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Blood Vow

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Blood Vow 1
THE GODS' LAND
 

CHAPTER ONE

I had searched half the mountainside before I found him where I did not expect him, sitting in the window of the gods' house. I had come to tell him, in the cheerful manner boys have, that our world was about to be destroyed. My announcement came true sooner than I would have expected, and that was the day when I lost all that was dear to me and was forced to hide within a mask I later found I could not remove. I remember that day most clearly, though, because it contained the moment at which I first placed myself under the care of a master who was already present but whom I did not yet know.

I stood for a long time, looking up from the steep slope below the gods' house, unable to believe what I saw. To a stranger from a foreign land, perhaps, the sight would have seemed quite ordinary. The window in which he sat was low and broad, like all Koretian windows, though otherwise the building was unlike those in our capital nearby. Like the modern priests' house, this ancient house of worship was made of stone, a building material that always seemed odd to my eyes, living as I did in a city of wattle-and-daub homes. The trees that covered the north side of the mountainside – and covered every bit of Koretian countryside, as far as I could tell from my mountainside perch – obscured most of the crumbling facade, but I could tell that some pious and very brave man had decided in recent centuries to restore the wooden door at the building's entrance.

I stood a while in indecision. I was brave, but I would not ordinarily have been foolhardy enough to trespass on the gods' forbidden territory. The figure in the window, though, was a challenge to me, and since I never allowed him to go unprotected into danger, I decided that if the gods were going to strike him down for his deed, they would have to confront me first.

I raced up the mountainside, waiting until the last minute to dodge each tree, simply for the thrill of the danger. Then I stopped at the entrance and cautiously opened the door.

A corridor ran left and right of me, well lit from the summer afternoon sun casting forth its glow through the corridor's windows. Whichever man had restored the entrance door had also taken the trouble to restore the doors to the priests' cells, but several of these were open. As I walked by, I peered in boldly to see what I would find. I was disappointed to discover that the windowless rooms were not much different from those in the present-day priests' house. Oh, small differences existed. A tiny hole was cut in the ceiling of each room, just above a shallow pit for the central fireplace. These cells, I had been told in the past, did not possess the modern hypocausts that Emorian engineers had installed in the priests' house the year before, which had caused half the city pilgrims to cease visiting the house during the installation, lest they be contaminated by contact with our enemy. The only other objects in this cell were a small stone ledge against the wall, which could serve as a table, and a man-sized stone slab on which one could place a pallet. This made the gods' house look luxurious in comparison with the unfurnished cells of the priests' house, lower below on the mountainside.

I had dulled my curiosity concerning the house's appearance – and incidentally sharpened my courage, since this did not seem to be so mysterious a building after all. I swaggered my way down to the left end of the corridor and paused at the open entrance to a large chamber.

This must have been the sanctuary in ancient times, but the altar had long since vanished, and all that was left were warped, wood-lined walls and the windowseat opposite the door. Though not the type of boy who was granted visions from the gods, I could nonetheless imagine vividly the room as it must have looked in the old days: priests in hooded brown robes surrounding the altar where the goat was bound, while over the sacrificial victim was poised a dagger held by the priest who spoke for the god. No – I corrected myself – for I had heard about the fearsome nature of the ancient rites. The priest was the god, taking on the god's powers for the length of the ceremony.

Then the vision vanished, and all that I could see was a boy sitting in a windowseat, staring intently at nothing I could see.

John was in his tenth year at this time, two years older than me. Our age difference had caused no breach between us – indeed, I was usually the leader of our expeditions, decreeing with the imperiousness of a king what we would do and how we would do it. John almost always meekly complied with my orders. The "almost" was a qualification I preferred not to think about, for his infrequent refusals invariably came with such composed self-assurance that I was the one who ended up feeling foolish.

He was dressed in the shapeless brown tunic that was worn by all of the orphan boys at the priests' house, which made me grateful for my own single, leaf-green tunic, lovingly woven by my mother, who managed to keep both of us alive by selling her weaves. Clipped at the left side of his belt, nearly hidden in the shadow of his body, was the leather sheath of his dagger. If I had been wearing such a dagger, I would have found it hard to keep my hands off it, but his own hands were loosely wrapped around his knee-bent legs, while his head was tilted back against the post of the window. He was looking at something, but the object of his witness was not in this room.

I felt a pang of loneliness bite into me, as I often did when John departed from me in this way. Without thinking about what I was doing, I reached my left hand toward the slingshot at my belt while my right hand dipped into my belt pouch for one of the smooth stones I stored there. For one glorious second I lined my shot toward John's head; then, at the last moment, I turned the aim of the sling and let the pebble fly.

The stone passed closer than I had intended, missing John's face by a hand's length. His body did not move, but he turned his head, startled out of his vision. Then he saw who sent the shot, and his expression relaxed.

"You'll kill somebody one of these days," he said soberly.

I laughed as I skidded my way up to where he was sitting. He gestured me onto the windowseat, as though this were his own house, and I said, landing with a bounce, "I wanted to see whether you would draw that dagger of yours."

A smile eased its way onto his face then, and he looked at me with open affection. "Not against you," he said.

His smile had a way of lighting up even his eyes, which otherwise looked solemn under his straight eyebrows. Like nearly all Koretians, he had dark hair and brown skin – light brown, since neither of us yet had the dark skin acquired after years of living under the scorching southern sun. But his eyes, rather than being brown or hazel, were completely black, like those of a mountain cat that is staring hard at its prey. The color always made it difficult for me to tell what he was looking at, and they made even more irritating his tendency to withdraw from conversation and stare at visions I could not share.

"John," I said, "why do you bother to carry a free-man's weapon if you're never going to use it?"

"It is dedicated to the Unknowable God, as I am," replied John. "My parents didn't leave any note with me telling the priests which god they wished to dedicate me to, but they did leave the dagger, so that must mean something. It's up to me to discover which god I'm meant to serve. Besides," he added, more to the point, "I might need the dagger for a blood vow."

I stared at the weapon hungrily and felt my palms begin to tingle. "May I hold it?" I asked.

I knew what his answer would be, but as always, he made me wait while he silently assessed my face. Then he carefully slid the blade out of its sheath and offered it to me, hilt first.

I took it tightly into my right hand, feeling the rough leather bands press patterns against my palm. The dagger was made of a single piece of iron; John had wrapped the hilt in blackened leather so that he could hold the dagger more securely. Now he folded his arms on top of his knees and watched as I leapt back onto the floor, thrusting the dagger at an imaginary opponent. For several minutes I practiced the lunges and feints and guards that the boy in the house next to mine had taught me during the previous year. In turn, I had taught those same movements to John as fair payment for the lessons he was giving me in how to perfect the Emorian and Daxion I'd picked up from travellers, as well as learning the older version of the Emorian tongue, used only in the imperial law documents and chronicles. Thus John now knew how to defend himself as well as any city boy, and I knew the languages of the Three Lands as well as any learned priest.

John was still watching me closely, so I reluctantly returned the weapon to its owner, saying, "I wish I had a blade like that."

"Why don't you?" John asked, slipping the dagger back into its sheath. "The priests don't like to see me carrying a dagger, but that's because I'll be an unarmed priest some day. There's no reason a boy your age shouldn't own a free-man's weapon. Can't your mother afford to buy you one?"

I sat down again, curling my legs up against my chest and resting my chin on my knees. "I asked her for a dagger last year. She said she didn't want me to carry a blade because I was too much like my father, unable to control my bloodthirst. She was afraid I would end up like him."

"But that sort of thing happens all the time," said John in a matter-of-fact manner. "Some Emorian soldiers who are escorting an ambassadorial party swagger into a tavern as though they've already conquered this entire land, they boast about how the Chara's armies will defeat the Koretian army, and the next you know there's a fight. Your father isn't the first soldier to lose his life in a sword-duel with the Emorians."

"It's more than that . . . ." I hesitated, my gaze firmly fixed now on a blood-fly that was crawling up John's leg. John would always ignore such attacks, as he would rather allow a small portion of his blood to be drained than to kill a creature without need. I felt my face grow warm, but John said nothing, and I knew that if I spoke of something else, John would never raise this subject again, never probe for my secret. So I said in a low voice, "My mother told me how my father really died. He was killed by an Emorian soldier, like I'd always been told, but not because they had been duelling. The soldier was exacting vengeance. My father had already killed another Emorian, one of the army clerks. The man was unarmed."

A light breeze leapt in through the window, blowing aside the fly that had just found its drinking-spot, and providing the first and last relief that day from the heavy, muggy heat. John said softly, "I'm sure the gods forgave him for that."

"I hope so," I whispered. Unable to bear my feelings, I jumped up and whirled my way into the corner of the room, where some of the ancient wood panelling was beginning to crumble. "Speaking of the gods' forgiveness, what sort of punishment do you suppose the gods will give us for invading their house?"

John shook his head as he unhurriedly rose from the windowseat. "I asked Lovell whether I could come here, and he said that only superstition kept people from visiting. He said that of course I must show reverence here, as I do at the priests' house, but that the gods won't strike down any pious person who comes here seeking their peace."

"Is that why you came here?" I asked, dancing my way around the perimeter of the room like a bird doing a mate-dance. "Just for peace? I would think you'd have enough of that in your monotonous life at the priests' house. Look at what your day is like! Up at dawn, worship, spend the morning with Lovell studying languages and healing and priests' rites, worship again, spend half your afternoon working in the crafts shop, and then spend a few hours free here on the mountainside or, if you're very good and study hard, maybe visit me down in the city. And after all that, there's more worship and more time spent reading books before you go to bed at midnight. Is that really how you want to spend the rest of your life?"

John bowed his head and scuffed the floor with his sandal, sending sun-specked bits of dust spiralling upwards like tiny beads of flame. He said softly, "I think I'd be a good priest."

"You'd be good at anything you did," I replied firmly. "You're skilled with your dagger – why don't you become a soldier like me, so that we can fight the Emorians together? That way, we'd never have to part."

John raised his head slightly, tilting it so that one eye peered up at me. "Actually, I'd been thinking about that today – about how we could find a way to see each other when we came of age. You'd be off travelling with the army most of the time, and I'd be busy offering sacrifices to the gods, so I thought it would be nice if we had a place all to ourselves that we could stay in whenever you visited the city."

"A house, you mean?" I said idly.

"Well, sort of a house." He leaned back against the wall and looked at me steadily with his night-black eyes.

I grasped his meaning in an instant and halted my roaming. "John! We couldn't— I mean, wouldn't the gods be angry?"

"Why should they be angry?" John replied calmly. "It's not as though the priests or other people worship here any more. If I were a god, I'd want my house put to good use rather than have it stand empty year after year. We could fix it up so that this was a chapel where I came to worship. There's a big room at the other end of the house; I think it was both a dormitory and a kitchen at one time, but it would be a perfect place for you to practice your blade-play."

"That's a strange pairing of activities," I said, laughing.

"Well, we're a strange pair. Besides, the gods are like that as well, both fierce and merciful. Look at the Jackal."

I bit my lip but could not keep a smile from creeping onto my face. "What is it?" John asked uneasily.

"Would you like to meet a god?" I replied, battling to keep myself from bursting with the news.

"Of course," he said with the serene confidence of a boy who had grown up amidst the terrifying rites of the priests. "Actually— It's silly, really." He began kicking his foot against the floor again.

"No, tell me," I urged.

He turned his head so that his face was shielded from the burning midsummer sky-blaze. His shadowed face turned nearly as dark as his eyes. "Actually, that's why I came here today. I suppose I'm as superstitious as the city folk, but I thought that if the gods ever visited this land, they'd come here, to their house. I thought maybe my god would be waiting for me here."

I was bouncing up and down on my toes now, unable to contain my secret any longer. "I know where to meet a god. I saw one today."

John stared at me, his eyes wide, but without the slightest mote of disbelief on his face. After a moment, he said, "The Jackal?"

I nodded, pleased that he had understood so quickly. "It must have been him – he was wearing the god's face, just like the stories say. He was dressed all in black and moved as quietly as a mountain cat. I was scared into stone," I confessed unabashedly.

"Did he speak to you?" John asked with a hushed voice.

I shook my head. "It happened in the entrance to the cave. I was just about to travel through our passage, because I thought you might be waiting for me there, but I heard somebody coming, so I hid in the passage and looked out, and there he was, slipping out of the main tunnel. He didn't look my way, but I suppose he must have known I was there. I mean, he's a god."

John tilted his head back against the wall and stared reflectively at the smoke-hole in the ceiling, located above where the altar had once stood. "Maybe not," he said hesitantly. "I asked Lovell once why the Jackal hasn't been able to drive the Emorians from Koretia. The Jackal has been in this land for twenty years, after all, and he has the god's powers. Lovell said he supposed that the Jackal must be limited in the ways he can use his godly powers, just as the gods limit the ways in which they interfere in men's lives. So perhaps the Jackal acts like an ordinary man most of the time. If that's the case, he may not have known that you were there."

"Then I'm sure he didn't know I was there," I said confidently. "I've taught myself to be quiet and stealthy – you need to know how to act that way when you're a soldier, so that you can creep up on the enemy. But don't you see? The Jackal has made his lair in the cave! If we went there, we could ask the Jackal to make us his thieves, and we could begin fighting the Emorians now, before we became men."

"But the Jackal has been up north, harassing the Emorians who have settled in the conquered portions of Koretia," John said, a frown creasing his forehead. "Why would he be here?"

"Perhaps the Emorians are going to attack the capital next," I said in a matter-of-fact manner.

John stood very still, his empty dagger-hand hanging next to his free-man's blade. Seeing his face, I said hastily, "Don't worry – if that happened, I'd protect you. I wouldn't let the Emorians kill you."

"They'd kill other people," said John in a strained voice. "They'd kill lots of people, and if the city was captured, the Emorians would win the war. People are saying that our army can't hold out any longer in central Koretia – that the only reason our subcommander is still fighting is to keep the Emorians from reaching the capital."

"Well, they won't," I said, hastily grasping for words that would reassure John and prevent him from worrying about the merciless Emorian soldiers. "I heard a trader talking last night who had just come back from the north. He said that our army is continuing to hold the Emorians back and that the Chara is furious, because he has been fighting this war for twelve years now, and his army still can't reach the capital. The Chara thought he had won the war when he killed our King last autumn, but even with no one on the throne, the King's Council has been able to keep the war going. So there's no way that the Emorians will be able to attack the city any time soon."

John's expression eased somewhat, but he said, "The Emorians could cut across the border from Daxis. There are gaps in the mountain range not far from here."

"Daxis won't allow Emor to do that," I said patiently, drawing closer to John to place a reassuring hand on his. John had been standing in the sun all this while, and his skin was moist with the sweat that clothed all of us in the south from spring to autumn. I closed my palm hard over his loose hand, as though I were wrapping my hand around a dagger hilt, and said, "Koretia has an alliance with Daxis that forbids the Daxions from allowing passage to the Emorian army. And anyway, we have border guards at the mountain gaps who would raise the alarm if the Emorians came near. So the Emorians can't attack through Daxis from the south or the west, and unless the Chara has suddenly acquired a navy, his soldiers can't attack from the eastern sea-coast. And our army is holding the Emorians back in the north. So you see, we're quite safe from being conquered by that godless ruler."

John still had misery scribed upon his face, so I added, "I heard a new joke about the Chara."

John smiled tentatively. "Tell me."

"The joke asks: Which god does the Chara worship? The answer is: Only himself."

John laughed then, a laugh I heard so rarely that I had come to welcome it like a cool breeze on a heat-snared day. He said, "I learned something about the Chara today too, during my lessons. I learned all of his titles."

"What kind of lesson is that?" I asked, moving to where I could stare through the window to the city below. From this vantage point I could see the haphazard cluster of timber-framed houses jammed into the tight noose of the block-and-mortar city wall. Toward the south end of the city, nearest to me, was the glowing face of the Council Hall, with its cavestone-paved courtyard shining like a gold piece under the sky's fire. Tiny figures moved back and forth over it like dust specks: lords or free-servants or slave-servants, going about their appointed tasks.

"It was a lesson in memorization. Listen to this . . ." John drew a deep breath and said, "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, Master of the Koretian Land."

"Master of the Koretian Land!" This infuriated me so much that I jerked out my slingshot and flung a missile wildly through the window at nothing in particular. A bird squawked in protest, but I could see, as it flew past the window, that it had only lost a few of its tail-feathers, so I was not disturbed.

"Master of the Koretian Land." I snorted. "The Chara will never be master to me or any other loyal Koretian, not even if he wins this war. Now that the King is dead, our land belongs only to the gods. I can't see why Lovell made you memorize such a ridiculous set of titles."

"I was asking him about the Chara," John said, staring so pointedly at my slingshot that I thrust it back under my belt. "Lovell says that the Emorian council gave the Chara that last title this spring in anticipation of the end of this war. Lovell thinks Koretia should become a dominion of the Emorian Empire – I wanted to know why."

"May the Jackal eat his dead!" I said, losing hold of my temper entirely. "How could Lovell say such a thing?"

John's breath whistled in. "You shouldn't swear such words," he said softly. "It's not wise to call down the god's vengeance without reason."

"I'm sorry," I said, instantly chastened, as I always was when John scolded me. Then, wishing to make reparation, I said, "Well, tell me – what did Lovell say?"

"He said that the Emorians would end the blood feuds – that in the conquered areas of Koretia, the Emorians have forbidden men from making blood vows to murder, and because of this, whole families aren't wiped out while fighting each other in feuds."

I creased my brow in puzzlement. "But what about when somebody breaks the gods' law and refuses to submit himself to his god's judgment? How can people avenge crimes without taking blood vows to kill the law-breaker?"

John leaned against the window jamb, folding his arms and cocking his head to one side. The long hair of his boyhood brushed against his shoulder. Already he was talking of having it cut and going through the coming-of-age ceremony several years early. Somehow I had not been surprised to learn that John was eager to become a man.

"That's what I don't understand entirely," he said. "It has to do with one of the Chara's titles: 'Judge of the People.' Apparently, in Emor, the Chara and a few other men working under him are given the right to decide whether men have broken the law and what punishment they should undergo."

"But that's awful!" I exploded. "The Chara isn't a priest – the gods don't tell him whether their laws are broken. When we take a blood vow to murder, we know that the gods will punish us if we break our vows or fulfill our vows against the wrong people, but what's to prevent the Chara from punishing the innocent or giving law-breakers harsh punishments just because he doesn't like them?"

"That's what puzzled me," John replied. "Lovell said it had to do with the law – not the gods' law, but Emorian law. But he couldn't explain to me how the Emorians have laws when they have no gods. Some day I'd like to learn more about the Emorians. Maybe they're not as evil as everyone says. Maybe our lands don't have to be fighting each other."

"That's—!" I stopped. A look of quiet stubbornness had entered into John's eyes that I recognized well. Knowing that I would not win any battle I now waged, I graciously admitted defeat. "I suppose there must be something good about the Chara and his people, or they wouldn't have conquered most of the Great Peninsula. But Daxis is still free, and so is Koretia, and we'll never let the Chara be our ruler. We don't need his law. We have our gods, and they watch over us. Like the Jackal," I added, impatiently prodding the conversation back to where it belonged.

"The Jackal," John murmured. I could see the glint of interest in his eyes.

"He'd make us his thieves, I'm sure he would," I said. "Wouldn't that be a treasuresome experience, speaking to the god and pledging ourselves to his service?"

"I wouldn't want to kill anyone," John demurred. "I'm not sure it's right to kill a man."

"I don't suppose all of his thieves kill Emorians," I said. "Armies have men who don't fight, and I imagine that the Jackal does as well. Maybe he needs doctors to tend his thieves' wounds – you're good at that, thanks to your training."

I could see enthusiasm fighting across John's face in an attempt to defeat uncertainty, so I said, "We could just ask him. If he didn't want us, we'd go away, but at least we would have the chance to talk to a god."

"Well . . ."

In that single word I read a slip into assent. I leapt toward the door, shouting, "I'll race you to the cave!" Without looking back, I darted from the sanctuary, charged out of the gods' house, and began running down the northern slope of Capital Mountain, toward the cave entrance.

o—o—o

The impact of my leather sandals striking the forest floor was the softest noise on the mountainside. That sound was cowed into submissive silence by the force of the cicadas' song, the ravens' hoarse cries, and the harrowing call of a jackal who had started his night-prowl early.

I passed a patrol on the way. The dozen soldiers were sitting on logs, chatting with each other as they ate a mid-afternoon meal. They greeted me in a friendly manner with fingers against heart and forehead, and then continued their talk.

They did not look eager to return to patrolling. I could not blame them. Because it had been centuries since the Daxion army had last invaded us, and since most Daxions who tried to breach the border did so at the gaps on either side of this mountain, the patrol guards' main duty on this mountain was to track the Jackal, who was periodically rumored to make his lair near the city. They might as well track a shadow on a moonless night.

Many minutes later, as I neared the clearing that led to the mouth of the cave, I glanced over my shoulder to see whether John was following. He was close behind, making no effort to overtake me. My brief look nearly caused me to tumble over a log, but with a crow of laughter I jumped over the obstacle, spreading my arms like wings as I soared through the air. Then, in a very few steps, I could see the cave entrance.

Like the rest of Capital Mountain, it was composed of a pale sandstone too soft to be used as building material. The main cavern, I knew, was made of a stone that glowed a soft gold – not through any power of its own, but because of the algae that grew upon it. "Jackal's fire" the alga was commonly called. Yet beneath the algae, the stone was golden as well, and reflected brightly when brought into sunlight. This golden stone had been used to construct the walls and courtyard pavement of the Koretian Council Hall, though it was so hard to remove from the cave walls that most of the glowing stone had been left in the cave where it formed.

I flung myself behind the ridge of rock that partly obscured the entrance on both sides, and then stood on tiptoe and peered over the ridge to watch John run the remaining ground with easy grace. As he reached me, I turned toward the main tunnel. After an eternity of winding, the tunnel would eventually reach the main cavern. But John caught hold of my sleeve and said, "Wait."

"Why?" I asked, trying to pull myself free. Then I saw his face and ceased to struggle.

He said quietly, "I thought about it more while we were running. The stories always say that the Jackal summons his thieves into service. I've never heard of a case where anyone came to him and begged to be taken into his service. The Jackal knows who we are and what we have to offer. If he wants us as his thieves, he'll let us know."

"But you said before that his godly powers might not tell him everything, so—" I stopped. John had made no protest at my words, nor even moved, but the look in his eyes made me feel uneasy. I said quickly, "You know best about such matters. But couldn't we just watch him?"

"Spy on the god?" John gave a relaxed smile. "You're braver than I am. I wouldn't want to face the hunting god with explanations if he caught me in such an act. Come on, let's go to the sanctuary."

I shrugged to hide my disappointment and followed John as he slipped through the boy-sized hole that was hidden in a shadow of the hollowed-out entrance area. The light-truant passage that lay beyond the hole was a shortcut to the main cavern, but we rarely used it as such. It was not safe to do so.

The land of Daxis lay to the west and southwest of Koretia, with the Daxions' capital city on the south side of the mountain. The cave – actually a series of caverns that had been carved through the mountain by men long ago – ran north-south from Koretia to Daxis.

Both lands could see the strategic importance of the cave. Both wanted the cave. Various skirmishes had taken place over the centuries to determine who claimed this territory. At present, at least in theory, the cave was divided between the two southern lands of the Great Peninsula, with guards posted in the middle to prevent crossings over the border.

It made no difference. Though the Daxion guards were skilled at keeping back genuine border-breachers, they had a tendency to turn a blind eye to men who wished to slip temporarily over the border from Daxis in order to cause trouble within the cave. As a result, Daxion troublemakers were wont to drill arrows into Koretians that they found in any part of the cave.

The Koretian border guards in this cave, frustrated at their inability to prevent a conspiracy between the Daxion border guards and the troublemakers, were rumored to have called for a larger force of guards at this border. But the attention of the King's Council had for some time been focussed on the far more important border between Koretia and Emor, which was slipping south day by day.

In the meantime, the arrow-drilling continued. So John and I would usually stop halfway down the passage in an area that John had christened the sanctuary: a small, round nook, like a bead on the string of the passage. It was located directly under a breach between the mountainside and the passage, and it therefore received a bit of the sun's light.

It was here I had first met John two years before, on a day when I discovered the passage entrance, too small for a man and therefore of interest to no one except myself. Or so I had thought, until I reached the sanctuary. Furious at finding my new hideout claimed, I had offered to fight John for possession of the site, but had been discouraged to find that he both refused to fight and refused to leave. I had therefore taken out my frustration by asserting one of my radical new beliefs – that men, like women, should marry upon coming of age, rather than waiting several years, as was customary for men.

My efforts to voice-duel with John were stymied, however, when I discovered he held the same view. I was further subdued when I learned he believed this, not because he wished to marry early like me, but because, as a future celibate priest, he was concerned with the welfare of the couples to whom he would minister.

Puzzled by this self-possessed boy, I had accepted his invitation to visit the priests' house. There I found that, while John was well liked by the other orphan boys, he was isolated from them by his priestly ambitions and therefore had no close friends. With the impulsiveness I inherited from both my hot-tempered father and my affectionate mother, I promptly placed John under my care, resolving to protect him against any troubles that might come his way. I explained this resolution to him immediately, not out of pride but so that he would know he had nothing further to fear. He had accepted my proclamation of mastership with quiet submission, but there had been a faint smile on his face I could not interpret.

Now, as we reached the bright, humid area of the sanctuary, John paused at the threshold with the same smile on his lips, and he whispered the words that priests speak to the gods when asking permission to enter holy ground. I waited impatiently behind him; I honored the gods, but I was not one to waste my time on customary demonstrations of respect. As the prayer reached its end, I jostled my way past him in order to kneel beside a pool of water that had collected from the morning's rain. Reaching down to dip my hands into the cool relief of the water, I paused to stare at my reflection, which I rarely saw. At the moment that I caught sight of myself, I had been chuckling inwardly at John's determination to worship the gods wherever he went, so the lines of my face were struggling to contain the laughter that poured out of my eyes and trembled upon my lips. I smashed the reflection in a gleeful assertion of my power; then I turned to look at John.

He was kneeling beside a small heap of twigs he had taken from a pile he maintained in this place. His tinderbox had been taken from his belt pouch, and he had just succeeded in sparking the flint. The kindle-light fell upon the twigs and started them smoking.

I waited until the tiny blaze was well under way and John had whispered the ritual words above his play sacrificial fire before I said, "That fire is the reason the Emorians haven't been able to conquer our land. The Jackal and the other gods aren't on the Chara's side; they would never allow the Emorians to win over us."

John, sitting cross-legged beside the fire, cupped his left hand briefly over the flame before snatching it back from the heat. "The ways of the gods are mysterious, but certainly the gods must watch over those who seek their protection. The Chara claims he can shield the Koretians against our enemies if we surrender, but the gods can protect us better than any man. Perhaps the Chara should spend less time fighting and more time building fires to the gods."

"Or building fires of any sort," I said with a laugh as I drew myself over to his side. "The reason the Chara hasn't won this war is that he doesn't know how to fight properly. What's the use of holding a battle over a town if the Chara leaves the town standing afterwards? Only a weakling would leave a town unburnt after he conquered it. No Koretian could fear an army commander who showed such mercy."

"I don't think they fight with fire in Emor," murmured John. He carefully extinguished with dust the last of the sacrificial flames, and then rose to his feet and stared with bowed head at where the fire had burnt.

I rose too and placed an arm around his waist, saying firmly, "Stop worrying. It won't happen."

John did not look my way. He said softly, "Will you promise me something? If the Emorians attack, and you're not in immediate danger, will you stay at your house? I don't want to have to search the entire city for you."

I gave him a reassuring squeeze before releasing him in order to twirl over to the opposite side of the small sanctuary. "I promise you, I'll stay where I am," I said. "If you get frightened at the priests' house, just come to me, and I'll take care of you."

John raised his head then. "It's not that. It's that people become separated in war. It could take us years to find each other again . . . and if one of us died, we'd be separated by death. We might not even recognize each other when we met again."

"That's silly," I said, speaking brusquely to cover my nervousness. "I'd know you even if we met in the Land Beyond."

"Maybe not." John pushed back a forelock of hair that sweat had plastered against his brow. "People change, you know. Maybe one day, years from now, you'll be working in the city as a soldier, and I'll have become a priest who ministers to the Emorians—"

"You wouldn't," I interrupted. "The Emorians don't worship the gods."

"Maybe they will by then. Perhaps I'll turn up at your door and speak to you with an Emorian accent because I've spent so long with the Emorians, and you won't recognize me as a result. So you'll say, 'I beg that you impart to me your name,' and I'll tell you who I am, but you won't believe me because I've changed so much, and since I work with the Emorians, you'll shut the door and refuse to welcome me into your house."

This dreadful little tale caused me to sag into such misery that I had no energy left with which to fight John's vision of the future. Watching my face, John said with the same quiet conviction, "I'll tell you what we should do. We should become blood brothers. That way, we'll always have the marks of our vows to remind us of one another, even if we never see each other again."

I lifted my eyebrows in surprise. "You didn't want to do that when I suggested it last year."

"I didn't think the time was right. I believe that you should wait for a sign from the gods before pledging your blood. You saw the Jackal today, so perhaps that's our sign. Do you remember the words?" He slid the dagger out of his sheath as he spoke.

I nodded eagerly. "Can we swear vows of service to the gods also? That would make it even better."

John was silent a moment, touching the tip of the dagger lightly with his finger. Then he said, "If we do that, I think we should offer a sacrifice. The gods have to help us keep our vows, and I don't think it would be right to ask their help with two vows unless we were willing to offer them a gift in return."

I smiled, hopping from foot to foot at the thought of making three blood vows at once. John stared beyond me for a moment, his eyes focussed at the darkness of the passage beyond. Then he placed the dagger tip against his right wrist, selected the spot that all Koretians are taught from the moment they are cradle-high, and bit the blade into his arm, digging deep enough to make a scar that would remain. As he did so, he said, "I, John, do swear unto the Unknowable God and my blood brother's god that I will show true faith of friendship toward Andrew son of Gideon, protecting him against all harm and helping him to keep his vows. I bind myself with this vow until death and beyond. I further swear that I will do all that lies within my power to bring peace to this land. In token of my willingness to obey the will of the gods . . ."

For the first time John hesitated. Then he said firmly, "I sacrifice unto the gods my desire to become a priest. If it be their will that I take up some other duty, I will do as they wish."

I stood in hushed silence, watching a flicker of pain pass through John's eyes as he offered his sacrifice. Then he smiled at me and handed me the blood-stained blade. Cutting into my left wrist with a stoic determination not to flinch, since even John had kept from doing so, I said, "I, Andrew son of Gideon, do swear unto the Jackal God and the Unknowable God that I will show true faith of friendship toward John . . ." I hesitated and looked over at John, but he gave a quick shake of the head. Unlike the other orphan boys, he had not randomly selected a patronymic, any more than he had randomly selected a god to serve. I continued, "Toward John, protecting him against all harm and helping him to keep his vows. I bind myself with this vow until death and beyond. I further swear that I will do all that lies within my power . . ." I paused. An idea had formed in my mind; rather than give myself time to doubt its wisdom, I finished quickly, ". . . to bring freedom to Koretia and to kill the Chara." I grabbed John's arm and pressed his wrist against mine so that our blood mingled and our vows were joined.

It was not until after John had gently pulled his arm away that I looked up at his face and realized what I had done. I offered him the dagger, hilt-first, and said, "You don't have to help me with that last part. That's just my own vow."

John looked at the blade without moving. "We'll have to kill the Chara To Be also."

"Who?" I asked, inwardly relieved that I would have help in fulfilling my difficult murder vow.

"The Chara's son, Lord Peter. The Emorians regard him as also being the Chara, since he's the heir."

"So we'll kill him too," I said testily, nonplussed at being burdened with a second murder. "It won't be that hard if we find them together."

"I suppose not," said John softly. "The Chara's son is only a boy."

Faintly above us, I could hear once more the eerie howl of the jackal as it closed in on its spoils. Angry at myself now for my impetuosity, I thrust the dagger forward once more and said, "Here. Clean it before the blood dries on the blade."

John searched my face with his eyes before saying, "You didn't finish the vow. You have to offer your sacrifice."

"Oh, that," I said carelessly. "I don't know what sort of sacrifice the god would like me to make, so I'll let the god choose whatever he wants. I'll give him anything I have."

John said quietly, "You ought not to make that sort of offer unless you mean it."

"I'm not afraid," I said with a laugh. I barely heard what I was saying; I was simply trying to hide my continued annoyance with myself at forcing my peacemaking friend to swear a murder vow. "I know that the god won't take anything from me that I truly need, and you may be sure I'll make good use of whatever he leaves me." I tossed the dagger into John's hands and then, since there was little room to move in the small passage, I twirled in one place like a bird caught within the vortex of a death wind.

When I finally stopped, clutching the wall to steady my dizzy body, I saw that John was smiling as he wiped the blade clean on his tunic. He said, "Let's go see the Jackal now."

"You mean it?" I bounced toward him in delight.

John nodded. "Not to offer him our service – just to tell him about our vows and how we made them because you saw him. He'll be pleased to hear that."

I did not wait for John to have doubts again but began to race down the dark passage toward the cave. I knew the passage so well that I could do this without fear of running into any obstacles. I had nearly reached the boy-sized opening that led to the final, shadowy stretch of the passage when John grabbed hold of me from behind and whispered, "Quietly! You can't burst into the god's presence like that. Pretend that you're a bottom-ranked soldier meeting your commander."

This image sobered me, so I followed John's lead as he wriggled through the hole and began walking quietly toward the golden light. Already I could hear the sound of men's voices. Before we had stepped out of the masking darkness, I stopped to stare at what lay ahead.

The glowing stone always filled the main cavern with dim light, but now the cavern was daylight-bright because a large bonfire had been built in the center of the area before us. The smoke, tickling our noses with the scent of pine needles, rose into the high ceiling, leaving the cave floor free of the dark mist.

There would hardly have been room for the smoke in any case, so close-jammed were the men. Dozens of them stood near us, all dressed in soldiers' armor and all going about their business with an efficient intensity. Their hurried yet steady movements reminded me of the visits I had made as a small child to where my father worked. There at the Koretian army headquarters I had watched soldiers burnishing their shields, whetting their blades, and securing their spearheads. Here too I could see all these activities, but with one difference. As I felt John draw close to me, I realized that he too had noted the difference: these men had skin the color of sandstone.

We had found the Emorian army.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

It was not the entire army, of course. Most of the Emorian soldiers must still be fighting in the north, fooling our subcommander into thinking that the Koretian capital remained safe from attack. What we were seeing, at a guess, was the Chara's vanguard, the section of the army that attacks first and swiftest. Only the vanguard could make its way down Daxis quickly enough to arrive at the Daxion side of the mountain without forewarning.

Even then, if the troops attempted to circle Capital Mountain by going around its sides, the Koretian divisions left guarding the city would receive advance notice, and the Emorians would lose their element of surprise. Instead, the Emorians – having persuaded the Daxions to break their alliance with Koretia, having prepared to sneak through the back door of Koretia – had added to their cleverness by plotting to pour down the mountain by way of the cave. The head of the vanguard was already stationed here, awaiting the right moment.

All of this came to me later. At the time, I underwent only shock at the Emorians' knavish scheme and – it cannot be denied – keen pleasure at having found out their secret. I looked around at the soldiers. The rank insignia they used were familiar to me, for the colors of the cloaks and tunic borders were universal signs within the armies of the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula. But instead of the Jackal-black uniforms that Koretian soldiers wore, these soldiers were dressed in brown, as though they were peasants or priests. It seemed an odd color for the rich land north of us to choose for its army.

I thought I glimpsed a couple of men uniformed in grey, chatting with ease with one of the Emorian lieutenants. I stared hard at the Daxion border guards, wondering what had happened to the Koretian border guards. Had the Daxion guards let arrow-armed men through to kill the Koretian border guards? Or had the Emorian army taken care of this task? Or perhaps the Daxion guards, pretending to meet with the Koretians over some routine border matter, had turned with treachery upon the other guards and had slaughtered them in a moment meant for peace.

All of these images sent a chill of thrill through me. I looked over at John, eager to exchange a grin with him, or, if this were too much to ask, at least a reassuring look. But John's eyes were still on the men before us. I followed the direction of his gaze to a single, tall soldier.

Amidst the brown tunics and black leather armor of the soldiers, this man would have stood out, if only for his peacock-proud display of colors. He wore a flame-red tunic beneath his armor, and the sword by his side glinted silver and gold. Most of the soldiers around us had reddened faces, wet with sweat – I supposed that these northerners were too frail to stand a Koretian midsummer. Despite this, the tall man was wearing a thick cloak that fell from his shoulders like a smooth fall of water and was woven in the highly impractical color of gold. There did not appear to be a single spot of dirt on the cloak, and I concluded from this, with not a little contempt, that the man's finery was not usually put to the test on the field. Like the other soldiers, however, he was wearing a thick helmet, pushed up slightly. The cheek-guards hiding the sides of his amber beard caused his eyes to stand out like bright blue sapphires upon his pale face. Above those eyes, attached to the helmet and glimmering gold, were the ruby-studded points of a diadem.

I only became aware that my breath had travelled swiftly inward when I noticed John looking my way. His eyes were sober, but he still made no gesture indicating that he wished to retreat. It was unlikely, in any case, that anyone would look our way, for the Emorians were busy with other matters: the lieutenants of each unit were issuing orders to their men, the subcaptains were checking that each unit was ready, and the captains were gathered in a cluster around their commander. He scarcely moved from where he stood, but at each sweeping movement of his arm, one of the captains would turn without a word and leave the gathering. Moments later the captain would give word to his subcaptains, the subcaptains would spread the word to their lieutenants, and within a short time, several dozen men would move – all of this the result of one man's single movement. Watching the commander, I could not help but feel that the energy of the entire vanguard was contained in each carefully controlled gesture.

"We ought to go," John whispered in my ear. "They may see us at any moment."

I frowned at him and shook my head. To my relief he did not press the issue, perhaps because he feared that the soldiers would hear him speaking. I waited until John's gaze was firmly fixed on the scene before us again, and then I let my thoughts wander to the commander. One man, directing all the destructive force around us. One man, deciding the fate of Koretia. If that one man were gone . . .

I am not sure that I thought through what I was doing. I certainly did not think as far as realizing what danger I was placing John in by my actions. I simply pulled out my slingshot, armed it with a stone, and stepped out of John's line of vision so that he would not see what I was doing. Then I lined up my shot.

It was hard to get a clear line; I did not want to chance having my shot land on the head of one of the captains. There, right on the forehead, was where I wanted the stone to land – right below the commander's royal helm. . . .

The crowd around the commander shifted slightly. There was a clear space now between him and me. I pulled the sling back . . . and at that moment the crowd shifted again, and I saw the boy.

He was facing in our direction, his head turning this way and that as he stared at the soldiers around him. He was about a year older than John, and he was wearing a shapeless brown tunic similar to John's. He wore no armor, which made him look defenseless in this setting. His hair, lit by the nearby fire, was as golden as the sun, and his eyes, which I could just see, were grey like brook-pebbles. He stared around with distinct eagerness; then he turned toward the commander and tugged at his cloak.

The commander was in mid-sentence of issuing an order. He looked down instantly as the boy said something. The boy's words did not carry as far as my ears, but he was pointing toward the Koretian entrance to the cave, and it was obvious that he was asking permission to explore further. The commander answered with a decisive shake of his head, and then turned back to his captains. The boy let go of the commander's cloak, his expression falling into disappointment, but he made no effort to argue the matter. Instead, he began walking around to each unit, ignored by the men who were feverishly preparing for battle. He stared up at the soldiers with hungry eyes, and once, when no one was looking his way, he went over and touched the commander's sword sheath lightly with his hand, as though placing his palm on a sacred object.

The hand holding my slingshot had fallen to my side; I had forgotten everything now except the yearning boy. I jumped as I felt a touch on my arm. John whispered, "Let's go now while nobody's looking this way."

I nodded without removing my gaze from the commander's boy. "You go first," I whispered back, and then was barely aware of the sound of John retreating back through the passage. The boy was coming closer. At any moment he would turn, and I would be able to see him more clearly. . . .

He turned, and our eyes met.

I felt a roaring in my ears, as though a great wind had suddenly rushed into the cave, obscuring the sounds of the army before me. I could no longer see the soldiers. All that I could see were the grey eyes, staring at me with astonishment and something more that I could not identify.

Part of me knew that I should run, but some other voice seemed to whisper in my ear, "Stay." So I stood where I was, motionless and mute, and the boy stared back at me, his eyes wide, his lips parted slightly. Then he opened his mouth.

I never learned what he was going to say. At that moment I heard a shout, and my thoughts were jerked back into awareness of the scene around me. I looked beyond the boy and saw that the commander had evidently been alerted by his son's gaze. He had seen me and was shouting orders to his captains. The boy swung his head around in response to the shouting, and as he did so, I turned, squeezed my way through the hole, and fled up the passage.

I was less afraid than I might have expected to be. I knew that the soldiers could not enter the passage, and I was sure that I would be able to escape from the cave before they arrived at the entrance. My mind was focussed on the sound of my footsteps pounding soft against the rock floor and the echo of their sound beating against the walls.

I reached the passage entrance, scrambled through the other hole, and stood listening. Faintly I could hear the sound of men shouting through the main tunnel, but more clearly than that I could still hear, in the narrow passage from which I had just emerged, the sound that I had taken to be an echo: the soft rhythmic pounding of a boy running. I waited.

A hand pulling at my arm jerked me out of my silent contemplation of the sound. "They're coming!" said John in soft desperation, and at his anxious look I remembered whom I was supposed to be protecting. Grabbing his hand, I fled a short distance. Then, envisioning the easy target that John and I would make for the soldiers' spears if we tried to flee now, I thrust us under the prickly-leaved cover of a wild-berry bush and pulled us both to the ground.

Silence followed. John had buried his head in his arms, but I lifted mine and peered through the thin shielding of needle-pointed leaves to look at the cave entrance. There, standing within the sheltering arms of the entrance rocks, was the boy. I could barely see his head, swivelling back and forth to take in his surroundings. He took a hesitant step forward, then stopped and looked back. The shouting had stopped, but the sound of thundering footsteps was clear amidst the drowsy hum of the late-afternoon cicadas. The boy turned abruptly, took another long, anxious look at the unknown surroundings before him, and stepped out of the shelter of the rocks.

At that moment, three things happened simultaneously. I half-rose from my hiding place; the commander suddenly emerged from the main tunnel and snatched the boy back; and a dagger, soaring swift and clean as a swallow, travelled over John's buried head and shot up to the cave entrance, landing where the boy had been the moment before.

I caught a glimpse of John as he suddenly raised his face, his eyes staring blindly at something other than the scene before us. Then I fell once more to the ground and tried to flatten myself like a blood-worm against the piercing leaves that were our bed. All about us I could hear the thunder of men's feet and the sound of softened commands; evidently the commander did not want to alert any more Koretians to his army's presence, even at this moment. Then, after a while, there was silence again.

I looked up and saw that the cave mouth was once more empty. Beside me, John was beginning to sidle out from cover.

"Wait!" I hissed, grabbing his wrist. "We don't know whether they've gone uphill or down."

"What do we do, then?" John whispered back. "We can't stay here."

I pulled the front half of my body up like a baby trying to rise to its feet, frantically listened for the sound of returning soldiers, then grabbed hold of John and said, "This way!"

John, ever trusting, followed me as I ran straight back toward the cave. A second's glance showed me that the entrance was empty. I dived my way through the rocks and began running toward what now seemed appropriately named our sanctuary.

I placed my arm around John when we reached there, squeezing him tight to reassure him, but quickly let my arm fall as he winced. "You're all covered in scratches," I said accusingly.

John put his hand up to his mouth to smother a half-sob, half-laugh. "Well, look at you."

I stared down at my green tunic, which was now torn and covered with purple wild-berry juice. One thin red gash made its way down my arm from elbow to wrist, just missing the line of my blood vow. I began to shiver, and to cover this fact, I said, "We'll be safe here. They'll never guess that we've returned to where we fled from – and they can't get in here anyway."

I left unvoiced my thought that one Emorian could come here. I doubted that the commander would let the boy out of his sight again after what had happened at the cave entrance.

John had his arms folded tight against his chest, but he said nothing. He was staring at the dark passage we had just left behind, and I realized that his thoughts were not on the Emorians. I asked in a hushed voice, "Was it the Jackal?"

I had no doubt that John would know the answer. He stared for a moment longer, and then said in a low voice, "I think so. I felt something even before I saw the dagger. He was— I can't describe it. But I'm sure it was him."

"But he missed!" I said. "Gods don't miss when they try to kill, do they? Or perhaps it's like Lovell said, that the Jackal can't always use his godly powers."

"Maybe," said John slowly. "Or maybe he wasn't really trying to kill the Chara's son. Maybe he was just trying to frighten him."

"But why would he—?"

I closed my mouth. Faintly through the passage, toward the cave entrance, we could hear the sound of men once more. John stiffened and raised his jaw, but he did not move. His left hand was still hanging loosely by his side, not touching the dagger.

I whispered, "You had better let me take the dagger. That way, the soldiers won't kill you, because you'll be unarmed."

"Death isn't what I fear."

John had a way of speaking, softly and simply, words that were most chilling. I stared at him, and then looked back down the passage toward where the sounds were continuing. I said finally, "Would we have to wear masks, do you think?"

John shook his head. "Lovell told me that slaves in Emor don't wear masks – no one performs the death rite on them, and they're treated just like any living person. They can speak to other people, and people can speak to them. I suppose," he added in a tone oddly reflective for such a tense moment, "that if I had to be a slave, I'd rather live in Emor than in Koretia."

"I wouldn't," I said flatly. "Imagine being away from your homeland, living amongst those godless men! I'd rather be one of the Living Dead than serve our enemy."

"But you could still find a way to serve the gods even if you were living in—" John stopped. He had heard, as I did, the growing silence at the cave entrance. Impetuously, I began to tiptoe forward, not looking to see whether John was following. I reached the hole and peered through it to the shadow-mottled entrance.

A unit of soldiers was just passing into the main tunnel. The only men who still stood in the entrance were the Chara Nicholas and a subcaptain. The latter was pointing with his finger toward the mountain slope and shaking his head. It was clear that he was reporting he had failed in his mission. The Chara had an expression on his face that appeared to be carved out of the stones around us; it made me more nervous than I had been all that day. He whirled suddenly, his cloak billowing forth like a sun-gilded cloud.

As he did so, I saw that standing behind him was the boy, his bowed face even whiter than before. The Chara placed his hand firmly on the boy's shoulder. Without looking up, the Chara's son allowed himself to be driven back into the cave.

I hesitated, looking over my shoulder at the passage that would take us back to the cave, but I could feel John standing warm against me. So I whispered, "Now!" and began to scramble out of the hole.

John caught hold of me, pulling me back. "Uphill or down?" he asked.

Uphill meant that we would head for the priests' house. "Down," I said firmly. "We have to let our army know about the Emorians."

"But they won't believe us," said John, his voice low. "They'll think we're just telling boys' tales."

I leaned against the passage stone, which was beginning to turn cool with the arrival of evening. "They'll believe my mother – the soldiers know her. We'll tell her first, and she can come with us to the headquarters."

John was silent a while, and I began to wonder whether he was afraid of coming near soldiers again, even those on our own side. Finally he said softly, "I have to go tell the priests about the Jackal. They'll want to know that he's here."

I swallowed my disappointment and said, "We each have our separate duties – it often happens that way in the army. I tell you what I'll do: I'll go down and warn the soldiers, and then I'll come back here and fetch you before the fighting begins. Then we can watch the fighting together." I grinned at the knowledge that I would finally have the chance to witness a battle.

John did not reply with a smile. Instead he placed his palm upon my forehead and whispered briefly. My body tingled as I realized that he was placing me under the protection of the gods, in the same manner that priests bless soldiers before battle. Then, as though anything he could have said after that was superfluous, he slid past me and wriggled through the hole, leaving me to make my way down to the city alone.

o—o—o

It was fire weather. The air was flat and motionless, and there was little chance that any city fire would spread to the countryside. Even so, I took a moment when I arrived at the city wall to stare at the shallow moat surrounding it. It was tinged brown with silt and was lower than usual, as there had been little rain since early spring, but it was still wide enough to form a reassuring barrier. I stepped into the water and waded through to the wall. Ordinarily, I would have stripped myself first, but my clothes were in such a ragged state now that mud could not hurt them. When I reached the wall, I crawled into my secret tunnel.

John and I had discovered this tunnel under the wall during the previous winter. It had not been there in past years when I explored the dry ditch that hugged the inside of the city wall. When I consulted him, John suggested that it might have been dug by the Jackal. I thought it was more likely a smuggler's route, aimed at avoiding the taxes on importation of goods from Daxis to the capital city. But we never met whoever had dug it, and as far as we could tell, no other boys had discovered it, for it was well hidden by a tree within the dry ditch.

Most likely the tunnel was of no interest to any boys other than ourselves. The main roads from the city departed from the east and west gates, and this tunnel only led south to the trackless mountainside. But it served as a great boon to me, for it saved me from having to walk down the winding road from the priests' house to the main road, and then travel from there to the west gate.

Now I scrambled out of the inner ditch, checking first, in proper soldier fashion, that no one would notice my unorthodox entrance into the city. As I emerged, I saw that further impediments lay on my journey. It was twilight, and the stall-keepers were beginning to close the market that spread from the open square before me to the northern side of Council Hill. Wooden boxes were being loaded onto carts, streams of men and women were entering a new tavern just opened on the square, and soldiers released from their day duties poured out of the army headquarters nearby. If I tried to take the straight route home, this crowd might delay me for ages.

Instead, I chose a road I almost never followed, partly because my father had long ago forbidden me from doing so. The other reason was because, on one of the few occasions on which I had disobeyed his order, I had run straight into a group of council lords. They had laughed and let me go my way, but I had learned my lesson.

It was a road that skirted the army headquarters, ran up the side of Council Hill, and passed straight through the hilltop courtyard between the magnificent Council Hall and the shabby wooden slave-quarters opposite. From there, the road led down almost directly to my own house, which was at the foot of the wooded hill-slope.

Judging that my father would have understood the necessity of haste on this day, I ran up the tree-arched road, my mind less on the news of danger I was carrying than on the grey-eyed boy whom I had seen. I wondered whether his father would allow him to witness the battle or whether, having disobeyed his father's order to stay in the cave, he would be punished by being left behind. To my mind, there was no greater punishment that any boy could endure than to miss seeing a battle.

My thoughts were so far from the present that I barely noticed when I ran under the low, unguarded arch leading to the council courtyard. I only became aware of where I was when I ran into a man.

Speaking swiftly in order to get my apology out before the nobleman before me grew angry, I said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—" Then I stopped. I had tilted my head back and could now see what I was speaking to.

He was holding me back from him – an automatic reaction, I imagine, since I had run straight into him. Now his grey-gloved hands fell to his sides, and he looked mutely down at me. He was dressed from toe to neck in funeral ash-grey, and this color was matched by that of the iron death-mask that he wore, like all corpses. I caught a glimpse of his eyes, staring at me with surprise, before I realized what I was doing and looked quickly away.

My heart beat hard. No one, I was sure, would report a young boy for talking to a slave, even if I had been overheard in this empty courtyard. But would the gods curse me for what I had done? I wondered how they would judge me for talking to a man who was god-cursed – a man who, though his body had mercifully been spared death, was now treated as though he were a living corpse, exiled from all human contact.

I could no longer see the slave's eyes, but as I moved past him – it, I corrected myself – I saw its shoulders slump and its spine bow forward. I had a sudden, terrible vision of what it must be like to live one's life under the complete mercy of others.

Since I could not know how the gods would judge my actions, I thought instead of John, for I was sure he knew what the gods wanted better than any of the priests. And I instantly knew that John would never silently pass by anyone who was suffering, god-cursed or not.

I turned back and said in a low voice, "I'm sorry."

The slave had been on the point of entering its quarters; now it looked back at me. Its expression was hidden under the mask, of course, and I could not tell what it was thinking. Unwilling to look at its eyes directly, and unable to voice the thoughts that were truly in my mind, I said softly, "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to knock into you like that."

For a moment, the slave was still. Then its back straightened as though it had just been given a healing drink. With slow dignity, the slave bowed its head in acknowledgment of my forbidden words.

I waited for nothing more. Already warm with embarrassment and fear at what I had done, I turned and fled the courtyard. I did not stop running until I reached my house.

I paused at the open threshold, both to recover my breath and to steady my thoughts. My mother could not afford to light fires in the warm summer evenings, and so the room was dim with dusk-light. But I could hear the clatter of the loom, and between the rhythmic passing of the shuttle I could see my mother sitting, using the last fragments of daylight to finish her work.

She had already reached her twenty-fifth year. This was due to the fact that she had married late, provoking good-hearted jokes from my father about how he preferred mature women to youthful ones. I could detect a trace of silver in her earth-brown hair that made me wonder what it was like to grow old. For a moment I was glad that my coming of age would not take place for another eight years. Then my mother looked up and saw me, and her smile was so full of beauty and affection that I forgot all about pitying her.

The smile did not last long. In the next moment she had leapt up from her stool and was hurrying over to look at me.

"By the gods of day and night!" she exclaimed. "What have you been doing with yourself? Just look at those scratches, all covered with mud! Come over here and wash yourself— No, wait, drink this first."

I automatically took and drank from the small skin of wine that she pulled out of a chest and thrust into my hands. I was thinking that any other parent would have immediately scolded me for ruining my only tunic, but my mother, as usual, thought first of my welfare.

"God of Mercy, Andrew," she said with a laugh that indicated she had already forgiven me. "How do you expect to live long enough to become a soldier if you keep tumbling down the mountainside? You ought to let John plan your expeditions. He has sense enough to keep the two of you from trouble if you'd only let him have his way now and then."

I submitted to her vigorous scrubbing with a wet cloth only because I did not wish to fall into an argument about irrelevancies. "Mother, I saw the Chara! He's here with his army!"

My mother, who had been trying without much success to remove dirt from my long hair, stilled her cloth. "What do you mean? The Emorians are up north."

I explained, at first quickly; then, once I saw that I had a rapt audience, with as much detail as I could muster. Only two facts did I omit. One was the Jackal's strange assassination attempt, if that was what it had been. The other – for reasons I did not try to analyze – was my sighting of the Chara's son.

Not far into the story, my mother went over to the door and shut it, and then shuttered the windows so that we stood in near darkness. By the end of my narrative, I felt dizzy from the telling and went to sit on my floor-mattress, which was tucked into the corner of the single-chambered house. The pallet was big enough for two, and I had often wished that I had a brother or sister with whom to share it. Now it served as a place for my mother to join me as I finished my tale.

She interrupted me as I began to tell her about talking to the slave – I had long since forgotten about omitting irrelevancies, and in any case, I was hoping for her reassurance that I had done the right thing. My mother, though, had her mind on other matters.

Fingering the slingshot she had taken from my belt, she said, "This tunnel through the wall – it's marked by a tree, you say?"

I stared at her. Then, feeling my head grow more fuzzy, I lay back against the pallet. "Does that matter?" I asked.

"If the Chara is trying to surprise our soldiers, he may want to steal into the city," my mother said slowly. "He may know about this tunnel from his spies' reports – or perhaps from the tales of a Daxion smuggler – and may use it as a way to sneak in some of his men."

After a moment, I thought to close my gaping mouth. "You ought to be a soldier," I said with open admiration.

"Your father taught me a lot," she murmured. She rose suddenly, put aside the slingshot, and brushed from her gown some of the dirt that had clung to her from me. "I'll be back as quickly as I can. If anything happens before I return, run next door and follow wherever Raoul and his family go."

"But I want to go with you!" I tried to raise myself onto my elbow, but some dark heaviness seemed to weigh me down.

"You can't," my mother said with a sad smile. "I'm sorry, but that was drugged wine I gave you. I thought you would need help sleeping tonight, what with all those scratches. I never would have given it to you if I'd known what you were going to tell me."

"You're as sneaky as the Emorians," I mumbled. I was too tired even to protest that I was missing my chance to be savior to the Koretian army. My eyelids began to plunge down; then I opened them again as I felt my mother touch me on the arm. She was still smiling.

"Thank you for coming to me with this, rather than rushing off on your own," she said. "I appreciate how you have trusted me."

"Well, you're a soldier's widow," I said sleepily. "You're more sensible than most women. When I come of age, I'll find myself someone who is as wise as you are. Soldiers need smart wives."

She laughed, kissed my forehead, and left me dreaming of the woman I would one day marry.

o—o—o

I awoke to fire.

Part of the roof crashing onto the loom undoubtedly saved my life, for I jerked awake from its sound to find myself choking on black smoke, as though someone were pouring earth down my throat. For a moment I thought I was trapped in a nightmare. Then I realized what was happening and scrambled to my feet.

I arose too quickly, though. My drugged head spun, the smoke pinned my lungs to the wall of my chest, and I fell to my knees, coughing and holding my arm against my face to protect it from the fire that was eating at the fallen timber around me.

The house contained a strange mixture of shadings: as dark as a night-black storm in the center and as bright as a noonday sun on the edges. Sweat oozed like a cool rock-spring onto my skin, released from my body by the heat of the fire. An ember, as red as a demon's eye, fell upon my bare leg, and I opened my mouth to scream, but was smothered by the blanket of smoke that forced itself into my throat, pushing back all attempts at breath. I flung my hands forward, trying to crawl blindly toward one of the fiery walls, then felt my legs shake and collapse.

For a moment, all was still. I heard nothing but the harsh tongue of the fire and saw nothing except the smoky darkness that had swallowed the house. Then something pulled at my shoulders, and I felt myself being dragged over the floor, pushed past flames that towered over me in an arch, and flung to the ground once more.

Fresh air, painful in its suddenness, poured into my mouth, and I began to cough again. I could do nothing for some time except crouch over the ground, first coughing, and then throwing forth the contents of my stomach. Finally, moist with sweat and spittle and sickness, I lifted my head and saw John.

He was kneeling beside me in the street, his tunic torn in spots, his body black with soot, and his hair singed short by the fire. He leaned over and shouted into my ear over the growing roar of the fire, "Your mother!"

I felt a jolt inside my rib cage before I remembered. "She went to the army headquarters!" I cried back.

"She'll be safest there," John replied. Tugging at my hand, he pulled me to my feet and began to half-lead me, half-drag me through the fire-flanked street.

The thundering shout of the fire was too deep for me to hear any cries, and the night-covered streets were oddly deserted, all living inhabitants having already fled. Only the dead lay strewn about the streets like pieces of rubbish brought out to be burned. The fire had already swallowed some of them. Since I had seen many a funeral pyre, it did not disturb me to see the Jackal eating his dead, as the Koretians put it. But John and I both halted abruptly when we rounded a corner and found, crawling on the ground before us, a glowing, screaming figure of a man, trapped in the flames that cocooned him like a well-fitted tunic.

His spirit was gone before either of us could react. We saw his body collapse and his untouched eyes grow dim. John recovered before I did, towing me past the body with a grip as tight as an eagle's talons. The fire around us grew brighter and louder as we ran.

Then he stopped again. I had to clutch the side of a building to keep from tripping over him. Peering cautiously over his shoulder, I saw that we had reached the market square that was our last stretch of ground before we reached the tunnel.

The brightly colored market stalls, made of thin wood and cloth, had already disintegrated into sullenly glowing cinders. All of the houses around the square were ablaze, and the fire was crawling its steady and deadly way over the fallen timbers in the square. Only a small patch of open ground remained between us and the tunnel – and in that area was an Emorian soldier.

He was lying front-down on the ground as we arrived. Then he rose to his knees, his back to us, and brought his sword down hard on some object hidden from our view. After that, he remained where he was, kneeling and looking at the object.

John shouted in my ear; it was as good as a whisper in the fire-storm around us. "We'll have to wait!"

"We can't!" I said. "Look at the fire!"

As I spoke, a house not far from us collapsed into the street, crumbling like a flame-deadened log. John looked over his shoulder at it, and then at the soldier, who had risen to his feet but was still lingering over the object before him. Finally John said, "I'll go first. If he doesn't see me, he won't see you, and if he sees me, it will give you time to get past him."

He had the look on his face that would accept no argument. Feeling bewildered that my plans to rescue him had gone awry, I let my gaze fall to the sheathed blade at John's side.

As I raised my gaze upward once more, my eyes met John's, and we stared at each other uncertainly. Then I used the one argument I knew John would accept: "It's dedicated to the Unknowable God, as you are. You keep it, and the god will tell you what to do."

After a moment, John nodded; then he turned without a word and began running as close as he dared to the facade of fire along the row of houses. He did not look the soldier's way, so I was the only one who saw the soldier raise his head as John darted by. I jammed my fists against my mouth, but before I had time to formulate a plan, the soldier turned his head away, clearly uninterested.

To me, the scene was like a note of victory on war trumpets. I pushed myself away from the house and began running the path John had taken, seeking to escape as quickly as I could from both the soldier and the agony of the fire's touch. I tried to keep my eyes on John, who had nearly reached the ditch, but I did not have his steadiness of purpose, and as I passed the soldier, I looked the Emorian's way and saw what it was that he had been loitering over.

I caught only a quick glimpse of the woman, clothed in blood, before I cried, "No!" I did not think of what I was doing as I swerved my path; I was not sure whether I was headed toward the soldier or his victim. But as I came close to them both, the soldier reached out with his arms and pulled me captive against his chest.

I struggled, of course, but it was like a struggle I had once seen and had had nightmares about for weeks afterwards: a slave had defied the gods by using his voice and had been burned on a funeral pyre as punishment. Since he was one of the Living Dead, no effort had been made to kill his body before it was placed on the pyre, and so he had struggled in his funeral bindings as the flames approached him.

The soldier was growling words as I tried to break free of him. Under other circumstances, I would have considered this a fine lesson in Emorian curses. I tried to loosen the grip of his right hand – it had an old war-scar on it from thumb to index finger, and the hand was therefore awkwardly wrapped around his sword hilt. I managed only to swing our bodies in the direction I had been running, and in that moment, the soldier stopped swearing and I stopped struggling, for we had both seen what was running towards us.

Of course it was John, but he had a look on his face I had never seen before. His teeth were bared like that of a wild animal's, and his mouth turned up at the corners like the edges of a crescent moon. A high, wailing battle cry emerged from his throat, rising above the sound of the fire, and his fingers were tight on the dagger he held upraised. But the oddest and most terrifying sight of all was his eyes: amidst the violence of the rest of his face, they were very, very calm.

I think that the eyes must have frightened even the soldier. I heard him mutter something which sounded like "God of Mercy" but which must have been some Emorian prayer of preservation. Then he thrust me aside, raised his sword, and brought it down upon John's upraised face.

I saw the blade land a short distance away from John's composed eyes. Then I closed my eyelids, and when I lifted them a moment later, John was lying on the ground, his mouth open and still, and his blood-soaked eyes staring as they had so often before, at nothing in this world.

The soldier was chalk-white as he stared down at John, though whether from remorse at what he had done or surprise that his assailant was so young I could not be sure. I did not give myself time to think about it. I hurtled myself at John's dagger, fallen from his motionless hand, and then jumped up and whirled around, facing the unnerved soldier.

"I'm going to kill you," I said in Emorian, speaking in a voice that was not as steady as I would have liked. "I'm going to kill you and the Chara and all the Emorians. May the Jackal eat his dead—" And as my curse ended in a sob, I lunged forward.

The scene, like a tapestry upon a wall, was filled with images that froze in my mind: my mother, lying half-naked on the ground, still moist with blood and with the soldier's fluids; John, resting only a few paces from the fire, which was advancing to eat its spoils; and the soldier, raising his sword above me in a motion that would reach me before I had time to use my dagger. I witnessed all this with a dark acceptance that was almost peaceful. Then, at the last moment, I saw the sword turn in the soldier's hand so that the hilt was now pointed downward to strike my head. And as I realized with horror that the Emorian would deprive me even of this, the honor of dying with my blood brother, I opened my mouth and screamed—

o—o—o

The dream ended then, as it always did, in the scream that travelled from the mouth of an eight-year-old boy to my own mouth, so that I woke from the sound of my cry. I was sitting upright in bed, trembling, and the sweat on my body was already beginning to chill in the cool Emorian morning.

I dropped my face into my hands, and as the moments passed, I felt the passionate lines of my face transform, without any effort on my part, into something different. When I raised my head again, I was wearing the mask of composure and detachment that no one in this land had ever seen me without, save one man.

Rising from my bed, my movements smooth and unhurried now, I walked over to a basin sitting on my mantelshelf and washed the sweat and tearstains from my face. The water ran over my hands and wrists, moistening, as it went, the white line of an old scar. I stepped back and caught a brief sight of myself in the small looking glass: my face was set in harshly rigid lines of dispassion, and my eyes were colder than dark ice. I was dark-haired, as any Koretian would be, but a Koretian man of twenty-three years would have had browner skin and would have been wearing a man's beard. Nor would he have donned the Emorian tunic I reached for a few minutes later. The wool, finely woven though it was, would have been too heavy for a Koretian summer. A Koretian tunic, if decorated, would have had lines that branched together and sprang apart in random patterns, as though the lines were twigs intertwining in a tree. My own tunic had a simple symmetric pattern of straight lines. I had chosen the design myself.

Finished with my dressing, I opened the doors into the next chamber.

He was not there, but the evidence of his presence was. The room was in uncharacteristic disarray: cushions tossed from the reclining couch, law books pulled from their shelves, and items pushed around on his writing table. This was his sitting chamber, used as a place to relax in the evenings, and it was surrounded on all sides by doors. His sleeping chamber was to the left of where I stood, with the door to the corridor on my right. The door I had just stepped through had been cut only the previous summer, when I moved out of the small sleeping chamber opposite, which was reserved for his free-servant. Officially, he had a new free-servant, but in reality, I made sure he had no need of one.

I stepped forward and picked up the cushions, returned the books to their shelves, and stacked the papers neatly on the table. Then I reached up and pulled from his mantelshelf the scroll of paper from where I had seen him place it the night before.

I went back to the table, where I had noticed but not yet read the sheet of paper awaiting me. He had phrased it in formal language. I had never seen him write an informal letter, for such a message might be read by the wrong people and become a weapon against him, turning like a blade to cut his own hand. Though formal, the letter was written in a hurried fashion, without salutation or signature:
 

Andrew son of Gideon, palace guest of the Chara, is summoned
to appear in the presence of the Chara in the Map Room.


Beneath the message was a circular seal of red wax, imprinted with the royal emblem of the Chara.

I held the Chara's letter in my hand for a moment more, and then left the chamber in order to meet with my master.

Chapter Text

Blood Vow 2
LAND OF THE CHARA
 

CHAPTER ONE

As I stepped into the corridor that ran between the Map Room and the Court of Judgment, the Chara's guards took no notice of me, frozen as they were on each side of the doorway I walked through. I turned right and began to make my way down the dimly lit passage, its only illumination being the high clerestory windows. On each side of the corridor were rooms belonging to council lords, court officials, and palace guests. I knew that those rooms looked much the same as the Chara's quarters, which would have been inconspicuous but for the guards.

I passed lords as I walked, some of them nodding to me in greeting, others with their gazes on documents that they read as they walked. I met the Chara's court clerk, a young free-man struggling to keep a pile of papers in his arms. He nearly lost them all when he saw me and touched his heart and forehead with his fingers. I returned the gesture; it was one of the few Emorian customs that had come naturally to me, as it was of Koretian origin. Or so I had suggested one day to Lord Dean, High Lord of the Great Council of Emor, but he had maintained that the gesture derived from the Emorians' custom of placing their weapon-blades to their foreheads when they swore their oath of loyalty to the Chara. Whether in Emor or Koretia, the free-man's greeting was meant to be exchanged, not between a master and his servant, but between equals.

I passed by more open doors leading to rooms – the quarters of the Chara's historian, the slave-quarters – and then I came to the quarters that belonged to the senior council lords. These rooms were generally silent at this time of the day, since the lords were busy elsewhere in the palace, working out the day-to-day details of running Emor, for which they were responsible. The quarters were silent now – all except one.

The girl's cry was so piercing that, without thinking, I pushed my way through the door. The door opened only to a passageway that led to further rooms, so I did not expect to see anyone. But I found myself facing Lord Carle, who was in the midst of disciplining his Koretian slave-girl.

The girl had fallen to her knees weeping. I could see the red mark on her cheek where Lord Carle had hit her. He was bent over her as I entered, and as he looked at me, I saw a fire spark in his eyes.

He barely managed to contain the fire in his voice. "What do you want?" he asked abruptly.

Having no good reason to be in his quarters, I said, "I apologize for disturbing you, Lord Carle. I was searching for the Chara; I thought he might be with you."

He stiffened up and assessed me for a moment, leaving the girl sobbing at his feet. Finally he said, "You ought to know where your master is. Why are you absent from him?"

Something about the crouching girl, whose presence the council lord was ignoring, caused me to say coolly, "Because, Lord Carle, I am not the Chara's servant and so am not required to know his every movement."

Lord Carle stepped forward. As he did so, the girl stopped crying and began looking between her master and myself, as though she expected to witness a duel. Lord Carle stopped a few feet from me. Keeping his eyes fixed on mine, he said with malevolent softness, "If you are a loyal Emorian, Andrew, then you are his servant, as I am his servant and all Emorians are. If you do not believe this, then disobey the Chara's commands again and see what follows."

I made no reply, and found a moment later that my gaze had drifted away from Lord Carle's eyes. He turned away then, as though in disgust that he had wasted such a deep dagger-thrust on so unworthy an opponent. I took the opportunity to slip back to the corridor.

I stood there for a moment with my eyelids closed and my head tilted back, as though I had just emerged from red-hot fire. Then I walked the remaining distance to the Map Room.

This was at the direct end of the corridor. Its silver doors reached to the ceiling; standing on each side were two guards with their spears crossed in front of the doorway, in order to indicate that the Chara might not be disturbed on penalty of the high doom. As I came forward, they uncrossed the spears. Being less strictly trained than the Chara's personal guards, they nodded me a greeting as I opened the doors and walked through.

The Map Room was not as large as the Court of Judgment, but it had a ceiling just as high, reaching up, it seemed, halfway to the clouds. The Chara used the scantily furnished room as a place to study military information and as a chamber in which to receive guests with formality but without full ceremony. On rare occasions, it was also used as a small Court of Judgment for cases that he tried in private. Like all Emorian rooms, it was dimly lit; the main illumination came from the hearth centered on the far wall. The hearth was now ablaze with fire in order to stave off the coolness of the Emorian summer morning.

The Chara was standing a few spear-lengths from me, looking out one of the southern windows. He was dressed formally with his silver tunic and his Sword of Vengeance; his cloak was tossed onto a chair nearby. He was only twenty-six, but his face had the look of an older man: severe responsibility had gouged deep rivers of age into his skin. As the door closed behind me, the Chara turned his head and said, "I was just wishing that I could wander over the black border mountains right now. It seems a shame to stay inside on a warm day like this." I made no reply, and he added, "I see that you brought the map. I couldn't remember this morning where I had put it."

"So I surmised from the state of your sitting chamber, Chara," I said, coming forward and placing the map in his hand. "You ought to have woken me."

He turned and put the scroll down on the table nearby, which was already cluttered with a dozen maps. Without looking up, he said, "I thought that you might need the extra rest."

There was a pause as he unrolled the map and began examining it. I said, "I did not mean to disturb you, Chara. Perhaps I ought to sleep in other quarters."

"Don't be foolish." He leaned over, traced a line on the map with his finger, then sighed and allowed the map to roll up once more as his gaze drifted back to the view at the window.

I followed his gaze toward the tiny slice of scenery. I could see a portion of the capital city surrounding the palace, a sliver of the river-threaded fields beyond, and a patch of Emorian sky – which, for a change, was blue and cloudless. Towering above them all were the black border mountains that separate Emor and Koretia.

The Chara said, "I seem not to be able to keep my mind off the mountains. Perhaps I have acquired some of your Koretian blood."

I said rigidly, "Chara, I am Emorian."

A smile crept onto his face then, erasing the lines of worry and making him appear even younger than he was. "That fact," he said, "had not escaped my notice. I was joking. Now stop being so stiff and formal and come sit with me."

He waved his hand toward two chairs sitting under a small patch of sunlight falling through one of the northern windows. I felt the seldom-used muscles of my mouth turn up, and I bowed in obedience, before seating myself where he had indicated.

He sat down beside me and pushed over a bowl that lay on the table between the two chairs. I fished out a couple of dried berries and, without looking to see what type they were, placed them in my mouth.

It took only two chews before I jerked my head around toward the Chara. "Peter! Where in the name of the dead Charas did you get these?"

The Chara Peter chuckled. "I wondered whether you would recognize them. The Koretian governor sent them to me. He said that Koretian food was not to most Emorians' taste – I take that to mean that he thinks it inedible. He added, though, that he knew of my interest in curious native customs, and he thought I might like to try these wild-berries. I did, and I think they're inedible, and I would hand my dominions over to you if you would do me the favor of finishing them off."

"That won't be a hard duty for me to undertake," I said. "As for Lord Alan, it sounds as though he has a gift for flattery."

"Yes, he reveals that most clearly in his letter." Peter reached over and picked up a sheaf of papers that was sitting next to the fruit bowl. "'To the Great Chara, Judge of the People, Commander of the . . .' Well, he goes on with the usual half dozen, and even managed to scrape up a couple of titles that I had thought only my clerk knew. 'Your servant Alan' – note the humility of leaving off his title – 'was most interested by your recent kind letter and does assure the Chara that my greatest wish is to answer any questions you might have on the Koretian people, and that the high doom itself would not prevent me from giving you the full story of all that is happening in this land. As you know, when I was appointed governor fifteen years ago by your father, the Chara Nicholas, I had little experience in high matters, and I continue to feel myself unworthy of such a task . . .' He continues on like this for six pages, and by the end of them he has still failed to answer any of my questions. He signs the letter with all his titles, though he tactfully keeps them one short of the number he ascribed to me. So, since Lord Alan gives me no information, since nearly every spy I send to Koretia is either bribed by the governor or kept from gaining information, and since I am on this side of the black border mountains, I can find nothing that will help me to bring peace to that land."

Outside the windows, the palace trumpeters sounded the hour. I could hear the soft shuffle of soldiers' feet as the guard was changed in front of the Map Room door. I said, "Peter, if you wish me to tell you what I know of Koretia, you've only to ask."

He gave me a sober-eyed smile. "I didn't wish to burden you in that way, but I fear that I must do so. The latest report from my spy – the only one who has managed to obtain useful information – is alarming. Could you help me sort out what these maps mean?"

I followed him over to the map-strewn table, where he unrolled again the map that I had brought him. "My father had this made during the Border Wars, a few months before the Koretian capital was captured," he said. "Can you tell me what everything is on it?"

I looked down at the black lines with occasional red splotches superimposed. "I imagine that you know as much about Koretia as I do. I was only eight years old when I left, and I hadn't even visited the towns and villages until that time."

"Tell me what you know, even if I already know it. I'd like to learn how matters appear from a Koretian's point of view." Before I could speak, he added, "You will not deny, I hope, that you once were Koretian."

I smiled and said, "No." Touching the yellowing paper with my finger, I said, "This is the capital city, built at the northern foot of the mountain that marks the southernmost border with Daxis. The mountain itself is uninhabited except for a priests' house, though it has a few ruins – and a cave."

I sensed rather than saw him smile. "I'm not likely to forget the cave. Where is the priests' house?"

"Here, about a mile up from the foot of the hill, and below the old house of worship, which the Koretians call the gods' house. Nobody goes to the gods' house, but city dwellers sometimes visit the priests' house in order to see the rites. I doubt that I can tell you anything important about the city itself; it is all plainly labelled here on the map."

"Where did you live?" asked Peter.

I pointed. "Close to the market and not far from the old Koretian Council Hall, though I suppose the hall must have been destroyed by fire, as so much was."

Peter leaned over and placed his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his folded knuckles. "No, in fact it was the only large building to survive. The governor incorporated it into his palace. I think he liked the idea of living where royalty used to live – am I right in remembering that the Koretian King made the hall his home?"

"I told you that you know as much about Koretia as I do."

"I don't know enough about its governor—"

"Neither do I," I cut in. "He was appointed the summer that I left Koretia."

"I know. But many Koretians were sent to my palace during those first few years after the wars. Did you ever hear them talking about Lord Alan?"

"Well," I said, "I wasn't much interested during those years in listening to talk about Emor's rule in Koretia. All that I remember hearing was that the governor was a tyrant and stole from his people – just like the Chara, the Koretians said."

Peter laughed. I pointed to the red patches and asked, "What are those?"

"Those," said Peter, leaning back, "are Emorian soldiers. The bigger the red area, the more units we had in that region. My father had about forty-two garrisons in the Koretian territory he cared for when this map was made. At the time of my enthronement, the number had gone down to eighteen. Here is a map I ordered drawn up recently." He pushed aside the old map in order to show the one under it. "What do you notice?"

I stared down at the red and white paper before me. "More garrisons."

"Three times more soldiers than there were at the time I became Chara. Anything else?"

"I don't observe much that would be helpful to you. I see that the city has been rebuilt, and that a good portion of it is taken up by the governor's palace."

"Yes, and that's a matter of concern to me – how Lord Alan could afford to build a palace that size. Nor am I sure how he could afford to bribe as many of my spies as I believe have been bribed. So the governor's manner of living bothers me. The extra soldiers I've had to send may be a result of the unrest he has caused."

"If that is so," I replied, "couldn't you remove him from office?"

Peter replied only with a smile.

I said, "I forgot. You're bound by the law."

"Like a prisoner," Peter said cheerfully. "It's up to the council to take action, and I couldn't bring such a proposal to them unless I had solid proof of the governor's misconduct."

"You could charge Lord Alan with a crime." I said this quietly, standing, as usual, with the stiff motionlessness of a soldier on sentry duty.

Peter turned toward the table to place weights on the restless edges of the map. "I could. That is to say, the court summoners could charge him with a crime, and only if I provided them with more convincing proof than I presently possess. Besides, it's more complicated than you'd think. This problem is one of the reasons why my father locked me in my chamber for ten years and fed me law book after law book. The law is a demanding master to serve, and I sometimes feel like its much-abused slave after one of my battles with the council."

"I probably won't understand a word of what you say," I told him, "but explain it to me anyway, if you will."

"Actually, it's based on the one law phrase you understand well: the council takes care of its own. The council judges those under its care, and the High Lord has the final say on whether a lord is removed from office, in the same way that the High Lord and I jointly decide whether to appoint a man to be council lord."

"And Lord Dean wouldn't remove the governor from office," I said with sudden understanding.

"Remove Lord Alan from office after spending all these years cultivating a fine connection with the governor? I think that Lord Dean is as unlikely to do that as he is to smile upon anyone with true friendship."

"But if the governor were found guilty of his crime—"

"The law is odd that way. A lord's appointment is for life, and it makes no difference if he is enslaved or imprisoned at the time. In such cases, the High Lord simply appoints someone to discharge the lord's duties, a task that would make Lord Dean very happy – having sole charge over deciding who ran one of my dominions. No, the only thing that will free me of Lord Alan is his death, either his natural death or his death by the sword."

I said in the cool, hard voice for which I was noted, "I don't suppose that the council judge would sentence Lord Alan to death if he knew that it would take power away from the council."

Peter stared intently at the map, his finger resting upon the mark signifying the governor's palace. "It's a moot issue at present, because Lord Alan's death would solve only half my problems. The governor isn't completely to blame for what is happening in Koretia. Someone else is causing unrest in the dominion."

The name came to my lips, but I said nothing. Peter's finger travelled from the governor's palace to the small mark showing the priests' house. "If there's one thing that the governor has not tried to hide from me, it's his information on the Koretian religion, for the simple reason that he knows next to nothing on the topic. I understand that the Jackal is connected in some way to the priests. What is this man's connection with them?"

"To start with," I said, "the Jackal is not a man but a god."

Peter looked at me, and I smoothly switched my gaze over to the map. I had a moment, in the pause that followed, to wonder how much of what the Chara was asking me about he already knew. It was unlikely that, after ten years as Master of the Koretian Land, Peter had never thought to enquire as to the nature of the Jackal. Already he had raised several topics that I had overheard him expound upon to his council lords, with great erudition.

A cynic might have thought he was testing my loyalty by gauging the truthfulness of my answers. Having witnessed Peter practice this device with his other subjects, I had once asked him its purpose. He had replied with pure simplicity, "When I hear others speak on a topic I think I know about, I learn of my ignorance."

Now he said, "Do you believe that?"

"I'm telling you what the Koretian people believe. The Jackal is one of the seven gods and goddesses whom they have worshipped over the centuries. He is the thief god who prowls in the night, and the hunting god who snatches his spoils. Thirty-five years ago, a man appeared who claimed to be the human form of the Jackal God—"

"Wait. Thirty-five years ago? Before the Emorians arrived?"

"He appeared at the start of Koretia's civil war, the one that eventually led Koretia to attack Emor and start the Border Wars. The man who called himself the Jackal claimed that he had come to destroy the enemies of the people and bring peace to the land."

"Which enemies, if the Emorians hadn't yet arrived?"

"The Jackal didn't say. All I can say is that he made the King and his council nervous enough that they were forever trying to capture him in order to question him. He slipped out of their traps time and time again."

Peter curled his fist under his beardless chin. Unlike his father, who had followed the military fashion for beards, Peter preferred the more common Emorian custom of being clean-shaven. "If the Jackal is a god," he said, "I suppose that he knew that the Emorians would be arriving. Perhaps he arranged Koretia's attack on the borderland villages to ensure that the Emorians would come. Whatever his intentions might have been toward the late King, now Emor is his enemy?"

"It would appear so. Since the time your father first crossed the border with his army, the Jackal's thieves – the Koretians who secretly serve him – haven't made life easy for the Emorians or their sympathizers."

"The thieves murder them," Peter said bluntly.

"I don't know how it is these days, but murders were rare in my childhood, though of course they were the acts that attracted the most attention. More often the Jackal's followers practiced thievery: small thefts, tricks that left the victims frustrated, and quite a few practical jokes. Once a garrison captain locked a town council out of its meeting hall and afterwards found himself locked out of his own house for three days. The thieves are quiet as cats, are rarely caught, and almost never talk when they are caught. The Jackal himself has never been caught, nor is his human identity known to any but his closest companions."

Peter walked over to the window and stared out at the mountains again. "Are there any stories about what he is like?"

"Nobody seems to be sure of his age – I suppose that by this time he must be in his older years. As to his appearance, it is said that he has the body of a man and the face of a jackal."

Peter turned to look at me. I lifted my eyes from the map and stared back at him silently. He said, "A mask?"

I nodded. "Many centuries ago, the priests wore masks when they made sacrifices to the gods, so as to show in which god's name they were killing the victim. The masks, though no longer worn, are still used as an aid to worship. The man called the Jackal is said to wear such a god-mask."

"God-masks, slave-masks – Koretia seems to be a land full of masks. . . . But I'm less interested in the Jackal's appearance than in what sort of man he is."

"If I ever speak with him, I'll be able to tell you. But I can at least tell you what the god is like." I paused, my eyes searching the neck-flap of his tunic. "You're not wearing your emblem brooch."

"No, I'm dressed for the court today."

"I realize that. What I meant was, I could have used your royal emblem to explain about the Jackal."

"Use this, then." Peter strode forward and pulled from his finger the Chara's seal-ring, used to seal official documents and letters, such as the one Peter had left me. Except for certain high-ranked court officials, anyone who touched the ring could be placed under the high doom.

I took the Chara's ring from his hand and turned it to show the emblem of the Charas: a balance holding in one scale a blade and in the other scale a bird wounded in the heart.

"This is one of many things which have convinced me that Emor and Koretia were once connected in some way," I said. "Here is the Chara's emblem: the Balance of Judgment holding the Sword of Vengeance and the Heart of Mercy. And those are the three attributes of the Jackal as well: the God of Judgment, the God of Vengeance, and the God of Mercy. The Jackal God hides in the shadows during his night-prowls, judging the Koretian people. To his enemies he brings vengeance, and to his loyal servants he brings the mercy of peace. There are even stories of the god allowing himself to be wounded and to suffer for those who serve him. That is why he is so loved by the Koretian people."

Peter took back the ring, slid it onto his finger, and asked quietly, "Was he loved by you when you were a child? Did you wish to become a thief for the Jackal?"

I looked down again at the map before answering. "The blood vow I once told you of was made to the Jackal."

The guards, who had been shuffling in their places outside the Map Room, fell silent at this moment, and the loudest sound I could hear was the crackle of the fire behind me. Peter said, "Then I will have to hope that, when I visit Koretia, the Jackal doesn't place me under his high doom for helping you to break your vow."

I touched the map very lightly before I looked up to where Peter stood, watching me. "You are going to Koretia?" I said in a dispassionate voice.

"I think that's the only action I can take to prevent war from breaking out again." He waited, and then said, "What is on your mind?"

"I was thinking that summer isn't the best time to visit Koretia."

Peter smiled. "You're supposed to say, 'The Chara never leaves his palace.' That's what the council lords will say when I tell them of my decision."

"You haven't told them yet?"

"I didn't decide to go before this conversation. I expect that the council and I will have a lengthy quarrel on the topic, but the law allows me to go, and my duty as Chara tells me to go. Besides, I'd like to see Koretia. I was only there for that one brief visit."

"Because your father wouldn't risk putting you in danger's way again. How will the Chara avoid becoming the Jackal's next victim?"

"The Chara hopes," said Peter with a smile, "that his subject Andrew will not be leading him into any more ambushes. But in any case, I won't be travelling as the Chara. It appears that the Jackal doesn't murder Emorian lords at random, so I should be safe if I don't call attention to myself, but instead journey to the governor's palace in the company of one or two other lords." He paused, searching my face. "I may take a few lesser free-men along as well."

I did not move my gaze from his, but my expression remained masked. "Are you asking me to come with you, Peter?"

His voice, when he replied, was gentle. "I wish that it were Peter who was asking. I would like to say that the only reason I am asking you is because I, Peter, would like my friend to be able to visit his childhood home. But the fact is that the Chara is requesting his servant to accompany him so that, with your special background, you can find me information that I may wish to use against the Koretian rebels and their Jackal. I need you to be a spy in your own land."

I still did not move, but now that the words were said, I felt my heart ease somewhat. "Thank you for putting that so clearly, Chara," I said softly, "but I have only one land, which is Emor, and only one master, which is you. When I gave my oath of loyalty to the Chara, I did not say that I would serve you only on condition that you not give me any hard tasks to do. If you need my help, then I will gladly come with you to Koretia."

He bowed his head to me, as though he were the servant and I the master. "Thank you. I would miss you if I had to make this long trip to Koretia alone. Besides" – he gave a crooked smile – "I'm depending on you to tell me which Koretian foods are inedible to Emorians."

I was saved from having to reply by the call of the trumpets outside, sounding three long notes. "May the high doom fall upon me," said the Chara. "I am due in the court now. Could you hand me my cloak?"

I brought it over to him; he was placing the Pendant of Judgment around his neck. I shook my head as he tried to take the cloak from me, and instead went round his back to place it on him myself.

"You must stop acting as though you were still my free-servant," he scolded me mildly. "You have your own duties as a palace guest."

"Old customs are hard to abandon," I said.

o—o—o

The Chara's palace was nearly as big as the city I had grown up in, and I doubt that even Peter, who had spent all his life there, had visited every part of it. In theory, the great building was divided into three areas – the court, the army, and the council – but in practice, all of the important rooms were clustered in the vicinity of the Court of Judgment.

I passed the doorway to the court after leaving the Map Room and caught a glimpse of the Chara sitting on his throne. I did not linger. A year had passed since I had last visited the court, and I had no desire ever to see the Chara in judgment again.

Instead, I continued on to the north end of the palace, where two great copper doors stood open. They led to the vast chamber belonging to the council lords, who were given the task by law of running the daily affairs of Emor and its imperial dominions. The chamber was surrounded on three sides by the other rooms of the council quarters, and at the entrance to the chamber were side doors leading to the corridors adjoining these rooms. Through them, I could glimpse a bustle of activity.

The Council Chamber's doors – as high and wide as those of the Map Room – were open, though they showed only a small portion of the chamber, since the council quarters, like the Map Room, jutted out toward the east, beyond the facade of the rest of the east wing of the palace. The entrance to the chamber was empty except for the council guards and the council porter. The latter was on a ladder at the entrance, attempting to raise the royal emblem of the Chara, which was placed above the chamber doorway on days when the council met in closed session. I paused to lend him my aid until we had together succeeded in placing the seal directly in the path of sunlight from the high corridor windows. The painted colors shone brightly from the grey stone background: the silver sword, the golden balance, and the red heart's blood on the black bird.

"You're stronger than I would have thought," said the porter. Then, taking my silence for the reply that it was, he added hastily, "I mean . . . having lived all your life in the palace. . . . It's not as though you were trained for heavy work."

"I had a few years of normal life before I came here," I replied. "Do you need help with passing word to the council officials?"

Still standing above me on the ladder, the porter shook his head mutely, and I continued on my journey without looking back at him. Turning right once I passed through the entrance, I walked through the empty Council Chamber, as ancient as the Court of Judgment, and made my way into a chamber at the back.

The council library was a small room, but was one of the few in the palace that was filled with many windows. The sunlight fell unimpeded onto the short row of double-sided desks, each mounted in the middle with a small bookcase. I went from desk to desk until I found the volume I was looking for. Grasping its leather binding, which had grown warm under the sun's rays, I pulled the book gently from the shelf, brushing off the desk, as I did so, bits of paper that flaked off the book and fluttered down. As I seated myself, I pushed to one side the iron chain that bound the book to the desk, and then opened the collection of the Chara Nicholas's proclamations during the final years of the Border Wars.

It took me some time to find the document I was seeking.
 

I, Nicholas, the Great Chara of Emor and Its Dominions .
. . do on this day declare that Alan son of Gershom, formerly Head Councilman
of the Town of Busedge, shall become a non-voting member of the Great Council
of Emor, and shall also be made Lord of the Koretian Land, acting as its
governor until his death. I do declare also that Lord Alan shall be servant
only to the Great Council, which in turn is servant only to the Law, except
as it shall turn any of its members over to the Chara for judgment. And
so that it shall be understood by Lord Alan and the people of this land,
I make clear in this declaration that his duties are as
follows:
to obey the commands of the Chara, to care for the Koretian people with
discipline and mercy . . .


A shadow fell over the book, and a voice behind me said, "Reading about your homeland?"

I shut the book, rose, and gave a short bow. "High Lord."

"Good day to you, Andrew," Lord Dean replied, as easily as though he were addressing one of his council lords. "I didn't mean to interrupt you at your studies."

"It is of no importance," I said. "The Chara asked me to gather information on the dominions' governors."

"And especially on the Koretian governor? That is hardly surprising. No one in the palace talks of anything but Koretia these days. Tell me, have you never thought of returning to your native land?"

I scrutinized him, trying to assess from his expression whether he had spoken to the Chara. "It has not occurred to me for many years."

"Not now, of course, not with Koretia on the verge of war. But once we have brought peace again to that land, you might do well to consider such an action. I understand that the Chara is in desperate need of an aide to stay in the governor's palace and ensure that Lord Alan is not – well, handing down his own judgment of what the Chara's commands mean. I doubt that the Chara has raised the topic with you himself, but I'm sure that you've occurred to him as someone who could provide a loyal Emorian presence in a troubled land. You would be doing the Chara a great service if you were to propose to him such an arrangement."

"I am the Chara's servant. He has only to ask."

"But you are his subject, not his free-servant; you could propose the matter yourself. Andrew, my legs are not as young as they used to be. Shall we make ourselves more comfortable?"

I followed Lord Dean over to the chairs by the north window, and then waited until he had seated himself before I followed suit. We were opposite the library tapestry, which hung on the wall in aged and faded splendor. It was so old that not even Peter knew its origin, and it was obviously symbolic in some way, but no one had ever been able to identify the symbols: a flower rising out of a flame, a man struggling to tame a wild stallion, a silver moon that was curved into a crescent blade, two golden suns staring down at the land like eyes . . .

Lord Dean leaned back in his chair. "Ah, that is better. I envy you your youth, Andrew, not only because your body is still fresh and full of vigor but also because you have so much time ahead of you. You've already accomplished much in your life. Tell me, how long have you been with the Chara?"

I said, with precision, "I was assigned to the Chara's household almost twelve years ago. I became his free-servant ten years ago . . ." I hesitated.

"And for the past year you have held no other title than friend of the Chara," concluded Lord Dean. "An honorable position, and one that I like to think I share with you. It is as the Chara's friend that I wish to speak to you, Andrew. It is on a matter that I cannot approach the Chara about officially except insofar as I have already done so. I know that you are probably the only person in this palace who cares as much about the Chara's best interests as I do. So I would like your help, free-man to free-man, in opening the Chara's eyes to a danger that faces Emor."

"If I can help the Chara," I said, carefully rephrasing Lord Dean's request, "I certainly will try to do so. What is the nature of this danger?"

Lord Dean smiled, his long fingers idly twirling the short locks of his white hair. "Do you remember the visit of the Arpeshian princess many years ago? She is, of course, a princess only in name, but the Arpeshians hold her in great respect, and it is through the influence of her late mother that the Chara Nicholas was able to subdue a threatened rebellion in Arpesh fourteen years ago. The princess would have been about five years old at that time."

"I was not yet part of the Chara's household at that time, Lord Dean."

"No, that is right, and I suppose that you did not venture much from your quarters. Well, when the princess visited, the Chara Peter was a boy of twelve, still a few years from manhood, yet he spent a surprisingly large amount of his time entertaining his palace guest. I believe, too, that he saw Lady Delia again several years later, when he visited Arpesh on the eve of his enthronement. And so the council suggested to the Chara some weeks ago that he invite the princess to stay at the palace."

"Is there trouble in Arpesh? I had not heard." My mind was less on what the High Lord was saying than on unravelling the puzzle of the tapestry. What was the meaning of the young woman leading a goat into a building? Or of the quill pen that appeared to be writing in blood? Or, most mysterious of all, the upper right-hand corner of the tapestry, which was carefully woven black, with no symbols whatever?

"There is as yet no trouble in Arpesh," said Lord Dean, "and there would be no trouble in the future if the Chara chose to unite himself with the last descendent of the Arpeshian royal line."

There was a silence of less than a heartbeat before I replied, my eyes still fixed on the tapestry, "Has the princess shown any interest in marrying the Chara?"

"The princess is too well trained to voice her thoughts publicly, but the council has learned from various sources that she would be agreeable to such a union, both for the good of her land and also from a personal point of view. She has not forgotten the Chara's kindness to her on her last visit."

"And the Chara?"

"Agreed to invite the princess here. She is scheduled to arrive here in three months' time."

I tore my gaze away from the tapestry and looked over at Lord Dean. I could not read his face, but neither, I was sure, could he read mine. I said coolly, "Then I fail to see where the problem lies, Lord Dean. If the Chara has taken the trouble to invite the princess here, I imagine that he will agree to the marriage. I do not see how I can help him."

"The Chara—" Lord Dean's voice rose in an unaccustomed manner before he mastered himself and said in his usual restrained tone, "I met the Chara in the corridor earlier today. He asked me to send a message to Arpesh immediately, cancelling the princess's visit. He said that he would have to meet with the princess at some other time."

"Well," I said, treading carefully around the edges of my conversation with Peter, "it may be that he is worried about the crisis in Koretia and feels that he needs to devote his time to that matter. After he has done that, no doubt he will be able to meet with the princess."

"I am sure that the Chara will have some good explanation for cancelling the visit," Lord Dean said dryly. "I doubt, however, that he will ever meet with the princess. This is the third marital alliance that the council has proposed to him, the third time that he has agreed to meet with the noblewoman in question, and the third time that he has cancelled the visit at the last minute. It is clear that, in the Chara's mind, there is no good time for him to arrange a marriage."

Outside the windows, the silver trumpets of the Chara announced the end of the court's day. Lord Dean took no notice. He was at most times the least perturbed lord on a council of composed lords, but now he was drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair.

Keeping my voice neutral, I said, "I suppose that the Chara must believe there is plenty of time for marriage in the future, since he is still young."

"He is not too young to die," said Lord Dean bluntly. "His father was hardly the first Chara to die at a relatively young age from sheer overwork – it is a curse that seems to come with the title. And leaving that possibility aside, war may occur in the dominions. Even with the Chara supervising the fighting from a safe distance, there is always the danger of assassins. If the Chara should lead a force into Koretia some months from now and be cut down, you know what will happen to Emor."

I was silent before saying, "It is not clear who the Chara's heir is, as I understand it."

"He has no heir, according to the law; the council found the Chara's nearest kinsman to be unsuitable for the throne. The Chara has no other relatives close enough within the royal line to qualify for inheritance. So if the Chara dies, this land will erupt into a war as terrible as those in Koretia, a war to determine who should take the Chara's place."

"If a peaceful solution should be found . . ."

The High Lord shook his head. "I doubt that even a successor selected by peaceful means would prove an adequate substitute. The duties of the Chara are handed down father to son; it is a role that the Chara Peter spent his life preparing for, and it is not a role that even I could walk into unprepared. With no Chara, there would be no High Judge, and with no high judgment, Emor would be destroyed."

Lord Dean's words contained an unusual passion, but my own voice, when it spoke, was stripped of all emotion. "I am sure that the Chara has thought of all that you have said. If he has decided that his current duties prevent him from producing an immediate heir, it is not my place to dispute the matter with him."

"Now, Andrew," said Lord Dean mildly, "that is a disingenuous statement. You know quite well that, as the Chara's friend, you have disputed with him on far more controversial topics. Some of these topics you have raised with him on my suggestion – though only, I know, when my opinion on the subjects happened to coincide with your own. So let us have less talk of how you are the Chara's humble servant and more talk about what you and I can do to aid him in this difficult matter."

His eyes shifted to mine suddenly, in the manner of a soldier who is trying to judge how to slice his blade through his enemy's guard. I did not move, but I let my eyes drift once more toward the tapestry. "I am not sure how it is that I can help, Lord Dean. Friend or not, I surely do not have the right to lead the Chara to his marriage-bed. He knows that I will help him in any way I can when the time comes."

"Ah, but will you?" The tone of Lord Dean's question was like cold metal on my skin, but a moment later he said amiably, "I know, of course, that you are always ready with help – you may be the most loyal subject the Chara has in this land. It is natural that, whenever the Chara is in need of advice or companionship, he should turn to you. But perhaps that is a danger in itself. It may be that the Chara finds it difficult to consult with one companion about a union with another companion."

I said nothing, but let my eyes drift blindly over the colors of the tapestry: red and gold, silver and black, green and blue and brown. Lord Dean's voice grew even more gentle as he said, "I remember how, when I was young, it was hard to watch my friends part and take wives. It was like a betrayal of our friendships. I think that the only thing that made it bearable was knowing that some day I too would find a mate. But of course I'm sure that, like any other man, you understand the desire to raise a family."

My roving eye settled for a moment on the man roping the stallion. "Yes."

"Well, then." Having found his way past my guard and delivered his blow, Lord Dean settled back into a more comfortable position. His voice grew matter-of-fact again. "I'm therefore sure you appreciate the conflict of loyalties that the Chara must be feeling at this moment. That is why I suggested earlier that you might want to spend some time apart in Koretia: in order to give the Chara a chance to work out on his own what is best for himself and for Emor. So you see, I'm not asking you to mediate on my behalf as I have in the past, though I'm sure that you will discuss this matter with the Chara. Instead – I speak without formality here, since we share the Chara's friendship – Peter may have less need this time of your advice than of your actions. I think that you ought to put much thought to this."

I rose slowly, my limbs feeling as heavy as though Lord Dean had transferred his aging body to mine. I bowed to the High Lord and said, "I appreciate your bringing this matter to my attention. I assure you that I will indeed give thought to the matter."

Lord Dean rose also, and as we walked toward the library door, he smiled at me. "I know that I can count on your loyalty to the Chara to help you in making the right decision. There is no one else in the palace who knows the Chara as well as you do, or has the ability to demonstrate to him more clearly the importance of fathering an heir."

He left me standing beside a window that, like the window in the Map Room, looked out upon the southern view. Twelve years had passed since I had been in the city surrounding the Chara's palace, and fifteen years since I had been there in daylight, yet still I could find in a moment's glance the market beside the river, with its stalls and tents and the high, windy platform where the slaves were sold.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

Fifteen years before, I had stood hand-bound on that platform, my back to the black border mountains, and my gaze fixed firmly on the Chara's palace.

Summer still held sway in Koretia, but the autumn winds had begun to bite at us even before the slave-seller's pack-train passed through the mountains. I was dressed in a bare-backed Emorian slave's tunic, trying not to shiver as the wind scurried up my spine, and trying even harder not to waver my gaze and chance meeting the eyes of a free-man. The slave-seller called me stubborn and senseless, but I had at least learned that lesson in my struggle to survive during the past ten weeks.

The subdued noises of the Emorian marketplace sounded strange to my ear: the fish-sellers did not shout out their wares, nor did the man running the fruit-cart burst into curses when a small girl tried to make off with an apple. Rather than handle the matter himself, as a Koretian would have done, he summoned the soldiers patrolling the market – though, to my relief, the soldiers seemed more amused than angered by the child's actions. All of the sounds in the market were orderly and exact, like the neat stone walls and tidy fields surrounding the city.

I could not see the fields from where I stood. Towering over me was the palace of the Chara, its hard, white-marble face appearing cold to me in contrast with the warm glow of Koretia's Council Hall. The hilltop palace was encircled by a double layer of walls, as high as the city wall we had passed beyond that morning. On the towers of the inner palace wall, soldiers drilled in uniform motion.

"There he is!"

The voice caught my attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the slave-seller's assistant was standing nearby, pointing to me. The genial slave-seller who had bought me from the previous seller had given his young assistant the day off after our hard, winding journey. From the looks of it, the assistant was spending his time with his girl.

"That's the one who tried to kill me," he was telling her now. "Nearly choked me with his bare hands when I was adjusting his hand-bindings."

"But he's just a boy!" cried the girl. She was dressed in a gown which, except for its heavy material, might have been Koretian, but her hair was a color that seemed to me startling in its lightness.

"That's what I thought, and it was nearly the death of me. My master said that I should have known better. We bought this slave off of Ogier, who was selling him cheap because Ogier was nearly knocked over the head one night after he bought the boy from a soldier. Ogier said he wasn't the sort of slave that it would be easy to find a buyer for; he was quite honest about it. My master, though, said that he knew a lord who would pay good money for him. I'm not sure it was worth it, myself, what with us having to watch him every moment to make sure he wouldn't escape or try to kill the lot of us."

"It must take great bravery to work with these Koretian barbarians," said the girl, drawing herself closer to the assistant.

She was very pretty, and I nearly made the mistake of staring at her with open admiration. Then I heard a sound to the right of me and froze. It was the slave-seller, puffing his way up the platform steps as he led a customer toward me.

"Here he is, Lord Carle," said the seller, laying his hands on his broad belly as he caught his breath. "I tell you frankly, if it were some lords, I would keep my mouth shut about this slave until they had bought him and found out for themselves what he is like. And to other lords I might feel an obligation to give a friendly warning. But when I saw this boy, I knew that he was just the slave for you."

"Hmm." The Emorian lord stood slightly to the side. I could just see his moss-green eyes examining me. He had a ruddy face, and his reddish-brown beard was sprinkled with silver. The forehead over his thick eyebrows was knotted with concentration. "He came from their capital, you say?"

"What is left of the Koretian capital, at any rate. Now that the wars are over, the new governor has been wondering whether the city is worth the bother to rebuild. But you would know more about that than I do."

Lord Carle said nothing, but circled round me until he reached my other side. I kept my eyes fixed at a point beyond him as he passed.

"He looks stubborn enough," said Lord Carle finally. "What is his name?"

The slave-seller appeared confused. "I'm not sure," he said. "I don't know the Koretian tongue myself. Hugh!" He shouted this down to his assistant, who was watching the proceedings with interest. "You know their language. Does he have a name?"

"Can't say as I've ever wanted to get well enough acquainted with him to find out, sir," the assistant cried out boldly, perhaps for the benefit of the giggling girl.

The slave-seller frowned at his assistant behind Lord Carle's back, and then asked the nobleman, "Shall I bring my boy up to interpret, Lord Carle?"

"Don't bother. I was forced by our unremitting troubles with Koretia to learn that primitive tongue myself. —What is your name?" he asked me in flawless Koretian.

He had moved again so that he was facing me straight on. I had my chin up high enough that I could have seen his face, but I took care to keep my gaze fixed on his chest. I said nothing.

Lord Carle moved back slightly so that my gaze now fell on his neck. I did not move my body or eyes. He said reflectively, "I hope that you are not trying to sell me a deaf-mute, Robert."

"The laws forbid that I should, Lord Carle!" the slave-seller protested. "He is simply a mulish rascal – you see how difficult he is to train." He paused, judging his customer, and then added, "Would you like to take on the challenge yourself?"

"That depends, as always, on the price. The last time I was here, you tried to sell me a half-dead Daxion for twice my inheritance."

The slave-seller chuckled. "Then I will see whether I can make up for it this time. To be perfectly honest, Lord Carle, if you fail to buy the boy, I don't know what I will do with him. Not many free-men in this city have the courage to try to tame a savage Koretian like this. I will let you have him for forty gold pieces."

Lord Carle moved again, this time so that his eyes would meet mine. I waited until the moment he blinked, and then shifted my gaze ever so slightly away from him.

"A fair price for once," said Lord Carle, still looking at me rather than the slave-seller. "Which makes me suspicious. What sort of wounds does he have hidden under that tunic?"

"Do you think I would try to sell a defective slave to a council lord? I've no wish to be summoned to the city court on the charge of selling bad goods. I assure you, he is entirely whole in body. You may inspect him yourself, if you wish."

"It is the council's court that you would find yourself in if you committed a crime against a council lord," said Lord Carle, "and I have no intention of sullying my hands on his greasy body." He looked at me with distaste, his gaze travelling down over my chest. Then, in an instant, his eyes rose to catch me looking at him. I froze my gaze once more, and a smile entered his eyes. Then he turned away in apparent disinterest.

"I have some tamer slaves to sell, if you prefer," said the disappointed slave-seller.

"Taming is an art," said Lord Carle, his voice smooth with passion. "I bought a stallion off of Warren the horse-seller last year. He told me that it could never be tamed, that I was better off buying another horse that had already been broken. Three months later he visited the palace stables and saw my horse, broken in both body and spirit, and obedient to my slightest command. He has not tried to sell me any tame horses since then."

The slave-seller beamed with pleasure. Lord Carle turned slowly back to the place in which he had stood before, where his gaze met my gaze, and this time I did not dare try to shift my eyes. He said, "This Koretian dog speaks with a barbaric tongue and comes from a barbaric land, one which has no order or laws. Yet if I were to take him, in three months you would find him thinking and acting like a civilized Emorian. If you know how to discipline a slave, as I do, such transformations are accomplished with ease."

He stepped forward slightly, his eyebrows drawn down low as he gazed narrowly at me. I lifted my eyes slowly until they met his once more, and I said in Emorian, "I am Koretian. I will never be Emorian, for I have taken a blood vow to kill the Chara and bring freedom to my land."

Lord Carle began to smile again, a slow, crooked smile. So fascinating was that dark smile that I did not see his fist until it had nearly reached my cheek.

I dodged then, and the blow landed at a glance so that I was thrown to my knees rather than being flattened to the ground. I felt the platform vibrate with a thump as the slave-seller's assistant jumped up next to me to ensure that I would not cause trouble. Shaking my bowed head in an attempt to stop the buzzing in my ears, I rose, and then lifted my eyes firmly to meet Lord Carle's.

He was still smiling. Now something more entered his expression, like the look of admiration that a soldier might show for his enemy. He said with soft viciousness, "You have just learned the first lesson of being an Emorian, which is to show respect for your masters. If you wish to remain Koretian inside, I will not interfere with your loyalties. By the Chara's high doom, though, you will learn how to behave like an Emorian, and you will begin by apologizing to me."

The wind was running up and down my spine now like a dagger blade, and I could feel myself begin to shiver. But I did not speak, and I did not move my eyes.

After a moment, Lord Carle turned away. "Geld him."

"Lord Carle?" said the slave-seller uncertainly.

"Have him delivered to the palace dungeon's torturers; tell them to send him to my quarters after they have gelded him. If he dies under the knife, I will pay for his loss. But if he lives—" He turned his dark gaze my way. "If he lives, he will know who his master is, and that his master is to be obeyed."

Then he walked away, and I was left staring at the marble prison in front of me.

o—o—o

"What do you think you're looking at?"

Philippa, Lord Carle's kitchen slave, was always a beauty to look at: she had honey-colored skin, nut-brown lips, and amber eyelashes. She was not Koretian, as I had once thought; rather, she had Koretian coloring and a soft Koretian accent because she had been born in the borderland, the strip of land stretching on both sides of the black border mountains. Here Koretians married Emorians, producing light-skinned Koretians and dark-skinned Emorians. Philippa was Emorian, but I allowed this fact to be dulled in my mind whenever I caught sight of her.

She was a beauty even now that she stood frowning at me because she had noticed me watching out of the corner of my eye as she cuddled with Lord Diggory's slave-servant Patrick. We were in the pantry, one of the few rooms in Lord Carle's section of the slave-quarters with a reasonable amount of privacy, and a favorite location for palace slaves who wished to carry on a romance.

I had not come to the room with the deliberate intention of spying on them. I had been sent there that evening by Lord Carle's free-servant Henry to clean the silver wine cups.

"Oh, leave him alone, Lippa," said Patrick, pausing from the act of nibbling her ear. "Have mercy on the poor wretch. It's the most fun he'll ever have."

My face remained expressionless as I wiped the cups mechanically with a cloth, but something about my hunched posture prompted Patrick to add with exasperation, "Oh, come on – I'm just joking."

"Look at him – look at him," said Philippa, twisting away from Patrick's grasp so that she could rest her fists on her hips. "He's cleaning the bottom of the wine pitcher as well. I know that Henry wouldn't have told him to do that. It's just another way he has found to act as though he's better than any other slave. He's a cold, uppity creature, and he spends half his time trying to make the rest of us look lazy."

"It won't be hard for him to do that, will it?" said Patrick, smoothing down the front of his tunic. "You're supposed to be washing up right now, aren't you? You'd better go finish cleaning the dishes before Henry suspects that I have been waylaying you from your duties. Henry's a stickler for duty, he is. And I don't want to come by here again and find that Henry has given orders for the guards to keep me out."

Philippa gave a half-smile, half-frown, coaxing Patrick's mouth down to her own. Once he had begun to take interest, she pushed him away and left the pantry, not looking back. Patrick sighed and turned to me. "Here, I'll help you with that. You'll never get those cups done in time if you take that much trouble over them."

He sat down beside me on the stone bench next to the table and began wiping the cups with a skill lesser than my own. After a few minutes he said, "Why do you take so much trouble? I'm just curious. I've heard plenty of stories about the encounters you've had with Lord Carle, so love of your master can't be what drives you."

I wiped the lip of the cup I was holding, held it up to the light, and wiped it again before replying, "I do it for the Jackal."

"The Jackal? . . . Oh, one of your Koretian gods. What does the Jackal have to do with it?"

I tossed aside the cloth I was holding and pulled over a clean one, pushing a lock of hair out of my eyes as I did so. I did not have to worry about much hair getting in my face as I worked; Lord Carle had ordered my hair cut soon after I first arrived at his quarters, while I still lay half-conscious on my sickbed. He wanted me to have short hair like any decent Emorian boy. I had not protested. It had seemed to me at that time that all my dreams of coming of age had already been destroyed forever.

"If I had to do my work for the sake of Lord Carle, I would never do it," I replied. "If I didn't do my work, Lord Carle would kill me. So, since the Jackal is my real master, I pretend that I'm doing the work for him. When you work for a god, you want to work well."

Patrick stared at me. He was an Emorian, sold on his village court's orders to pay a debt that his father had incurred, and he had spent most of his seventeen years at the palace. I knew little about him, since he worked in Lord Diggory's section of the slave-quarters, farther along in the basement. But I knew that most of the other slaves disliked him. This was reason enough for me to like him, since I shared his problem.

"You're an odd one, aren't you?" he said. "I'd heard that you had your own way of thinking. You would have to have a different sort of mind to get into so many arguments with Lord Carle. I hate being in the same room as that lord, even on his good days. I thought you were going to say that you did a lot of work in hope that he would free you some day."

"No," I said, taking a cup from his hand because he had been wiping the same spot for several minutes. "Lord Carle will never free me."

"You're right about that, and it's not just Lord Carle. I haven't known any palace slaves to be freed the whole time I've been here. I think the Chara is afraid that the dominion-born ones will take secrets back to their lands and cause trouble. And, of course, what the Chara wants, every council lord wants as well. The only way I know for a palace slave to be freed is for him to be transferred to his master's country home – that's the route I'm planning to take. After a few years, they forget that you lived in the palace, and you have just as good a chance as any other slave in this land of getting your manumission paper."

I pushed the finished wine cups to one side and began wiping the water cups once more. "There are benefits to living in the palace. Some day I may meet the Chara."

"What will you do if that happens?" replied Patrick with a laugh. "Ask to touch his pendant? Tell him what he should do in Koretia? Or you could just kill him and solve all the problems of your land."

Again I said nothing, and again something about my posture caused Patrick to exclaim, "You're not serious! Don't be a fool, boy; it has been tried before. It never works – the palace guards always catch the assassin beforehand, and you know what would happen to you then."

I put down the water cup I was holding, staring at the reflections on it. The mirrored colors were as dull as my surroundings: grey from the windowless walls of the slave-quarters, brown from the tunics that Patrick and I wore, and black from the shelves around us. I said, "To die for the sake of the god would be better than spending the rest of my life serving Lord Carle."

"Well, if your god has ordered you to do this, tell him that he should reconsider the matter. Do you have any idea what they do to a slave who has been placed under the high doom? He doesn't get his head cut off with a sword as though he were a free-man. If I ever have to die, you may be sure that I'll arrange for it to be in a quick and painless manner."

I stood up and went over to the shelf, where I pulled out a gold tray. As I began placing the cups and wine and water in careful order on the tray, Patrick lowered his voice. "Listen, you take my advice and don't tell anyone else about this. You can't trust slaves – they'd give word to their master what you were up to, just to get on his good side. You don't want to have to fight off all the palace guards before you even get to meet the Chara. It will be hard enough killing one person."

"Two people," I said. "The Chara and the Chara To Be. They are both the Chara."

"Have you been sneaking a look at Lord Carle's law books? For sure, you'd have to kill the Chara's son too, but you'd have even less chance of doing that. The Chara keeps Lord Peter locked away in his room, reading book after book, and only brings him out for the occasional ceremony or court case."

I did not reply. Patrick opened his mouth to say more, and then rose quickly as Henry opened the door to the room.

"What are you doing here, Patrick?" he asked, looking hard at the slave-servant.

"Message for Lord Carle, sir," said Patrick smoothly. "Lord Diggory said that I was to deliver it personally, but I understand that Lord Carle is at dinner."

Henry held out his hand, and Patrick placed the wax-sealed letter there. The white-haired free-servant glanced at the seal briefly, then handed the message back and said, "You will have to wait until later this evening. Not here, where you will be in the way of the other slaves. There is food left from the dinner in the kitchen – you can wait there."

Patrick bowed his head in acknowledgment and thanks of the order, waited until Henry had stepped past him, and then winked at me before leaving the room.

Henry's composed gaze took in me and the cleaned cups. "Well done. Is that the best tunic you have?"

"It is the only tunic I have, sir."

"We will have to find you a better one soon. That one will do for now. Lord Carle has dinner guests, and while it was my understanding that the chief guest would bring his own free-servant to help pour the wine, he has not done so. Lord Carle told me to send for you, since he knows you to be circumspect in your manner and not the type to gossip about what you overhear while serving."

Lord Carle, I was sure, had phrased his command in a far less complimentary manner, but Henry had served the council lord for many years and had a special talent for covering up his master's brusqueness. I asked, "Do I come right away?"

"Yes, bring the tray now; they have finished their dinner. I will serve the wine, and you will serve the water. You do know which is the water cup, do you not?"

"The larger one, sir."

"Mind that you remember." Henry strode out of the room, his head held high with the dignity of a favored free-servant. I followed, cradling the heavy tray in my arms.

We walked through the slave-quarters, up the stairs, through the basement door that Henry opened with a key (since the slaves were now locked in for the night), past the guards stationed outside, down the short stretch of corridor that was the only part of the palace I had seen during my time there, through the door to Lord Carle's quarters, up a passage to the door of the dining chamber, and stopped there. Henry gave me a sharp look and opened the door. For a moment, his body blocked my view of the chamber. Then he stepped inside, and I looked straight into the eyes of the Chara's son.

He had changed much in the three-and-a-half years since I had seen him last, tugging at the cloak of his father. He had the lankiness of a boy on the edge of manhood – he was now nearly fifteen, just over a year from his coming of age. The open eagerness I had once seen on his face had altered to a more caged look, as though something had either frightened him or matured him. Only his eyes remained as I remembered them: grey as the Emorian sky on a winter's day, filled with curiosity and depth.

This much I saw before I dropped my gaze hastily. I followed Henry into the chamber. Its southern window was shuttered for the night, and the serving ledge where Henry placed the gold tray was shadow-dark in the candle-lit room. I took the water pitcher that Henry handed me, and then went over to stand at my place, on the side of the table to the right of Lord Carle. Only then did I see who the council lord's other two guests were: an elderly, hawk-eyed man whose glance darted around the table, and the Chara Nicholas.

The table was empty but for its candles, its fine embroidered covering, and a bowl of nuts that the elderly lord passed toward Lord Carle as he asked, "How are the negotiations going with the Daxion Ambassador, Nicholas?"

The Chara Nicholas waited a moment while Henry placed wine cups and water cups on the table. Unlike his son, he had not changed since I saw him last: he still had the carefully controlled movements of a man who is restraining abundant energy. Now he smiled and said in an easy manner, "Dean, whenever you ask me a question like that, I'm certain that you're trying to dig up information to use at your next council meeting."

"The laws forbid that I should!" exclaimed Lord Dean. "Believe me, I trust that you'll send us the appropriate reports in due time. I merely thought that you looked a bit tired."

"Some time within the next five years I hope to have a full night's rest," responded the Chara Nicholas. "But yes, the Ambassador has proved difficult to work with. He appears to know little about Emor and seems to think that our courts work in the same manner as those in his land, so that I've found myself having to describe to him the entire law-structure in the space of two days. I wish dearly that King Leofwin would have thought to send an ambassador who could deal with the subtleties of our negotiations rather than bog down in elementary facts." As he paused again to allow Henry to fill his cup with wine, I caught the quick nod of Henry's head toward me and stepped forward to fill Lord Dean's water cup.

"At least he was not caught stealing candlesticks from the Council Chamber, like that Koretian Ambassador in the time of the Chara Duncan." I saw Lord Carle's eyes rest on me briefly as I came clockwise round the table to fill his cup; then he took no more notice of me.

"Heart of Mercy," said Lord Dean. "I hope that the man was sentenced severely."

"That ambassador was not brought to trial at all," said the Chara Nicholas, moving his water cup to the right so that I could fill it without coming near to him. "Carle can undoubtedly tell you the details. I often think that he knows the law books better than I do and that he is studying to be my successor."

"I would not want to usurp the title from your son, Chara, since I hear that he is making fine progress with his studies," said Lord Carle. His eye was on the Chara's son, who was murmuring his thanks to me as I poured water into his cup. "In fact, I would be interested in discovering what he has learned on the subject of ambassadors."

"Peter?" The Chara's son, Peter, jerked his head around at his father's word, as though his thoughts had been elsewhere. The Chara Nicholas said, "What can you tell Lord Carle about ambassadors?"

I moved back from the table and stood where I had before, a body's length behind the Chara's son. Peter looked toward Lord Carle and said, in a manner in no way stilted, but rather as though he was speaking on a subject he knew well, "Ambassadors mediate negotiations between the rulers of two sovereign lands, usually in a time of grave crisis, either in wartime or peacetime."

"And some examples?" prompted his father.

"The Daxion Ambassador has been sent here for a peacetime crisis: the floods that are affecting both northern Daxis and the southwestern edge of Emor. A wartime example is that of Koretia. Fifteen years ago, that land sent an Ambassador to Emor in response to the Chara's distress over the fact that Koretia's civil war was beginning to spill over into the Emorian borderland villages—"

"We all know how the Border Wars began, I hope," said Lord Dean.

"My son was not born till the following year, Dean; this is ancient history to him," said the Chara Nicholas. "Go on, Peter."

"Koretia sent the Ambassador under a peace oath requiring that both our lands keep soldiers out of the black border mountains. But while the Ambassador was negotiating, Koretia took advantage of our laxness and destroyed our borderland villages. It appeared that the Ambassador had not been informed of his King's treacherous plans, so he was allowed by the Chara to return home."

"And was unfortunately executed by his own people for the failed negotiations, so my mercy was to no purpose," said the Chara Nicholas. "What else does the law say about ambassadors, Peter?"

"During his visits, the Ambassador is made a palace guest and is placed under the care of the Chara." Peter seemed quite composed in voice, but from where I stood, I could see that he was fingering his coarsely-woven tunic with nervous energy. "He negotiates only with the Chara, though the Chara consults with the council in matters that are under its province. If he commits a crime—"

"Ah!" said Lord Dean, draining his water. "I was wondering when my question would be answered – or indeed if it would be answered at all."

I stepped forward with the water pitcher and therefore caught the tail end of Peter's gaze as it swept over to Lord Dean. "I am sorry, Lord Dean. It is hard for me to remember the laws out of the order I learned them. If the Ambassador commits a crime, he is normally immune to the law and cannot be summoned to the court – that was the case with the Koretian Ambassador in my great-grandfather's time. If, however, the Ambassador's own people ask Emor to make judgment on the matter, he is tried in the Chara's court. The Ambassador can be tried for any crime except . . ." He hesitated.

"Disobedience to the Chara," said his father, peering at him over the rim of his wine cup.

"Disobedience to the Chara," repeated Peter. "This is because his loyalty is to his own ruler, and it cannot be considered a crime under the law for a man in a different land to have different loyalties." He stopped fingering the brown tunic, and as he reached out from under the table to grasp his water, his hand was as steady as ice.

"Reciting a passage from a book is not the same as being the Chara, of course," said Lord Dean, "but I, for one, am impressed."

I saw Peter suddenly grip the cup stem tightly, but he merely said in a low voice, "Thank you, Lord Dean."

"In actual fact," Lord Carle said dryly, "that was five passages from five different law books, so I am even more impressed. You forgot the law, though, concerning ceremonial dress."

Peter's hand disappeared under the table, and I saw him grip the tunic once more. He said calmly, "I apologize. Ambassadors are expected to dress formally for ceremonies, but according to the customs of their own land. In particular, they are not required to wear a free-man's weapon. —May I ask a question, Chara?"

"Call me Father; we are amongst friends. What is it that you wish to know?"

"The Enkloo Ambassador who came here several years ago wore a sword, but swords are not the weapon of warfare in that land. Why did he dress according to Emorian custom, then?"

"Because he was a good ambassador," said the Chara Nicholas. He put his wine cup to one side, and Henry came forward to fill it. "It's always wise for a mediator to adopt the customs of the land he is visiting, whether he abides by them at home or not. But it isn't wise for Emor to insist that ambassadors do so. Every land has its own customs and even its own laws. That's why I haven't imposed on the dominions more Emorian customs than are necessary. We cannot, for example, make a Koretian into an Emorian."

I was standing behind the Chara's son, about to refill his water cup. I saw Lord Carle look my way before saying, "I might dispute the Chara for saying that Koretia has its own laws. But it is true that it is exceedingly difficult to make the dominions behave in a civilized fashion. Take these recent problems in Arpesh."

"Ah," said Lord Dean. "I was hoping that this subject would arise. The council has been most disturbed by its lack of information on the matter, Nicholas. Since the dominion is under the council's care, we'd like to know why we have received no reports on the army divisions you have recently sent to that land."

The Chara Nicholas held Lord Dean's eyes for a moment before saying in a tranquil voice, "You have received no reports yet, High Lord, because it is my privilege to decide the appropriate time for you to receive such reports. The army is under the Chara's care – as you know. It appears, however, that your clerk doesn't realize this, as he has been sending out orders in contradiction to my own. I would appreciate it . . ." His voice lingered on this phrase for a moment. ". . . if you would inform him of his proper duties in this matter."

"Certainly, Chara," said Lord Dean, making a hasty retreat from his attack. "I've spoken to the man before, but you know how hard it is to discipline clerks. They seem to feel that they alone issue the commands."

"Discipline is always a difficult task," said the Chara Nicholas, his voice sounding darker, "but it must be undertaken. And please do not send your clerk to me for his punishment as you did in the last case of this kind. The council should take care of its own."

Lord Dean reached for the nut bowl but did not take anything from it, as though he were merely trying to occupy his hands. "No, of course not," he said. "I wouldn't wish to bother you more than I already have in the past." He gave a short laugh and added, "Perhaps I should send the clerk to your son the next time he tries on your pendant, in order to give him practice for the future."

There was a long silence, and I saw out of the corner of my eye that Peter had turned his head toward Lord Dean. The boy's face was bloodless. Then, as though compelled unwillingly by an invisible hand, the Chara's son turned to look at his father.

The Chara Nicholas had changed expression as well: the lines of his face had solidified, as though his soft flesh had hardened into granite. But if his face was stone, his eyes by contrast were a wounded crack in that stone. He said in a quiet, detached voice, "Did you wear my pendant, Peter?"

The ball in Peter's throat bobbed. He whispered, "Yes, Father."

Lord Dean said hastily, "It was many years ago, I believe, when he was playing as a little lad."

The Chara Nicholas said slowly, "Peter has known since he was a babe in arms that not even the Chara To Be may touch the Pendant of Judgment."

Peter continued to stare at his father, as though his eyes were trapped. Lord Dean was now taking a great interest in the design of the nut bowl, while Lord Carle stared down at his half-full wine cup as he cradled it in his hand. Even Henry stood rigid, his gaze straight ahead. The Chara's voice, when it came again, was low and heavy. "Lord Peter, let me be clear. If you touch the Pendant of Judgment again while I am alive, I will have you summoned to my court on the charge of disobeying the Chara. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Chara." Peter's voice was still faint, but there was a firmness to his reply that matched his father's words.

"Good. Then we will say no more on the matter." The Chara Nicholas's face relaxed and he looked away, pushing his cup to the side. Henry walked forward to fill it.

"It was thoughtless of me to have raised the subject," said Lord Dean, smiling at Peter. The Chara's son was fiddling with the stem of his water cup and did not look up.

"'Thoughtless' is perhaps not the word I would have used," said Lord Carle, staring hard at his fellow council lord. "We seem to have strayed successfully from the embarrassing topic of the council clerk."

"Did you wish to add something on that subject, Carle?" asked the Chara Nicholas.

"Not on that subject, no, Chara. But on the subject of discipline in general I may say that one of the things that has impressed me over the years about your court cases is the way in which you take the prisoner's entire nature into account when handing down judgment. You have often shown discernment in judging your prisoner, not simply by his crime, which may have been done as a result of youth or lack of experience, but by the whole of his character."

Peter's eyes rose slowly toward Lord Carle, and for a moment the council lord looked back at him with a discreetly neutral expression. Then Lord Carle broke the eye-link, leaning forward to take the nut bowl.

"Thank you for those words of wisdom, Carle," said the Chara Nicholas quietly. "Discipline is indeed a subject on which you have much knowledge to impart."

He glanced over toward his son, but Peter had seemingly already guessed his father's wishes, for he was asking, "May I visit you some time, Lord Carle, and ask you questions on that matter?"

Lord Carle bowed his head. "I would be honored. Is there any matter in particular that interests you?"

"Perhaps the subject of the Chara's relationship with his servants would be a good topic," suggested the Chara Nicholas, with a slight quirk to his mouth.

Peter apparently did not notice his father's expression, for he said somberly to Lord Carle, "My father means that he discovered me playing tag with some of the slave-boys who were cleaning the Court of Judgment."

Lord Dean quickly put his hand over his mouth. Even Lord Carle seemed to have trouble controlling his expression. But his voice was serious as he said to Peter, "You lead a hard life, I am sure, studying to become Chara. But good customs learned now will make your work easier for you when you grow older."

"Some things," said the Chara Nicholas, "are never easy to do."

At his soft words, the others turned to look at him, as though awaiting a proclamation. The Chara Nicholas paused a moment, as though trying to formulate the exact phrases required by law, and then said, "One of the terrible burdens I must pass on to my son is the knowledge that the Chara has no equals. The gap between the Chara and his free-servant and slave-servants is too great to be bridged; even the gap between the Chara and his council lords is too wide most of the time. I have been lucky to have had the friendship of you two, but many other lords have sought my friendship over the years and have failed, not through any lack of effort on my part, but because they could not realize that, when I become a friend, I do not cease to be master. I cannot show favor to any man, nor can I cease to be the Chara to any of my subjects. But few men can face the knowledge that their friend has the ability, and may have the duty, to condemn them in the Court of Judgment. I do not blame the lords who found it hard to live with this fact. Of all the sacrifices I have had to make for the sake of my throne, this one is the hardest."

The Chara Nicholas had his eyes dipped ever so slightly so that he was looking at the table. His listeners were silent: Henry, at the other side of the room, pouring more wine into his pitcher; Lord Carle, his hand touching his empty water cup; Lord Dean, looking as though he were memorizing the words; and Peter, leaning forward to see better the face of his father. Then Peter reached out and offered the nut bowl to his father. The eyes of the Chara met briefly the eyes of the Chara To Be, and the tension was broken.

Lord Carle said, "What you say is true not only of the Chara, but of masters in general. Among the higher ranks, of course, friendship may flourish, but I think that it is a mistake for a master to become too intimate with his servants. That sort of situation leads only to ill conduct on the part of the servants."

"Nobody could accuse you of having poorly trained servants, Carle," said Lord Dean.

"Thank you, High Lord. I do my best, and I think that the results are satisfying, not only to myself, but also to my free-servant and slaves. Servants do not really wish to be pampered and allowed to do bad work – they thrive on discipline and labor. The results are manifold: cheerful servants, well-run quarters, and the knowledge that my life is as orderly and systematic as the Chara's own—" He stopped suddenly, alerted by the expression of Peter, who was biting his lip in an attempt to contain laughter.

I stepped back from Lord Carle with the water pitcher in hand. Lord Carle stared at the table for a moment. Then, without looking my way, he beckoned to his free-servant and said quietly, "Henry, you have done an excellent job in serving us tonight; I am grateful. Nevertheless, I do not think that I need any water in my small cup, especially as it was already half-filled with wine."

"I will get you another cup, Lord Carle," murmured Henry, reaching forward.

I did not need to see Henry's quick look of instruction to know I must leave. As I neared the door, Lord Carle's voice, very soft, drifted back toward me: "Oh, and I would like to see you in my study chamber later this evening, Andrew."

I hesitated and looked back. Lord Carle had not bothered to turn his head to address me, but beyond him were the eyes of the Chara's son, watching me with sympathy.