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Challenge (Breached Boundaries #2)

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(Melody: Introduces musical sub-themes. Lyrics: Describe what the conflict will be.)
 

TESTIMONY OF THE HIGH LORD OF EMOR

To Brian son of Cossus, Royal Clerk to the Chara of Emor:

You will waste my time with such trivialities, in time of war. Do you have any notion how many battle reports I have awaiting me?

Well, I can be succinct in providing the information you request. At the time you are writing of, Emor was not at war with either of its southern neighbors, Koretia and Daxis. None of the Three Lands were at war with one another; they were all in an uneasy state of peace, other than the Empire of Emor. We were busy tearing ourselves apart in civil war. But that came to an end eventually, as you know, and the Koretian Ambassador paid us a visit that prompted me to pay my own visit to Daxis. No, that conversation is not one you need record in your chronicle. Is nosiness part of the requirements of your office?

The Chara, of course, was greatly troubled by the squabbling between our neighbors to the south. It was difficult for us to take sides in the dispute; both lands seemed to have equally strong claims to the mountain that stood between them. The ideal solution would have been a compromise between Koretia and Daxis. Certainly, if left to himself, I think the Jackal would have agreed to this. Koretia's ruler has a strong gift for peacemaking, as well as a strong gift for slaughtering attackers. If I had been the King of Daxis's High Lord, I would have advised him to make terms with Koretia.

But I gather that King Leofwin was not gifted with listening to advice, whether it came from his High Lady or from the woman who was ranked as highly as he did in the Daxion government: his Bard, Rosetta. Perhaps he is one of those men who discounts the advice of women. At any rate, his one confidant was his nephew and heir, Prince Richard. By all accounts of the Chara's spies, the Prince was following his own sly path.

As for the "slave princess of Daxis" that you refer to, I know nothing of her, other than what I've been told by the same people you've already consulted. Why do you insist on wasting my time by asking questions that you can answer yourself?

Carle, High Lord of Emor
 

CHAPTER ONE

April is a time of change in all the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula, but in different ways. Up on the northern mainland, beyond the bounds of civilization, the endless snow drifts down, while the ice along the northern coast begins to groan as it splits and melts. Further down the coast, in Emor's northern dominions of Arpesh and Emor, melted snow makes its way into rivers and eventually plunges into the Sea of Storms like a flock of hungry diving birds. The water gathers pace as it passes the Central Provinces of Emor and eventually Southern Emor. By the time the water reaches the narrow Koretian Straits, it is as rapid as a flung spear, so that only the most foolhardy trade-ships will attempt to sail along the Koretian coast at this time of year. Finally, the water bursts from its confines at the entrance to the Daxion Gulf, and there, next to the Lower Straits Port that serves the capitals of both Daxis and Koretia, it lets out its roar of victory.

I thought I could hear that faint trumpet blast heralding the arrival of spring as I stood one day in the outer court of the King's palace, watching a trial take place. But I could not be sure, for the air was filled with sounds: The murmur of the crowd that was jammed within the court's perimeter, which was marked by milky white columns. The clanging of arms from the army headquarters on the other side of the palace. The high-pitched calls of mating birds in nearby trees. And faint like the rush of an undercurrent, the sound of the Spirit's music that only I could hear.

It came, of course, from my father, who was almost finished questioning a prisoner. From the perfunctory manner in which he was asking those questions, I could tell that my father had already made his decision, and from the dangerous gleam in my father's eye, I could tell what that decision was. I was close enough to see this gleam, having squeezed through the narrow entrance that served the royal officials who came to the court. I had partly hidden myself behind one of the pillars, unnoticed by all except the royal clerk, a sour, incompetent man who would have chased me away in a moment if he had known that I was not there at my father's invitation. It was my thirty-eighth birthday; in lieu of any other present, I had decided to risk the wrath of Toft, the palace slave-keeper, and skip my noonday meal with the other slaves so that I could watch the court proceedings.

The prisoner, a burly-bodied wheelwright, was kneeling before my father in the required submissive pose, but his jaw was hard, and he was speaking his words in a defiant manner.

". . . Yes, it is true that Jerrold and I quarrelled often, and it is true that I threatened to kill him if he came near my sister again. But I did not kill him, and I have no idea why that bloody blade was hidden under my bed. Some enemy of mine must have placed it there."

"So you deny your guilt," my father concluded formally. I could see him shifting ever so slightly in his place, eager to end the trial.

"As the Spirit is my witness, I am innocent," said the wheelwright angrily, his hands curled into fists as though he were ready to fight anyone who said otherwise.

My father nodded, and the guards came forward to pull the prisoner back. Beyond them, I could see one of the royal pages bouncing up and down on her toes, eager to run to the dungeon with the King's summons to the hangman. My father beckoned impatiently to Rosetta, who came forward slowly, with a stiffness to her walk that had not been there six years before, when we had held a conversation about a newly arrived prisoner in the dungeon. Yet her back was as straight as ever as she knelt before my father, and her gaze was firm as she looked up at him. He placed his hand on her shoulder. The music in my ears swelled like a morning tide as he said in a loud voice, "Sing to me the Song of the Sow."

People in the waiting assembly whispered speculatively. Only Daxions were attending the court on this day, except for one light-skinned barbarian sailor from the mainland, who looked mystified by the proceedings. The crowd fell silent as Rosetta rose to her feet and began singing a children's nursery tale about a baron's son who was turned by an evil demon into a sow. Everyone whom the baron's son met thought him to be a beast, but one woman alone saw through to his beautiful spirit beneath, and she loved him for this. Thus she alone was given the privilege of seeing him in his true form, though the rest of the world continued to see the baron's son as a sow.

I had been disappointed with the ending to the song as a child. I had believed that justice demanded that the entire world see the baron's son as he truly was. Those were the days when I wore the tunic of a King's daughter and was complimented by all whom I met in the palace corridors. After a few months of being dressed in a slave-tunic, I decided that the baron's son had been exceedingly fortunate to find even one person who was willing to look past his outward appearance.

The people listening – family and friends of the prisoner and of the murdered man, a few interested city dwellers, and a handful of palace dwellers who had been drawn outside on this sunny spring day – were now exchanging glances with each other, though none of them dared to talk except for a couple of Lord Ernfred's children, who were making whispered wagers with each other about the outcome of the trial. A favorite game for Daxion palace children is to come to trials and try to guess what relation the Bard's song has to the court case. As a child, I had found by experience that the easiest way to win such games was to watch my father during the singing. Now, as Rosetta told of the ugly body that the baron's son had been forced to wear, and as she sang of the man's true beauty hidden underneath, I saw my father's gaze drift over to the wheelwright, who was standing between his guards and looking as defiant and murderous as ever. There was a moment of struggle in my father's face, and then his head bowed, and I knew that he had acquiesced to the Spirit's decision.

The song ended, the prisoner was brought forward, and the King announced his verdict of innocence. The arrogant wheelwright fell to his knees, burst into tears, and tried to kiss my father's hand. With a look of distaste on his face, the King motioned the guards to escort the fortunate man away. My father did not care for close contact with his commoner subjects.

The crowd began to disperse, though many people stayed where they were as the royal clerk came forward to read the latest proclamations. I placed my cheek against the pillar, watching my father walk to the far end of the court in order to accept the thanks of the prisoner's family. As he passed by me, not noticing my presence, he held a squinted expression which I knew was annoyance that the trial had not ended as he had planned.

"I always wonder, when that happens, whether today will be the day he defies the Spirit."

I turned my head to look at the Prince. He was standing beyond the court pillars, on the pavement that circles around the palace before ending at the army headquarters. He was leaning against a spear he held upright in his hand, and he was dressed in his grey army uniform, though he was bareheaded, and no sword hung from his belt. The white edging on his tunic, which marked his rank as subcommander, was smudged with dirt. I surmised from this that he had once again been helping his men with some sort of menial work. It was a simple but effective way to raise his popularity. Combined with his talent for winning unwinnable battles, this made him much loved by Daxis's soldiers.

His gaze was focussed on the King rather than me. Startled out of my thoughts, I said, "He would not do that."

"He has done it often enough outside the court," the Prince replied.

The royal clerk's voice droned on, as tedious as a cicada's song at the end of daylight. I had recovered my wits by now. I asked with cool formality, "Do you wish my service, Prince?"

For a moment I thought he was going to give me his mocking smile. Instead, he turned his head to look at me, staring at me silently as he continued to lean upon his spear. Then he said lightly, "On the contrary, Serva. I have come to offer you my peace oath."

The sound of my name reverberated in the air like the clang of a blade hitting the ground as a man disarms himself. I stared at him as though I had just found myself talking to a stranger. My cousin's thirty-eighth birthday had taken place a few weeks before mine; I had served at the birthday feast, unnoticed by him or any other free-man. We passed each other daily in the royal residence without speaking. The Prince did not even bother these days to entertain himself by taunting me with the title "Princess" in order to emphasize my rank as a slave and illegitimate bastard. I had discovered, oddly, that I missed our fighting.

This fact revealed to me, more than anything else, how wretchedly lonely I had become. My only friend amongst the slaves was gone: Grace had been sent to Emor to serve a nobleman there against her will. Six years after her departure, all the other slaves continued to ignore me. I no longer visited the dungeon. To my relief, Sandy had not been dismissed from his position as dungeon-keeper after the mysterious escape of a certain Koretian prisoner, but since I had been the one to help the Koretian spy to escape, I was unwilling to place Sandy in further danger by visiting him again. I knew that he understood, and that he still loved me as though I were his own niece. I had seen him once since that time, three years before, serving as an honor guard during the fortieth-anniversary celebration of my father's enthronement. Sandy had given me a quick smile when no one was watching.

That left the King and his Bard as my only companions; both were often busy with their duties. And so I concentrated my thoughts on my own duties, wandering around the corridors as silent as the pause after a bard's song, and wondering whether my continued presence in the palace was really helping my father in any way. If I had instead taken the spy's offer to escape with him to Koretia . . .

And then there was the Prince. But I did not go any more to the palace's hidden passage to listen to his sleeping-chamber conversations.

My muteness after his speech was so long that a spark of amusement entered his eyes. He said, "Come, Serva, you need not look so surprised. We have exchanged peace oaths before."

"Not since I left our nursery," I responded bluntly.

"I have fought against eighteen rebellions since then and am presently preparing defenses against an attack by Koretia. Having one of my enemies sheathe her blade would be a change for me. Is it your pleasure?" And with no more preliminary than that, he came forward, placed his spear against the pillar, and breathed on his hand.

I looked at his dagger hand, empty and motionless in the air before me. Then I breathed on my own hand and clasped his, saying, "I, Serva daughter of Clelia, do swear unto the Spirit that I will sing only peace toward Richard, Prince of Daxis, as long as he shall abide by this oath."

Richard spoke his half of the oath, repeating the words we had childishly copied from my father after overhearing him speak them to a mainland ambassador who had come to negotiate a trade agreement with our land. The oath was meant to be taken by the King toward the rulers of other lands or their representatives, but in those days we had considered our battles to be of great consequence to the future of the Three Lands. Children usually do.

"Now, then," Richard said, releasing my hand quickly as his formal speech turned colloquial, "come talk with me while I'm on my midday break."

I shook my head, allowing myself to use the colloquial tongue toward him for the first time in three decades. "I have to return to work. I shouldn't even be here."

The corners of Richard's mouth twitched upward. "Oh, I think that Toft will listen to your excuse if I'm there to give it. Besides, I've already arranged for our transport."

I followed his gaze. Standing further down the path was Richard's young orderly, holding the reins of two horses. In response to the flick of Richard's hand, the orderly walked forward, while the click of the horse's hooves on the pavement sounded above the conversations of people leaving the court.

My gaze travelled over the two horses – one a white stallion, the other a red-roan mare. I said, "I don't think I remember how to ride."

"Well, then, you can spend your time falling off. I seem to recall that you were rather good at that."

I tilted my head to stare up at the mare. I could tell from the look in her eye that Richard had chosen a spirited mount for me. I said, "That's a man's saddle."

I heard the mockery running through his voice like a dark, dangerous current. "It's a bit difficult to locate a woman's saddle in the army stables. In any case, you're appropriately dressed."

I looked down at my peasant-brown slave-tunic, shapeless and short like the royal tunic I had worn as a young child. In those days, it had not mattered that I wore clothing which exposed my legs to view. I looked up again and saw that Richard was kneeling next to the mare, his hands cupped in readiness and his eyes shimmering with amusement. Feeling as though I were stepping onto the unsteady ground of a southwestern marsh, I placed my sandalled foot in his hands and pulled myself onto the horse. Then I tried without success to tug the skirt of my tunic down to a decent level.

Feeling my cheeks grow as warm as a midsummer sun, I turned my head, but Richard was taking no notice of me. He had stepped back several paces. As I watched, he ran lightly forward, using his spear to vault himself onto his horse. He snapped his horse's reins away from the orderly and said, "Ready?"

"Don't go too fast," I replied.

The twist of his mouth told me that I might as well have saved my breath. He turned his mount with one smooth tug of the reins, dug his heels into the flanks of his stallion, and began galloping toward the northern side of the palace with as much dispatch as though he were leading his vanguard. Cursing him silently, I retrieved my reins from the orderly, awkwardly turned my own horse, and felt the wind buffet my face as I started forward.

I caught up with Richard at the outer edge of the army headquarters, and only because he had reined in his horse to a canter. As we curved our horses' path around the line of tents, we passed Derek, who was in the midst of giving orders to the lieutenant of one of his units. The subcaptain's dark eyes followed us like those of a carrion crow. Without a word, Richard tossed to his friend the spear he was still carrying. Derek caught it with a laugh that stretched the moon brand on his cheek. In a gesture whose meaning was unmistakable, he thrust the spear up and down as he held it.

I could not see Richard's expression because he spurred his mount forward at that moment. When I caught up with him several minutes later, he was waiting at the entrance to the small forest that covered the northern portion of the walled palace grounds.

The air smelled green and earthy here; the shadows of the leaves touched us like cool water. Lacy moss draped down from the trees, brushing our heads as we passed. I glanced over at Richard, who was searching the bushes with his gaze as though he expected to see a small figure hiding beneath them. He caught me looking his way, and his heels stabbed into the sides of his horse once more as he urged it forward.

We went slowly through the pathless forest, picking our way carefully through gaps in the thickly clustered shrubs. Our silence was covered by the chirping birds and the angry chatter of squirrels who had been scared away by our horses from their spring play.

Richard and I had come here often as children to play Hunter and Hunted, a game we learned from the children of a visiting Emorian nobleman. Richard had always insisted on being the hunter, so I had become adept at slinking silently through the undergrowth and dodging between trees. The only times he was able to find me was when I could not suppress my giggles at his inability to catch me.

On the few occasions that Richard had allowed me to lead the game, I was not able to find him at all; his silence was as deep as the lowest note on a bard's harp. Now, faced with similar silence, I forced myself to take the lead once more, asking, "How was your journey?"

Richard's mouth curled up. "Tiring. War negotiations are harder work than fighting a war."

"What is the new Chara like? Is he much like his father?"

Richard halted his horse with a deft tug of the reins, and then looked over at me with amusement quivering on his lips. "You slaves really don't pay attention to high matters, do you?"

I restrained the impulse to respond to this remark the way I would have as a child: by shoving him off his horse. After a while he started us forward again, saying, "The Chara James has no kinship with the previous Chara. The Chara Peter died without leaving an heir, so the Emorian council appointed one of its lords as the new Chara. That's why the Emorians have been fighting a civil war for the past four years. The Chara James calls it a rebellion, of course, since he won the war against the other claimant to the throne."

"So what is the new Chara like?" I repeated patiently.

"I've very little idea. I was in Emor for two weeks, and for most of that time the Chara was out on the field, helping his subcommanders accept the final surrender of the rebels. Then, when he arrived back at his palace, he acted as though I wasn't there and went into closed meeting with the Koretian Ambassador. I suppose that the Chara considers the Jackal's blood brother to be of higher rank than the heir to the Daxion throne."

I felt old memories stir inside of me as I was transported back to a dungeon cell, watching a Koretian prisoner lean over and sort pieces of straw. "The Jackal's blood brother is an ambassador?" I said with interest.

Too late, I remembered why I had been discussing the Jackal's blood brother with the spy. Richard's eyes narrowed in an uncanny imitation of my father's. In a deceptively light voice he said, "You're interested in the Ambassador?"

"Only because I've never heard of him before," I replied quickly. "I hadn't realized that the Jackal had a brother. How odd that the Chara would give him precedence over you."

Richard had begun laughing before I finished speaking. Pushing aside a branch in our path, he held it back for me in counterfeit courtesy as he said, "He's not the Jackal's brother. A blood brother is a Koretian who has sworn an oath of friendship. This particular blood brother . . . Well, you'll want to keep well away from him, if your path should ever come near his. He's dangerous, and dangerously skilled." His voice turned as dark as it had been when I overheard him speak of the Jackal's blood brother six before. Indeed, his tone was tinged with something which – if the Prince's own words at that time were to be trusted – might have been fear. Then, as I passed the tree, he let loose the branch, which swung back in a buoyant manner. His tone turned light as he added, "Actually, I'm pleased that the Ambassador was meeting with the Chara, for I gather that he was in some sort of trouble – at least, I heard rumors that there was a tremendous fight between him and the High Lord, shortly after the Chara's arrival. At any rate, the Ambassador departed from the Chara's palace so quickly that I never even had a chance to meet the man for the first time. The Ambassador's fall from grace was the one satisfactory event in my trip."

"The negotiations didn't go well, then," I said, having only the faintest notion of what the negotiations were.

"They went very badly," said Richard. A shaft of light, piercing through the leaves and striking Richard on the face, revealed the tightness around his mouth and eyes. "The Koretians are heading the table of honor in Emor these days. No one wants to hear a word against them. The only success I had in sowing enmity toward the Koretians was to make mention of Lady Ursula at appropriate moments. The Chara Peter's Consort is unpopular with the Emorians these days. That was entertaining, but it didn't go far enough to make up for the King's stupidity last year."

Richard's voice had gone low in an instant, the way it did when he was speaking in public with the subcaptain. I resisted an impulse to look over my shoulder before saying, "His stupidity?"

"In refusing to loan the Chara the army divisions he requested. I told the King at the time that the Chara James was sure to win against his rival, but the King wouldn't listen to me. He said we should wait until the outcome was certain, so that we wouldn't end up supporting the losing party. So instead the Jackal lent the Chara the soldiers he needed, the Chara won the war, and our alliance with Emor is tattered and close to ruins."

"I hadn't realized that," I said in astonishment. "I thought that Emor always supported us in our fights against Koretia."

"It always has. Do you remember six years ago, when it looked as though Emor and Koretia might go to war? If the Jackal's blood brother hadn't intervened, and if the Chara Peter hadn't died soon afterwards, we might have been living next to an Emorian dominion today. As it is, we'll be lucky if we don't become a dominion of Koretia before our war with that land is over."

We had reached the end of the forest. Before us stretched a small meadow that ended at the palace wall. The palace wall was actually the city wall as well; the two walls combined at this point, for the palace grounds were pressed up against the northern edge of the city, just spear-lengths from the point where the land abruptly rose to create the flank of Capital Mountain. Richard's gaze rose toward the tree-rough land above, as though he were trying to sight black-uniformed soldiers hiding amidst the foliage.

I said, "Very well, I'm slave-ignorant, but I don't even understand what we're fighting about. It has something to do with the mountain, I know."

"It always does." Irony trickled into Richard's eyes. "We've been fighting about this mountain since our two lands split apart. The cave is what we're fighting about this time. It's a very strategic place, that mountain cave – just the sort of place where an army commander or subcommander would place his soldiers if he wanted to attack a city."

I followed Richard's gaze over to a gap in the trees a short distance up from the city, where the southern mouth of the cave gaped. The cave – actually a series of caverns that had been created by the ancestors of the Koretians and Emorians before our two people split apart ten centuries ago – bored straight through to the other side of the mountain, I knew. "Like the Emorians did when they attacked the Koretian capital, you mean?"

"Yes, of course. Or as we could do if we wanted to attack the Koretians. Or as the Koretians could do if they wanted to attack us. Both of us are uneasy at having each other's capital cities on the opposite sides of the mountain; both of us want to possess the cave so that we'll have the military advantage."

"Well, it is our cave, isn't it?" I said. "The Song of Gold Walls talks about the cave belonging to the Spirit."

The irony spread from Richard's eyes and pulled his mouth upward. "You're your father's daughter, aren't you?"

Since this statement was indisputable, I merely replied, "I suppose that the Koretians claim it's their cave."

"It was their cave for a number of years, at least when Koretia was a dominion of Emor. The Emorians, with their usual lack of gratitude, never let us have the cave back after they we let them travel through our land in order to attack and conquer Koretia from the south. The Emorians said – they somehow managed to keep straight faces when they said this – that they didn't want any armies hiding in the cave and attacking the Koretian capital. Our army wasn't strong enough to fight anyone besides rebels in those days, so we let the dominion of Koretia have the cave."

We were slowly making our way across the grassy stretch toward the wall. I tilted my head to look up at the short, ancient mountain that formed the border between Daxis and the southern tip of Koretia. This was where so much had happened: it was where our ancestors had found their gods, and where the Daxions had been given their music by the Song Spirit. It was where Koretia and Daxis had been born, on the same day that the Emorians in the north had been given their law. This mountain remained the heart of the southern portion of the Great Peninsula.

The oak and maple trees on the lower slopes touched shoulders with the pine and fir trees on the upper slopes, creating an endless tapestry of green and brown. The only scars in this weaving were the paths that left the western and eastern gates of our city and curled around the sides of the mountain. I thought I could see a faint rustle of movement higher up, where the Daxion soldiers patrolled continuously, in order to hold back border-breachers. I'd heard that the Koretians similarly patrolled the northern side of the mountain.

"What about when Koretia received its freedom?" I asked.

"Ah, there you have the dispute. The Chara Peter gave all of the Land of Koretia over to the Jackal. We've been arguing with the Koretians ever since then whether this included the cave. The uneasy compromise we had worked out was that each of our lands would claim half of the cave, but the cave is divided into so many chambers that we haven't been able to agree on where the border actually lies, so our border guards keep having fights when they meet. The latest fight, at the beginning of winter, ended in dead guards on both sides – hence the threat of war."

Richard slid off the saddle of his horse and took the reins of both horses in his hands, then reached up to help me down from my saddle. As I joined him on the ground, he turned to face the forest behind us. The sound of army life was faint, muffled by the trees that obscured sight of the palace. The cloudless sky above us burned azure with the noonday sun; only a cool northern breeze held the reminder of winter in it. Richard stood unmoving, his eyes fixed on the leafy screen before us. He said with sudden viciousness, "Those cursed trees!"

His change of mood was so abrupt that I jumped in my place. I said, "I've always liked this forest."

"You're not a soldier. If the Koretians ever invaded us through the mountain cave, they would be able to get spear-lengths within reach of the palace before we saw them. It would be Hunter and Hunted all over again, with us as the hunted. I tried to persuade the King to cut down the forest several years ago, but he wouldn't hear of it. He said he enjoyed the hunting here too much, the cursed—"

He stopped himself in time. Turning, he tied the reins to a nearby wild-berry bush. Then he began to walk quickly toward the wall. Hurrying to catch up with him, I asked, "Would the Koretians invade through the cave?"

Richard shook his head. His hands were in fists, but his voice was level as he said, "Not at the moment; both of our armies are too alert for an attack there. No, they'd undoubtedly breach the border in the conventional manner, by way of the Eastern Gap." He pointed toward the east of the mountain, where a small gap separated it from the next mountain in the chain of mountains that surrounds and protects Koretia. "Whichever direction they arrive in, whether east or west or through the cave, we'll be in trouble. I've managed by some miracle to persuade your father to let me strengthen the city wall's guard, but he still won't allow me to increase the guard at the palace wall gates. He wouldn't listen to my advice there either. The Spirit defend him from actually listening to military advice from his subcommander."

His voice had slurred quickly and decisively into his customary sarcastic tone. Like a mountain cat defending her kittens, I reacted automatically, saying, "He's Commander of the Army. It's his duty to make such decisions."

"Oh, yes, he's commander." Richard's voice had grown very dark. "A commander who has never spent a single day on the field. A commander who could barely use his sword if his life depended on it. A commander whose idea of war is looking at little maps charting our victories on the battlefield. He doesn't have to look at the bodies of the men whose life's blood purchased those victories." Richard picked up a stick from the ground and whacked a bush to one side.

Feeling astonishment and curiosity tremble inside me like a restless fire, I watched silently as Richard abruptly dropped to his knees and began poking the bottom of the wall with his stick. He crawled forward a short distance and began pushing back the long grass that obscured the roots of the wall.

"What are you looking for?" I asked.

"A hole. You start searching over there, where the wall splits, and I'll meet you back here." Richard did not look up as he pointed west toward where the wall split into two walls, one becoming the palace wall and the other the city wall.

Feeling ignorant and foolish, I followed his directions and began laboriously searching the foot of the wall for holes. At one point, crawling on my hands and knees through a patch of mud, I became convinced that Richard was teasing me. I looked up quickly, but he was far down the wall, slowly and carefully inspecting the last remaining eastern portion of the wall before it split in two.

Eventually, as promised, we met in the center. He was covered in mud as well; the white border of his army tunic was now sullied with grass stains. I asked, "Why a hole?"

Richard was busy scanning the wall once more. "A prisoner escaped from our dungeon five years ago – no, it was six years, at the end of 985. We couldn't figure out how he had managed to breach the palace wall until we found a nice, man-sized hole dug under the wall there."

He pointed. I looked with renewed interest at the wall. Next to me, Richard said with bitterness heavy on his tongue, "Not that the prisoner couldn't have found a dozen ways to escape. We only have one wall here, when we ought to have two, for safety's sake. The wall we have is crumbling at its foundations, hence the ease with which the prisoner was able to dig the hole. And if he had chosen to try to escape through the palace gates, I've no doubt he would have succeeded there as well, since we have such a light guard at those gates. The King says a heavier guard isn't necessary. Nor is a new wall necessary. So all that I can do is check this wall every month for holes and anticipate the day when our palace is burned down by the Koretians because the Commander of the Army thinks he knows more about palace defense than the subcommander who has been fighting in wars for over twenty years."

Without thinking, I said, "He ought to pay attention to your advice, since you have knowledge on this subject."

Too late, I realized that Richard had tricked me into expressing my opinion, but he did not follow up his advantage. Instead, he leaned back against the wall as bits of flaking stone floated down onto his tunic. With his arms folded and his gaze fixed on the forest rather than me, he said, "Oh, having no knowledge of a subject has never stopped Uncle from interfering. If he had his way, every council decision and every battlefield command would come from his lips. The only reason our council has any independence left is because it has Lady Elizabeth as its mistress, and the only reason our army wasn't destroyed long ago by Uncle's incompetence is because I periodically threaten to resign from my post. He knows that he couldn't find anyone of comparable skills to replace me. I may have to make that threat again to persuade him to let me attack the Koretians now, while their army is at its weakest. If we wait for the other Koretian divisions to arrive back from Emor, we'll have no hope of winning this war without sacrificing a large portion of our soldiers. But of course the King is always prepared to make sacrifices, as long as they aren't his own."

For the first time, the Prince's eyes travelled over to meet mine; they were serious and dark. His voice – a low, level baritone that never wavered, even during the years when he was taking on a man's tone – was cool and controlled as he said, "I tell you, Serva, on the days before a battle when I awake to find a royal messenger awaiting me outside my tent with a missive from the King, overruling my plans for the day . . . When I know that my easy victory has been replaced by a hard-fought one and that my men are the ones who will pay the price for the King's arrogance . . . Whenever that happens, the only thought in my mind is the pounding certainty that I cannot wait another year until the King is—"

He stopped before the ultimate word, which hung between us like an unsheathed blade. After a long minute, my throat had opened itself enough that I could ask, "Do you talk about this to others?"

Suddenly, with such abruptness that it seemed as though a mask had been torn from his face, Richard's mouth twisted again into mockery. With delicate derision, he said, "No, Princess, I do not talk treason in public. You're practically the only person I would trust to hear this."

I did not consider this to be a compliment, knowing that Derek was Richard's other confidant. Richard, though, must have taken my silence as assent, for he stepped forward and placed his hands lightly on my shoulders, saying softly, "See? I don't even have to ask you to remain quiet. You've always kept my secrets, no matter what it cost you. It's one of your more charming weaknesses."

The laughter was barely veiled in his voice. Forgetting momentarily what I was, I pushed Richard away from me in one swift thrust. He caught his balance in time to prevent himself from falling to the muddy ground. For a brief moment I saw his eyes turn cool in calculation. But before I had time to worry about the consequences of my act, he glanced up at the sun and said, "I need to return to work. Let's head back."

We made our way over to the horses. Richard silently helped me to mount. Then we plunged into the spring-bright forest like two gulls diving into sea-green waters. For a space of time, all my worries were dissipated by my determination to keep from falling off my mount.

Twigs cracked under our horses' hooves like whips; birds gave protesting calls as they fluttered up toward higher branches; the wind thundered in my ears. As we broke free of the trees, I could see ahead of us, clustered like sharp, grey rocks, the army tents that housed the vanguard, the divisions of the army that are swiftest and most deadly. Ostensibly those divisions lay under the sole control of the Commander of the Daxion army, but so great was Richard's skill as a subcommander that my father had never bothered to take up his role as commander. Richard alone had led the vanguard into battle.

A shaft of light reflecting off a soldier's sword pierced my eyes like fire. I closed my eyelids and became aware of the sweat running off my face like chill water. Then a break in my horse's rhythm caused me to open my eyes again. Ahead of me, Richard had slowed his mount in order to curve round to the south side of the army headquarters, where his tent was located.

The easier pace gave me the opportunity to straighten my back; I had been hunched over the horse, clutching its mane as well as the reins. As I did so, I thought back on what Richard had said. Of course, I had already known for many years how little loyalty he held toward my father. He had never tried to hide this from me, as we knew each other too well for secrets. Yet never before had Richard been so candid with his thoughts. Was it just, as he said, that I was the only person, besides Derek, with whom he could confide? Or was he perhaps hoping to make me a party to some future treachery? I could remember all too vividly the occasions when he had inveigled me into some prank of his and then allowed me to take the full blame when the time came for punishment.

Still, I could not believe that he would be so naive as to think that I would allow him to harm my father, much less take part in the treachery myself. And so Richard's actions that day – his peace oath, his dark truthfulness – remained a mystery to me as we came to a halt next to Richard's waiting orderly.

Another person was standing nearby. At sight of her, Richard threw his horse's reins to the orderly, jumped down onto the pavement, and kissed Baroness Eulalee.

The High Lady's kinswoman smiled at him; then she looked cautiously over at me as I scrambled off my mount. "Good day to you, Serva," she said in a low voice. She had the manners of a true noblewoman and always took care to greet me when we met. I do not think this was only because I was the King's daughter.

My eyes were lowered as I bowed my head silently in response. Already she was turning back to Richard as he said, "My apologies. Have you been waiting long?"

She shook her head. Her blue-black hair, which she wore loose, shimmered under the early afternoon light as she said, "The King sent me to find you."

Something flickered in Richard's eyes then. He emitted a string of curses that the orderly listened to with amusement and Eulalee with patience. Richard finished by saying, "I'd forgotten all about the meal. Is the King furious?"

"He's rather upset," Eulalee acknowledged softly.

"And our guest? Has he arrived yet?"

"Yes, but he's being very polite about the delay. He says that Emorians are too punctual in their formal occasions and that it's a change for him to be able to experience the more relaxed manner in which Daxions hold their receptions. He seems like a nice old man."

"Nice! Spirit preserve us, have you listened to the man? All the way down from Emor it was the same: 'I must say, Prince, that it's refreshing to be able to visit a land where customs have remained unchanged for a thousand years. We in Emor are so restless, always trying to bring our laws up to date, rather than holding to the older fashions, as you Daxions do.' 'Do tell me, Prince, are we likely to encounter any countryside before the end of our trip? I confess that one great failing we Emorians have is that we always insist on cluttering our towns with bushes and flowers and other such nonsense. You Daxions, on the other hand, have clearly taken town life to its logical conclusion and banned any such distractions from your sight. I cannot convey to you how awed I am by your thoroughness in paving over every bit of greenery.' 'No, thank you, Prince, I would rather not listen to another song tonight. I fear that the beauty of the last one has overwhelmed me—'"

The Prince stopped, smiling, as Eulalee buried her face in the hollow of his shoulder to smother her laughter. She was in her mid-twenties now, long past her prime courting years, but she still attracted many suitors because of her fine face-bones and large, gentle eyes. Like the High Lady, she was small in stature and delicately shaped, and her voice was as lovely as sweet mountain water. Richard had not looked my way since seeing her.

I did not dare interrupt him now to remind him of his promise to give Toft my alibi. Instead, I sank onto one knee, unnoticed even by Eulalee, who was urging Richard with laughter to hurry and change into his formal clothes. Richard responded by reaching out to touch lightly Eulalee's ethereal gown as he complimented her on her appearance. I rose and turned toward the palace.

As I did so, I noticed a figure standing beside Richard's army tent. I caught only a quick glimpse of the face drawn in pain by the betrayal she was witnessing. Then Lady Felicia turned and hurried toward the palace.