who lost his village to the Emorians. What was his name, Prince Tristan?"

"Griffith," said Tristan, who had been biting his lip, evidently regretting his outburst of levity in the face of the High Lord's seriousness.

The charcoal in my hand crumbled as my fingers tightened involuntarily. I stopped myself from looking over at the lords, knowing that this motion might attract their attention more than the sound of the crumbling charcoal would. Instead, I picked up the largest chunk of the charcoal and finished writing the note on the paper. I carefully folded the paper until it was as small as one of the Daxion nuts that the dead-eyed slave was placing in bowls.

"Somerled, you will forgive me for being cynical," Blackwood said from beside the fire, "but I have witnessed you make recommendations to the King before. Your words say one thing; your tone says another. I cannot blame the King for heeding the recommendation of your tone, rather than your words."

"I suspect that the King— Prince Tristan, may I assist you?" The High Lord, whose gaze had been trained upon Blackwood until this moment, switched with unerring instinct to Tristan at the moment that the young lord looked over at the slaves.

Jerking his gaze away from the slaves, Tristan began to stammer apologizes. Somerled said smoothly, "Forgive me. I had forgotten to serve you; no doubt you are hungry, like most young men. Let me assuage your hunger with some food." He raised his hand.

The dead-eyed slave moved forward – serving the nuts was usually his task – but I barred his way, and he dropped back into a waitful position as I picked up the tray. I was wondering, as I walked forward, what unusual movement of mine had attracted the attention of the King's heir and caused him to look over at me with suspicion. I had been trained, though, to sense the movement of a blade from the instant it started. By the time that Tristan looked my way, the paper was already hidden, and I was standing next to the wine cups, carefully pouring out a few final drops into the already filled cups.

Now I stopped next to the fire and, with equal care, offered Blackwood the tray of nut bowls. Without looking my way, Blackwood took the bowl nearest to hand/ "Please continue, Somerled; I would be interested in your interpretation of the King's actions. As well as an explanation of your own actions."

The High Lord was slow in replying. He nibbled at his nuts; the other two lords politely followed suit. Having finished distributing the nuts, I should have returned to the serving area, but instead I went to stand by the window opposite to Blackwood, where the chill wind continued to enter the room, causing the fire to leap eagerly in response.

"You said a while ago that you thought the deaths of Lord Eubule and Lord Colborn were due to mischance," Somerset said. "The King and I do not share your view on this, I fear. We believe that the lords were murdered."

"Murdered!" cried Tristan, twisting in his seat with shock.

"Do you mean to say . . . Murdered by whom?"

I knew, from the expression on Blackwood's face, that his stumbling speech was not due to anything the High Lord had said. Instead, Blackwood had dug deeply enough into the nut bowl that he could feel the paper hidden there. He did not look at the bowl, though; he looked over at Somerled, who had turned his head away from Blackwood in response to the distress of the King's heir. With a flick of the hand, Blackwood palmed the paper.

"I regret to say so," the High Lord responded soberly to Tristan's cry. "The first death looked innocent enough, but the second death drew my suspicions, and I asked the King to have the matter investigated. It seems certain that Lord Colborn was murdered, and most likely Lord Eubule as well."

"Does the King know who the murderer is?" Blackwood asked, his gaze travelling from Somerled to Tristan. The young lord was taking no notice of Blackwood, though. He was continuing to stare with horror at the High Lord, who had not yet looked at Blackwood.

"There is no certainty in the matter, but it is hardly a puzzle that the King need spend much time solving. Who in this land, after all, is known for his audacious murders?"

"The Jackal," breathed Tristan.

"That makes no sense," said Blackwood. "The Jackal has opposed the new nobility because of your views on the gods' law. He has never demonstrated any opposition toward the old nobility, for we share his belief that the gods' law has been corrupted." Blackwood's gaze drifted away from the two lords beside him, still looking at each other. Seemingly at random, Blackwood looked over at the window, and at the slave standing beside it.

Somerled's face was still turned away. I took a chance and nodded slightly.

Blackwood's gaze flicked away from me. Tristan had not noticed; he said, "Surely the Jackal, for all his evil ways, would not go so far as to kill noblemen."

"The ways of the so-called god-man are even more mysterious than the ways of the gods," Somerled said dryly. "I would not put it past the Jackal to try. As for his motive . . . Certainly the Jackal has always ignored the new nobility who believe that he holds the powers of the god. But I had been under the impression, Lord Blackwood, that Lord Eubule and Lord Colborn held the belief – shared by yourself – that the Jackal-man is right in his views about the gods' law but is nonetheless ordinary law-breaking rebel against the King. Or was I incorrect in that assumption?" He turned toward Blackwood and raised his eyebrow.

For a moment, Blackwood remained silent in face of this challenge. All that could be heard was the sound of the fire eating the broken log in the fireplace. Then Bainbridge jerked his hand toward the fire dismissively, replying tightly, "You are correct."

"Forgive me," said the High Lord softly, bowing his head as the slave departed from his position near the window and walked over to the serving area. "I had not meant to cast doubts upon your loyalty to the King. Certainly the King and I both know the depth of your loyalty toward the gods."

Blackwood said nothing in reply; his gaze was carefully directed away from the fire. He had thrown the crumpled paper so that it would land to the right of the log, beyond Somerled's view. But from where I stood, next to the serving area, I could see the paper opening under the touch of the fire. I glimpsed the words written upon it – "Do not drink the wine I offer you" – and then the paper was eaten.

I would never know why Blackwood had refused to read the warning. Perhaps, quite reasonably, he suspected that the message was a trap from the High Lord, an attempt by Somerled to lead the opposing lord into openly breaking the gods' law. Perhaps Blackwood feared for the life of the slave whose read message would break the gods' law. Or perhaps Blackwood was simply Koretian – a man who, no matter what his mind told him about the corruption of the gods' law, could not, in the end, bring himself to break it.

I would never know, for the man who could have told me, I knew, was now dead. Even if I threw away my life by speaking, it would make no difference. Blackwood had made his choice to abide by the gods' law. Under that choice, he could not listen to any warning I gave him.

Somerled was saying, "You and the other lords of the old nobility have quite rightly recognized the Jackal to be a rebel against the King, and therefore a rebel against the gods. It may be that your refusal to recognize the claims of the Jackal sting the man more than any acts by the new nobility do. We, after all, do not even believe that the Jackal is right in his views on the gods' law."

"If that is true, then every council lord who is of the old nobility is in danger from the Jackal," said Tristan, overcoming his shyness in his eagerness to contribute to the solution of this puzzle.

Somerled nodded gravely. "The King believes so. That is one of the reasons he has chosen not to replace the retired lords and dead lords with other members of the old nobility – because he fears that he would be placing such men in danger from the Jackal's murderous anger."

Blackwood frowned as he placed the empty nut bowl on the table beside him. "If this is true, why haven't the three remaining lords of the old nobility been warned of this danger?"

Something close to a smile flickered across Somerled's face. He said solemnly, "Lord Blackwood, I fear that your life is in danger."

Tristan began to laugh; his laughter turned into a cough, causing Somerled to say contritely, "My apologies, Prince Tristan. Your mouth is dry; the servants ought to have served the wine with the nuts." He raised his hand.

The dead-eyed slave beside me made no move; it was my responsibility to serve the wine. For a brief moment, I hesitated, but I was in a room that was – in the manner that Koretians speak it – filled with one death shadow already. Adding my death would not save Blackwood.

I picked up the wine tray.

Blackwood had not noticed my delay. His face was filled with anger as he said, "This is not a matter for jesting, High Lord. If your words are true, I and two other lords have been in grave danger since the time that Colborn and Eubule died. Why were we not warned of this danger?" Without looking, he reached out toward the tray I held.

I turned the tray so that the bloodstone cup touched Blackwood's hand.

My heart beat hard in my throat. Somerled had turned his body aside to place his nut bowl on the table between himself and Tristan. Tristan had caught my movement, though, and was staring at me. Yet still, I was willing Blackwood to look up at me. Even with the King's heir watching, I would try to make one final warning with a shake of the head.

Blackwood's hand hovered in the air. He glanced over at Tristan, who quickly found reason to stare at the nut bowl in his lap; then Blackwood looked at Somerled, studiously arranging his own nut bowl on the table beside him.

I saw a flicker of expression pass over Blackwood. I knew that he had reached his conclusion, and I knew – from the feeling of my heart turning dead within me – that his conclusion was wrong. Without looking at me, Blackwood picked up the cup from the tray, his fingers pressed upon the bloodstones.

Turning back from the table to accept the emerald cup I offered him, Somerled said, "You say if my words are true, Lord Blackwood. Do you doubt my words, then? Do you believe that the King and I are mistaken in believing that Lord Colborn was murdered? Or even that we arranged for the death to appear to be a murder, so that we could blame the Jackal?"

"Somerled, I tell you frankly that I would put nothing beyond your conniving mind," replied Blackwood, sipping from the cup as I walked back to the serving area. "You might even go so far as to—"

He stopped as I came abreast of the dead-eyed slave. I turned in time to see him grow rigid in his seat, his cup frozen in the air a finger's span from his lips.

Somerled did not appear to notice; he had turned to place his own cup upon the table. Tristan lowered the ruby-jewelled cup in his hand and said uncertainly, "Lord Blackwood? Are you well?"

"No," said Blackwood, as blunt as always. "I think—" His words were lost as his body was imprisoned by the first spasm.

The cup jerked out of his hand, spilling across the floor; the fire hissed as some of the liquid fell into it. By the time the cup chimed on the hearthstones nearby, Blackwood was already on the rug before his chair, gasping as his body arched involuntarily.

Tristan's cup had fallen as well. He was on his feet, staring wide-eyed at the writhing figure. "He's ill!" he cried. "He needs a healer!"

"Quick!" said Somerled in a voice showing more agitation than ever before. "Fetch Lovell. Run!"

Tristan responded immediately to the command, flinging the door open, and leaving it swinging on its hinges as he rushed down the corridor. From where I stood I saw a council guard in the corridor turn to look at Tristan, startled.

In a leisurely fashion, Somerled walked over and closed the door. Then he walked back to where the figure was continuing to writhe on the wine-stained rug.

Blackwood's face was contorted and covered with sweat. He was using all his energy to try to fight the spasms and speak. "Fool!" he gasped, addressing the absent heir. "Not ill . . . poison . . ." Another jerk turned his body toward the High Lord, kneeling beside him and smiling his thin smile.

Blackwood's eyes widened. "You!" he gasped.

Somerled's smile remained untouched. Blackwood fumbled for the dagger at his side, but it was too late; another spasm paralyzed him. Without hurry, Somerled picked up the cushion that Blackwood had been sitting on. Without hurry, he pushed it over the face of the writhing man. Then he waited.

Within a short span of time, the door crashed open to reveal Tristan, Lovell, and a group of council lords and free-servants attracted by Tristan's cries. By then, Somerled was standing in the serving area, next to the slaves; he was pouring wine into a cut-glass goblet from the pitcher there. His back was to the fallen lord. "Quick!" he said, turning toward the new arrivals. "He is growing worse!"

He picked up the goblet, spilling water from it in his agitation. I thought that was a clever touch.

Lovell had already reached the other side of the room and was kneeling beside Blackwood. For a minute, his fingers remained upon Blackwood's throat. Then he carefully closed Blackwood's eyes and began murmuring a prayer to the Jackal for his care of a newly departed spirit.

Tristan looked on with horror. Somerled reacted by dropping his goblet so that it shattered on the ground. Another clever touch.

"God of Mercy," murmured the High Lord as the crowd at the door echoed his sentiment. There were cries outside the open window as the news was carried into the courtyard. Amidst the crowd at the door, Hyrne peered down at the dead lord, and then over at the mournful High Lord. His gaze narrowed.

Somerled appeared to recall himself. He stepped forward, pausing on the way to lay a hand briefly on the grief-stricken young lord whose mercy mission had failed. Then he touched Lovell on the shoulder.

Still murmuring words for the dead, Lovell looked up. The High Lord said solemnly, "Forgive me, Lovell, but your prayers must wait a few minutes. I need to know how Lord Blackwood died."

"I thought it was the nuts," said Tristan, moving forward as Lovell began to inspect the body. "I thought at first that Lord Blackwood had nuts caught in his throat, but it couldn't be that. We'd finished with the nuts—" He whirled suddenly, staring at the liquid seeping into the rug. "The wine!"

Somerled stared with lack of comprehension for just the right amount of time; then understanding filled his face, and he knelt down to pick up the bloodstone cup. He sniffed it briefly, then peered at the bottom. "There are still a few drops left," he reported. "Lovell, can the priests test what's left to see whether poison was used?" He handed the cup to the priest. With greater hesitation, Lovell sniffed the contents and scrutinized the bottom of the cup. Then the priest unsheathed the curved dagger at his side and carefully fished out from the cup a solitary granule, still undissolved.

"There is no need," said Lovell, staring at the tiny granule at the tip of his dagger. "I recognize this; it is Opening Seed." He looked over at Tristan and Somerled, whose expressions were identically of mystification, and added, "It is a drug that is used in our rites. In small quantities, it brings visions; in large quantities, it acts as a poison. That is why only priests are permitted its use."

"The Jackal!" cried Tristan. Somerled raised his eyebrow, and Tristan added eagerly, "Don't you see? Only the Jackal would use a substance that is intended for priestly rites. It's his way of marking the murder as his own. The Jackal has murdered a third lord!"

This news caused voices to rise at the doorway. Looking angry at the unseemly noise, Lovell searched the floor for an object to serve as a temporary death mask for the fallen lord; he finally settled upon a cushion that had evidently been dislodged from Blackwood's chair at the time of the murder.

Somerled raised his hand to quiet the crowd. "We must not rush to hasty conclusions," he told Tristan. "We must search for further evidence of how the death occurred. Do you remember anything unusual – anything at all – that took place this afternoon?"

The crowd remained quiet as Tristan pondered this message. The only sound came from the fire, and from the dead-eyed slave, who was kneeling beside me, picking up the shattered fragments of the goblet and placing them on a silver tray.

Tristan's eye flicked over to the slave and then back again, as he said, with ill-concealed pride at his own intelligence, "The slave! Lord Blackwood tried to pick up a wine cup from the tray, but the slave turned the tray so that he was forced to take another cup. The slave must have known that the cup was poisoned! He must have been bribed by the Jackal!"

There was a murmur from the crowd, this time in the form of compliments at the heir's acuity. Hyrne passed his hand over his mouth.

Somerled allowed the faintest expression of shock to enter his face. "The Living Dead? Serving as agents for the Jackal-man?" He paused a moment to allow the slower-witted of the observers to have time to understand the connection he was making: between the god-cursed slaves and the rebel who had strayed so far from the gods' path as to make use of them. Somerled waved his hand toward the dead-eyed slave and myself. "Which one, Prince Tristan?" he asked with intensity. "Which of these slaves did the deed you describe?"

Tristan started to turn his head toward us but caught himself in time. "I'm not sure," he said hesitantly. "I didn't look at the slave, you understand. I only saw the tray turn."

"Of course," said the High Lord smoothly. "I did not mean to suggest that you would look at one of the Living Dead. But surely there was some aspect of what took place that would suggest to you some difference between these slaves . . ." He pointed at the dead-eyed slave, ignoring the death and commotion around him, and then at myself, clearly listening to the conversation.

I understood what was happening then and knelt swiftly to search for fragments of glass. It was too late, though. Everyone in the room, and in the corridor nearby, had received the message Somerled wished to convey. One of the slaves had a dead spirit; the other slave had a live spirit. Only a live-spirited slave would be capable of taking a bribe from the Jackal.

Somerled waited, with great patience, for Tristan to figure this out and voice his conclusion. Then the High Lord gestured to Hyrne, who obediently squirmed his way to the front of the crowd and came over to join Somerled beside the slaves. I slowly rose to my feet.

"Hyrne," said Somerled loudly, his voice reaching beyond the corridor into the courtyard below. "The King's heir believes that this slave poisoned Lord Blackwood, under the command of the Jackal-man. Have the slave questioned to see whether you can extract the full story."

Somerled gestured carelessly toward both slaves, as though Hyrne alone could be depended upon to pick the right slave. The dead-eyed slave, sensing that he was about to be given commands, abandoned the tray and knelt in his position. After a brief moment, I did likewise, feeling the glass fragments cut through my breeches into my calves.

The High Lord and the overseer were far enough away that I could see them both by raising my eyes. Hyrne was silent, making no move to issue commands. After a moment, Somerled turned and said, "Lord Kenneth, would you be so kind as to fetch the King? He must not have received word yet of the tragedy here. Lord Gaillard, if you could assist the priest in caring for the body—"

As he issued orders, the room gradually filled with people. Somerled waited for the moment when all were occupied with helping Lovell raise the body; then he turned back to Hyrne and raised his left eyebrow.

Under the sound of suggestions being made nearby on how to lift the body in a dignified manner, Hyrne said softly, "High Lord, if you wish a slave to be questioned, I would suggest that it not be this one. I cannot guarantee that a live-spirited slave would remain silent under torture."

Somerled raised both eyebrows and said in a quiet tone, "A lord has been murdered. Why should I not want his murderer questioned?"

Hyrne lowered his gaze quickly. "No reason, High Lord. I will follow your orders, whatever they are."

There was a silence, during which I felt the sweat from my neck trickle down my back. Somerled was drumming his fingers lightly against his thigh and gazing carefully upon the submissive overseer. Then the faintest of smiles travelled over Somerled's face, quickly suppressed. "How much is the council paying you, Hyrne?" he asked softly.

Hyrne looked up, smiling. "I'm well paid, High Lord."

"Not well enough, it seems. We shall have to see that your pay is elevated, as well as your title." Somerled glanced over at Tristan, who was explaining to anyone who would listen the best methods by which to honor the dead. Somerled's smile flickered briefly again; then he waved his hand dismissively at the dead-eyed slave. "Take that one, then," he said with indifference. "Nobody will notice, and if they do – well, the slave offered up its spirit when it realized that its treachery was discovered."

His mouth quirking, Hyrne bowed to the High Lord and then issued a sharp order to the dead-eyed slave and myself. We both rose to our feet – the dead-eyed slave promptly, myself slowly. My body was shaking. I followed the overseer and the other slave to the door, the crowd there dissipating as it saw us coming. I paused at the doorway to look back. The High Lord was standing beside Tristan, offering the young lord uncharacteristic comfort through an arm across the shoulders.

I turned away, but already the overseer and the dead-eyed slave were far ahead of me. Hyrne took no notice of my delay; he was busy giving further commands to the slave beside him. As I watched, the slave who had once fathered the black-eyed baby nodded obediently; then he walked outside, crossed the courtyard, and knocked on the door to the dungeon.

The slave was three days dying. All of us in the slave-quarters heard the screams of the baby's father during that time.

He died without speaking.

Chapter Text

"Unity!" cried the King triumphantly. "We have finally achieved it!"

Somerled smiled as I served a drink to him. He was sitting, as usual, in the carved wooden chair of his High Lordship. "Indeed, sire. You are served now only by lords who are directly loyal to you."

"Who are of the new nobility," the King translated. "By the gods, Somerled – when you came to me two years ago and promised to rid me of those fractious opponents of mine if I raised you to the High Lordship, I'll admit I had my doubts. I should have possessed better faith in you, old friend." The King leaned forward from the cushioned chair that was brought out when he visited. He patted Somerled's arm.

Somerled bowed his head briefly in response to this praise. "I only sorrow, sire, that it took me two years to accomplish the feat. I had to work alone in this case."

"Ah, but you had a little help from the Jackal." The King exchanged conspiratorial smiles with Somerled. "And that in itself has brought about good. My subjects are shocked by the news that the Jackal is a cut-throat who murders noblemen . . . and even murders the second-highest ranked lord on the King's Council. How tragic that you should have raised Blackwood to so high a position, only to have his life cut down." The King's eyes twinkled. "In the face of such atrocities, support for the Jackal's cause has diminished considerably."

"He is certainly encountering a great deal of difficulty in recruiting new thieves," Somerled agreed. "We have even had cases where thieves have lost faith in him and offered my men information about the Jackal."

The King inclined his head to one side. "Yet we still do not know who the Jackal is."

"I sorrow to say we do not." The regret in Somerled's voice was tinged by anger. "Nobody seems to be able to agree as to the nature of his voice, and it appears that he reveals his face only to a select number of men who have remained loyal to him."

"Loyal!" The King spat into the fireplace, whose flames jumped in response. I quickly moved back; I had been in the midst of poking the firewood to raise the warmth in this autumn-cool room. "Loyalty to their King – that is what this kingdom needs. . . . But I do not mean to dwell on your failures, Somerled. Tonight is a night to rejoice in your successes: fewer thieves to plague me, no more council lords of the new nobility to oppose me, and even the barons of the new nobility are diminishing. In the past year alone, I have been able to give three baronies over to my kin, which had previously belonged to the new nobility."

"Have you indeed, sire?" Somerled leaned forward, interest written upon his face. "How did the previous barons die? For you did not call upon my men's services in this matter."

"No need; those barons died fighting against the Emorians," the King replied in an indifferent manner. "I have given private instructions to my subcommander that the most dangerous positions in battle should be given to men who are of the new nobility or owe allegiance to such barons. The highest danger of all is to be granted to Blackwood's kin. I almost wish that Blackwood were still alive, so that I could thank him for his kinsmen's sacrifices." The King roared with laughter.

Somerled contented himself with a smile, saying, "When Blackwood sought release from his blood vow to murder you, it was careless of him not to have checked whether you had released yourself from your own vow to murder him."

The King sighed. "I only wish I could have wielded that blade myself. But times are troubled, and sometimes a feud death must be carried out through loyal men." He gestured toward Somerled.

Somerled nodded. "Your problems are considerably diminished, sire, but I sense that you would not be here if you were not troubled by another quandary. How may I be of further service to you?"

"As always, you know the truth before I speak. Somerled, I am worried about Tristan."

I paused in the midst of throwing a handful of dry leaves into the fire in an attempt to raise the flames.

"Ah," said Somerled.

The King shook his head, his hands tightening upon the arms of his chair. "He is twenty-eight years old now, yet he continues to act like a boy half his age. That was charming when he was just past his coming of age, but his lack of maturity is beginning to trouble me. With the Emorians pressing upon us so hard, it is likely I will need to lead out the vanguard one of these days. And that means I will be in danger of falling in battle. Tristan must be ready to take the throne if that happens."

"Sire, this is my fault." Somerled's expression of regret was so matter-of-fact that I could not detect deceit in it. "I am deeply sorry that I have not prepared him better, as you asked me to do at the time I became High Lord."

Rawdon waved away the apology. "I have kept you very busy with other matters. But now that we have a moment to breathe, we must both make an effort to turn Tristan into a Prince worthy to be King."

"Shall we start tonight, sire?" As he spoke, Somerled rose to his feet. "I have no other duties calling me."

"I hate to take you away from your good woman—"

Somerled shook his head. "Idonia is staying tonight at our town; she keeps a close eye on the regent I have appointed to care for the barony in my absence. I will be glad to go with you now, so that we may speak together with your cousin-who-is-your-mother's-sister's-son's-son."

"Superb!" The King rose to his feet and flung his arm over Somerled's shoulders. "You are the most loyal and stalwart of subjects, High Lord. My life was blessed the day I met you."

Somerled murmured something in reply as he and the King left. I stayed where I was, kneeling in front of the fire, staring at the flames there.

For nine years, my longing for freedom had been an undercurrent of pain, always present but lying below the surface. I had done my best to concentrate my thoughts on improving my spirit, so that, if Somerled should ever die, and I was granted a new master who freed me, I would enter into my freedom with a spirit freed of demons.

But now, my desire for freedom clawed at me like a ravenous beast.

When I had granted Griffith the right to take Tryphena away from me, it had never occurred to me that he might die. Yet if barons of the new nobility were dying right and left in the war against the Emorians, what hope was there that Griffith remained alive? And if he were dead, what might happen to Tryphena?

For that matter – it occurred to me for the first time – what guarantee had I that Griffith had kept his promise to care for Tryphena? Tryphena and I had joined together and had then been parted before I had the opportunity to learn whether our joining had borne fruit. It was one thing for Griffith to forgive his sister for losing her maidenhead; it was quite another for Griffith to forgive her for bearing my bastard.

It was a vision to me as clear as any that my goddess had ever sent me: my son or daughter starving in poverty while Tryphena was forced to sell her body to men for the sake of a few coins.

I became aware that I was gripping the poker so tightly that it was hurting my hand. I forced myself to release my grip on the poker, but I could not release the grip of fear that held me.

Somehow, I must figure out a way to be free to find and help Tryphena.

o—o—o

"Listen to me – we've got to fight them!"

The scene: The dormitory for male corpses on Council Hill. Here the Living Dead bathed (behind a curtain, one tub of water reused over and over) and slept (two to a pallet). If anything besides sleeping took place on those pallets, those twisted men had sense enough to keep their activities quiet.

Unlike my pallet-mate.

"We can have victory over them!" The corpse that had once been named Wilfred leaned forward, earnest to make his point. He was sitting on the pallet, facing me; I was on the floor, with my back against the wall, the better to see him in the slivers of pale moonlight making their way through the cracks in the shoddily constructed slave-quarters. Faint rumbles and occasional flickers of bright light and told me that a summer storm was approaching. Under the moonlight and the stormlight, I could see that the other slaves were lying in their pallets. Not all were asleep, though. Eyes were beginning to open at the sound of this shocking event: a slave whispering.

"Just a few of us together," suggested Wilfred. "They wouldn't be expecting anything. Just think of it! Blades wielded by the Living Dead—"

I had never planned to become a rebel conspirator. I was trained from birth, both by my father and by my grandfather, to follow the law at all costs.

Yet why not rebel? I was in a foreign land, bound by a corrupt law, as Carle had said—

"They tell us that the gods want this." Somehow, even in a whisper, Wilfred managed to convey contempt. "They lie. They want this for themselves: a way to silence any rebels in their midst, to ensure no one listens to us if we speak out. I was a thief for the Jackal – oh, I wasn't high in his thief-structure. The noblemen would have killed me outright if I'd been anyone important. But I fought against the corruptions in the gods' law, so they sought to silence me. We'll show them that even the Dead have voices against injustice—"

Yet the matter went further than even Carle realized. I remembered Lovell asking me whether I objected to the idea of slavery. Was he voicing his own doubts? Were these questions I should have asked myself long ago, when Carle's slaves waited upon me?

"By obeying them, we're helping maintain their corruption of the gods' law!" Wilfred insisted, his arms flailing in his attempt to get his point across. "They're twisting the law to make use of us—"

I could not dispute what Wilfred said. Blackwood had touched the heart of the matter: Whatever godly intentions the first of the Living Dead might have had, his master and later masters had twisted his sacrifice into their own complacent acceptance of the slaves' suffering. The masters turned their eyes away from the burdensome pain that the slaves underwent on their behalf. The masters had ceased to see the slaves for what they were: men and women, formed out of the mysteries of life. And in forgetting this, the masters' own spirits grew corrupt.

This had happened to even the best of masters. Even Logan.

Even Carle.

Wilfred slammed his gloved palms against the pallet, as though fearing he had not yet made his point. "We could rise up when they didn't expect it! We could take them by surprise—"

Not high up in the thief-structure indeed; the Jackal had shown good sense in not entrusting this young man with higher matters. Wilfred's plans were the plans of a child, doomed to failure. But it was not Wilfred's fault. He had little experience in military matters; he did not possess the appropriate skills to coordinate an uprising of slaves.

But one slave did.

"What use is it for us to continue to serve them at menial tasks?" Wilfred waved in a dismissive, contemptuous manner toward the buckets and brooms nearby. "We're wasting our talents—"

And that was the blade that cut the deepest. I was the Lieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol, widely considered to be one of the best soldiers of my generation. Although I had retired from the Emorian army, surely my talents were so great that it was an ungodly waste for me to spend my days scrubbing floors and serving drinks. Surely I was meant for better things than this.

Wilfred's whisper was sharper than before, as though his spirit was drawing upwards with every stroke of lightning. "We could free all the slaves in Koretia, all who are masked—"

I could go further. I could lead slave rebellions in Daxis. I could lead slave rebellions in Emor. I could be the savior of slaves throughout the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula. I was the snowbound lieutenant, who had saved half a dozen men against certain death; I had a military mind that could have led me to become a subcommander, if I had wished. More than one captain had told me so. Push a little further, and I could be a Commander. I could become the Chara, conquer Koretia and Daxis, and outlaw slavery forever.

"The gods want this of us—"

Perhaps. Perhaps they were indeed leading Wilfred along this path. But I knew – I knew all too well – who was leading my own thoughts in this direction.

The demon.

"We must follow what the gods want." Under the stark light of the bolts from the sky, Wilfred's face was grave with piety. "We mustn't follow those demon-filled masters—"

My demon, dead as long as I continued upon the path of self-discipline that Lovell had set for me nine years ago. Alive, the moment I sought to break free of that discipline.

"Our gods have assigned us to this mission—"

Perhaps Wilfred's god had indeed assigned him the role of a slave-rebel. From what I knew of the Jackal in his human form, that would not be surprising. If Wilfred's enterprise was blessed by his god, I wished him all the best in his endeavors.

But if I took up a rebel sword, it could only be with the help of my demon. And soon I would be as corrupt as the masters I sought to kill.

"We will change the world—!"

With the help of the Moon, perhaps the day would come when I was strong enough in my fight against my own selfishness that I could join Wilfred's fight against injustice. Perhaps with a sword, or perhaps as Kester did, insidiously undermining the institution of slavery by bolstering the slaves' pride, thus lengthening the odds that slaves like Wilfred survived long enough to fight for abolition. Wilfred, now eight years into his slavery, owed his rebellious spirit to Kester. Perhaps some day, when Kester grew too old for his work, I could take his place, helping to save the spirits of men and women who would eventually destroy slavery for all time.

And before then, I could check to see whether Tryphena was well, and help her if she was not.

But until I had that strength to fight for other people, rather than for my own selfish goals, I must remain in my self-discipline. Yes, the Koretian nobles abused their power over me, but that was a matter for their own consciences. Whether wisely or not, this was the path I had chosen for my self-discipline. And this exercise in self-discipline was no more a waste of my time than those long-ago, tediously repetitious lessons in sword-play had been. I might be one of the most talented soldiers of my generation, but in terms of holding back my selfish desires, I was still a young boy in training. If I continued in my training, I might win my freedom of spirit. No master could do that for me.

"Will you join with me?" Wilfred's voice rose in his excitement. "Shall we fight them together?"

Decided now, I tried to push him back from where he had unintentionally crowded me against the wall. Mistaking my gesture, Wilfred grabbed my hands eagerly.

"Then it is decided!" he cried over the growing thunder. "Together, we will fight the masters! Together, we will bring them to their knees—!"

"You are somewhat precipitate," said the High Lord.

The scene: The dormitory for male corpses on Council Hill. Lightning lit the room every few seconds, revealing that all the slaves were jammed together in a corner of the room, seeking to escape from the terrible event they had been witnessing. Some were covering the eye-holes of their masks; others covered their ears; others tried to muffle their entire heads.

Only two slaves sat apart from the rest: Wilfred and me, clasping hands like two blood brothers preparing to take vows.

"What have we here?" said Somerled mildly. Behind him, the council guards craned to stare at the scene.

Somerled's words seemed to me to be a rhetorical question, but Wilfred rose slowly to his feet, his chin held high. His voice barely quavered as he said, "You may be able to murder our bodies, but you will never kill our spirits." He gestured toward me, including me in his statement of defiance.

His gesture fell like a blow upon me. As Somerled waved his guards forward, and as Wilfred made one last, desperate attempt to fight his way to freedom, I reflected that this was one fate I had not expected:

That I would be killed, not by my demon, and not by my own efforts to rebel against injustice, but by a simple misunderstanding.

o—o—o

So I was to die, not for what I had done, but for what Wilfred had done. Leaning forward against the wall in my black prison cell, I tried to prepare myself.

It was not unknown for a slave to die because of what someone else had done to him. A council slave had been executed after a Daxion bard, passing by and lacking knowledge of Koretian customs, laid his hand upon the slave in a friendly manner.

That had happened the year before I was enslaved. There hadn't been any executions since then, other than the death of the black-eyed boy's father, which took place outside the sight of the rest of us slaves. It didn't matter; I could remember well enough what had happened to the slave in Daxis. Indeed, that image had often kept me to my duty. Every time I was tempted to be careless, tempted to let loose the reins of my discipline, I need only think of the slave, chained within the torturous fire, screaming as his body was charred.

And now it would happen to me.

Pressing my body against the hard blocks of my imprisonment, I felt sweat drip down my torso. I had long since lost count of the number of times I had been called courageous during my years in the patrol. It had become a watchword to my men. As Malise had told the young Marcadian soldier, I'd been seriously wounded on eleven occasions – wounds that had left me in torment for weeks, as I healed. If anyone in the world should be prepared for what came next, it should be me.

But to be wounded when you are trying to capture a border-breacher is one thing. To wait patiently to be placed in a fire of agony is quite another. I knew of only one man who had done that.

Adrian, of course. He could not have been sure, when he followed the deadly orders to spy on his native village, whether he would be granted a quick death of throat-cutting, or whether instead he would undergo the traditional execution of a man who has broken his blood vow: death by fire. He had known only that he would die in some terrible manner.

How had he found the courage to leave the patrol hut on the last night when we spoke, knowing that he was walking toward his death? How had he managed to undertake that days-long journey without faltering in his mission?

I did not know. There had been no sign, when I last spoke with him, that he had been consumed by fear. He had merely seemed troubled, as though with a quandary. I knew now what that quandary must have been: whether to tell me and Carle what he faced. But if he had shrunk from the thought of placing himself in the hands of men who might burn him to death, I had not witnessed that moment of fear.

Which left me shieldless and sweating at the very thought of what lay ahead.

I jumped as the door to my cell suddenly crashed open. Blinking at the pain of the sudden light, I could see the overseer standing there, waiting.

Amidst the heat of early summer, I felt coldness enter my bones. It took all the strength I had, but I walked forward, leaving behind the thin shelter of my cell. As I came abreast of Hyrne, I wondered whether I was to be bound now. But no – it seemed that the custom for the executed Living Dead was for them to go to their deaths freely, for the overseer waved me ahead. My heart thumping in a sickly manner in my chest, my mouth as parched as the deserts my ancestors crossed to reach the Great Peninsula, my body slick with sweat, I made my way out of the prison and across the courtyard.

Ahead of me, I could see the rest of the Living Dead leaving the southern entrance of the courtyard, the one that faced Capital Mountain, where the priests' house was located. I followed them, pausing to give way to the black-eyed baby's mother. Her spirit had died the previous year, mere hours after her lover died; she didn't look my way. I could not be sure that she would have looked my way in any case; even to the Living Dead, I must now be a dead man. I stepped under the arch of the entranceway—

And halted abruptly. Ahead of me, on a stone platform, lay the pyre-wood of my execution.

I was frozen, unable to move. I knew I must go up there. I must let myself be chained. I must watch as the fire was brought to consume me.

I saw again Adrian, tossing away his knife, accepting what he thought would be death at my hands.

I took a step toward the pyre.

Hyrne's rod landed hard on my back. Startled, I looked over my shoulder at him. He didn't bother to speak; he merely pointed with his rod toward where the other slaves stood. I stared at him, uncomprehending.

Then, over Hyrne's shoulder, I saw Lovell, moving heavily. In the priest's arms was a grey-clothed figure, limp.

It was then that I understood. Bowing my head in acknowledgment of my mistake, I turned and went over to stand with the other slaves who had gathered to witness Wilfred's execution.

o—o—o

Seeing me walk forward, some of the live-eyed slaves scooted aside to welcome me back into their midst. I found myself standing between one of the older slaves and the mother of the black-eyed baby. She was staring straight at the funeral pyre. Knowing that she must be following orders, I turned my head in the same direction but allowed my eyes to wander. Whichever of the slaves had arrived first had possessed enough sense to pick the best spot for standing: under a grove of rare jackalberry trees, where we would be shaded and where our features would be darkened enough that nobody on the other side of the pyre could notice if our gazes strayed.

The air was rich with the fragrance of flowers from the nearby trees. This was the first time in nine years that I had stood among trees or any other form of nature. I took in a deep breath, feeling memories rush in of years spent hunting in the mountains, of a childhood spent exploring curiously in the mountains.

Kester was not present; no new slaves were currently being trained. But other free-men were beginning to gather now around the pyre: not merely council lords and other palace residents but curious folks from the city. From their comments, I gathered that they were excited to see a burning again, after so many years. Many of them had brought their children, for instruction's sake.

My eye was caught by some children wriggling to the front of the crowd. Two boys, the younger perhaps six or seven years of age. He had a look of eager curiosity on his face, but there was something else there too – a sort of awe that did not fit with the mood of idle entertainment that filled the rest of the crowd. He turned and said something to his companion.

That boy was a couple of years older. Oddly enough, he was wearing the plain, shapeless tunic of an orphan boy, though neither boy appeared to be accompanied by adults. His skin was dark enough that I guessed he must spend much of his time outdoors, perhaps with his friend, who was standing so close that perhaps the boys were blood brothers. Feeling uneasy now, I began to look away—

—and then my breath caught in my throat. For as the older boy turned to respond to his companion, I saw his eyes. They were utterly black, from pupil to iris. At the boy's side, stuck through his belt and without sheath, was a dagger, made entirely of iron.

I looked quickly at the woman beside me. She continued to look straight ahead. I knew that, even if I should nudge her and point, she would simply glance at her son blankly and then look away again. He meant nothing to her now.

The boys in turn were taking care not to look our way. There were palace guards present, but they were scarcely needed; none of the city folk were coming near the slaves or looking at them . . . except at the slave who was being chained to the grill surrounded by resin-streaked wood.

I could hear the clanking of the chains but kept my eyes firmly turned away from that quarter, looking instead at Lovell, who was flipping through the slender volume in his hands, as though searching for something. All of the council lords had arrived by now; I saw that Somerled had fallen into conversation with the King. Rawdon, like his lords, was formally dressed for this occasion, wearing a great, jewel-bestudded sword that looked utterly unsuited for battle. Now Rawdon went over to exchange a word with Lovell, who would be leading the charge in this particular "battle."

The crowd was growing restless; the younger of the two boys I had sighted was jumping up and down, heel to toe, smiling eagerly as he waited for the festivities to begin. His companion, the black-eyed boy, had a more somber expression on his face, matching that of Lovell as the priest opened his book and began to recite the Rite of Death.

Three guards stepped forward, torches in hand. I began to look away, then forced myself to stare at the still figure atop the pyre. Wilfred's death was partly my own fault, for listening to his rebellious suggestions. He deserved my attention during his suffering.

Even so, when the first scream started, I could not prevent myself from looking away, toward the boys.

Both boys were now standing rigid, with identical looks of incredulity on their face. It was quite clear, from their stances, that nobody had warned them beforehand that the burned slave would still be alive. As a second scream rended the air, the younger boy reached out and took his blood brother's hand. The black-eyed boy grasped the younger boy's hand tightly, but his gaze had turned toward the priest.

Lovell was stumbling badly as he tried to read the rite amidst the screams. Sweat was running down his face, though that might be excused by his proximity to the fire. His hand shook, though, as he turned the page. Then his head jerked up as he stared at the figure on the pyre.

Everyone's head did. We were all looking at Wilfred, who had chosen these final moments to defy his master's expectations yet again. For he was shouting, and the words he was shouting were carefully chosen.

They were the Rite of Rebirth.

The words came at ragged intervals, between screams. Word by word, phrase by phrase, he petitioned the gods that the worthy slave be granted release from his death. Word by word, he came closer to the moment of his rebirth.

If the city folk had been restless before, now they were a milling band of unease. The council lords reacted the same. Nobody seemed sure of how to respond to this act of defiance. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a few of the live-eyed slaves exchanging looks with each other. I knew what question was on their minds: If Wilfred should reach the end of his recital, would the rebellious slave be permitted his release?

My gaze travelled over to Wilfred's master. The King was frowning, and I thought there was uncertainty in that frown. At that moment, with as precise timing as ever, Somerled leaned over and said something to the King.

The King roared with laughter. Taking their cue from their ruler, the lords exploded with laughter. The city folk joined in.

All but the two boys. The younger boy's expression was a mixture of confusion and growing anger as he took in the hilarity around him. As for the black-eyed boy, his gaze remained centered where it had been for some minutes now: on the priest who was ostensibly conducting this rite.

I did not hear whether Wilfred reached the end of his own rite; the laughter was too loud for that. But as the flames thrust toward the sky, obscuring my view of Wilfred, his screams died away, leaving only the crackle of the flaming wood. Seeing that the rite was over, some of the city folk began to wander away.

Lovell was still holding the book, trying to find his place in it. His eyes rose, as though seeking help, and met the steady gaze of the black-eyed boy. For a minute, their gazes remained linked. There was no condemnation in the expression of the black-eyed boy. He seemed to be seeking an answer.

Lovell turned his gaze toward the council lords, who were still chortling alongside the King. The priest's lips thinned. With deliberate slowness, almost ritual, Lovell closed the book and dropped it. It fell into the glowing embers near the pyre and began to burn, almost at once.

Lovell took no notice of this. He moved over to the two boys and began ushering them away, an arm around the shoulders of each boy. He did not look back as he took them away from the scene.

That evening, the King accepted the written resignation of his palace priest.

Lovell was not replaced.

Chapter Text

Even by the standards of Koretia, it was an abominably hot summer. Men kept their face-cloths close at hand in order to wipe the sweat from their faces and necks and arms and legs. Women dispensed with formality and stripped themselves down to the barest clothing. Unable to strip themselves of their iron masks, slaves died.

Three had died so far that summer when I was summoned one afternoon in the tenth year of my captivity, in order to serve the council in its reception room. I had just been on the point of enjoying a bath – the only brief period during the week when I was duty-bound to remove my clothing – and so I had to bite back a curse as I hurried to answer the High Lord's summons.

I was just in time to witness a turning point in the history of Koretia.

That we were about to witness the kingdom's pivot was not immediately apparent to me; it appeared at first that the only topic on the lords' minds was the heat. Many of the lords had brought their personal slaves to fan them during the council meeting. Ordinarily, I would have been fascinated by this evidence of how far the institution of slavery had spread in Koretia. As it was, my heat-hazed mind was barely awake enough to remember the sequence of service. I moved numbly from lord to lord, dispensing the cellar-cooled wine that I would gladly have guzzled myself.

It gradually dawned on me, however, that all of the lords were silent, as though awaiting the King. Yet the King was already present, pacing up and down the room as if he expected to have the arrival of his first-born son announced at any moment. The lords looked nervous; Tristan was openly gnawing upon his fingernails. Only Somerled, as usual, looked as serenely unconcerned as though he were idly listening to a Daxion bard.

There was a tap at the door. One of the King's guards poked his head through. "They are here, my lord King."

The King stopped pacing. "How many?"

"It is hard to say, sire. Most of them are keeping well back, out of easy sight. One has come forward; he seeks audience."

"Fetch him here."

The guard hesitated. "He says that he has been instructed to exchange oaths first."

The oath that the King pronounced then was quite profane, but he followed this up by saying, "I will come. Make sure that I am well guarded."

"Of course, sire." The guard withdrew.

The King turned, exchanging a long look with Somerled. Whatever thoughts they possessed in this situation had evidently already been exchanged, for the King turned and left the room.

Most of the lords rushed for the windows facing the courtyard. Fortunately, the wine table was next to the smallest of the windows; I was able to use the wine as an excuse to join in the gawking.

The courtyard was as full of guards as I had ever seen it. Only one stranger stood in view: a man in commoners' clothing, seemingly unarmed, poised just outside the south gate. He was bearing the guards' narrow-eyed scrutiny without complaint. He looked to be middle-aged, somewhat portly, with the light brown skin of a borderlander. Not a laborer, I thought; his back was too straight for him to have spent his days in the fields. Nor was he wearing the distinctive black tunic of a trader. His fingers were free of the ink-stains of a clerk, and his clothing was too poor for a craftsman. Possibly he was a merchant who was down on his luck.

This much flashed through my mind as I turned to serve Prince Tristan, who was hanging out the window in his eagerness to witness the event below. He ignored me, so I served the lord nearest him: Lord Kenneth, who had remained in his seat and was valiantly attempting to pretend he had no special interest in the proceedings. Next to him, Somerled had taken up a book and was reading it.

I returned to the wine table just in time to see the King's arrival in the courtyard. The King strode forward, stopping well short of the stranger. He waited.

The stranger spoke. His voice was too low for me to hear, but it was clear from his gestures that he was issuing a peace oath. When he was finished, he waited, not moving from his position outside the gate.

The King's voice was much louder. "I do vow that, during your visit to Council Hill, I will remain at peace with you, and you will be free to leave at any time. I speak this oath in the name of the Jackal . . . your master."

There was a rustle beside me as all of the lords at the windows turned to look at each other. Kenneth half rose from his seat, as though needing his own eyes' witness to what he had heard. Somerled turned a page.

A few of the live-eyed slaves were exchanging more discreet looks with each other. I was the senior-most slave on Council Hill, so I gestured to them not to forget their duties. They quickly complied. Down below in the courtyard, a set of guards was searching the stranger for hidden weapons. Beyond the stranger, like flickers of light in the night, I could just barely glimpse shadowed men withdrawing from the shelter of the nearby trees, leaving the stranger to proceed alone. I turned away with another set of drinks on my tray, all my concerns about the heat forgotten.

It was several minutes more before the King returned. With him was the stranger. As the door opened, the stranger was remarking in a borderland accent, "I must say that the wording of your oath is a reassuring start to our talks, my lord King."

The King did not respond to this statement. He merely took his seat, raising an eyebrow at Somerled.

The High Lord smoothly took charge of the proceedings as the King's guards left, closing the door behind them. "Welcome, sir," he said to the stranger. "I am Somerled, the King's High Lord. May I know your name?"

"Morgan," he replied, flashing a quick smile.

Somerled raised an eyebrow. "No patronym?"

The stranger hesitated before saying, "I would rather not involve my family in this matter. I have had no contact with them since our war began with the Emorians."

"You are from the borderland?" Again, it was Somerled who spoke; none of the other lords appeared eager to enter the conversation, though many of them were leaning forward, hanging upon every word.

"Originally. I moved south when the Chara conquered the borderland."

His distaste for Emor's ruler was clear from the expression on his face. I saw several of the lords relax at this evidence that the King's two greatest enemies were not working in league with each other. At Somerled's gesture, Morgan came forward and sat, somewhat awkwardly, as though unused to such fine surroundings.

As though to emphasize this, Somerled said, "You are not a nobleman?"

Some of the lords sniggered, which seemed to me to be manufactured amusement. This was hardly the first time that the King's Council had hosted a lesser free-man.

"A fruit merchant," Morgan replied tersely, no longer smiling. "At least, I was in the old days. For the past two decades, all my work has been for the Jackal."

The sniggers stopped abruptly at the sound of this name. There was a spell of silence that Somerled did not break; then the King leaned forward. "The message I received from your master said that you would convey a proposal from him. That proposal is?"

Morgan took a deep breath, evidently settling himself. I could see him more clearly now, and it did not appear to me that he had misrepresented himself. Rumor had long held that the Jackal recruited his thieves almost entirely from lesser free-men, scorning even the help of noblemen who shared his views on slavery and blood feuds. Morgan looked as though he possessed no previous experience in high negotiations.

He was straightforward in his presentation, though. "My lord King, the Jackal is greatly concerned that the disagreements between you and him are draining your kingdom of needed battle readiness against the Emorians, who pose the greatest threat to the continuance of the gods' law. He suggests that, in the interests of that law, you and he enter into a truce for the duration of the war against the Emorians. Indeed, he is prepared to go further and to coordinate his attacks against the Emorians in accordance with whatever timing would best aid your army."

"Is he prepared to unmask himself to the King?" Somerled asked quietly.

Morgan shook his head. "He believes that would be premature, given the continued disagreements between himself and the King over the gods' law. But he has sent me, his Companion, as a show of faith." The word "companion" was spoken in such a fashion as to suggest it was a title.

"His Companion?" Somerled raised his eyebrow. "How intimate are you with the Jackal? Have you seen him unmasked?"

"Yes." Morgan did not hesitate this time. "That is how great the Jackal's faith is in the King's honor – that the Jackal would send one of his close Companions to make this offer."

Rawdon drummed his fingers upon the arm of his chair. "You addressed me earlier as 'my lord King.'"

Morgan nodded. "You are my King, sire. I have never denied that, any more than Blackwood did during the years when he was fighting you."

"Was Blackwood a tool of the Jackal?" Unable to resist this hint, Gaillard inserted himself into the conversation.

Somerled waved away this suggestion. "Blackwood was a loyal subject of the King who was poisoned by the Jackal."

Morgan's lips thinned. "He was not killed by the Jackal, as you well know, High Lord. —Sire." He turned his attention back to the King. "Our kingdom's fate hangs with you. Together, you and the Jackal can be a force that drives back our atheist invaders."

"But without the Jackal, we will fail?" The King's fingers continued to drum.

Morgan hesitated again before replying, "Only the gods know, my lord King. If the Jackal knows, he has not told the rest of us."

"If he knows?" This time, Kenneth was the one to interrupt. "You admit, then, that he does not possess the vision of a god."

Morgan looked upon the lord steadily. "If you still doubt the Jackal's powers after all these years, sir, then there is little I can say to convince you."

"We can at least agree that the Jackal possesses a formidable fighting force," Somerled inserted smoothly. "Sire, what say you? Shall we embrace this offer in the manner it deserves?"

The King leaned back in his chair. "That depends. Do you wish to question the Jackal's thief further?"

"Not at this time, sire."

The King nodded. Raising his voice, he said, "Guard!"

The guards were there at once; they had evidently been waiting outside the door. "My lord King?" said the senior-most guard.

"Take this lawbreaker to the dungeon. Have Phelan ready him for questioning."

There was a murmur amongst the lords – all but Somerled, who had allowed a smile to slip through before he returned to his usual somber expression. Morgan was already on his feet; he had risen the moment that the King called the guard. His gaze had turned first toward the windows, but it could be easily seen that guards continued to throng the courtyard.

Morgan said in a steady voice, "Would you break your oath to the god, sire?"

"I gave no oath to the god," replied the King, watching as the guards came forward to secure Morgan in their grasp. "I gave my oath only to your master, who is a blasphemous lawbreaker. A criminal who spends his days committing tricks should not be surprised if he is tricked in turn. You will tell us who the Jackal is and where he is to be found."

Morgan gave a small smile, though his eyes remained grim as his hands were bound behind him. "With respect, my lord King, I will not."

"You underestimate, I think, the ability of the King to extract information," murmured Somerled.

Morgan shook his head without looking at the High Lord; his attention remained fixed upon the King. "I have no doubts as to the skills of the King's torturer, but I also know the powers of the god. The Jackal will come for me – that I know. I pray, sire, that he does not come for you as well."

The King dismissed this possibility with a wave of the hand. "Enough bluster. Take him away."

Morgan was pulled from the room. As the door closed behind him and the guards, the King asked reflectively, "Do you suppose the Jackal will come?"

"I doubt it, sire." Clear regret coated Somerled's voice. "The Jackal is too canny a lawbreaker to walk into a trap. However, with the information that his Companion provides for us, we will be able to find and break the rebel-leader."

"But why must we?"

I started. So did a number of the lords. All of us had forgotten Prince Tristan.

He was standing in a corner of the room, his hands formed in fists. He said to the King in a hoarse voice, "Sire, why must you break your oath? The Jackal has offered peace—"

"The Jackal is a rebel who will break his word the moment that it best suits him," the King replied. "And I did not break my oath. You heard what I said just now."

"But you gave your word, sire, and your word alone is worth riches. Sire, please—" Tristan flung himself from the corner, coming forward. "Even if you choose not to accept the Jackal's offer, let his thief free. He trusted you to keep your word. You are the King; your word ought to mean something."

The King was slow in responding. Seeing this, Somerled said, "Perhaps, sire, you should release all the lawbreakers in your dungeon. You could offer a general emancipation."

The lords roared with laughter – all but Tristan, whose fists had tightened further, and Kenneth, who was frowning as he switched his gaze between the King and his heir.

The King smiled as he said, "Somerled is right, Tristan. Morgan is a lawbreaker; that is reason enough to punish him. —Yes, what is it?" He raised his voice in response to a tap on the door.

Tristan, who had opened his mouth, closed it again as a soldier entered the room. The soldier, who wore a sublieutenant's red stripe upon his hem, bowed first to the High Lord and then to the King before saying, "Sire, Captain Fremont bade me bring you this urgent message from your subcommander. It is newly arrived."

The King rose from his seat and took the paper from the sublieutenant's hand. Breaking the seal, he glanced at the missive, then began to curse.

"Bad news, sire?" asked Kenneth.

"The Emorians have broken through our line. —Tell Captain Fremont to ready the divisions," the King added to the sublieutenant. "And have my horse prepared."

"Sire." With another bow, the soldier swiftly withdrew.

"You will take the vanguard?" said Somerled, rising to his feet in a leisurely manner. The other lords had already risen, from the moment their King did.

"I must. The Chara has brought his own vanguard south; that is how the Emorians were able to break through."

Somerled merely nodded to this news of disaster. "With your permission, sire, I will accompany you."

The King frowned. "I need you here."

"Sire," said Somerled softly, "if the borders between us and the Emorian occupation have shifted, I have men up north who will require new orders."

The lords exchanged mystified looks. The King merely sighed, saying, "Oh, I suppose so. Hurry, then; we leave within the hour."

"Sire!"

The King, who had begun to turn away, sighed again as he looked at his heir. "What is it, Tristan? I am in a rush."

"Sire, before you go . . . I beg you, my lord King: release the Jackal's thief. I love you, cousin, and if you break your word, I fear for the future of your spirit."

The earnest affection in Tristan's voice seemed to spread like heat through the entire reception room; not even Somerled dared break the silence that followed. I saw the King hesitate, teetering on a precipice.

But that image was false; when the King finally replied, it was clear that he had already dived from that precipice in the past. "Tristan, I've no time now for debate. I'll do my best to explain my decision to you when I return, but for now, I am needed in battle. Gaillard, while I and the High Lord are away, you are in charge of the palace. Supervise the questioning of the Jackal's thief; I expect a breaking by the time I return."

"Yes, sire." Gaillard bowed low.

Tristan stood very still, as though he had been slapped in the face. The other lords exchanged looks. Everyone there knew that, under ordinary circumstances, the King's heir would have been placed in charge of the palace in the absence of the King and his High Lord. The King, I thought bitterly as I began to collect the empty wine cups, could not have made more clear his displeasure with his heir.

Like Tristan, I wondered what the consequences of today's decision would be for the King. But in the meantime, a more urgent question had formed in my mind.

Dare I await passively the breaking of a god-man's Companion?

o—o—o

I did not possess the benefits that Carle and Adrian had received, of being trained in espionage. Eighteen years of hunting border breachers, though, had taught me a bit about how to move quietly and unobtrusively.

Ten years as a slave had taught me a hundred times more on this topic. To start with, though, it appeared that I would not need to make use of my lessons.

I and every other slave on Council Hill had always known where the palace dungeon was located: directly beneath the slave-men's dormitory. Many was the night when we were kept awake by the screams below us. The door to the dungeon was inconspicuous, unguarded from the outside. I had always assumed that it was locked and guarded from the inside.

But when I lifted the latch and pushed the planks, the door opened, and when I slid through the narrow gap, I encountered no guards. The corridor before me was entirely empty.

My duties had never taken me to the Chara's dungeon, a fact for which I had often given thanks. And while popular rumor held that the border mountain patrol tortured its prisoners, that had not been part of my duties. But like everyone else in the Three Lands, I possessed a vague notion of what a dungeon must be like: walls of cold, black stone; the occasional torch ensconced on the walls; guards patrolling the many corridors.

The black stone walls were there, along with torches that produced more smoke than light. But I could see only one corridor, and it seemed to span only the shallow depth of the slave-quarters above. Like the King's palace, the King's dungeon was exceedingly small by Emorian standards.

I had paused by the entrance. To the left of me was a closed door, with torchlight flickering through the grate in the door. I could hear voices too, debating how to move a body; behind the debate, someone idly whistled. Clearly, I could not enter that cell.

To the right of me was an open door, but when I cautiously looked into the chamber, I discovered what must be the guardroom: it contained chairs and an eating area. On the table was an abandoned meal – only one meal. So at least one guard must be in this place.

I withdrew my head and began making my way cautiously down the corridor. Halfway down were two cell doors, on opposite sides of the corridor, but both cells lay open and empty. Beyond that point stood no doors, but as I reached the end of the corridor, I realized that the corridor turned right. I eased my way around the corner at a snail's pace.

My caution proved unfounded, though; nothing lay in the small alcove there but a water barrel in the corner and another open cell door. I went over to stand by the water barrel, which was covered with a plank of wood. Atop the wood was a pitcher, and hanging from a hook on the wall above was a dipper. Resting my forearm upon the plank, I leaned forward, trying to sight what lay within the chamber, which was outside the reach of any torchlight. As best I could tell, it was simply another empty cell, though it was furnished with a table with chains on its corners; the other cells had been unfurnished except for chamber-pots.

I was still contemplating those chains when a door banged behind me.

I swirled round. I could not see from here what was taking place – and fortunately, no one could see me – but from the words spoken, it involved more moving of the body. Trusting in the lack of torchlight to shadow me, I peeked round the corner.

Two men were carrying a limp body out of the occupied cell. One man wore the uniform of a palace guard; the other, from the state of his tunic, must be the torturer's assistant. As I watched, a third figure, still whistling his idle tune, slipped through the door to the courtyard. The torturer, I assumed.

The remaining men were headed in this direction. There was a one in three chance that they were headed to the cell I stood near. Those were not odds I liked. I looked around, but I could see nothing to hide behind but the water barrel. Wrestling the barrel out of its corner would alert the approaching men of my presence.

Then, just as I was beginning to feel the old sensation of crisis that would arise whenever I encountered a particularly dangerous breacher, I realized that I had entirely forgotten the most obvious way to hide myself.

I had to move swiftly and silently. With one hand, I pulled the pitcher off the plank; with the other hand, I pulled the plank off the barrel and set it aside. Then I dipped the pitcher in the water.

By the time the men arrived, I was standing with my back to them – the easiest way to hide the fact that I was live-eyed – and was pouring water back into the barrel, as though I had been instructed to refill the barrel.

This must have been the first time that the men had ever seen a slave in the King's dungeon; slaves were never permitted down here. It made no difference. As I had expected, the men took no notice of me. Where ignoring slaves was concerned, free-men received a far more vigorous training than slaves did.

As the men passed into the cell, I slowed my motions, so as to be able to eavesdrop on their conversation. I heard a thud, and then one of the men said, "Watch his head."

"As though it matters." The respondent's tone was so disgruntled that I guessed he must be the guard whose evening meal had been interrupted.

"Phelan wants the prisoner alive tomorrow; the man hasn't given up his information yet."

"After everything Phelan did to him today? I thought Phelan had carried out the quickest breaking in the history of Koretia."

The torturer's assistant said in an indifferent manner, "The King has gone north with the vanguard; Phelan figured that, the sooner he was finished with this breaking, the longer a holiday he'd have from his work. He wants to take his wife and children to the hot springs. He says the prisoner will break tomorrow morning."

"Phelan would know." The guard sounded relaxed now; evidently he had completed his struggles with the body. "Do you think the prisoner will last the night, though?"

"Phelan gave him a drug to keep him alive that long. Come, the night guard is due to arrive within the hour; fetch your meal, and I'll treat you to a drink at the Market Tavern, after I've changed into a clean tunic."

I quickly redipped the pitcher in the water and began pouring again. The voices came closer.

"What was that he was mumbling?"

"The same old refrain. Prisoners can be tediously predictable."

"Should we have chained him?"

"You must be joking. Though perhaps we should lock this door. The Jackal might come for him."

They passed by me, so bent over from their laughter that I doubted they would have noticed me, even if I were a free-servant. I waited till I heard the door to the courtyard close; then I set the pitcher on the floor.

It took me a minute to move one of the torches to a sconce that was opposite the cell door. Finally, with the chamber dimly lit, I stepped inside.

One glance at the man on the table told me that I need worry my conscience no longer over whether to help this prisoner to escape. Morgan would never walk again.

His hands and shoulders appeared beyond repair too, and the state of his head left me with grave doubts as to whether he could see and hear. It was a wonder he could still breathe.

He could still speak, though; his lips were moving. As I came closer, I realized that the torturer's assistant was correct: Morgan was whispering the same word over and over.

"Water water water water water . . ."

This much help, at least, I could provide. I ducked back into the corridor and returned a short while later with a dipper in hand. I paused at the doorway, though, taking in sight of the limp body. Too limp; even if I could somehow make Morgan aware of my presence, he could not raise himself high enough to sip from the dipper.

Which left only one choice.

As my heart beat hard, I tried to think the matter through. If Morgan followed a god-man who was fighting to abolish slavery, then it was likely that Morgan would be willing to breach the usual rules of slavery. Certainly Griffith had. And if someone discovered me touching Morgan, the Jackal's thief would face no worse a death than he already faced.

I, on the other hand . . .

I looked down at the dipper. The water in it was shaking. It came to me that I, a soldier who had been publicly proclaimed by the Chara for my courage, was standing still, terrified to give a dying man a drink of water.

I broke out of my paralysis and walked forward, letting my mind dwell no further than the task at hand. Carefully, I slid my free arm under his shoulders. When this did not result in signs of imminent death, I gently pulled Morgan up to the point where his head was at the correct angle for drinking.

He did not open his eyes, but when I placed the dipper against his lips, he shut the lips tight. I wondered then what the torturer had forced him to drink earlier and what inner wounds must be tormenting Morgan. I dribbled a bit of water onto his swollen lips. Its coolness must have reassured him, for he opened his mouth a crack. I tilted the dipper. A moment later, I saw the ball in his throat bob as he swallowed, over and over.

He drank all the water in the dipper, then sighed as I eased him back down onto the table. He still had not opened his eyes. I looked down upon him, thinking that, if I had encountered one of my own patrol soldiers in Morgan's state, I would not have hesitated to offer my man the mercy stroke.

And the mercy would be great in this case. Morgan had a morning appointment with the King's torturer.

I pressed my lips together, angry at myself for being so ill-prepared. I ought to have anticipated this possibility and readied myself accordingly. True, the slave-quarters were kept well swept of anything sharp. Likely our masters feared murder rather than our suicide; there was no point in fearing suicide by a slave who can kill its own spirit through a single thought. But in any case, I had access to the High Lord's quarters; I could easily have spent this day searching the quarters for some sharp object – a brooch pin, for example.

Morgan was moaning now, moving his head to and fro, in search of illusive healing from his pain. I reflected that it was going to be an unpleasantly new experience for me to strangle a man.

Morgan's eyes flew open.

I turned my head away reflexively, and not only because of my training under Kester. I had been right about Morgan's vision. From the appearance of his eyes, a thigh-dagger had been used.

But he still had his eyelids, and when I turned my head back, I saw that the eyelids were wide open, revealing the black hollows within. As I watched with amazement, Morgan lifted his head and then his arm, as though reaching toward something.

"Jackal," he croaked.

I whirled round, my hand tightening on the dipper handle as though it were a sword hilt. But there was no one at the other end of the cell – just the reflection of torchlight dancing upon the black wall.

"Jackal," repeated Morgan, and there seemed somehow to be a trace of his old smile in his voice. "I knew that you would come for me."

The effort to raise his head was too much; he fell back against the table. But as he did so, his arm rose, reaching upwards, as though something hovered over him.

"Take me from here, Jackal," whispered Morgan. "I can do no more for you here. Take me and eat me, so that I may be whole once more."

There was a pause. I strained my ears, but I could hear no answer. Morgan, though, let his arm fall with a sigh. He said, "Thank you, Jackal."

Then there was silence.

I moved forward. I could not feel what I needed with my gloves on, so I removed my left glove and placed my fingers lightly upon Morgan's wrist. For a moment, all I could feel was a strong, steady heartbeat – the product, no doubt, of the drug that the torturer had dispensed.

Then the heart skipped a beat, and another, and it was no more.

o—o—o

"Was he mad?"

Shaken, Gaillard reached blindly toward the cup I offered, nearly touching my hand as he did so. Nearby, Tristan looked just as disturbed, but he did not speak, nor did he reach for a cup as I brought the tray to his side.

As calm as always, Somerled shrugged as he lifted the last of the cups from the tray. "He appeared sane. He thought that he would be able to end this war with a single duel. It is well known that the Charas receive little training in swordplay, and that they never take part in battle. It seemed to Rawdon to be an easy way to win this war."

"But to promise to give this land over to the Chara if he lost . . ." It was becoming rapidly clear that, wherever Gaillard's thoughts lay, they were not with the King.

"Perhaps you are right," Somerled said slowly. "I will not say that the King was mad, but perhaps he was . . . overstrained. We have been fighting this war for a decade now; the burden upon him was heavy. Perhaps he was not entirely clear as to what promise he was making when he vowed his blood."

"Of course he didn't know!" cried Gaillard in between gulps of wine. "The King would never have betrayed Koretia in such a manner. He must have gone mad – gone temporarily mad—" he amended quickly, glancing at Tristan. "He must have gone mad for the day, else he would not have made such a mad blood vow to the Emorians."

"The Emorians do not see the matter that way," said Somerled mildly. "They granted us permission to withdraw, to bring this news to Prince Tristan and to take part in all such rites as are needful at this time, but they are expecting to receive our oath of surrender when those rites are accomplished." Somerled's gaze turned slowly in the direction of the young lord. "Prince Tristan, my sorrow is yours. I know that this news is a blow to your heart, and I understand why you have so little to say at this moment. The demons of war press upon us, though, and I naturally wonder whether you share Gaillard's view on this matter. Do you believe that the King made his vow only because of a madness brought on by the demon of his burdens? Are we bound to keep that vow?"

Upright in his chair, Tristan said in a voice just as stiff, "Before I answer, I have three questions for you, High Lord. What has been done with my cousin's body?"

From where I stood, behind the chair of Gaillard with a wine pitcher in hand, I saw the slight narrowing of Somerled's eyes as he noted Tristan's claim of kinship to the King. His reply, though, was matter-of-fact: "The Chara allowed us to remove the King's body and bring it back with us. I should add, if I have not hitherto made myself clear, that the King fought most valiantly and left the Chara hard wounded. I would not have you think that any illness that may have been affecting the King caused him to duel with less than his usual vigor."

"I am certain that it was a fair duel," Tristan said in a level voice. "My second question, High Lord, is on what date and at what time of day the King died."

I felt a chill I had not felt since the previous, cloakless winter. Gaillard was looking between Somerled and Tristan, his brows raised in perplexity. Somerled replied calmly, "He died, from what the dungeon guards have told me, on the same day that the outlaw Morgan died, and at about the same hour. No doubt the superstitious among us will draw conclusions from that fact and race off to pledge their loyalty to the Jackal-man. Did you have a third question, Prince Tristan?"

Tristan nodded. His face was sharp with grief, and with something more. "I would like to know who advised the King to duel the Chara."

There was a pause. Autumn had not yet reached the Koretian capital; the evening-dark room was heavy with summer warmth. A candle, flickering next to the closed door of Somerled's living quarters, moved over the lines of Tristan's face: the unblinking eyes, the flared nostrils, the tight mouth, the uplifted chin. His hands gripped the arms of the chair.

By contrast, Somerled appeared as relaxed as a boy on a spring day. He said quietly, "As the subcommander and his captains will tell you, the King and I discussed this matter before he presented his challenge. I was unable to dissuade him from this course. Indeed, I had some hopes that the venture would succeed, but I could not have changed the King's mind even if I had been fully opposed. He was convinced that his duty to the gods lay in this deed."

"And who convinced him that his duty to the gods lay that way?"

Tristan's voice was as clear as that of a herald delivering a challenge. His hands tightened still more on the arms of his chair, as though they were clutching sword hilts. Somerled – his voice holding more mildness than a mother does when she is addressing her babe – replied, "I assume that the gods convinced him. I would not know; I am not a King, nor do I hold his powers. My dear Prince Tristan . . ." Somerled rose to his feet, and Gaillard hastily rose as well; it was therefore all the more noticeable that Tristan did not rise. "Prince Tristan," Somerled continued, "it was thoughtless of me not to have given you this news in private. Gaillard, if you will leave us now . . ."

"I would prefer that Gaillard be present during this conversation." Tristan had not moved his gaze from Somerled. "I believe that others should hear what takes place between the previous King's High Lord and the new King."

Gaillard sucked in his breath. Somerled acted as though no challenge had been spoken. "Of course," he said. "And so I will hold a council meeting in the morning, in order that we may discuss what steps need to be taken next. I suspect, though, that Gaillard is eager to take this news to the other lords."

"Indeed I am," Gaillard said hastily. "If you will excuse me, High Lord . . ." He bowed to Somerled, then hesitated and gave to Tristan what might have been a bow or might merely have been a deep nod. "Prince Tristan."

It seemed as though Tristan might speak, but Gaillard, moving with the haste of a retreating army, had already turned his back and was rushing toward the corridor door. Somerled serenely went to close the door behind him as Tristan slowly rose to his feet.

"When you are King, Prince Tristan," Somerled said as he returned from his task, "you may address me in the manner of a servant, and I will obey you. Until that happens, though, I remain your master and expect to be treated accordingly."

There was no steel to his voice; rather, he sounded like a mother chiding her child. Tristan's fists tightened, but he merely said, "Then I will ask the council to begin planning my enthronement tomorrow. I am not the heir presumptive, High Lord, but the heir confirmed. If the council does not grant me the throne that is mine, the priests will know of it and will bring down upon you the penalties of the gods' law."

"I have already visited the gods' house and spoken with the priests," Somerled responded, seating himself once more and reaching toward his empty cup. "They believe that the violent death of our King is too weighty a matter to be passed over quickly. They advise that we put off all celebrations – including the celebration of the new King's enthronement – until such time has passed that the King has been mourned properly. I am sure that you would wish appropriate piety to be shown, following the death of your cousin."

It was like watching a master swordsman demonstrate his moves with a harmless stick. I expected Tristan to reply with a stumbling affirmation. But Tristan merely stared at Somerled with all the fury of a soldier who finds his path blocked. He said quietly, "I see. So you have advised the priests already. I have noted this about you, High Lord – that few people whom you advise ignore your advice, and those who ignore it do not live long."

I was pouring wine into Somerled's cup at that moment; I nearly poured wine into his lap. Somerled's hand, though, did not waver as it held up the cup. Ignoring the second challenge, he said, "I do not understand, Prince Tristan, why you believe that I would wish to keep you from the throne. We are in the midst of war with a mighty enemy and need a strong King to lead us. From what I have seen tonight, your cousin was correct in his judgment of you, and you will indeed be a strong King. Why should I bar you from what is yours by right?"

"Will you enthrone me," Tristan said, with words spaced at intervals like Daxion arrows, "if I promise to fulfill my cousin's blood vow and surrender this land to the Chara?"

Somerled placed his cup carefully on the table beside him. "I would not advise that," he said softly.

"You would not advise that," Tristan echoed in a tight voice. "And those who fail to follow your advice fail to live long."

There was a pause, and then the faintest of smiles appeared on Somerled's face. The third challenge would not be ignored; the High Lord's blade had been pulled from its sheath. I resisted an impulse to run forward and shield the young Prince with my body.

"What is your accusation, sir?" Somerled asked, with no question mark at the end of his sentence.

"You know what my accusation is." Tristan stood without moving, though I could see that his pulse was rapid. "Don't think that I haven't guessed by now who murdered Blackwood."

The faint smile, quivering on the edge of rising to the surface, slowly faded away. There was a moment when it seemed that it would appear once more. Then Somerled said in a voice that spoke of sadness, "Prince Tristan, I fear that this war has overwrought you as much as it did your cousin. You are right in believing that I had some hesitation about bringing you to the throne quickly upon your cousin's death. I suspected that you might need time in which to steady yourself after this tragedy, and it appears that I am correct. There is no doubt, of course, that you will be our next King, but I will ask the council to allow you a lengthy period of mourning for your cousin. —You need not fear," he added as Tristan opened his mouth, "that I will tell anyone of the remarks you just made. I would not wish anyone to know how unstable your mind is at present."

For a moment more, Tristan stood in fury, with his hand gripping his blade; then his hand slipped from the hilt, and his eyes closed. He let his breath out slowly.

"My mistake," he said as his eyes opened. "Your judgment of me was not far wrong. It took me too long to recognize what you are and what you made the King into. And now I have broken the only weapon I had against you, by showing it to you in private so that you could arm yourself against it beforehand. Make no mistake, though, Somerled: I will not be your tool, not even for the sake of winning the throne. You would be better off killing me now, as you did the others, rather than let me live to be your enemy. I will have that throne, even if your life's blood must pay the way to what my cousin left me."

"You do the King injustice if you believe that I could have made him act against his conscience," Somerled murmured, "and you do me injustice if you believe that I would harm the heir to our land, the man who will one day be Koretia's High Priest. That will be soon, I hope, very soon. I'm sure that your grief will lift shortly." As he spoke, he opened the door to the corridor.

Tristan let out his breath again, this time shakily; a look of uncertainty travelled over his face. He took a step forward, glanced at Somerled – who was looking as placid and harmless as a bright summer's day – and then walked swiftly past him, toward the door.

As the corridor door closed, Idonia said, "Too soon?"

Somerled waited until the footsteps had faded in the corridor before turning to his wife, who stood in the open doorway to their bedchamber. "Much too soon. If he died now, suspicion would fall upon me. Far better that he remain in the council under my power. The more he hates me, the wilder his accusations will become, until the council begins to doubt his wits and strips him of what little power he has. Once his power is gone, that will be the time for him to meet an unfortunate fate – robbers, perhaps, or thieves. Yes, thieves; I believe that the Jackal's thieves will kidnap him and try to persuade him to join the Jackal's cause. Perhaps they will succeed, and I will be forced to place him under torture. He can have Morgan's cell."

Idonia was already laughing. As Somerled beckoned toward me, and I walked forward with the pitcher, she sobered and said, "And the King?"

"That was not of my planning, despite what our young Prince thinks. The King was truly arrogant enough to believe that he could win this war single-handed, and for once my advice to him was faulty; I too thought that the Chara would be a poor swordsman. . . . The timing of Rawdon's death was particularly unfortunate. We shall have to think of an explanation for that. Perhaps the Jackal is secretly allied with the Chara – whether true or not, that will make a good story."

Idonia took the cup from me without looking my way. Her expression was still sober. "So you believe that the timing was coincidence?"

A sudden tenderness, unexpected, appeared in Somerled's eyes. "My dear," he said in the same mild voice he had used toward Tristan, "let us not become as foolish as the men who have visited these chambers in years past, and who now live in the Land Beyond."

Idonia shrugged, sipping from her cup. "It is not as though you disbelieve in the gods."

"Of course I believe in the all-powerful gods," said Somerled, "and because I believe in them, I believe that they value strength and intelligence, not softness and foolishness. The Jackal God is the hunting god and trickster god. Do you think that he wants us to be sweet and tender toward the fools of this land? So many people believe this that I have found very few men to admire over the years. The King was one such man; he truly understood the need for severity and trickery when Koretia is in danger. Ironically, this man who calls himself the Jackal is another person I admire. He never came for his arrested thief; he knew that such softness would not win him his rebellion. And today I almost found myself admiring young Tristan. He has finally come of age and has recognized the hard methods by which the power of this government is held. If only he had discovered this a few years ago, he could have become a trusted ally to the King and me. As it is, he has grown to power too late. I do not have time to train him, what with the Emorians pressing upon us."

"So you will take the throne yourself," Idonia said.

Somerled shrugged, waving me away as I stepped forward to refill his cup. "Or will find another strong man to become King. It really matters little to me who holds the throne, as long as he doesn't show the foolishness that Tristan showed tonight. Why, Tristan and the others are no better than the Living Dead."

Idonia started, nearly looked my way, and swallowed audibly, saying, "Whatever do you mean?"

"Look at this slave," Somerled replied rhetorically, waving his hand in my direction while keeping his gaze fixed on Idonia. "It has been in this chamber before, has heard the King and me planning our traps – has heard you and me planning what traps I will suggest to the King. Yet it has done nothing. Even now, hearing me plan the murder of the heir confirmed, it will do nothing. Its piety is too deep. . . . It fears the gods. . . . There may be a dozen reasons why it remains lifeless. But Tristan and most of the other men in this land are just like this corpse. Tristan will never reach the throne because he won't lower himself to use the weapons that I use against him. He refuses to soil his hands with the tasks I undertake in order to protect this land. Piety!" Somerled spat abruptly on the floor. "Rawdon was the only pious man I knew, a man who was willing to risk his spirit by ordering murder for the sake of this land. And now that he is dead, I will take on his burden until I find another who has his courage. Tristan does not. Whatever he may think, Tristan has no true love for the gods." Upon those words, still without looking my way, Somerled gave me the wave of hand that dismissed me.

I collected the empty cups, placed them and the pitcher on the stand next to the leaping fire, and walked past Somerled and his silent wife until I had reached the entryway. I glanced back, but Somerled was still watching his wife, awaiting her answer, and so I stepped through the entryway and left, closing the door behind me.

Then I leaned against the corridor wall. Oh, Somerled, I whispered within, do you truly believe that you serve the gods when you smile upon the men you murder? If so, I sorrow for your spirit, for you are trapped just as surely as I was before I saw my demon and killed him.

Chapter Text

I'd heard it said – though not by the free-servants themselves – that the free-servants of Council Hill had a lazy man's job. With the slaves assigned to the heavy labor, as well as to some of the lighter jobs such as serving food and drinks, the free-servants were left only with tasks the Living Dead could not possibly be expected to do, such as helping the council lords from their cloaks in the winter. At any given moment of the day, free-servants could be found lounging about, throwing daggers at a target, or – among the younger servants – playing boys' games such as Jackal and Prey.

It was therefore more than a little suspicious for two free-servants to have closeted themselves in the kitchen pantry, scrubbing the councils' dinner bowls so hard that the gods' masks stamped upon the interior of the bowls were in danger of being rubbed entirely away.

I paused at the doorway, curious. I was between tasks, having finished my morning chores early. Normally, in such circumstances, I would seek out Hyrne for further orders. But the conspiratorial low voices caught my attention.

The voices broke off the moment I paused, but after quick glances to assure themselves that no one living was eavesdropping, the men continued their conversation.

" . . . heard they've conquered all of central Koretia." This was Chesleigh, the High Lord's free-servant. Somerled had apparently not bothered to go to any great lengths to win Chesleigh's loyalty since stealing the man from Logan, for Chesleigh forever walked about with a crease in his brow, as though in pain.

"Ridiculous," responded Dyfan. He belonged to Lord Kenneth and was the leader among the free-servants because of his integrity. "If they had, we'd have Lord Drugo down here, complaining that his retirement was disturbed."

"Don't laugh!" begged Chesleigh, rubbing hard at a nonexistent spot on a plate.

"I'm not laughing. You're exaggerating. What I've heard is, half of Koretia."

"Two-thirds," said Chesleigh gloomily, reaching for another place. "Our kingdom is an inverted triangle – have you forgotten? The bulk of our land is in the north."

"We still have the capital." Dyfan seemed to be concentrating quite hard on placing the cleaned plates in a symmetric pattern.

"The capital, the countryside near it, and the hot springs. Nothing more." The gloom in Chesleigh's voice had turned oppressively heavy. "There is no hope now that we'll be able to regain the borderland. Soon the Chara's soldiers will be swarming over Capital Mountain."

Dyfan abandoned his efforts to pretend that he was interested in dishware. "Give our subcommander some credit. It's mercy from the gods that he's been able to hold back the might of the Emorian army for a dozen years." With evident reluctance, he added, "Word is that the Chara has grown impatient. He has called down his dominion armies to help with the final conquest."

"Oh, gods!" cried Chesleigh in a strangled voice. "What will we do?"

Dyfan shook his head slowly. "Our subcommander has drained this capital of nearly every soldier. He has even kept the vanguard with him for the past year."

"If we had a King to lead our vanguard—"

"We don't." Dyfan's reply was short.

I cast a glance toward the open courtyard nearby, more for the free-servants' sake than for my own. No council lords stood nearby, the guards remained at their posts, most of the other free-servants were gossiping lightly at the other end of the courtyard, and no council guests were passing through at the moment.

The courtyard was thronged with slaves, carrying out their duties. That made no difference, of course.

"It has been a year since King Rawdon died!" Chesleigh burst out. "What is he waiting for?"

"You work for the High Lord," replied Dyfan grimly. "Do you need to ask me?"

"He's the heir confirmed—"

"He'll be a dead heir if he doesn't move with due care. Pass me those cups."

I leaned further back, so that I could see the entire courtyard. No sign of Somerled or his guards. Usually, with the alertness of a hunter, the High Lord would interrupt discussions like these.

Dyfan, who had remained silent all this while, added finally, "He's probably taking the time to gather support. He's going to have to replace the entire council, you know. There's not a man on that council who hasn't enslaved himself to the High Lord – even Lord Kenneth has, may the gods forgive him. And there are scarcely any noblemen left in the kingdom who would qualify for the royal council. Practically every town in Koretia is being baroned by innocent young heirs. The town barons who aren't young or secure in their retirement are dead."

Still no sign of the High Lord's guards, though I was beginning to wonder whether I was listening to the conversation of two men who would soon join the Living Dead.

Chesleigh said, "He could follow Emorian precedent and appoint village barons to the council. Or even a lesser free-man, like Lord Logan was—"

He stopped speaking abruptly. I spun on my heel, seeking the source of danger.

But the danger was only mine. Ignoring the conspiratorial free-servants, Hyrne said sourly, "Slave, to me. You're late for your duties."

I hadn't been assigned any duties this morning, other than the ones I'd already completed. But one of the advantages of overseeing the Living Dead was that Hyrne never had to worry about slaves disputing his falsehoods. Accepting with a bow both Hyrne's order and the stinging blow he gave my back with his rod, I followed the direction of Hyrne's pointing. By this time, eleven years into my enslavement, I had no need of spoken directions to know what to do.

As I took the heavy serving tray upstairs to the council's reception room, I reflected that, if Prince Tristan had been gathering supporters during this past year, he had done so in such a manner as to escape the notice of the council slaves.

Which was to say, he hadn't. It would take a good deal more than Rawdon's death and Tristan's own declaration of war against Somerled to persuade the King's heir to move against the High Lord. It would take the courage he lacked.

Embracing the tray carefully, I swung open the door to the reception room. They were all there, the men I had known now for eleven years: the King's Council, sitting at their leisure as they hosted a guest. Even the guest was familiar, in voice if not in appearance.

It was Griffith.

o—o—o

His back was to me, but I could not have forgotten the dark danger of the voice that had once threatened my life. Now Griffith was directing that tone of threat toward the King's Council, saying, "Lords, I am in deadly earnest. The capital will be attacked."

Gaillard made a dismissive gesture. "The Emorians have been trying to reach our capital for twelve years now. Despite our recent defeats, we still hold half of Koretia. The Emorians are nowhere near reaching our capital. Our army in the north—"

"The Emorians are not coming from the north this time." Griffith's tone held all the impatience of a tutor who is trained to teach catechism-aged boys, but is instead placed in charge of nursery babes. "The Daxions have broken their treaty with us and will allow the Emorian army entrance through their land. The Emorians will attack us from the west or the south."

"The west or the south?" The High Lord's voice was quiet. "You do not know from which direction they will come?"

I had moved far enough forward now with the tray that I could watch Griffith as he ran his hand through his hair in a frustrated movement. "My informant tells me only that the Emorian soldiers will attack by way of Daxis. If I had to make a guess, I would say that they'll come from the south. Most likely they'll gather in the Daxion capital before travelling around the mountain that our two capitals share."

"But you do not know?" Somerled's voice remained quiet. The other lords were exchanging looks.

Griffith met Somerled's look squarely as I placed a cup of wine at his side. "Much remains a matter of speculation. That the Daxions have broken their treaty with us is not speculation."

"And who told you this, might I ask?" Still relaxed in his chair, Somerled picked up the cup I had just placed to his side.

For the first time, Griffith hesitated. "I cannot tell you the name of my informant. But the information is true. I swear that by my blood and by my god."

He reached toward the hilt of his sword, as though prepared to go so far as to imprint his oath in blood, but Somerled shook his head. "We are most grateful to you for your timely warning. If you will just wait outside for a few minutes, my lords and I will have further questions for you, once we have discussed this matter amongst ourselves."

"Of course." Griffith abandoned the cup he had not touched and rose to his feet. "Lords, I bid you good day." He bowed and walked toward the door. Obeying a subtle signal from Somerled, the council guards standing nearby followed Griffith outside.

Somerled waited until the footsteps of the baron and the guards had faded before he said, "Well, gentlemen, can we have any doubt as to what we have just heard?"

"None whatsoever," replied Kenneth. "Griffith is well known as a rebel sympathizer. This message must have come from the Jackal himself."

"But what is the Jackal's purpose in sending us this message?" asked the newest council lord as I refilled his cup.

"Most likely to lure our army south," suggested Gaillard with a sour expression. "But why?"

Kenneth suggested, "Perhaps the Jackal believes that, if he can arrange for the Emorians to overwhelm us in the north, then the Jackal himself can take control of us in the south. Don't you agree, High Lord?"

"Perhaps," said Somerled. He had been watching the conversation in his usual neutral manner of expression, but there was a tinge of triumph in his voice as he said, "I fear, however, that you gentlemen are missing the most important point."

"Which is?" As he spoke, Gaillard leaned forward. Nearly all the council lords did, as though they were beasts yoked to Somerled's cart.

"The Jackal's choice of messenger," Somerled clarified. "'My informant tells me . . .' Does that not suggest, gentleman, that this member of the old nobility is high in the confidence of the Jackal?"

There was a silence as looks were exchanged between the council lords – all of them of the new nobility, thanks to Somerled's careful work. Finally Kenneth said, "Surely not. The Jackal would not dare to send one of his Companions again after what we did to Morgan."

Tristan, who had remained silent throughout this conversation, rose suddenly to his feet. "High Lord, may I be excused? These matters are beyond me, and I have work that needs to be done."

"Of course, Prince Tristan," said Somerled. "Feel free to leave whenever you like."

There was a reflective pause after Tristan left. Then the newest council lord said, "That young man bears watching, Somerled. He has become more and more wild in his statements during the past year."

"We can hardly blame his wildness on youth," pointed out Gaillard. "He is thirty years of age now. No, I admit that I have begun to worry about the King's heir."

"The King too worried about Tristan, before his death," murmured Somerled. "I have not wished to say anything before now, so strong is my loyalty toward that particular lineage. But since the rest of you have raised this topic, I must confess that the King told me, on the eve of his death, that he had grave concerns over the suitability of Tristan for the throne. . . ."

I slipped out of the room as some of the lords began to nod. Once I'd closed the door behind me, I took a quick look around the corridor. The guards were nowhere in sight; perhaps Tristan had made use of his remaining power and dismissed them. I could see Tristan further down the corridor. He was peaking in a low voice to someone who was hidden from my sight, in an alcove of a window facing east, toward the exterior of Council Hall. I moved forward.

As I came close enough to see to whom the Prince was speaking, Tristan broke off abruptly, looking over his shoulder. Then, seeing that the passerby was only a slave, he turned back to Griffith, saying in an urgent whisper, "I tell you, you must flee! The High Lord has guessed who you are and will have you arrested at any moment!"

"I have delivered my message and will not stay for further debate," Griffith said. "I cannot leave, though, until you answer my question."

"What you ask is absurd." Tristan sounded as angry as I had ever heard him. "I am a council lord. I cannot serve a rebel."

"You are the confirmed heir to the throne of Koretia, King in all but name, yet you are allowing yourself to serve beneath your own High Lord. How is that worse?"

Griffith still possessed the talent, it seemed, to cut a man without use of a blade. Tristan visibly flinched before saying, "You must listen to me! You are in danger—"

"No, you are the one who must listen." Griffith leaned forward, his hand hard upon his hilt, as though he were issuing a challenge. "The Jackal has been watching you. He believes that you have it in you to be a true servant of the gods. He wishes you to demonstrate your loyalty to the gods by submitting yourself to his service. He is willing to help you in your quest for the throne."

Tristan's voice shook as he said, "Don't try to bribe me—"

"It is not a bribe. You are not a man who can be bribed, and the Jackal has no need for bribes. Sire, you spoke of danger a moment ago." As he made this startling change in address, Griffith stepped forward, forcing Tristan to step back. "Do you not realize how close you have come to the eternal flames of the Jackal's fire? You are a hand's breadth away. The Jackal shows his mercy by permitting you to enter into his presence, despite all that you have done since you came of age. Do not spurn his gift," he warned as Tristan drew in his breath. "Lovell gave you a second chance, after you failed; the Jackal is offering you a third chance. You may not have another."

The silence that followed lasted long enough that I was able to trace back in my mind the memory of King Rawdon speaking of the "trouble" at Tristan's coming-of-age rite. Then Tristan said, in a voice that trembled, "I need time to think."

"There is no time." Griffith's voice was flat as he took another step toward the King's heir. "There is no knowing when the Emorians will attack, and the Jackal has already spent his patience—"

"I need time to think." Tristan's voice had turned hoarse. "You are asking me to overthrow everything I have ever believed. I must know that I am doing what is right." And then, in a voice much calmer than before, he said simply, "I must pray."

Griffith closed his eyes and let out his breath in a sigh. Then he opened his eyes and said, "Very well. If you decide to enter into the service of the god you pledged yourself to long ago, return to Valouse. The Jackal will come for you there. But, sire . . . do not wait too long. The danger to both you and your land is great."

Tristan said nothing; he simply turned on his heel and walked away, making his way down the corridor, glowing golden under the spring sunlight. Griffith's hand slid from the baron's sword-hilt. Griffith turned his head, evidently seeking the best way out of the trap into which he had willingly walked. In another moment, he would be gone.

"Sir."

The word came out softer than I'd intended; after eleven years of not using my voice, I no longer knew how to regulate its level. For a moment, I thought that my venture had been in vain. Then Griffith turned slowly and stared straight at me. I clenched my fists, waiting to see whether he would ignore my call and continue on; then, in a wash of relief, I saw him move forward till he was but an arm's length from me. There he halted and said in a low voice, "Did you wish to speak to me, slave?"

"Yes, sir." I had meant to say more, but with horror I realized that my voice was quavering with fear. I halted my speech abruptly.

Griffith must have heard the trembling and realized the source. At any rate, he cast a hasty look over his shoulder at the doorway nearby before saying, again in a low voice, "Over here. We can talk where we're not seen."

I followed his beckoning into the alcove. Griffith leaned against the window-post, peering out at the view for a moment before satisfying himself that none would hear us.

He said, "I had better warn you from the start, slave, that I do not have money enough to buy your freedom in exchange for your information."

"Information?" So numb did I feel amidst the terror of what I was doing that I could do no more than repeat this word blankly.

Griffith's eyes narrowed in a fashion which did not ease my fear. "I assumed that you were trying to sell me information. If not, why have you broken your silence?"

I could feel the sweat running down my face, as it always did in the heat of spring. I made a mental note to myself that if I survived this ordeal, I must wash my face that night. "I wish to know whether your sister is well," I said.

"My sister?" Griffith's tone turned sharp. "What do you know of my sister, slave?"

"I met her once briefly, many years ago, before I was masked. I would like to know how she is."

There was a silence as Griffith, still leaning against the post, looked closer at my mask, perhaps trying to read my thoughts through my eyes. He said slowly, "Are you asking me to believe that you are risking death by fire in order to enquire after the welfare of a woman you once met briefly?"

"It is worth the price to me," I said, my voice dull.

There was a long silence. Griffith had placed the back of his hand against his mouth in a reflective fashion. His eyes remained narrowed as they contemplated me. Finally, with a tone which held a flicker of emotion in it, I said, "Denounce me if you must, but please tell me before you do so whether your sister is well."

Griffith spent another long while, assessing my words. Then he said slowly, "She is very well. She is to be married in three weeks' time."

A blood-fly droned its way in from the courtyard, landed on the side of my neck, and bit into me. I took no notice; I had been trained to stand motionless during worse than this.

Griffith pushed himself away from the window and circled over to my side. I stayed where I was, staring at the spot where he had been. His low voice asked from beyond my sight, "Is there any message that you would like me to give her, slave?"

"No." My voice sounded to me as blank and unemotional as my mask. "She would not remember me. And even if she did, the man she once knew is dead. This is only its corpse which speaks."

Griffith circled back to where he had been before; his eyes were still guarded, but they rested on me steadily. "Corpses," he observed quietly, "do not speak."

I made no reply to this; I was feeling my face itch as the sweat trickled down it. Griffith stood a moment more, looking at me; then he said softly, "May the gods watch over you, slave."

I bowed my head in acknowledgment of his words, then waited a few minutes after he had left before returning to my post of silence.

o—o—o

I was still alive; that was what I could not understand. By all accounts I should have died in the two months since Griffith had slipped away from Council Hill and out of my life. Every morning since then, I had wanted to offer up my sacrifice up. Yet every morning I continued to say no when the question was silently put to me.

Another part of me battled against my attempts to withdraw from the renewed pain. I told myself that it made no difference that Tryphena had broken her word to me. Eleven years was long enough to demonstrate her faith. If she had finally found happiness with another man, I ought to be glad for her, rather than show selfish anger at her good fortune.

But I knew that I was not really angry that she had been blessed with a new love. What gnawed at me was not anger but loneliness. Twelve years had passed since I left Emor; if anyone there still remembered me, it was as someone they had once known in the past. Here in Koretia, no one regarded me as alive, as someone to be thought of as a presently living person. Only Tryphena, I had imagined, had still held me in her mind as someone vivid in her consciousness. Now I realized that she too regarded me as part of the past. To everyone I had ever known, I was gone forever. Why bother to treat myself as anything other than the death spirit that I was?

But Somerled knew me, I reminded myself. Twice since I became his slave had he made reference to me – the last time only two months earlier. Perhaps he remembered me from my earliest days serving the council. It was a small thing, being remembered by a master I despised. But it was something.

So I told myself one bright midsummer morning as I went about my tasks silently and unnoticed. The day had already turned scorching hot, and the heat within the storeroom was stifling. Sweat gathered in large clumps inside my clothes and my mask. I could make furtive moves to scratch under my clothing, but my face remained ablaze with irritation. I had to make great effort to turn my mind from that continued annoyance to the work which I must do. If only I could have a moment outside, in the breeze . . . My first thought, then, was of gratitude when Hyrne entered the storeroom at noonday, looked vaguely in my direction, and said, "You, slave. The master wishes to see you in his quarters. Go now."

Dipping my head in acknowledgment, I waited till he had stepped out of the doorway before making my way outside. I could hear the sound of wood being chopped nearby. Another rebellious slave – this one only just masked – was due to burn that evening. There had been three burnings during the last year alone; screaming deaths had become a matter so routine that my mind was numbed to it.

For a moment after I reached the yard, I did nothing but stand motionless, every part of my body calling silently for a breeze. But I had been optimistic to think that I would encounter such a phenomenon on a Koretian summer day. It was fire weather – the sort of weather in which the Koretians dare to burn down each other's houses, since they know that wind will not spread the fire. Thwarted from my goal of relief from the heat, I contented myself with inhaling the pungent scent of nearby wild-berry bushes and using that as a reminder that I still lived. I could notice such things, though no one realized it.

But no one realized it – that fact would not go away. As I stood where I was, at the entrance to the slave house, a hard whack against my back shoved me forward; I fell to my knees. Looking up, I saw one of the free-servants, who had used the stick of a broom to push aside the inanimate object he had found in his path. I crawled quickly away in order to avoid being whacked further. Then I knelt a moment longer, my knees raw on the pavement, before rising and making my way to see my master.

He was deep in conversation with another man when I arrived – some high-ranked servant, it appeared from his clothes, though he was no one I knew. I carefully positioned myself in the one part of the room where I was in the shade from the sun but close enough to the window that I might feel any unexpected breeze. Then I sunk to my knees and froze my position.

After a few minutes, the High Lord finally took notice of me. "This is the one, Fulbert," he said to the other man. "Will it do?"

In the silence that followed, I realized to my astonishment that the visiting servant must be scrutinizing me. Then the man said, "Yes, that's what Lord Drugo asked for. The blue-eyed slave. You'll sell it for the price offered?"

"Why not?" replied Somerled casually. "I can replace it easily. Why does Drugo want this one in particular?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, Lord Somerled," the man replied; he and Somerled had moved away from me. I longed to relax my body out of its aching position, but I had not yet been given the order. "Perhaps he wanted to avoid the trouble of going through the death rite with yet another slave. This one looks as though it will last a few years more, at any rate – its spirit is still living."

"Is it?" The vagueness of Somerled's reply cut into me far more deeply than the needle-sharp pains I was beginning to feel from holding my position. "Well, perhaps, to make sure, you should ask Hyrne when this one started in my service. I wouldn't want to sell Drugo a slave which is so new to service that it doesn't know what to do."

The men had moved far enough back that I could see their faces without lifting my head. The servant shrugged. "Lord Drugo's orders are to take this one; I'm sure he'll be satisfied with what he gets. Knowing my master, he won't even remember the color of the slave's eyes by the time I get back." The servant gave a quick smile, and Somerled chuckled. The High Lord was taking less care than in the past to disguise his dark humor, now that his power was nearly complete. The servant added, "May I take it now? I'm eager to start back."

"Surely you can stay the night," said Somerled. "My free-servants would welcome your company." And Somerled, I had no doubt, would welcome the opportunity to pull every bit of information he could out of the free-servant of one of the few remaining high noblemen of the old nobility.

"Thank you, High Lord, but I'm required to return on a certain date, and I'm already overdue to leave. I had best be going now."

"Well, stay for the noonday meal, at least," said Somerled, still smoothly luring. "It will give this slave time enough to finish whatever task it was doing before it came here. Then you can load it onto your cart and be on your way."

Lord Drugo's servant murmured his thanks. Somerled walked him toward the door, saying, "You must give Drugo my greetings when you see him. Tell him I remain convinced that the army will be able to hold back the Emorians' advance and prevent his land from falling into their fearsome hands. Also, the Jackal will prove no— What is it?"

"The slave," the servant replied in an offhand manner. "You had better dismiss it if it's to finish its work."

"Mm? Oh, yes – slave, go do as you were told." Somerled did not bother to look my way as he issued the command. "As I was saying, the Jackal will prove no difficulty from this point forth. Even men claiming to be gods have a natural lifespan, and this one cannot live forever. We can shorten his life if we manage to arrest more of his Companions . . ."

Somerled's voice faded in the distance. I sank down onto my haunches, trying to force to the surface a question.

"Do you—?" "Do you willingly—?"

How odd that the question which had always come unbidden to me, at times when I had feared its coming, now balked at its entrance when I had the reply which the gods had been urging all these years. Perhaps, I thought, I should simply go about my task and allow the question to come of its own accord. No one would notice the moment of change in any case, not even myself.

I walked down the staircase toward the courtyard, taking in my surroundings with an involuntary manner which was like a foreshadow of my death to come. As I stepped into the courtyard, I smelled once more the scent of wild-berries. Then I savagely thrust that awareness from my consciousness.

"Do you willingly offer up your spirit as a sacrifice—?"

So blind was I to everything around me that I did not notice the boy until he had run straight into my side. Instinctively, I placed my hands on his shoulders, steadying him in his place. In an equally instinctively manner, he said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—" Then he looked up and saw what he was speaking to.

For a brief moment, he stared at my mask. It was the boy I had seen at the slave's funeral: the younger boy, who had a lively, energetic face. That face was now filled to the brim with abashment. His gaze drifted past me toward the direction where he had been going, and I quickly stepped out of his path. He continued forward as though nothing had happened.

I turned away and began heading back toward the storeroom. "Do you willingly offer up your spirit as a sacrifice to—?"

"I'm sorry."

The voice was so faint that I could not identify the source. Then I turned and saw that the boy was facing me once more. His gaze was firmly fixed at some point beyond me, but he said in a low voice, "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to knock into you like that."

I stared at him, my heart pounding within me, the smell of wild-berries flooding into my consciousness. Finally, I bowed my head in acknowledgment of his words. He turned instantly and fled the courtyard, eager to escape this embarrassing scene. I turned once more and placed my hand on the doorpost in an effort to steady myself.

"Do you willingly offer up your spirit as a sacrifice to me?"

"No."

I needed time to shallow my breathing. I was feeling the pain flood into me once again, more painful than it had been on any previous occasion. I tried to imagine what it would be like to feel this pain every morning for the next thirty or so years until my body died – to feel the pain increase every day and to have no reason to endure this suffering. Then I thrust this thought from my mind. Thirty years was too long to worry about; my immediate task was to make it through to the end of this day without dying. And in order to do so, I would have to finish my work for Somerled.

I had been carrying firewood from the storeroom to the wheelbarrow next to the door. Now, as I knelt down to gather the kindling in my arms, I heard a scuffle of feet nearby and knew that the other slaves must be gathering for the noonday meal. If I were to follow Somerled's orders – and he would not notice whether I did – I would receive no meal at noonday. I could not be sure that Lord Drugo's servant was conscious enough of my existence to feed me tonight.

Without pausing, I cradled the kindling to my living body and walked toward the wheelbarrow.

"Now look at the eyes of that one." It was of course Kester, standing next to the doorway by the wheelbarrow, carefully avoiding any glance at me while he pointed in my direction for the benefit of the young Koretian beside him. The young man was evidently having difficulty in following Kester's instructions to stare at slaves, but he gave me a quick glance before looking away.

"What do those eyes signify?" Kester asked patiently.

"That its spirit lives," replied the young man tentatively. I turned away and headed back toward the woodpile, wondering to myself why Kester had chosen to come here. Surely he must know that the slaves were at their noonday meal not far from here, and that he could provide the young man with several examples of the phenomenon he was demonstrating.

"Now, I want you to take another look at that slave – don't shirk, Ulf. In a week's time you'll be able to feast your eyes on the other slaves all you want. Look carefully at this one because you're not likely to be granted the privilege of seeing something like this again. This slave's spirit has been living for eleven years – eleven years, Ulf! Do you realize what strength it takes for a slave to live that long? Even I only had to endure ten years. And the most amazing thing is that this slave holds no hope of being reborn. The slave bears the pain of being the Living Dead purely in order to obey the will of the gods. Look again."

There was no need for Kester's instruction. As I delivered my second load of kindling, the young man was staring at me unabashedly. Still looking beyond me at some point at the back of the room, Kester said, "Now, I tell you, Ulf, I cannot imagine any way in which this slave can hold out for many years more. One of these days, I fully expect to come to this place and discover that the slave's eyes have dimmed and the slave's spirit has been lost. But on the day when that happens, I will go to the priests' house and offer up a sacrifice to the gods for the passing of the slave's spirit, and I will weep for the man. For I am convinced that this is the greatest man who lives in Koretia, and that his death will be a tragedy in the sight of the gods."

I had my back to the men now. Carefully I drew off one glove, then pulled the star-flame ring from my finger. Gloving my moist hand once more, I encircled the ring in my palm and headed toward the wheelbarrow without any wood in my arms. Kester did not look my way, but he said sharply to the young man, "Now, Ulf, let us try that Obeisance of yours once more; you were wobbling quite a lot the last time you practiced. Down on your knees, at once."

The young man compliantly sank to his knees and bowed awkwardly. Kester said, "Eyes to the floor – I don't want to catch a glimpse of you looking my way. Hold that position."

I had reached the wheelbarrow. I put forward my hand and began to place the ring on top of the pile of wood. Then I froze as a hand reached forward and brushed my fingers as it took the ring from me.

I looked over at Kester. There was a light smile on his face, and his gaze was steady upon mine. For a moment our eyes remained linked, acknowledging each other's presence. Then Kester slipped the ring onto his finger and turned toward the young man, saying, "God of Mercy, Ulf, you'll never last eleven weeks, much less eleven years, if you can't do better than that. Straighten your back, for the gods' sake, and keep your gaze firmly fixed on the ground . . ."

I placed one last armful of wood on the wheelbarrow. My task done, I stepped past the men in the doorway, unnoticed and invisible once more.

Chapter Text

Death Mask #4
END OF HUNT WHISTLES: ALIVE, DEAD, AND LOST

CHAPTER ONE

I leaned back, staring at the tent of tree branches passing above me. I had seen nothing but trees above the roads during my travels of the past fortnight. The great Sea of Koretia, it was called: waves of greenery from Capital Mountain at the southern tip of Koretia to the black border mountains in the north.

We had not travelled as far as the north, I judged; every night now, we stayed in inns filled with travellers to the famous hot springs of central Koretia. The travellers had been talking about everything except the hot springs. Many of them were refugees.

"Whoa, now." Fulbert spoke sharply to the horse drawing the open cart, jerking hard upon its reins. Well used to Fulbert's heavy hand, the horse barely whinnied as she halted.

I looked around. We were still under the cover of trees, but nearby stood what could only be described as a mansion. Just beyond it, I could see a village, presumably under the control of the mansion's lord. Men and women labored in front of the mansion, knocking nuts off the trees with sticks. One of the men, who had been watching the others, hurried over to the cart.

"Where have you been?" he demanded. "Lord Drugo has been worried sick about whether his ale was lost! We received word four days ago of what happened in the capital – a bare summary, nothing more."

"There were Emorian soldiers on the roads everywhere, searching every cart that passed. Lord Drugo is lucky he didn't have all his goods confiscated. Tie it up, Eamon." Fulbert tossed the reins to his fellow servant.

Eamon tied the reins to a post, saying, "He was sure the barrels had gone up in flames."

"They very nearly did, and me with them. —Unload the ale; I'll take care of the rest of the goods." This was spoken to free-servants who had moved forward to the cart. One of the men leapt onto the bed of the cart and began wrestling the barrels into the arms of the other men. I edged myself out of the way. "The Jackal had his claws to my back, I'll tell you that," Fulbert added as he paused between sipping from his flask. "I'd planned to stay the night in the capital, but a free-servant on Council Hill mentioned to me that a new inn had opened outside the walls, and that it was gaining fame for its food. Well, you know me: I never pass up a chance for a good meal. Had my evening meal there and was well into my third drink when a boy ran into the inn. He shouted that the Emorians were attacking from Capital Mountain and that the capital was afire. We all rushed outside to look."

The servants were taking rather more time than was necessary to move the barrels. They were all quiet, listening. Even Eamon had gone silent.

Clearly relishing his role as the bearer of bad tidings, Fulbert said, "From where we stood, the Chara's vanguard looked like an angry army of ants, pouring down the mountainside, into the city. The flames had already reached the top of Council Hill."

Someone gasped and was quickly hushed. Eamon said weakly, "Our council . . ."

"Burnt to a crisp." Fulbert smiled grimly. "Not a single lord escaped, I heard. The entire hill was aflame."

"No one at all escaped from Council Hill?" asked Eamon, voicing my own question. I had been ordered to remain inside the inn while all this happened.

Fulbert shrugged as he set aside his flask. "I met the free-servant who'd given me the tip about the inn, but he was dying. They'd laid all the dying men they could find on the ground just outside the city walls. The ones who might live were supposed to be taken up to the priests' house, but there wasn't nearly enough room for the injured there. I've never seen so many burnt bodies in my life. The ones who weren't burnt were wounded by the Emorians' blades."

All amusement had fled from Fulbert's voice. The servants were exchanging looks. Eamon cleared his throat. "And the women and children?"

"Mostly dead too. Many of the women were ravished. I saw a group of children being herded away by an Emorian slave-seller."

Growls were beginning now from the servants listening to this tale. Eamon clenched his fist as he said, "We received news from the north that our subcommander surrendered. Our army was trapped within a vise, with the Chara's army squeezing it on two sides—"

"The heir," said one of the other servants, leaning over a barrel. "What happened to the heir?"

The growling ended as everyone leaned forward to listen. Fulbert extended the suspense by taking a long draft from his flask before saying, "Escaped in the length of time between blinks. I heard he left the city for his home in Valouse a bare hour before the Emorians attacked. Canny man. If he's wise, he went into hiding; I heard that the Chara wants his blood. But if our land's Prince is still alive, he's not going to be able to drive off the Emorians any time soon. Not even the Jackal-man could do that." Fulbert hopped down from the cart.

"The Jackal," said Eamon reflectively. "Fulbert, do you think the rebel leader could be behind this? Do you think he betrayed us to the Emorians?"

Fulbert's shrug was indifferent. "I need to get our lord's goods inside. Take those barrels to the cellar, men. Slave, to me." He snapped his fingers.

I climbed slowly off the cart, stiff after the long journey, my heart filled with pain. Nearly everyone I had known for eleven years was dead. They had died terribly, in agony of fire.

And myself? What fate had called me out of the city, mere hours before it was destroyed?

"It's not for the lord," Eamon said, somewhat incomprehensibly. "It's for his fourth-cousin-once-removed-twice-in-marriage." Only my long stay in Koretia permitted me to translate this Koretian word of lineage. "He paid for it; he needed another servant."

Fulbert made a sour face. "The Living Dead are more trouble than they're worth; he'll find that out soon. He's still staying in the guest cottage? Very well, I'll deliver the goods there and then come back to check that the ale is properly stored. Then I'll report to our lord. And then I want to drink myself under a table for a week." It was the first sign he'd given that Fulbert was as badly affected by the events at the capital as other Koretians were.

We'd met them along our travels: Refugees fleeing from the ruined capital. Stunned village inhabitants, learning for the first time that their land was conquered. And at every crossroad, Emorian soldiers, either grinning with triumph or furious at how long it had taken them to defeat the stubborn Koretians. Fulbert had always made sure he steered his cart toward the grinning soldiers, who did him no worse harm than to confiscate a few barrels of ale "as tribute." That was the only reason we'd made it this far.

My mind still filled with images of bandaged, bleeding, burnt refugees, I followed Fulbert in the direction of a small cottage beside the mansion. It had perhaps belonged to the gardener at one time, for it was surrounded by fields of vegetables in a patch of ground that held no trees upon it. Clearly the cottage had a new inhabitant, though, for the silver banner of a lesser noble hung from its attic window.

I followed Fulbert's swift progress as best I could, trying to tamp back my growing fear. It was the fear any live-eyed slave might possess, if sold to an unknown master. Would my new master be like Drugo, leaving the handling of his slaves to his overseer? Would he be like Somerled – the late Lord Somerled – and order strict punishments for slight offenses? Was there any hope at all that my new master would free me eventually?

It seemed unlikely. The Koretian nobles would be licking their wounds for many years to come, too preoccupied by the consequences of the Emorian occupation to give much thought to their servants. I was fortunate enough to be alive – I tried to think of it that way. Therefore, I must concentrate my mind on carrying out whatever duties that fate had determined I should do.

I tried not to think of Kester, dying in the flames. He did not live on Council Hill; he might have escaped, as I had.

And Prince Tristan? Had the Jackal saved him from the Chara? Where was the Jackal, as all this was happening? After all these years of fighting the new nobility, had the Jackal lost interest in caring for the Koretians? Had the god-man abandoned his people in their hour of greatest need?

I paused at the threshold of the cottage, thinking to myself how strange it was that, after so many years living in this land, I still referred to the Koretians as "them." But it was true: although I was no longer an Emorian soldier, I still identified more with the Emorian soldiers conquering this land than with the Koretians they conquered. And this gave me a feeling of shame that I had never experienced during my years as one of the Chara's soldiers. My obedience remained to the Chara, and if I ever had the chance, I would return home. But my long sojourn in Koretia had taught me how little the Emorians understood the Koretians. The Chara, I expected, would encounter many problems with his new dominion during the years to come.

"Slave!" Fulbert's voice was sharp. I hurried to catch up. The cottage interior was dark, with all the shutters closed and no lamps lit. Fulbert pointed. "Go in there and await your master. Do not try to leave," he warned.

As though I could, with an iron mask firmly welded over my face. There was only one manner in which I could leave my suffering, and I doubted that Fulbert cared whether my spirit was living or dead. I bowed in obedience to the overseer's command and made my way into the small interior room.

It was a study, it appeared: it had a writing-table and chair and documents chest, as well as a couch where visitors might sit or recline. The shutters were closed; I left them closed, in case my new master preferred his privacy.

I ventured back into the main room briefly; I had noticed, as I was passing through the sitting chamber, that the hearth was already smoored for the night. Resisting the temptation to go upstairs to explore the bedding arrangements, I took up a reed and touched it to the embers till the fire was lit.

Then I returned to the study and lit the lamps. I didn't know whether my new master would want to see me, but most assuredly, I wanted to see him.

After that, there was nothing to do but wait. Faintly, I could hear cries outside; Fulbert's news was spreading throughout the mansion and no doubt into the village as well. It might be some time before my master arrived. I turned my head, seeking some sign to tell me the nature of my new master. Was he married? Did he have children? He must be of the old nobility, as Lord Drugo was, which meant he would likely have stricter notions of service. I swallowed down another shock of fear entering me. I had not yet receive more than an occasional blow from Hyrne's rod – I had been too obedient a servant for that – but I could not count on my good fortune lasting. I must prepare myself to endure long, hard beatings, as I had endured the wounds I underwent as a soldier.

I heard the cottage's main door open, though from where I stood, I could not see who entered. My new master, presumably, but he did not speak. My stomach clenched.

It occurred to me that I ought to make a good impression from the start with my new master. Accordingly, as I heard footsteps draw near, I lowered myself onto both knees and bent my body in the Obeisance I could now do in my sleep.

The door opened, and the footsteps stopped. For a moment, there was silence. Then a short, sharp, high-pitched cry flew through the room, causing me to jerk upright.

With knuckles jammed against mouth, and with tears flowing, Tryphena stood in the doorway.

o—o—o

I felt my limbs caged by some invisible binding; even if I had wished to break my training, I could not have moved or spoken. In the end, though, Tryphena removed the choice from me. She flung herself onto her knees in front of me, threw her arms around my motionless body, pressed her body against mine, and buried her face against my shoulder, weeping in hard hysteria.

Vaguely I was aware that Griffith had entered the room behind her and was shutting the door. I placed my arms around Tryphena, feeling warm tears run down my own cheeks under the mask. I did not look Griffith's way to see how he was reacting to my embracement of his sister. I cared nothing for what had happened to me in the past or what would happen to me in the future. All that mattered was this moment, my reward for eleven years' worth of obedience.

"May the Jackal eat his dead!" Tryphena swore into my collarbone, and followed this with an unsteady recital, punctuated by sobs, of every oath I had ever heard in Koretia: pleas to the gods for my protection, then curses called down upon the men who had done this to me, and finally a stream of words I had heard only twice before.

It was the Rite of Rebirth.

Many minutes passed before she finished the rite. Finally she pulled back slightly to stare at my face. Her own face was now red and masked in tears. She whispered, "Please say something."

I had to clear my throat before I could begin. "I don't know what to say after all this time."

Tryphena bit her lip in an apparent attempt to discipline her trembling chin. It was Griffith who spoke next, saying, "I've hired a smith to remove your mask. He's ready to begin work any time you wish."

I still had my arms around his sister. I supposed that, for decency's sake, I ought to pull away from Tryphena, but I continued to cling to her as I said to Griffith in a low voice, "Thank you."

Griffith shrugged. He was leaning back against the wall, his arms folded. "Thank Tryphena. It was her dowry money that paid for you."

I looked at Tryphena, who was staring at me wide-eyed. Slowly I let my hands fall to my sides. I said, "Griffith told me that you were to be married."

"Only because I thought I'd never see you again." Tryphena swallowed a sob, and then another, before saying, "You risked your life to ask how I was – nothing more – and as a reward for that, you received the news that I had broken faith with you and betrothed myself. I will never forgive myself – never—"

I took her hand in mine; it was cold, and I pressed my palm against hers, trying to warm it. "There is nothing to forgive," I said. "If it were not for you, I would be dead today. The thought of you was what kept me alive." As I spoke, I raised her hand and placed the back of her fingers against the hole in my mask, pressing my lips upon her flesh.

o—o—o

"There!" said the smith a short while later. "How does that look?"

I stared at the reflection on the metal plate he had handed me, feeling a sickness enter my throat at the sight of my raw, scraped face. "Can you put that mask back on?" I asked.

The smith roared with laughter as he turned to hand the mask to my last master. "You're luckier than most, whether or not you believe it. Some of the Reborn emerge from their masks with faces so bad that it really would be a mercy to them and everyone else to keep their faces hidden. Yours will heal in time, with only light scars; you took care of it, didn't you?"

"I tried to," I said briefly.

"At least you're luckier than some former Emorian slaves," commented Griffith, slipping my mask into the bag he carried. "I knew of one who was so ashamed of his slave-brand that he resorted to becoming a priest, just in order to be able to hide the brand under long sleeves."

"Ah, well, I suppose we'll all have to get used to the Emorians' ways," commented the smith sourly. "They're here to stay."

Griffith made no reply to this, but slung the mask into a sack as he said to me, "Are you ready to return to the cottage?"

I nodded and stood up to follow him. As I approached the doorway to the smithy, I became aware suddenly that, without thinking, I had reached up with my hand and was scratching an itchy portion of my face. I took a deep, shuddering breath, feeling as though I had just been granted unforeseen privileges.

The smithy was on the outskirts of the village, a short way from the guest cottage. Tryphena was awaiting us in Griffith's study. It had taken all of her brother's urgings to keep her from coming with us. It may be that Griffith had seen other slaves unmasked before and had wanted to wait until he saw what state my face was in before inflicting that sight on his sister. Without hesitation, Tryphena kissed me on the cheek and led me by hand to join her on the couch. Setting aside the bag, Griffith waited till a free-servant had poured all of us some wine and left the room. Then Griffith said, "I brought out the wall-vine wine – not a popular drink these days among us Koretians, but I thought that you might appreciate the taste."

I wetted my throat with the delicate-tasting liquid before saying, "As a borderlander, I am one of the few Emorians who enjoys wild-berry wine, but it is certainly good to taste my native wine again."

Peering over his wine, Griffith raised the cup to me in a silent toast. There was a pause in the conversation. I realized that he and Tryphena were hesitant to ask me any questions, so I said, "How did you know who I was?"

"It was your eyes," Griffith replied. "Your manner of speaking has changed much, but I recognized your eyes and your borderland accent . . . once that I was halfway here. Even then, I might not have remembered who you were if Tryphena hadn't been berating me every day for eleven years for persuading her to leave you. I decided that buying your freedom was the only way to counter the twelve dozen curses she must have sent to the gods against me."

Tryphena laughed. She had somehow managed to position us so that her head was now resting on my shoulder. Griffith did not seem disturbed by this show of intimacy; instead, he looked at me with that curiously fixed expression of his and said, "Truth to tell, I doubt that I would have made the strenuous efforts I took to buy you – and if you've met Lord Drugo, you know that persuading him to take action is quite a strenuous exercise – if it had not been for the reason you gave for speaking with me. If you had merely begged me to help you, I would have continued to have doubts about your character. As it is, I feel that I misjudged you badly when last we met."

I had no chance to say that he had not misjudged me entirely, for Tryphena said serenely, "Lord Drugo is going to be furious when he learns that he arranged that sale for you and then won't even get to marry your sister."

"Lord Drugo is going to be furious at me for more than a few reasons," said Griffith. His eyes slid past us to the shuttered window. Turning abruptly, he opened the door. He stood silently in the doorway for a minute before closing the door and saying in a low voice in Border Koretian, "Quentin, I would like your word before the gods or the Chara or whoever it is that you honor these days that you won't speak to anyone about what I am going to tell you now."

"You have my free-man's oath," I said. "I'll swear it on a blade or in blood, whichever you prefer."

"Your word alone is enough." Griffith placed his wine cup carefully on a table nearby. "You already know from the conversation you overheard two months ago that I am a thief for the Jackal. In fact, I am the Jackal's Second Blade, one of the few men to have seen the god-man unmasked."

He appeared to expect comment, so I asked, "Is that why you opposed my courting of Tryphena? Because I was one of the Emorians whom the thieves would be fighting?"

Griffith shook his head. "If I had any hatred for you because of that, it was the Jackal who taught me to lose that hatred. The Jackal hates individual Emorians, but he does not hate your people as a whole. He says that in many ways the Koretian nobles are worse masters than the Emorians. He has been fighting a two-pronged battle for the past twelve years, harassing the Emorians and opposing the Koretian nobles. I have led the battle against the nobles in the unconquered portions of Koretia, trying to force them to reform the gods' law. The Jackal has remained in the north, fighting against the Emorians, who would abolish the gods' law altogether."

"The north . . ." I said. Griffith's eyes were fixed upon mine, and I felt Tryphena stir against me. I said quietly, "Your blood brother remained in the borderland, didn't he?"

During the moment of stillness that followed, I wondered whether I had gone too far. But Griffith did no more than move his gaze toward Tryphena, who was smiling. "Has he left yet?" Griffith asked her.

"He said that he'd be in the marketplace if you needed him," she replied, rising from her place. "I'll fetch him."

Griffith waited until she was gone and the door had closed before asking, "How did you know?"

I was silent a moment, my mind running through a series of images: A jeweller suddenly turning to look at me and causing me to turn my path toward Tryphena. A gold-cloaked man luring Tryphena and me to witness a secret encounter. The jeweller watching me with a grave expression as I took the passage token from his hand. Most clearly of all, I saw the gaze of Emlyn touching me, moments after he had stared toward the slave whose death would serve to keep me to my duty. Emlyn's eyes, I remembered, had been filled with fire.

"I saw his eyes," I said. "I ought to have known from them. I don't know why it took me this long to guess."

Griffith smiled then. It was the first time I had seen him smile, and his smiled held an edge of self-mockery. "I didn't guess until he told me, and we grew up together," he said. "The Jackal unmasks himself to very few people. Adrian was one of them."

Another image came to me then, of Adrian returning from one of his last missions to Koretia, full of dark secrets that he spoke to no one. I found myself asking, "Couldn't he have saved Adrian?"

Griffith shook his head. "If he could have, he would have, you may be sure of that. The Jackal's powers are limited by what men choose to do of their own free will. The best he can do is take the sacrifices which are offered up to him and turn evil into good." He leaned his body against the wall, looking like a weary soldier who has seen too many battles. "I cannot begin to imagine what good the Jackal will make of this land being ruled by the Emorians, a godless people. But in any case, now that the Emorians have conquered Koretia, our fight must be against them alone. For this reason, the Jackal is moving his lair down south, so as to be near the new governor whom the Chara has just appointed."

I remained silent, filled with thrill at knowing that my silence was voluntary and that I could speak at any time. Griffith leaned his head back against the wall as he said, "Since I am one of the Jackal's Companions, there has always been the risk that I would be captured by the Emorians. That risk has increased, now that the Emorians regard the Jackal as a rebel in their own land. Because we all saw last spring that it was only a matter of time before the Emorians won the war, I overrode Tryphena's protests and made arrangements for her to marry Lord Drugo. He is the least objectionable of the unmarried high noblemen and is flexible enough that he will likely become friends with the new governor. Just as importantly" – Griffith's voice turned dry – "he doesn't care greatly whether women come to his bed as maidens."

I felt the words as a stinging slap, but Griffith did not linger upon my past misdeed. Instead he said, "I hope . . ." Griffith paused, and for the first time his gaze dropped from mine. "I would like to think that, if I were ever captured, I would not reveal the Jackal's identity under torture. I am not sure, though, of my ability to withstand threats against my sister. That is why I wanted her married to a powerful nobleman, so that she would be safe from harm if I were ever arrested."

"That makes a great deal of sense," I said carefully. I could still feel the burn of Griffith's reminder of what I had done to Tryphena. Truly, it was a wonder that Griffith hadn't drawn his blade when I touched his sister again.

"It makes sense, but I was never happy at the idea of forcing Tryphena into a loveless marriage. Your reappearance is fortuitous; it gives me another idea as to how to handle this dilemma. I would appreciate it, Quentin, if you would marry Tryphena and take her out of this land, either to Daxis or to Emor – anywhere where she would not be recognized as my sister. I was planning in any case to disappear from this town after Tryphena's marriage, so that I could join the Jackal at his new lair. It will be many years – if ever – before I am able to lead an open life again. It would comfort me greatly if I knew during that time that Tryphena was safe under your care."

It took me time to find my breath again. I had expected anything but this. Finally I said, "You wouldn't mind if we lived in Emor?"

Griffith gave a half-smile. "I am standing on Emorian soil at this moment, Quentin. It makes no difference to me whether Tryphena is living in a dominion or in Emor proper."

He turned suddenly as the door opened. I found myself rising in the presence of the slight-bodied man who entered. He was as I remembered him, gold-eyed and with the graceful movements of a wild animal on the hunt. He had a light smile on his lips as his eyes met mine, and his hand curved forward like a bird in flight as he gave me the free-man's greeting.

It took me a moment to remember; then, my hand shaking, I returned the greeting. Griffith said to his blood brother in a tone of mockery that two childhood friends might adopt toward each other, "'I'll be in the marketplace if Griffith needs me' – that was a polite way to phrase it. You warned me to be on the lookout for council servants giving information; why didn't you just go fetch him yourself, if you knew so much?"

The god-man seemed not in the least bit perturbed by this scolding. "Because I couldn't have identified him unless he spoke," he replied, "and he wouldn't have spoken to me. Only one thing could have made him break the gods' law." He smiled at me again, and then turned to allow Tryphena in, like a judge introducing a bride to her groom.

As Tryphena slipped over to my side, Griffith said, "You might at least have told me that you allowed him to see your god's eyes."

Emlyn took a smooth leap like a patrol guard bounding over a rock and ended up sitting atop the writing-table. "I wasn't sure he would remember. That was eleven years ago, and he has been under my sister's care since then."

It took me a moment to realize that he meant the Moon Goddess. He was curled up on the writing-table in the relaxed manner of a child. I could see in his playful eyes the prankster boy whom Tryphena had once described. I could see also the trickster god who had terrorized the Emorians for twelve years, and the new nobility for twenty years.

Yet surrounding those eyes was a face scarred with age. Emlyn was younger than I was, yet he looked like a man on the brink of death. Like my father, he would meet his death with a cheerful smile, with no attempt to escape his fate. Yet he must have known what his fate would be on the day he took up his fight on behalf of the Koretian people.

"So even the gods suffer," I murmured.

He curled his fingers delicately around one upraised knee. "I think that the way you would put it is that it is the lieutenant's privilege. Yet as I'm sure you know, the lieutenant's hardest task is to send his soldiers into danger. When I sent you to the Koretian capital, knowing as I did that you would wear my sister-god's mask if you held true to your duty, I had no knowledge of how that tale would end. It was all that I could do to keep from warning you against what fate awaited you. But I had to leave you free to make your own choice, or you could not have offered up your sacrifice as you did."

My arm tightened around Tryphena's waist; she was standing silently by my side. I felt my throat close inwards as I demanded, "And of what use was it, my eleven years of sacrifice? You can turn evil to good; what good will you make of my suffering?"

A smile spread onto the Jackal's face again. This time it came slowly; his eyes were filled with patient wisdom. "Do you really need to know?"

The silence that followed seemed to span eleven years. It was broken by my final, summarizing statement: "No. I know that I followed my duty; that is enough."

He sprang off the table then, like a jackal leaping toward its prey, and came over to stand before Tryphena and me. Reaching toward me, he laid his fingers lightly upon my cheek.

He said, "Here is the Jackal's proclamation of your service to the gods: battle scars obtained through the sacrifice of your life and your honor. It may be that some day you will guess what good was made of your sacrifice, but can any man who bears these tokens care about such matters? You offered up your trust to the gods eleven years ago, when you chose a Living Death rather than any form of painless existence you could have chosen instead. It is that trust in the gods – or fate, or whatever you will call it in the future – which gave you the courage to fight even your worst enemies: your self-concern and your self-doubts. You have sacrificed all and received in return the strength you need to face all battles in the future. Nothing that I can give you could add to what you have already won on your own." And as his hand fell, I glimpsed in his eyes the Jackal's fire, in that moment turning my sacrifice to some unknown good.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

The great silver doors of the Emorian Council Chamber stood open. The guards flanking the doorway eyed with suspicion the strong-lunged infant in Tryphena's arms. Shushing him frantically, Tryphena gave the boy her thumb to suck and then cast an apologetic look at the council porter. The porter watched us, frowning, as he waited for me to finish my sentence.

I tried for a second time. "We would like to see one of your officials, if it's possible," I said. "Carle son of Verne."

The porter's gaze slid from the restless baby to its dark-skinned mother and then to me. I was wearing my best tunic, but it was not much better than the one I had worn as a slave, and my free-man's weapon was a dull-bladed dagger I had found tossed in a rubbish heap.

"I will see if he is available, sir," the elderly porter said with a snap which suggested he doubted that any council official, however lowly, would be interested in speaking to us. "Your name?"

"Quentin son of Quentin," I replied. As the porter walked away, I whispered to Tryphena, "Carle must be doing well, that we should be able to travel this far into the palace on the strength of his name alone. Knowing his talents, I imagine he's the head law researcher by now."

Serenely ignoring the stares of the council guards, Tryphena bobbed our child up and down in her arms as she said, "It's amazing how much can change when you're gone for fourteen years. I'm sorry we found that Captain Wystan has travelled to the Land Beyond, but at least you'll have one friend here who still remembers you."

"I hope so," I said uneasily. Then, in one of those flashes which would come to me every now and then, I remembered that, two years before, I had walked through corridors like this one, as invisible as a death spirit. It seemed to me then that it would be a tremendous pleasure if Carle even spoke to me, whether or not he had any vivid memories of our friendship.

The porter returned. His sour expression told me, before his words, that Carle was willing to see us. "If you will come this way, sir, madam," he said. "Lord Carle will meet with you in the library."

"Wait!" The porter turned back as my voice rose. At his expression, I quickly lowered my voice. "Did you say, 'Lord Carle'?"

"Yes, sir." The porter eyed me suspiciously, as though wondering whether I was obtaining access to a council lord through fraudulent means. "This way, please."

We followed the porter through the twilight-dimmed chamber, with its large, oak-planked table, and headed toward a door in the back. Under my breath, I said to Tryphena, "I'm glad we didn't know about this beforehand. I never would have had the courage to come here."

"Nonsense," replied Tryphena firmly. "You're the Lieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol. More to the point, you're Lord Carle's old friend. Of course he will want to see you again."

So she said, but she tugged in a nervous manner at her gown, which was too tight on her because she was already expecting our second child. I had not yet found the money for the fleece she needed to make her new gown.

We arrived at the library doorway. I hesitated under the porter's final, disapproving look. Then I walked over the threshold.

The final rays of daylight were streaming through the dozen windows along the library wall. The blood-red glow of the day's death matched the coloring of the man who stood by one of the desks. Silver hairs were scattered now among the copper of Carle's beard, and new channels of age scarred his face, but the faint, crooked smile on Carle's face was just as I remembered.

He said, without moving from his place, "It is a pleasure to see you again, lieutenant. Until a few minutes ago, if anyone had asked me  whether you still lived, I would not have known what to tell him."

I hesitated at the doorway, unsure whether my memory was right in telling me that Carle would not have stood motionless when he greeted a friend fourteen years ago. Certain parts of my slave's training I had found impossible to abandon. Now I answered him with the same caution I still showed in my movements. "I am honored that you are willing to meet with me again after all this time, Lord Carle. I was unaware that you had been elevated in rank, or I would not have presumed to call upon you."

"Lieutenant!" Carle roared in a manner I remembered well. "What nonsense are you talking? 'Honored'? 'Presumed'? Heart of Mercy, man, I would have sold my rank to the nearest bidder to have this chance to see you again. What have you been doing for fourteen years that you have suddenly become deferential toward your closest friend?"

Unable to reply directly to his question with the suddenness that it demanded, I turned quickly to the side, saying, "Carle, may I present my wife Tryphena?"

Carle took in the dark-skinned woman in one glance. With the charm he occasionally poured forth without effort, he said, "Here is the appropriate place to speak of honor. Madam, it is an honor to meet the lieutenant's wife. I look forward to becoming better acquainted." He nodded his head but did not offer the free-man's greeting. Even as a bottom-ranked soldier, Carle had always paid strict attention to protocol, so I knew that this was not intended as an insulting reminder of our lesser status.

Feeling more at ease, I said, "And this is our son, Quentin-Griffith."

Carle raised one bushy eyebrow as he came over to look at the infant, now sleeping peacefully in Tryphena's arms. "So you inflicted your name on him?"

"I'm afraid so," I said, smiling. "And already he wants to scramble over all the rocks in our village, so I fear that he is fated to become a patrol guard some day. Besides, our neighbors took it for granted that Quentin son of Quentin would pass on the legacy of his name."

"You're using your name these days?" said Carle. "I wondered, after the porter's announcement. What reconciled you to it?"

I turned to tuck Quentin-Griffith's blanket around one outstretched leg. "The realization of what it would be like to live without a name," I said in a low voice.

I turned back finally, wondering what Carle would make of these words. But apparently he had lost some of his inquisitiveness over the years, for he merely said, "This is no place in which to talk. We'll have that sour-faced porter in here at any moment, glaring at me because I'm preventing him from locking up for the evening. Can the three of you stay the night, Quentin? I have an overabundance of space in my quarters, about which I have regular attacks of guilt. I would be delighted to put my guest chamber to use for once."

I hesitated, looking at Tryphena, but she had apparently already formed an opinion of my old friend. "How could we pass up a chance to stay in a council lord's chambers? The women in our village will tear me to pieces unless I supply them with every detail of how a lord decorates his quarters."

Carle laughed as he ushered us out of the library and back through the Council Chamber. "I decorate my quarters with the haphazard touch of a lifelong bachelor," he told Tryphena. "I do not, alas, have anyone with your good sense of color to tell me how to decorate."

Apparently wary of a random compliment, Tryphena asked, "How do you know I have a good sense of color?"

"Well, either you do or your husband does. One of you picked that rich shade of cloth that goes so well with your coloring."

Tryphena stared down a moment at the peasant-brown gown she was wearing before saying, her voice neutral, "You have a gift for flattery, Lord Carle."

"On the contrary, I have a gift for abuse," Carle replied. "Any palace dweller will tell you that. Hence you may be sure that any compliment which I bestow is wholly sincere. Have you been to the palace before, madam?"

She smiled and shook her head. By now, we were walking down the corridor that led to the Court of Judgment. Occasionally, we passed men who lived in the palace and had therefore not returned to the city for the night. They cast startled glances at us as we crossed paths. I offered up a silent prayer in hope that our tattered appearance was not bringing shame upon Carle.

If such thoughts were passing through Carle's mind, I knew better than to think that he would express them. Instead, he said as we curved round the Court of Judgment, now closed for the night, "I would take you to see the Chara, Quentin, but I believe that he is absorbed tonight in trying to make sense of some spying reports he has just received from Koretia. I know he will receive a headache from looking through them. I say that because I too will be forced to pore through them – for in lieu of a better man, I have become the council's authority on that dominion."

I cast a quick glance at Carle, who was staring straight ahead. "You must find that difficult."

"My work is of some use to the Chara. That is what matters. There you may see the Chara's quarters." He pointed toward the guarded door along the corridor, for the benefit of Tryphena. "The chamber next door belongs to his son, young Lord Peter. We just passed the council clerk's quarters, and here are the court summoners' quarters."

"What is that door?" Tryphena asked, pointing toward an impressive, metal-banded door further down the corridor.

"That leads to the slave-quarters," Carle replied briefly.

There followed such a long silence that I felt compelled to break it by saying, "I don't remember guards in front of it the last time I visited."

"The Chara commanded that the palace slaves be locked in during the night," Carle replied. "We were having problems with runaways. —Here are my rooms." He swung open the door and nearly stumbled over a boy kneeling on the floor inside.

The boy was of about age ten. He stared up at us for a brief moment before lowering his eyes once more. Before he did so, I caught a quick glimpse of a dark face, rigid in its lack of expression. Then the boy carefully moved a water bowl out of Carle's path and continued scrubbing the floor.

Carle would have moved past without comment, but I quickly asked, "This is one of your servants?"

Carle's gaze flicked toward me. He replied, "Yes, one of my Koretian servants. His name is Andrew."

At the sound of his name, Andrew rose with unhurried motions to his feet, bowed toward Carle, and then stood silently, his eyes still lowered.

Feeling Tryphena slip her hand under my arm, I did my best to tear my gaze away from the slave-boy. Carle was saying, in a quiet voice that seemed to be restraining some strong emotion, "It is past your dinnertime, Andrew. Go to your food now, and you can finish this in the morning."

Andrew bowed without replying and stooped to pick up the bowl. As Carle turned to lead the way down a short passage, the boy looked up. Although his face remained expressionless, I saw in his eyes a blaze of cold fire that seemed more dangerous than any dagger-thrust. A shiver ran through me as I looked over at Carle's unprotected back; then I concentrated my thoughts on Quentin-Griffith, who had awoken and was crying once more.

Carle and Tryphena were maneuvering through a complicated series of negotiations; the final settlement was that Tryphena would go to the guest chamber to nurse Quentin-Griffith while I joined Carle in his study chamber.

This chamber proved to be a comfortably furnished sitting chamber with a writing-table and a book-lined wall. Near the southern window stood a small table containing a wine tray. Carle lifted the pitcher, saying, "Henry is at his dinner now, so we'll serve ourselves. I hope you still like wall-vine wine."

I took the cup from his hand. As he poured himself a cup, I said, "Is it so obvious that I've been living in Koretia?"

"Not at all, but your borderland accent seems to have shifted south somewhat. Is that where you're living now?"

I shook my head. "I'm a field hand in a village not far from my old family home – you remember the village where Devin grew up? When we went there to see whether he survived the patrol, we found that he and his family had moved away after his retirement from the army; however, the baron in the village was willing to hire me for field work. Tryphena and I have been living there for the past two years. I'm sorry that I didn't visit before, but it has taken us some time to get settled."

"Yes, I imagine that starting out in a new place can be hard," said Carle with an easiness which revealed that he had already ascertained my poverty and was untroubled by it. "Is your wife Koretian, or did you meet her on this side of the border?"

I hesitated, balancing my cup on my knee. I was seated where Carle had indicated I should sit, in a luxuriously-cushioned chair with gold-etched carvings on its back. It was less the richness of the room than the continued reserve of Carle's manner that caused me to show caution once more. "She's a borderlander like myself. Tell me, when did you receive your elevation?"

I asked this only to confirm the date I already suspected, having remembered by this time Somerled's description of the clever junior-most lord. The briefest of hesitations followed before Carle said, "I joined the council six years ago."

I waited silently until Carle grinned and added, "You're still the best man I know at reading thoughts, lieutenant."

"So when did you become a senior lord?" I asked.

"Just this spring, and I'm still embarrassed about it. I'm far too young for the honor. I don't know what the High Lord was thinking when he elevated my rank."

I took a sip of my native wine before saying, "He was probably thinking that you know more law than any other man in this land, save the Chara. I'm willing to wager that you'll be High Lord some day."

Carle dismissed the idea with a wave of the hand. "I'm more likely to die from overwork. By all the laws, the dominion problems alone are enough to make me seek an early grave. How can we draw a land into our empire, bring peace to its people by eliminating their blood feuds, win praise from its inhabitants by freeing their nobles' much-abused slaves, and yet still have no success in capturing that rebel-leader, the Jackal?"

I was silent in reply, thinking of the day during the previous year when I had heard of the abolishment of slavery in Koretia. I had spent all that night imagining every spirit-living slave I had known emerging from his mask and regaining his voice and name.

Carle's voice turned suddenly soft. "What is on your mind, Quentin?"

It was an opening, but something about the guarded expression on Carle's face caused me to be wary once more. "I was thinking about your slave-servant Andrew. I may be wrong, but I think I once bumped into him in the Koretian capital."

"Really?" Carle leaned back in the chair he had taken beside the hearth, empty of fuel on the summer evening that chilled me only because I had spent so long in the south. "I suppose you would call that fate. Yes, he does come from Koretia's capital; that much I learned when I bought him, though he has been close-mouthed about his past. I swear, Quentin, he is the most stubborn, insolent servant I have dealt with in my entire life. I try to make allowances for the fact that he came here as a wartime captive – he was captured during the attack on the capital – but he shows no interest in taking advantage of what good fortune exists in his present situation. I've attempted to show him how willing obedience can ease his discomfort at being away from his native land, but he is blind to all my lessons, however gently administered. I ought never to have bought him. I saw from the moment I met him that he was a bloodthirsty, barbaric dog, just like the worst Koretians always are."

It took me a moment to formulate a reply to this sudden return of Carle's old prejudice. Finally I asked, "What prompted you to buy him, then?"

Carle rose abruptly and went over to the wine stand in order to pour himself another cupful. With his back to me, he said, "He had taken a blood vow to murder."

I tried to read the angle of Carle's spine but failed. "Like Adrian, you mean?"

Carle did not turn. His voice drifted quietly through the open window in the direction of the border mountains. "I'd rather not talk about the past."

I was caught into silence. This, then, was the meaning of Carle's new reserve. This was how Carle had finally chosen to resolve the anguish of Adrian's death: to thrust it from his consciousness, to bury low all strong emotions, and to bind himself in a tight-roped restraint from showing any of his deeper feelings. As Carle turned, I saw what I had not recognized before: his face was donned with a mask invisible to all but those who had known what he was like before.

I said, with a flat finality that expressed the decision I had come to, "I suppose that pasts are better left unexplored."

Carle's eyes examined my face in a manner that gave me a sudden wave of nostalgia. Carle had called me skilled at reading thoughts, but during his years in my unit, it was always he to whom I had turned when I wanted to know whether a border-breacher was speaking the truth. Now, as he watched me with that same penetrating gaze, he said, "The Koretians in particular have a great deal of past from which they should turn their minds, but I confess that I have on occasion heard of Koretians whom I thought worthy of praise. I have often wanted to have the honor of meeting one of the Reborn."

I sat with my head bowed, staring at the floor as Andrew had done, and wrapping my ringless hands one around the other. Carle's soft voice said, "But perhaps I should not have raised the subject."

"No." My voice was too low; I tried again. "No, I'm glad that you know. How did you guess?"

Carle crouched down on the floor beside me so that I was forced to meet his eyes. "Your remark about having no name gave the confirmation to my suspicions. As I told you, I'm the council's authority on Koretia, and so I know one of the ways in which men living there obtain facial scars."

I said nothing, feeling my tongue weigh heavily in my mouth. Carle asked with kindly matter-of-factness, "How long were you a slave?"

"Eleven years."

I had not often seen Carle looked shocked, but for a flicker of a moment, his eyes widened and his mouth parted. Then he steadied his expression and said, "Lord Somerled."

Now it was my turn to look surprised. "How did you know who my master was?"

Carle rose to his feet and went over to the hearth, where he picked up the fire iron and began digging at the costly rug beneath our feet. "Because, Quentin, the Chara has good spies. If the Koretians had not held to that barbaric custom of stripping slaves of their names, I would have known of your predicament and gone to Koretia to rescue you with my own hands. We received a report five years ago about a man who was one of the Living Dead and whose spirit still lived after a lengthy period of time – is that how the phrasing goes? I confess that I have never quite understood what happened to Koretian slaves, but I know enough to gather how few of them possessed enough strength to reach the point of being released to freedom. Many of my fellow lords were astonished when I proposed the vote to abolish slavery in Koretia; they knew I would not countenance such an action in Emor. But I have never in my life heard of such cruelty as that which was shown toward the Living Dead. We assumed that the long-lived slave, if he had managed to survive, had died in the fire at the time that our army took the capital. I am relieved to learn of his actual fate."

"I am sworn to secrecy about the manner in which I received my freedom," I said, "but it was by lawful means."

Carle showed his crooked smile. "Quentin, I would never contemplate your doing anything that might go against the law. And now I see how seriously you took the words you spoke to me when last we met. You are a model for all Emorians."

I hesitated; then I decided that the words would please him, even if he did not acknowledge what I said. "I had my own model to help me in my task. I remembered what Adrian had done."

Carle swung his eyes away from me. For a moment, I thought that he would not reply. Then he said in a low voice, "Yes. If ever I am in serious trouble, I too will think of what he did." He turned hastily toward the door. "We have abandoned your wife, Quentin. Let us seek her out so that she can give me her opinion of my guest chamber's decor – and perhaps enlighten me somewhat on the mysteries of the Koretian mind. In that way I can combine leisure with duty in a most pleasurable fashion." He opened the door, and I followed him out of the study chamber, listening with pity as he used words to disguise his self-imposed silence.

o—o—o

The guest-chamber window, which faced east, was still dim with dawn the next morning when I pinned my wooden brooch to my tunic. The brooch depicting the Jackal's mask was a wedding present from Griffith, the only belonging he had been able to give me before the Emorian soldiers descended upon Drugo's manor, and we were forced to flee in opposite directions. Griffith had departed in the direction of Emlyn, who had married Tryphena and me before slipping away to start his journey south. Tryphena and I had departed north by way of a window.

Tryphena, who had uttered only to the gods any worries she held about her brother, was now leaning over the bed, tying a fresh breech-cloth onto Quentin-Griffith. She said, "What enormous quarters Carle has. This chamber alone is as big as our house."

I was leaning out the window, trying to discover whether I could sight the border mountains from this vantage-point. An autumn breeze entered the room as I withdrew my head to ask, "Do you remember the story I told you about the High Lord assigning Carle's new quarters in accordance with the rank he expected Carle to achieve? Carle's free-servant Henry told me last night that these are the quarters that Carle was given. They're directly across from the High Lord's rooms and are identical in every respect. That shows where Carle will be in a few years."

"He must be a very busy man." Tryphena lifted Quentin-Griffith up for my inspection. I took the fingers that my son proffered.

"No busier than a field hand," I said with a smile. "But we agreed that we'll visit each other whenever we can."

"I'm glad of that. Carle is just as charming and kind as you told me he would be. He hasn't changed much, I suppose."

"Not as much as I feared," I said, clipping my battered dagger-sheath and its blade to my belt. "He says that I have changed greatly. He told me that he had never known I was capable of smiling and laughing so much. I replied that love brings about miraculous changes, and I recommended the practice of marriage to him."

Tryphena stepped over and placed her palm against my scarred cheek. "It isn't just marriage that changed you."

"No." I pulled her hand over to my lips so that I could kiss the back of her fingers. "But I didn't have to say that to Carle; he could see that for himself. I can't help wonder: If I'd stayed here in Emor fourteen years ago, perhaps I would have travelled the same route that Carle has: growing slowly more reserved, slowly more dissatisfied with myself and everything around me. Enslavement has one great benefit: once you remove your mask, you never again want to shield yourself in such a way."

"There's still hope for Carle," said Tryphena.

"Oh, yes. Maybe more so, now that I'm back. As far as I can tell, Carle's only friend is the Chara, and from what I've heard, the Chara is even more reserved than Carle. It must be something about the air in this palace. I had better go tell Carle that we are fleeing, before the air infects us as well."

Tryphena's laughter followed me to the doorway, but she had turned her attention back to Quentin-Griffith by the time I closed the door behind me. I stood for a minute, blinking in the light of the passage that connected Carle's chambers. To the right of me, the passage continued on until it reached a wall; in this wall was set a window that let in bright sunshine from the south. The southern half of the passage held Carle's study-chamber door, and in front of this door, a confrontation was taking place.

Carle was speaking so softly to the slave-boy that it took me a moment to adjust my hearing back to the level at which I once used it in the patrol guard. I used that moment to take in the scene before me: Andrew, standing rigid with his back to me, facing the end of the corridor. Carle, standing to one side, his legs covered in water. And on the floor between the two of them, the overturned water bowl.

"Let me see if I understand you correctly," Carle was saying. "You skipped your morning meal with the other slaves because you wanted to finish your work here. Then you came here and placed your bowl directly in front of the door to the chamber in which I was working, and in which you must have known I was working, because Henry left here a short while ago. Well, let us just assume that your love for me is so great that you wished to be as close to me as possible. Then, hearing me call for Henry and walk toward the door, you left the bowl where it was and moved out of the way so that I would not see you when I walked out and would promptly step in the water. This, I assume, is what you Koretians would define as serving your master with loyalty."

I stood where I was, as frozen and silent in my position as the slave, for there had crept onto Carle's face as he was speaking an expression I knew well, though it was many years since I had seen it. It was Carle's crooked smile, but it was a dark version of that smile – a chilling, sadistic look.

It was his father's smile.

Still speaking softly, Carle said, "Perhaps you think, because I have already gelded you, that no other punishment I can give you will cause you pain and that you are therefore free to torment me as you please. Let me strip you of that illusion." Carle's cold smile deepened as he continued. "I understand that Henry persuaded the palace slave-keeper to assign you your own room in the slave-quarters. The reason for this is not clear to me, but I assume that it may have something to do with your excessive bodily modesty. Tonight you will move into the chamber where my other slave-boys are kept, and from now on, you will sleep alongside them and bathe alongside them, so that all the other slaves will be able to see what you are. Perhaps their witness will remind you of what you seem to have forgotten: I did this to you so that you would know who your master is, and that I hold the power of life and death over you. . . . Now go fetch a rag to clean up this mess."

Andrew bowed stiffly without looking Carle's way and immediately turned. I took a step backwards, but the slave kept his eyes lowered as he walked past me toward the corridor door, and Carle was too angry to notice my presence. As the corridor door shut softly behind the slave-boy, Carle turned and walked back into the study chamber, slamming the door as he went.

I waited a suitable interval. Then I walked down to the study chamber and knocked at the door. At Carle's shout of invitation, I entered the room.

Carle was sitting in his chair, wiping his legs dry with a face-cloth. As he looked up, he smiled. "Good day to you, Quentin. I've just sent Henry for some food. I hope that you and Tryphena can break your night's fast with me."

"I wish that we could, but we need to go down to the city and see whether we can find a peddler to take us home, since we missed our ride last night. My baron was unhappy when I asked leave to miss work yesterday. If I miss all of today's work as well, I may be looking for a new position."

"I must admit that I am crowded by work as well." Carle stood up and walked over to his writing table, which was now piled with stacks of paper. "These arrived this morning: the Chara's spying reports from Koretia, which he gave to the High Lord, and which the High Lord promptly flung into my arms. I'll be busy all morning." He reached over and touched a sheet of paper that was sitting atop one of the piles. I could see glinting on his right hand the seal-ring he had inherited from his father. "I did take the time, though, to go over to the council quarters this morning and check our records on the final attack on Koretia. As you can imagine, we weren't able to track the fate of every inhabitant of the capital, but we made an effort to find out what had happened to the council lords and those who had worked for them. I'm sorry to say that your friend Kester is listed among those who died in the fire."

He spoke just as softly as he had a few minutes before, and he watched me with gentle eyes. With effort, I kept my voice steady as I said, "At least he was not enslaved; that was my greatest fear. And his last day was spent risking his life for the sake of another, so I'm sure that the gods will reward him for that."

Annoyance crossed Carle's face briefly, as it had always been when anyone mentioned the Koretian religion to him. In an apparent attempt to disguise this, he turned and began moving the papers. As he did so, he uncovered a small, open box holding an object in it. The morning light, which was beginning to stream through the window, leapt onto the object. The light broke into a dozen fragments.

Seeing where I was looking, Carle said, "You remember this, don't you? My infamous royal emblem brooch, which almost got me killed? I kept it to pass on to my son; it's an heirloom, after all, and it shows my family connection with the line of the Charas. But since it seems unlikely that I'll ever find the time to marry and raise a family, I'd been thinking of giving it instead to Lord Peter, since the Chara To Be can wear the royal emblem. The trouble is that I haven't yet had the opportunity to meet privately with the Chara's son and see whether he would welcome such a gift."

I moved the box slightly so that I could see the gold brooch better. As I did so, the shadow of the Koretian spying reports fell over the brooch. I said, "Your father used this to try to kill you, didn't he?"

"Did he? I'd forgotten that; he died so long ago."

I looked over at Carle. He was standing by the hearth, whose last embers from the evening before were slowly dying. Carle was trying to readjust his own silver honor brooch. After a moment's struggle, he gave up in frustration and flung the brooch to one side.

"We talked about it the last time we met," I said.

"So we did. What a memory you have, Quentin. Well, we'll have more pleasant topics to discuss in the future, I dare say. I'll let you know ahead of time when I can come visit."

I stood where I was, under the heat of the morning sun, feeling a trickle of sweat begin to make its way down my face. Reaching up to wipe it away, I said, "I remember that conversation quite well, since it was the last one we held. I remember you told me that your father used to mutilate his slaves in order to demonstrate his power over them."

Having said this, I found that all of my much-lauded courage deserted me. I turned my gaze toward the brooch, lying in dark shadow.

After a while, the silence had extended long enough that I felt obliged to lift my eyes once more. It was with no surprise, but with a sickening sense of inevitability, that I found that Carle was wearing his dark smile again.

He said softly, "I am glad to see, lieutenant, that during your years in Koretia you did not neglect the most important duty of an expatriate, which is to adopt the customs of one's new land. The Koretians, I noticed long ago, have a special talent for treachery and back-stabbing."

I stared at Carle mutely. Perhaps my expression caused Carle to drift his gaze away from mine. Or perhaps it was simply that, being an authority in Koretian customs, he knew what action would hurt me the most.

Staring fixedly at a point beyond me, Carle said in a vaguely disinterested voice, "I won't keep you, lieutenant. I'm sure that you and your sweet Koretian wife are eager to return home."

I knew that it would do no good to speak the words, but I said, "We'll try to visit again soon."

"Oh, I wouldn't bother to do that," Carle said lightly, still looking beyond me. "I think you would find that you had trouble in getting past the inner-wall guards next time. In any case, I think that you and I have said all that we need say to each other."

I looked at Carle's face, as hard and rigid as that of the slave-boy he had punished. All of my sickness was replaced by a tremendous surge of pity. "If that is how you feel, Lord Carle," I said quietly, "but you will always be welcome in my home."

For a moment, I thought that I had broken past Carle's concealed barrier. Then Carle stepped forward. As though I were not there, he began leafing through the papers on his writing table. I waited a minute more, but he did not look up, and so I turned and left him in his silent isolation.

o—o—o

I had not counted on Tryphena being so angry. It was all I could do to keep her from attacking Carle with my free-man's weapon.

"But he told you to warn him. He asked you fourteen years ago to tell him if he was becoming like his father!"

I motioned to Tryphena to lower her voice. "Then he's all the more to be pitied that he has travelled to the point where he can no longer be reached. He's driving me away in the same manner that his father drove away his children. Now I understand why Carle has no friends in the palace, aside from the Chara. Perhaps the Chara or someone else may be able to help him; he is lost to any assistance I can give him."

"By the gods of day and night!" Tryphena was not placated; she continued to pace around the room. "That you should have undergone all that you have, only to have him treat you like this."

I leaned back against the wall and said, "Come look at me."

She came immediately, as she always did when I sought this reassurance. We held each other closely and stared into each other's eyes. After a while, I said quietly, "Despite what the Jackal said, I've continued to wonder why I suffered all that I did; I've wondered what small task he wished me to undertake that could only be accomplished by my enslavement. I still don't know and probably will never know. But I wonder whether it's connected in some way with this slave of Carle's. It seems too great a coincidence that we should meet again like this. That was another reason I said what I did to Carle: I wanted to try to help Andrew. Somehow our fates must be bound together."

"Then you've forgotten how Kester helped you," Tryphena replied, resting her head upon my shoulder. "He didn't go to Lord Somerled and urge him to treat you better; he knew that would do no good. He helped you find the strength you needed to endure your trial."

I kissed her head. "You are much wiser than I am. Well, I have made my mistake, so now we must leave. Do you think we can remove Quentin-Griffith from here quietly? I don't want to put Carle's patience to any further tests."

Tryphena turned and scooped Quentin-Griffith off the bed, murmuring soft words to try to keep him from crying. I picked up from the bed the toy mountain cat I had made for my son, and he took the cat into his arms with a satisfied gurgle. Then I held the guest-chamber door open for Tryphena, stepped into the passage after her, and stopped.

To the right of us, kneeling under the passage window, was the slave-boy. He did not look up; he was intently and thoroughly scrubbing the floor, having placed himself as far as possible from his master's reach. Tryphena put her hand on my shoulder, pulled herself up onto tiptoe, and whispered in my ear, "I'll wait for you in the corridor." Then she and the baby left, and I walked over to stand in front of the boy.

After a while, it became clear that he knew I was there, but he did not look up, any more than he had looked up the night before until his duty required him to do so. I found myself wondering what atrocity this young boy had committed that had caused Carle to make him a eunuch. Then I remembered what the greatest sign of insolence was that a slave in Emor could show, and I realized why it was that Andrew was reluctant to raise his eyes anywhere close to a free-man's.

I caught a glimpse of his face as he bowed over his work. It was as rigidly expressionless as before, but I could read in his eyes the pride that had caused him to clash with his equally proud master. A boy like this would not accept gifts; he would not allow himself to be indebted to anyone. The only way in which I could help him was to speak on the subject I never spoke of except to Tryphena, and to let the boy know of my debt to him.

I walked over and knelt in front of him, ignoring the water under my knees as I said quietly, "You and I have met before. It was on the day of the fire. You spoke to me when I was masked."

I had depended on him remembering that day clearly. The suddenness with which his head jerked up told me that I had been right. He stared up at me, as he had done two years before. This time neither of us looked away. After a while, I added, "My spirit was close to dying that day. Your words saved me. I could not have been reborn without your help."

For a while, he remained silent. Then he said in a low voice, "My blood brother once told me that even slaves can serve the gods. But I don't know how to help my god, now that I'm dead."

He spoke with a bluntness that raised his words above self-pity. He was seeking, not my sympathy, but my advice. I said, "Your spirit still lives."

He nodded. "I tried to let it die after Lord Carle— After he bought me. But the god made me return to the Land of the Living. I've never known why. I've never known what it is that the Jackal wants me to do for him."

I saw then how I could offer the boy my help without making it seem that I was helping him. "The gods guide this world through human thoughts and emotions," I said. "If you want to help your god, figure out what it is that you love most and hold to that love. If you can do that – if you can remain faithful to your love through whatever you suffer – then you will be serving the god."

There was a rustling sound behind us. Andrew's gaze switched rapidly to the passage behind me; then he bent over his work again. I looked around, but Carle had not entered the passage. Since I had said all that I had to say, I stood up and began to walk away. I had not gone far before a soft voice said, "Sir!"

I looked back. Still kneeling where he had been before, Andrew stared up at me as he said, "You had better not speak to me again. Lord Carle might be angry at you. He doesn't like it when I talk to people of higher ranks."

"I won't put us in danger again," I assured him quietly. "May the gods watch over you, Andrew."

I turned and walked to the north end of the passage, but once there, I could not resist looking back again. The slave-boy had abandoned his work and was standing to look out of the southern window. His face was hidden from my view, but I could tell from the tilt of his head that he was looking past the city to what lay beyond: the tiny border villages and the great black border mountains which stand between Emor and Koretia. A storm-shadow lay over that part of the land, so that it was as dark as night, but sunlight continued to stream over the body of the slave-boy.

I turned and left Andrew to his silent longing. Then I stepped into the sunlit corridor where Tryphena and our child awaited me.