Actions

Work Header

Law of Vengeance

Chapter Text

Law of Vengeance 1

INTRODUCTION OF TERMS

 

Introduction of Terms (law term): Passage within a law that places the law in the context of the surrounding laws and thus makes clear the relative gravity of the crime.


CHAPTER ONE
986 a.g.l. (after the giving of the law)
 

Each law is preceded by a heading called the Summary, in which the beginning phrase of the law is combined with a summary of the Sentences. The term Summary is also used to describe the background necessary for understanding the law.

—From the High Lord's paper.

o—o—o

For many years, I have wished to make a memoir of my life to pass on to future generations of Emorians who desire to learn what it means to have complete dedication to the Chara and his law. This is not to be the memoir I intended, but I find the time passing slowly here in the Chara's dungeon, and I would rather spend my days thinking of what has happened than of what is to come. For in one month's time I will be taken before the Chara so that he may pass judgment on me. After that – for we Emorians move swiftly in these matters – I will be taken to the execution yard, and my head will be sliced off.

It is a gentler punishment, says the Chara, than I deserve.

He told me this last night when he came to see me. He stood at one end of the cell, leaning back against the wall with his arms folded, and wearing the cold smile I knew he had learned from me. His tunic-flap was pinned shut with his royal emblem brooch depicting the Balance of Judgment, the Heart of Mercy, and the Sword of Vengeance. He has worn the brooch nearly every day since I gave it to him when he was a boy, but I knew from his look that he had worn it this time in mockery.

Mockery is an activity in which he has had much practice since my arrest. He has commanded me to address him as Peter, since I was always reluctant to presume upon our friendship and address my ruler in so familiar a fashion. By the same token, he calls me Lord Carle, though I am no longer a council lord and will soon be nothing more than a court case that may interest future generations, since I am the first man in four hundred years to be charged with this particular crime.

The Chara Peter says I ought to be happy to die in such a manner, because I have never loved anything more than the law books. He is right that I love the law, just as I have always loved the embodiment of the law: the Chara, who keeps this land alive through his judgment of the Emorian people. But it was not until my arrest that I realized what I love as much as the Chara and his law: the man named Peter, who for the past twenty-two years has been to me the son I never had.

o—o—o

There was a time, not long ago, when I was as welcome in the Chara's quarters as any father would be. It had been many years since the Chara's guards had bothered to announce my arrival when I came unbidden. Of course I knew better than to think that friendship lowers all barriers, so when I arrived at the Chara's quarters one night three months ago and found the guards' spears crossed before the door, I approached the guards only in order to discover whether the Chara was likely to be free soon from his visitor.

The guards, staring at the corridor wall opposite, made no reply, so I stepped hastily away, lest I unwittingly discover with whom the Chara was holding a closed audience. But at that moment the door opened, the spears swiftly rose, and a man emerged into the corridor.

I caught only a brief glimpse of him as I turned; I was grateful that I moved so swiftly that I did not have time to recognize the man, so I had not stumbled into any secrets. But in the next moment I turned back as I heard a voice calling my name.

She was standing by the door, dressed in a long, golden gown that had been a present from the Chara. The gown's color went well with her hair, which was very dark, and with her face, which was as pale as my own. I was used to seeing that face alight with energy and merriness, so I think it was her troubled expression that caused me to walk immediately back to where she stood.

"Did you come to see Peter?" she asked me. "I'm sure that he'll be glad you're here."

"I would not want to trouble either of you so late at night, Lady Ursula," I replied, bowing toward the Chara's Consort.

She answered by smiling and stepping back in the doorway. I entered the Chara's sitting chamber.

This was a small room: the Chara's quarters were more modest than my own and were ascetic in their furnishings. A few chairs and footstools were scattered about the chamber, a reclining couch lazed against the right wall near a hearth that blazed with an autumn fire, and a writing table stood stiff and upright against the same wall. The table's most prominent feature was an ancient jewel box I had never asked about, but which I knew must contain the Pendant of Judgment. What immediately caught my eye, though, was the object that filled most of the chamber's back wall: a ceiling-high bookcase containing a complete set of the Emorian law books.

The sleeping-chamber door on the same wall was closed, and the Chara Peter was nowhere to be seen, but Ursula caught me looking that way. "Oh, he's still awake," she said. "He'll be up for hours. I hope that you aren't offended if I retire at this time."

"Not at all, Lady Ursula," I replied, going to stand by the fire, for a September night breeze was making its way through the window. "The Chara seems to have an unflagging capacity to survive on three or four hours' worth of sleep, but the rest of us are not so lucky."

She opened her mouth, but I saw her swallow whatever she was going to say as the sleeping-chamber door opened and her husband walked out. He was in the process of pinning his open tunic-flap with the emblem brooch. As he noticed me, he looked startled. "Carle! It is a delight to see you. I have missed your company this week."

"I have come by on several occasions, Chara, but you were busy at those times."

"I know; the guards told me you had been here. It's this cursed business in Koretia – it has kept me up to all hours. Are you for bed, then?" He spoke these last words to Ursula, who was slipping through the chamber door. She nodded, presented her cheek to the Chara so that he could kiss it, and then closed the door behind her.

"I was told that you have also been spending a good deal of time with Lord James." I spoke in a low voice, my gaze still on the sleeping-chamber door.

"You won't wake her, Carle. I had the door changed to double thickness." The Chara waved me toward a chair by the fire. I hesitated only until he had seated himself, before following suit. In the light of the flames I could view better the Chara's face, darkened with circles under his eyes and wrinkled with almost as many lines of my own. He had passed his thirty-sixth birthday during the previous winter. The circles were as permanent a feature to his face as his cloud-grey eyes. Early in his reign, the Chara had discovered that the only way in which he could have time outside of his duties was to go to bed long after midnight and to rise at dawn. He had told me once, in his usual affectionate manner, that a few hours of lost sleep was a price he was quite willing to pay in exchange for the company of friends such as myself.

Now he said, "Yes, I've been getting to know our new council lord, but that ought not to have stopped you from visiting. As a matter of fact, he'll be coming by soon; I hope that you will stay when he arrives. I would enjoy a chat with you both."

"It is rather late for me, Chara. I only stopped by to give my greetings."

"Lateness never prevented you from visiting before, Carle. What's the matter? Have you lost faith in your protégé already?"

I would have made some light reply, but I noted the tone of his voice and realized I would have no choice but to answer his question. "It is too early to make such a judgment, Chara; it takes years for a sapling to grow to a height where its quality can be determined. I have been disturbed, though, by the direction of some of his questions to me. He seems to have arrived at this palace under the impression that he would be granted larger responsibilities than he deserves at this stage."

"Well, it is a characteristic of youth to want to take on great challenges. But his views on the law are sound?"

I caught his look and smiled. "Chara, if you have been meeting with him every evening of this week, then you need not ask me that question. What I will say is that, whatever his defects, Lord James does have a great respect for the law. That may help guide him back onto surer paths than the one he presently travels."

"It may be that his respect for his High Lord can do the same." The Chara Peter leaned forward and gazed into the fire, twisting the royal seal-ring on his right hand. "Carle, I learned much of my work, not by studying the law – though I gained certain benefits from being closeted in my room for ten years, reading law books – but by imitating my father. And even before my father died, you were my second model: the man I looked to for guidance in how to hand down decisions and issue commands. No books could have taught me how to do those things. It may be that James will look to you for the same guidance, if you treat him in a gentle enough manner. Would you be willing to do so?"

A breeze sweeping into the room shook the hearth-flames, causing tiny stars of fire to fall and consume the brown leaves below. I used the moment to reflect that, while he had no heir of his own, Peter had always possessed the uncanny ability to identify other men's heirs. This thought, containing as it did the flavor of the dying season, was uncomfortable to my mind, so I merely said, "If you wish this, Chara, then of course I will do what I can. But Lord James has a certain independence of mind that may make the task difficult."

"So did I." Peter gave me a grin that was familiar to me from his boyhood. "Do you remember punishing me after I tried to prove that slaves are really a category of free-men? I can still recite the two hundred and sixty-four laws on slavery that you made me memorize."

"You would not try to twist the law in such a fashion today."

"No, I have matured in my view of the law. But youth has its own wisdom, Carle, and it would be dangerous for either of us to forget that."

An irregular, staccato knock rattled the main door, unlike the exactly spaced rhythms of the guards' knock. I was granted a moment to reflect that it had taken James only one week to receive visiting privileges to the Chara. Then Peter shouted, "Come," the door opened, and the young council lord entered.

I do not think it was merely my age that made me feel as though the Chara's quarters had been invaded by a child who ought to be playing at games rather than standing before the ruler of an empire. James had adapted to palace life with a self-confidence that worried me; I was not sure whether he possessed inner maturity or simply was too ignorant to understand the great step he had taken. But that confidence was belied by his hands, which often fidgeted at his side. One of those hands was dancing now over the hilt of his sword, and I suppressed a smile. Despite my love of tradition, even I did not require that my lords dress formally outside of official meetings. Seeing James wear his free-man's weapon at this hour of the night was like watching a young peacock fluff its feathers in display.

His expression was calm, though, as he bowed toward the Chara. His gaze rested briefly on me, but he did not ask the Chara whether he had interrupted our conversation. He simply sat down when Peter waved him into a chair.

"I think that I would like some wine," announced the Chara without preliminary, and he rose from his place. I began to follow suit, caught Peter's warning frown, and sank back down into my chair. As Peter walked over to where the wine pitcher stood, I said, "You ought to have a free-servant for such tasks."

"Nonsense." Peter pushed three cups over to the pitcher and began pouring. "I spend my entire day having people serve me: lords and their ladies, palace officials, palace guests and visitors, the slave-servants who tend my quarters . . . not to mention every free-servant who ventures within reach of me. It gives me pleasure to be able to serve my friends at the end of the day. Besides, I have never found a free-servant who would suit me as well as my last one." He gave a quick grin and came over to hand us the cups. Then he walked to his writing table and picked up a piece of paper lying there. "Speaking of which, this may be of interest to you both."

I took the sheet from his hands and read it silently.
 

To the Great Chara of Emor and Its Dominions, Judge of the People, Commander of the Armies:

Greetings. I have taken into consideration your wishes concerning the new ambassador and have sent a man who may suit the needs of us both. I ask that you give serious consideration to what he has to say, for the sake of both our lands, and that you extend to him your hospitality during his visit. Like you, I do not wish for the peace which has united our lands for the past ten years to be broken by brotherly quarrels.

The Jackal, Master of the Koretian Land


Below the signature was an embossed seal whose outline was broad at the top and narrow at the bottom, triangular in shape like Koretia's borders or like a dog's head. Within the outline was the stylized face of a jackal. It was the Koretian royal emblem, the mask of the Jackal.

I passed the letter to James as I said, "That does not sound like the letters you have shown me in the past."

"No, it is very cold. The Jackal is not pleased with my decision last summer to expel the Koretian court officials working in this land. But I retain hope that we will work out our differences through the new ambassador. I made it clear to the Jackal that I did not want to see the man he sent me last time, who had little knowledge of Emorian ways. I am not going to repeat my father's mistake of acting as a dry-nurse to incompetent ambassadors."

James had been silent all this time, fingering the jewel-work on his cup. Now he looked up from the letter and asked, "Would you be willing to act as a dry-nurse to me, Chara?"

I was in the act of swallowing some wine; I spluttered the drink and swivelled my head toward the Chara. He was looking amused, I think as much at my reaction as at James's words. He replied, "Teach you about Koretia, you mean? Surely, even at Lone Bay Beach, you know of our troubles with the Jackal."

"I assure you, Chara, we receive almost no news there about what is happening in this land, much less about what is happening in foreign lands." James kept his voice disingenuous as he made this absurd statement, and Peter passed his hand over his mouth to hide another smile. I frowned; James was learning all too quickly the weapons of verbal warfare in the palace, such as how to quiz a man on his knowledge of a topic you know well.

But both the Chara and I did James an injustice; either that, or the young man was uncommonly good at acting, for his voice dripped with earnestness as he added, "Of course I know that Koretia was once one of our dominions and that it won its independence during a war ten years ago, but that is the extent of my knowledge."

"We were not at war with Koretia," I said sharply. I caught Peter's eye on me and added more gently, "Nor did Koretia win its independence. The Chara freed the land, judging that the people there had customs which were incompatible with Emorian rule."

"It might be more accurate to say that the Jackal and I together came to an agreement that this was best." Peter reseated himself with his back to the fire. In the dim light, his eyes had grown dark.

James hesitated a moment. I had already noticed his talent for sensing a change in men's moods and redirecting his questions accordingly. I was willing to guess that he had intended his next question to be about Koretia's period as a dominion, but now he asked, "What was the Jackal before he became the ruler of Koretia? I take it that he was a Koretian official, if you were negotiating with him."

"He was no official; he was a rebel," I said flatly.

"He was the human form of a god," Peter said just as firmly. He noticed my look and added, "You needn't give me your opinion of the Koretian religion, Carle. I've heard it often enough. Besides, you never witnessed this side of the Jackal. But I saw the Jackal when he wore the mask of the Koretian god, and I heard him speak in a god's voice. I know that, in those days at least, the Jackal was more than simply a man."

James was tracing the jewels on his cup with unceasing circular gestures, but his eyes remained fixed on Peter's face. "What did this god say to you?"

Peter gave a faint smile, and his eyes dropped, as though he were in the presence of a master even greater than he. "He told me that I, like the Jackal, was his servant, wearing his mask and judging the people with the laws which he, the god, had given to the Emorian people. Do you remember, Carle, that I once asked you who gave the law to the first Charas? You had no answer for me, but the god did, and I believed his words. It explained to me certain things I had always known about myself but that I had never spoken of to you or anyone else, because they were things which can be known only to the Chara."

He raised his eyes to meet mine, and now it was my gaze that dropped. I heard James draw breath and begin to say something, but Peter cut him off, abandoning this weighty subject like a shield that has proved too heavy to carry. "At any rate, James, Carle's answer is true: the Jackal was leader of a group of rebels who were fighting to win Koretia's freedom."

There was a short silence, and I looked up to see James biting his bottom lip and furrowing his brow. He said, "You negotiated with a rebel-leader?"

"I had no choice." Peter's tone was matter-of-fact, but once again I saw James hesitate, sensing the increasing darkness of the Chara's mood. Peter gave me a slight nod; then he stood once more and went over to refill his cup.

I said to James, "As a council lord, you are entitled to know, but your lips must be sealed on this matter, as it could bring grave harm to the Chara if the people were to know how it is that Koretia received its independence. The true story carries no shame, but the tale could easily be twisted in such a way as to smear the Chara's reputation. For this reason, neither the Chara nor the Jackal have ever spoken on the subject to any but their closest advisers."

Peter returned to his seat and said, "I negotiated with the Jackal because he made me his prisoner. He had planned to kill me unless we could come to a settlement. Instead, he set me free, and it was then that I decided to give Koretia its independence and hand over the government to the Jackal. But I have no proof that I decided this voluntarily, only my own word and the word of those who witnessed my imprisonment."

"Your own word ought to be enough," I said gruffly. I was watching Peter's face carefully, searching for the signs I knew too well, which would cause me to change the topic. But so far Peter's expression remained relaxed.

James, however, was proving as much a nuisance here in the Chara's quarters as I had found him to be in the council quarters. Probing with accuracy for the source of the Chara's darkness, he asked, "How did you come to be the Jackal's prisoner?"

Peter caught me leaning forward to see his face better and gave a reassuring smile. He said lightly, "Through an ambassador who had unusual methods of bringing peace."

This I could not allow, not even for the sake of lightening Peter's mood. "Through treachery, you mean," I said bluntly.

"Carle . . ." Peter's protest was soft.

"You cannot deny that it was treachery."

"It was treachery against me, but not against a higher master. You've never been able to understand Andrew's loyalties."

"Who is Andrew?" asked James. I caught a glimpse of the eagerness in his face and inwardly cursed the ill manners of youth. It was of no importance to him that he was causing the Chara pain. All that he cared about was the knowledge he was gaining.

But if the story had to be told, I was not going to allow Peter to present an anemic version of what had happened. "Andrew was the Chara's free-servant," I said. "He was a Koretian who had spent many years in Emor, had sworn his oath of loyalty to the Chara, and had a custom of declaring three times a day that he was a faithful Emorian. Once he was back in his native land, he promptly delivered the Chara into the Jackal's hands."

To my relief, this rendition of the sordid tale caused Peter to smile. "Carle, if you gave that sort of testimony in the court, I would have you charged with false witness. You know very well that there was more to it than what you have said. Andrew was no longer my free-servant at the time this happened; he was my friend, and remains so. He travelled to Koretia with us and discovered that his childhood blood brother had become the Jackal, taking on the powers of the god to whom Andrew had sworn his service before coming to Emor."

"What is a blood brother?" James was now sitting on the edge of his seat, like an eager student.

"The product of a superstitious Koretian ceremony," I replied. "Two friends smear blood on each other and swear before their gods that they will help to fulfill each other's vows. Am I right in remembering that Andrew vowed to kill the Chara?"

"Carle, Andrew was only eight then." Peter was definitely amused now. "And the god did not require him to fulfill that part of the vow, only the part in which he vowed to bring peace to Koretia. Which he did; I would not have been able to meet with the Jackal if it had not been for Andrew's so-called treachery. I'm sorry if you would have preferred war in Koretia to Andrew having complex loyalties."

"We may yet be at war."

I could have bitten my tongue off then, for my careless words caused Peter's smile to disappear. "Yes, our troubles are serious," he said. "I had hoped that by marrying the Jackal's ward I could prevent conflict from arising between Emor and Koretia, but family quarrels are the worst. Moreover, I have not succeeded in convincing the Jackal that he is unwise to cause grievances between our lands. His only chance last time of winning Koretia's independence through violence was to trap and kill me, since I have no heir. He ought to realize that if he compels me to use force against him, I will be obliged to strip him of his power and make Koretia a dominion once more."

I thought back to my brief encounter with the Koretian ruler, who had calm eyes and a blade in his voice. I ventured to say, "The Koretians have a powerful army. They may prove troublesome if they attack first."

"Which they won't. The Jackal held me prisoner for an entire day and night, risking his own arrest. He is not a man who likes to shed blood. I can use this fact to our advantage, and turn the Jackal's gentleness as a weapon against him."

I hid my uneasiness. Matters of war were the Chara's province, and I could not offer advice unless he asked for it. James, however, seemed blithely unaware of boundaries. He skipped merrily over the border between the Chara and his council by asking, "Will I be able to speak to the Koretian Ambassador while he is here?"

I saw the corners of Peter's mouth quiver, but he answered seriously, "No doubt the Ambassador will be interested in discussing unofficial matters with the council lords."

"But not official matters?"

"No," said Peter, adding patiently what every schoolboy knows: "The Chara is Commander of the Armies. The Ambassador negotiates only with the Chara, not with the council."

I would have thought that this decisive statement from the Chara would cause James to turn back to his own territory. But then, I would have thought that James already knew the boundaries of his territory. Apparently I was wrong on both counts, because James stated confidently, "I think it would make more sense if the Ambassador were to negotiate with the council as well, since so many of the decisions in peace settlements affect matters with which the council must deal."

"No doubt there is much truth to what you say." The Chara was still speaking with the grave respect he would show toward a senior council lord, rather than revealing to James that he was making the statements of a child. "But the law says that the Ambassador deals with the Chara, and the law has the final word on the subject."

I knew better than to believe that James would accept the final word from anyone except himself, so I felt no surprised when he replied, "But the law can be ambiguous in many areas. It is possible that this is a law whose meaning can be stretched to embrace what I have said. I think that I will check into the matter for you."

"That is very kind of you, Lord James." I caught the Chara's use of the title and held my breath, but James showed no indication he had heard the warning. With his eyes fixed on James, Peter continued, "I doubt, however, that the High Lord wants to have his law researchers wasting time on this matter."

"I most certainly do not," I growled, annoyed by James's obstinate blindness to the danger he was putting himself in.

"Oh, I can look into the matter during my own time," said James cheerfully. "I think that it is important to settle the question."

I expected Peter to smile at this impudent statement. When he did not, I carefully placed my cup on the table nearby and braced myself for what was to follow.

Peter was continuing to restrain himself, though. He merely said, "I have looked into the matter myself in the past. There is no need for you to trouble yourself."

"I don't mind checking. Perhaps you overlooked something."

My gaze flew to Peter's face. The Chara said, his words spaced in formal rhythm in a manner that read like a royal proclamation, "Lord James, I really must ask you not to concern yourself with this matter any further."

James smiled back at the Chara, as a small boy might smile innocently at a soldier who has raised his weapon. "Chara, you need not worry that I will neglect my duties. I consider this an important part of my leisure time, to discover the meaning of the law. I would be happy to help you with this task."

Peter's eyes, grave but still guarded, turned to mine. After a moment, he said, "Carle, I believe that I have some Daxion nuts in the other room. Would you care for some?"

"Thank you, Chara," I said. "I would indeed be grateful if you fetched them."

I watched Peter until he had gone into the side chamber opposite the hearth and had closed the door behind him. Then I looked back at James. Something had finally penetrated the young lord's obtuseness. He was watching the Chara's departure with uneasiness.

"Lord James."

James's head jerked around at my tone. Even if he could not recognize when the Chara was serious, he knew when I was. In a low voice, I said, "Certain facts you would be wise to understand very quickly. I may add that such understanding would not only be wise but might preserve your career in the council. One fact is that, when the Chara makes his wishes known, it is not your place to argue with him."

James lifted his chin, and I saw his jaw grow firm. "I know the law, Lord Carle. The Chara's subjects have the right to disagree with him as long as he does not issue a direct command. He did not give me a command, only a request."

"The Chara does not issue commands unless he is forced to. He knows that if men such as you are foolish enough not to recognize the difference between his personal whims and his wishes as the Chara, then you may also be foolish enough to misunderstand his order. And if you know the law, then you know why he would not want to risk having you disobey his direct command."

James's expression grew more set. "I think that the Chara would cause fewer misunderstandings if he would phrase his requests as requests and his commands as commands. I would rather be commanded than not know what it is that he wants."

"I will be glad to give you whatever you wish, Lord James." The remark came from Peter, standing in front of the door he had just opened. He was holding in his hands a bowl of nuts.

Perhaps it was the informality of the nuts that caused James to continue sitting where he was. I stood immediately, and watched as Peter stepped lightly over to the bookcase and turned his back on us to place the bowl on a waist-high ledge there. For a moment he lingered; then he turned.

My gaze was now focussed on James. I decided it was a shame that James had not chosen to join one of the Chara's armies, for I imagined he would have been fearless in battle. I saw the blood drain from his face, and his fingers suddenly gripped the stem of his cup, but otherwise he made no movement or noise.

With great reluctance, I forced myself to look back at the Chara. A mask, he had called it a while ago, and I could see that his face indeed resembled the Jackal's god-mask. The lines of his face were rigid, as though his flesh had turned to stone; their curve was severe and formal. Only his eyes had the ability to vary. Now, for James's benefit, they were cold and hostile.

James had risen to his feet. I rated this as a measure of his strength, for it took much effort to move when the Chara looked upon one in that manner. The Chara spoke, his voice without any gentleness now to sheathe his blade of authority: "Come here."

James came forward, and as he did, I moved to the far corner of the room, near the main door, where I could watch both faces. James progressed as far as the midway point between himself and the Chara before he stopped.

"Closer." The Chara had not looked my way since this began. I knew that the only reason James had not dropped his gaze was because it was being held captive by the Chara's. James continued forward until he was a body's length from the Chara, and then stopped uncertainly. I saw him swallow, and his fists were clenched, but his chin was still lifted as though he were an unrepentant prisoner facing his judge.

"Lord James," said the Chara, speaking softly the formal words that the direct command requires: "Let me be clear. You are not to investigate further the matter that we have discussed, nor are you to persuade anyone else to investigate it further, unless instructed to do so by Carle, High Lord of the Great Council. If you do so, you will be brought to the Court of Judgment and tried on the charge of disobeying the Chara. If I judge that you have willfully and with clear understanding disobeyed this command, then I will sentence you to the high doom of death by the sword. Do you understand?"

The direct command does not require that the Chara list the penalty for disobedience; I knew that he had added this for James's sake. His courtesy had its effect. James's chin wavered, then lowered, though he did not try to shift his gaze. He said, with only the slightest tremble to his voice, "I understand, Chara."

"Good." The Chara held James's gaze for a moment longer; then he turned back to the nuts. He did not linger this time – Peter had always found it easier to abandon his role as the Chara than to embrace it – but instead turned straight round. Passing James, he walked back to offer me the bowl. His face was normal once more.

"Thank you, Chara," I murmured. Even though I had not endured the disciplining myself, I was not immune to the effects of the Chara in judgment and did not feel that I could raise my voice any higher. Peter gave a faint smile. Turning, he went back to where James was standing rooted and offered him the bowl, saying, "Would you care for some nuts, James?"

James dug his fingers into the bowl immediately, as though he expected the executioner to be summoned if he showed any hesitancy. Peter's smile deepened, but he made no comment until he had returned to stand by the ledge again. Then he said to James, "I'm sorry. I made it harder on you than I had to, I think. I assumed that you had seen me in the court."

"No, Chara." James had picked out only one nut; he was rolling it between his fingers as he stared at Peter. He added rapidly, "I have not had time to visit there since my arrival."

Peter looked my way. "Carle, can you spare James from his duties tomorrow morning?"

"Not all morning, but I can spare him between the fifth trumpet and noonday."

Peter looked back at James. "I'd suggest that you come watch me in the court tomorrow. It's only a suggestion, but such a visit would help you to understand the difference between the Chara and the lesser judges. If you had seen me in judgment, I might not have had to invoke my full authority over you just now – though it's hard to say. Carle curses me for being too informal in my private life, but I've never regarded that as a problem, except in cases like this, where I've obviously slipped and allowed one of my subjects to misunderstand our relationship. The last thing I want is to be surrounded by people who are afraid to disagree with me, but it is important for you to understand that, however fond I may be of my acquaintances, I am still master to you and everyone else in this land."

James did not reply. He was continuing to roll the nut in his hand, which caused Peter to smile and say, "James, if you hate nuts, you needn't eat that."

"Oh, I was just interested in what you were saying." James's face-color had returned, and he spoke calmly. "It's a bit like that even for the lesser judges. I had to place a friend of mine under judgment once, and it was a terrible experience for us both."

"I had forgotten that you were a village judge." Peter walked over and eased himself back into his old seat, picking up his forgotten cup of wine. James cast his gaze back at a chair behind him, but lost his nerve and remained standing. Peter asked, "Why was it that you chose to do council work rather than seek to become a higher-ranked judge?"

"I had experience with both back home. When you have only twenty free-men in a village, everyone does double duty. Besides—" James hesitated, looking my way, and then phrased his next sentence carefully. "I considered that the Great Council deals with higher matters than even the city court handles. I wanted to be in a position of leadership."

There was a pause, and I waited to see how Peter would respond to this statement of ambition. The silence was broken by a knock, though. One of the Chara's guards slipped inside, closed the door, and said, "Your pardon, Chara. The Koretian Ambassador has arrived and wishes to see you."

Peter frowned. "Not tonight, I hope. Heart of Mercy, it's good to see a dedicated ambassador, but I'm not going to start negotiations at this hour. Give my apologies to him and say that I'll speak with him before the court tomorrow."

The guard hesitated before saying, "You may wish to speak with him now, Chara."

Peter sighed and rose to his feet. "Very well. Show him in." He added to James as the guard left, "Emmett has been with me for twenty years. He knows better than I do who I want to see."

The door opened wide and the guard stepped inside, then to one side, announcing in a loud voice, "Great Chara, I bring you the Ambassador of Koretia."

A man walked into the room. At first sight of him, I stepped further back into my corner, where the shadows hid me; as a result, I had a good side view of the visitor. The Ambassador was in his middle years, just a few years younger than the Chara, though a less careful observer than myself might have thought from his appearance that he was a young man. It was clear from the way he held himself that he rarely allowed his carriage and expression to relax from formality. He had dark hair which matched that of Peter's wife, but unlike Ursula, who was only half Koretian, his skin was also dark. In contrast to most Koretians, he was beardless. He wore a dusky grey tunic with no decoration but for a faint glimmer above his heart. I knew this to be a god-mask badge, which the Koretians wear in order to place themselves under the protection of a god. Koretians are not complete fools, however, and they guarantee their protection in other manners as well. I could see sticking back from the Ambassador's hidden right side the carved bone sheath of a dagger.

The Ambassador said softly, "Greetings, Chara. I come at the command of the Jackal, who asks that you receive me in peace, as he has taken a peace oath toward your land so that we might discuss our differences."

Peter was standing with the still formality of the Chara receiving his guest. He said, in the words dictated by law, "You are welcome, Ambassador. I accept the Jackal's oath, and vow on the pendant with which I judge that no harm shall come to you or your people while you stay in this land." His eyes flicked over toward the guard.

The guard took the hint and left, closing the door behind him. For a moment more, Peter remained silent – this was a trick I had taught him, since I had discovered, to my own grief, that it is easy to misjudge the timing of when the door closes and all sound is cut off.

Then a smile crept onto his face, and his eyes grew light.

Peter said, "Well, it's about time you came back, Andrew."