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Stakes (Breached Boundaries #3)

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(Melody: Repeats themes and sub-themes separately. Lyrics: Show what is at stake in the conflict.)
 

TESTIMONY OF RICHARD, PRINCE OF DAXIS, BY WAY OF THE ROYAL CLERK OF DAXIS

The Prince of Daxis asks me to express his thanks to you for your enquiry. He has no contribution to make to your chronicle of the war.
 

TESTIMONY OF URSULA, LATELY OF THE PRIESTS' HOUSE OF KORETIA

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

Oh, dear. Did you spend many sleepless hours searching for the least offensive title you could apply to me? You should know me better than that, Brian. I'm not afraid to acknowledge my past, much less my present.

At any rate, I'm happy to give you the background of how matters stood at the beginning of Koretia's war with Daxis, though I don't know why you're asking me; my brother and my husband know far more than I do. For that matter, the Jackal could give you an exact count of every man killed in the war. Including the many he killed himself.

(I shouldn't say that, I know. He sorrows for every man he kills. And then he eats them, as their god. I really don't understand the Jackal – either the god or the man who embodies the god. But I love him more than I can say.)

At any rate, the war was over something unimportant, as men's wars always are – something to do with both our lands wanting to own the mountain that stands between our capitals. As though rocks mattered, compared to the lives of men and women and children! (Please don't forget about the women and children, when it comes time for you to write this down. Historians always do, when they're telling their tales of gallant warriors falling in battle.)

So the King of Daxis was blustering, and our Jackal was snarling back, and then the Jackal went away to the border, and when he came back he smelt of the blood of the men he'd killed. You can imagine how hard it was to help him clean that off! (Those tales of gallant warriors never speak of how difficult it is to remove blood from clothing.) And we only had moments in which to grasp why he'd killed – it was because of the Princess of Daxis, you know, only officially she wasn't a princess, because her parents had never married.

I can see you blushing again, even though you're miles away, in Emor. You should really know me better, Brian. I've never been embarrassed to talk about such things, ever since the Jackal told me of my own origins, when I was a child.

At any rate, the Daxions complicate matters of marriage a great deal, because they have two forms of marriage: public marriage and marriage "in the song," in which a man and woman privately sing their vows of loyalty to each other. And what we learned later was that Serva's father had sung his vow of marriage to Serva's mother – even though he was already pledged to marry someone else! – and so he was married twice, and his first marriage, to his slave-lover, produced Serva, while his second marriage, to his Queen, didn't produced any heirs.

As I say, it's all very complicated, but apparently Serva couldn't inherit the throne – even though women usually can, in Daxis – because her parents hadn't been publicly married. But her cousin Richard, who became the King's heir, was worried that Serva would marry someone powerful who would steal the throne from him. So he persuaded the King to attack Koretia, because the King had become obsessed with the idea that the Jackal had stolen Serva in order to force her to marry him. (As though the Jackal would marry anyone. King Leofwin was so silly to think that.) But of course, Prince Richard knew the truth, which was that Serva had fled from Daxis in order to escape him, because he was going to rid her of any chance of marrying someone else by raping her—

Please don't blush, Brian. I told you I'm not afraid of talking of such things.

At any rate, this was how my brother entered into the story. Speaking of which, have you received any word of him?

With fond thoughts of you,
Ursula
 

CHAPTER ONE

When dawn arrived, I was making my way through the streets of the Koretian capital, rushing to catch up with Perry.

So intent was I to keep up with the swift-moving thief that I barely had time to attend to my surroundings after we passed through the city's west gate. I caught glimpses of crooked houses built of timber rather than brick or stone; large windows with broad ledges, long enough for a man to lie on; and narrow alleyways that wound aimlessly like tiny rivulets before pouring out into the broad streams of the main roads. In the southern portion of the circular city stood a black marble building that must have been the palace, but this I saw only from a distance, for the Jackal's palace was atop a broad, tree-flecked hill that was encircled by a wide, stone-lined moat. We passed a wooden bridge that led to the palace grounds, but this was lined by spear-bearing soldiers on both ends.

My lingering glance at the palace caused me to fall behind Perry, who had silently led me through the countryside, from the border to the city. The closer we came to the city, the faster his pace had increased, until now, as the greyness of dawn began to dissipate, and people began to appear on the streets, it was all I could do to keep up.

As we entered one of the narrow alleyways, Perry halted so suddenly that I nearly slammed into his back. I peered over his shoulder and saw that blocking our way was a boy, about twelve years of age, barefoot and in torn clothes, holding up his hands and saying, "Serve the gods by showing mercy to the poor, kind sir. Will you give me some money so that I might break my fast?"

Perry did not reply, but his one eye remained fixed on the boy, and his hand went down to his belt-purse. He emptied the coins in it into his hand and held the coins there for a moment while the pleased boy took a step forward and held up his hands higher. Then Perry deliberately dropped all of the money into the gutter to the side of us.

The boy, who seemed not to care where his money came from, immediately dived into the gutter to retrieve the coins from the filth there. I would have knelt down to help him, but Perry was already walking on without looking back to see whether I was following. As the alleyway broadened, I caught up to his side and looked at his face. His chin was high, but there was a look in his eye that I recognized from our first meeting.

Not arrogance, I decided, but extreme shyness – that was the meaning of the encounter which had just taken place. This also explained Perry's tendency to stop and stand to the side whenever we encountered anyone in the road, even in the broader alleys. Suppressing the uneasiness I felt at the thought of the beggar-boy sifting through the filth to find his money, I followed Perry into one of the little Koretian houses.

The house was very dark. The large window facing the street was shuttered, and Perry made no move to pull the boards back. Dimly, though, I could see that the house was cozily furnished. On the wall above the cold hearth hung several face-sized god-masks; I recognized a mask bearing the Jackal's features, but the other masks were differently decorated, and I remembered that the Koretians worshipped several gods and goddesses. Beside the hearth stood a cradle with a delicately woven linen blanket, while at the other end of the room, in an alcove, was a bed and wooden chest. In between all of these were a trestle-table and benches, pots and other kitchenware, a shield hanging on the wall, and – this provided the most domestic touch – a baby's teething rag lying on a stool.

Perry was watching me, evidently waiting for me to comment, so I asked, "Is this your house?"

He shook his head. "It belonged to the Jackal before he became ruler. Now his subcommander lives here."

For a moment, I thought he must be joking; this tiny little cottage was no house for a high army official, much less a ruler-to-be. But Perry's face remained serious, so I said, "And the Jackal lives at the palace?" I went to the back of the house and looked through the window. Beyond the walled garden and the surrounding houses, I could just see the palace on the hill. "What an enormous moat he has."

"It's because of the fire." Something about the tone of Perry's voice caused me to look up. He was bending over a small chest near the back door of the house, bringing out bread and wine. "When the Emorians invaded here at the end of the Border Wars, they tried burning part of the city in order to force us to surrender, but the fire destroyed the whole city. After the Jackal became ruler, one of the first things he did was hire Emorian engineers to come and build a moat around the palace grounds. He believes that, if there is ever a fire again, the palace grounds are large enough that everyone in the city can flee there." He looked up from the chest. "You must be hungry."

"To sing the truth," I said, "I'm not hungry, but I'm very tired. I've hardly slept for the past two nights."

"Why don't you sleep now?" Perry suggested. "It may be a while before the Jackal arrives."

I certainly hoped that it was. The Jackal's words of vengeance against the murderers of Andrew were still ringing in my ears. I was not at all sure that I wanted to meet the terrifying Koretian ruler again. I stepped toward the bed, and Perry shut the curtain to the alcove with a rapidity which suggested that he too wanted to be alone with his thoughts.

As I pulled off Andrew's cloak and set down the encased harp I had carried from Daxis, I reflected that my future now depended on a ruler whose greatest knowledge of me was that I had caused his spy's death. I had depended too much, I realized, on Andrew's kindness and on his willingness to help me. Now I was not sure what I would do in this land; I felt as impotent as a eunuch. There was Perry . . . But Perry, despite his initial friendliness, had made no offer to help me in my plight. Perhaps he too blamed me for Andrew's death. Since Andrew had died while helping me escape over the border, there was no reason that Perry and Jackal should not blame me for the death of so skilled and generous a man.

Certainly I did.

I curled up on the bed and fell asleep immediately. I was indeed tired, but more than that I was determined to escape from the horrors and grief of the previous days, as well as my fears about the future.

o—o—o

Something woke me some time later. I opened my eyes, expecting to find myself in the slave-quarters in which I had lived for thirty years. It took me a moment to orient myself. Then I remembered: I was in Koretia, safe from the Prince unless the Jackal should decide to send me back because of what had happened to Andrew. . . . This fear had not occurred to me before, and I thrust it swiftly aside. I lay in the bed for a while, listening to the sounds around me: the clucking of hens in some nearby garden, the soft chatter of people on the street, and the low rumble of thunder in the distance. I could not hear the sound of Perry in the next room. Perhaps, having fulfilled his duty to bring me here, he had left me in this house to await the Jackal's return. Or perhaps he had gone to tell Andrew's family and friends what had happened. I remembered that Perry had mentioned that he would have to tell Andrew's blood brother. This could be the same blood brother that Andrew had told me about in my father's dungeon. If he had known Andrew since they were children, the man named John would probably be much grieved by the news of Andrew's death. Perry might be some time in returning.

I heard a rapping sound, and after a moment I realized that it came from the front door to the house; I realized too that this was the sound that had woken me before. Somebody was waiting for the door to be answered, perhaps the Jackal. I scrambled to my feet and began to pull back the alcove curtain, then stopped.

Light was shining through the cracks of the house at the opposite angle to when I had fallen asleep. It must be afternoon now. In the darkest corner of the room, the one directly opposite to the front door, Perry was standing with his back to the mask-laden hearth. He was in fact directly against the hearth, with his left, burnt hand raised up to touch the mask of the Jackal, but his gaze was on the door. I supposed that he was only wondering whether he ought to answer the door when this was not his house, but there was something odd about the way he stared at the barred door with great intensity, as though willing away the intruder.

The knock came a third time. This time it was accompanied by a low voice saying, "Perry, are you there? It's Durand."

Now, finally, Perry walked forward toward the door, but slowly, as though he were unsure as to whether friend or enemy lay beyond the wooden door. He pulled up the bolt, but rather than open the door, he backed away from the doorway until he was in the corner where he had been before. I heard the sound of the latch rising, and the door opened, but the visitor did not enter. Instead, he started talking rapidly to Perry.

He was speaking to Perry so quickly in Koretian that I could not follow what he was saying; my knowledge of Andrew's native tongue was not as great as that. After a time, I recalled that Andrew had mentioned a man named Durand as someone I could go to in time of danger. I stepped forward—

—and halted. In all likelihood, I realized, Durand was one of Andrew's fellow "thieves," as the Jackal called his spies. If Durand had worked alongside Andrew, he was as likely to blame me for Andrew's death as Perry and the Jackal were.

Perry had not noticed me standing in the alcove. He was leaning against the corner with his left cheek against the wall. I turned and made my way back through the darkness of the alcove to the bed, where I curled up once more.

The voice stopped, the door closed, and after a minute I heard the curtain drawn back. I kept my eyes closed, sensing that it was better to pretend that I had been asleep all the while and had not witnessed this peculiar scene. I waited for Perry to wake me with a word or a touch – and then I jolted into a sitting position as something clattered on the wooden floor near me.

Perry was standing against the wall of the alcove with his cloak over one arm, watching me silently. A short distance from him was his sword, which he had evidently dashed to the ground in order to get my attention. Still trembling from the surprise, I said, "Why did you do that?"

His hurt look immediately mollified me. I remembered that this quiet spy, however eccentric, had just helped to save me from death. "I'm sorry," I said. "I woke too suddenly. What is it?"

Perry reached forward in a tentative fashion with his foot to slide the sword toward him. As he picked it up and resheathed it, he said softly, "The Jackal has issued his hunting cry to all of the thieves in the city. I must return to the palace."

"And I'm to wait here?" I folded my arms around my legs, feeling relief that the Koretian ruler had returned safely from the border. At least I would not have his death on my conscience.

"I'm not sure," he said as he ducked his head, probably in an attempt to get a better view of me in the dark. "He put out the call of pursuit; that means he needs our help to fight an immediate danger. I'm not sure whether the danger is at the palace or elsewhere, and I don't know whether the Jackal will even be there to ask when I arrive. He told Durand where I and the other thieves were, but he was too busy to send any individual messages. Since I don't know whether the Jackal wants me to bring you with me, I think I should follow his previous instructions and have you stay here. Perhaps he plans to come fetch you himself."

"That suits me well enough," I replied, lying back down onto the bed. "I suppose that I ought to be well-rested by now, but I think the effects of the past couple of days are just catching up with me. I'll be glad to sleep some more."

He nodded, began to walk away, and then said hesitantly, "Would you like me to leave my sword?"

I forced myself to laugh, though it took effort. I had no certainty that anyone would return for me, and why should they? In my selfish attempt to save my own life, I had destroyed the Jackal's best spy. A man unlike any other I had ever known, or ever would know. "Swordplay isn't one of the skills I've learned over the years," I replied. "Besides, I doubt that the Prince will pursue me this far. I don't have anything to fear, now that I'm in Koretia."

I suppose that I have made more foolish statements in my life, but that is the one I remember most, because of what happened afterwards.

o—o—o

It took time for me to return to sleep.

I lay awake, running in my mind over all the conversations I'd held with Andrew. The more I thought about it, the more I was sure that I had caused the death of an extraordinary man. Not simply because he was a talented spy, though the Jackal's anger over his death showed how valuable Andrew had been to that ruler. No, even if he had continued to live the life of a slave, as Andrew had once told me he was, I thought that something about the man would have marked Andrew as a divine instrument for good.

And now he was dead. Because I had chosen to live, a divine man was gone.

And so I wept myself to sleep. It was not something I had done since I was a child. After a certain age, it takes much to force a slave to cry. But Andrew would have wanted me to cry, I dimly recalled. He had warned me against closing myself off from such emotions. So I wept, and I slept, and I dreamt.

Dimly in my dream, I heard the voices. They were calling to each other, men and women, young and old, excitedly talking in a language which I was too sleepy to understand. Then the voices faded, a rumble began to grow, and I heard two cracks like those from a whip wielded by an angry slave-keeper.

I opened my eyes and saw nothing but blackness.

Groping my way out of bed, I finally found the front door of the house, pulled back the bolt, and opened the iron-bound door wide. The darkness, I quickly realized, was caused not only by night's arrival but also by tenebrous storm clouds that had gathered in the sky above. Only a soft glow toward the west whispered the reminder of the sun. Oddly enough, the same glow seemed to occur in the east as well. I stood by the empty street, listening to the low rumble of the rain-heavy clouds and watching a nearby tree sway with increasing franticness in the wind. Then I began to hear music.

It came from the east, swelling like the wind into an exultant thrust of song. It spoke, in its very melody, of charging, pounding, crushing. It hammered through the air like a battering ram, it gathered energy like a fist about to strike, and then it swooped past me in the form of grey-uniformed soldiers.

Their voices raised high in song, the Daxion soldiers were evidently eager to meet their enemy. They raced past me so quickly that I barely had time to recognize one or two men whom I had seen at my father's army headquarters. Their blades were unsheathed, some already stained with blood, others still pure and untouched. A few of the soldiers were missing their swords or their shields, but they ran alongside their comrades with no fear. Their voices were beginning to rise higher as they approached the victory portion of the song. No Koretians blocked their path, and though a few of the soldiers paused to kick doors in, the dwellers in this part of the city had evidently already fled their homes, for the soldiers shrugged and continued on toward the light at the west end of the city.

The thunder of their footsteps was beginning to die down when a straggler appeared, a soldier so young that he was still growing his beard. His shield was missing, but he had an unsullied sword in his hand. His eyes were wide with excitement, and he was singing loudly. Then he stopped suddenly, having sighted me in the doorway.

A smile appeared on his face. For a moment, I thought that he would ask me to join him in his victory song. Then he began to run toward me, his blade still naked.

It was then that I realized, too late, what danger I was in.

I stepped back inside the house and tried to swing the door closed, but he pushed it back easily and pinned me up against the wall with one hand, holding his sword loosely with the other hand. "Wait, pretty Koretian," he said with a grin. "You haven't greeted your new master yet."

He spoke in Daxion and could not have expected me to understand. His hand, slipping down to pull up my tunic, spoke the language that is understood everywhere by women caught in war. Yet as he moved, I noticed a faint uncertainty in his eye, and his hand fumbled as though he were not quite sure of the proper procedure for this.

I was on the point of spinning into a greater panic than I had known since the night that I woke to find one of the King's guards atop me, tearing at my clothes. But seeing that uncertainty in the man's expression saved me. Gathering together my wits, I said in icy Daxion, "Take your hands off of me."

His hand froze where it was. He stared at me, gaping, before saying, "You're Daxion."

Until this moment, I had not decided for certain what I was: whether I was a Daxion in temporary exile or an emigrant to Koretia. But now, with a firmness that came from not having to think the matter through, I said, "I'm a servant of the Spirit. So let me go; I'm not your enemy."

He considered this matter with perplexity wrinkling his brow. It was clear that the informal instructions he had received in raping did not include what to do if you capture the wrong victim. Finally he said with a smile, "All the better. You should be happy that we've captured the city and will want to celebrate."

I tried to push him away, but his body was pressed firmly against mine. Trying not to sound as desperate as I felt, I said, "Don't be a fool. If you want to prove your manhood, then show that you have the wisdom of a man. A true man woos his woman with love, not with a blade."

The soldier looked at me with doubtful eyes. His sword was now close to slipping from his hand. "Look, just give me a kiss," he pleaded. "That's all I want."

One kiss, I was sure, would be a victory so sweet that he would demand more. I tried again to thrust him away from my chest. Then he moved suddenly, spinning away from me and landing with his back against the wall as the tip of his own sword settled upon the ball of his throat.

The grey-uniformed man holding the young soldier's blade looked darkly upon his prisoner for a moment. His tunic was covered in dirt, and a large tear in it exposed part of his chest, which was covered with dried blood. There was blood on his head too, black on the bandage he wore there. Clapping my hand across my mouth to suppress a scream, I stared mutely at the man, as though I had met a death spirit that had arisen from its ash-tomb.

Over the growing rumble outside, Andrew said softly in Daxion, "Two facts you should know. One is that you are still alive only because you took the trouble to ask for what you wanted. Let that be a lesson to you that politeness receives its reward. The second fact is that you will not remain alive for long unless you start running now. There is fire in this city, both in the east and in the west, and it is closing in on us. Run to the south, toward the palace moat. That is the only escape left."

The soldier made a gurgling sound in his throat, as though protesting the fact that all of his training was come to nothing. As Andrew withdrew the blade, the soldier jerked away from his captor and fled out the door.

"Andrew," I whispered. "How did you—?"

He shook his head, threw the sword to the ground, and pulled me by hand toward the back of the house, saying, "No time. I saw the fire starting when I was coming down Council Hill, where the palace is located. The fire is trapping the Daxion soldiers and will kill us as well if we don't move quickly. We must get to the moat before the bridge is raised."

He spoke these words in snatches, for he had already opened the back door of the house. We were now running hand in hand through the low-walled garden. The sky glowed red, and wood-scented smoke drifted over us like low mist. I realized that the growing rumble came not from the storm clouds, which still hung ponderously over us, but from the fire approaching us on both sides. We were surrounded by wooden houses, but straight ahead of us, resting upon its high hill, stood the marble palace that overlooked the city.

The garden gate was locked. Andrew opened it with a crash of his boot; then we raced through the smoke-dark streets. The fire was beginning to shout in our ears now. I coughed from soot in my throat. Andrew, continuing his straight path south, dodged suddenly to avoid a burning timber that had fallen from a nearby house. He dragged me aside as he did so, and we ended up into an alley whose entrance was soon blocked behind us by fire eating its way toward us. After a quick glance at me to ascertain that I had not been hurt, Andrew pulled me once more forward, down the narrow, doorless street that was scattered with merchants' crates. The alley jogged slightly at the end – and there we found ourselves facing a tall, stone wall.

Andrew said something pithy under his breath. His head was tilted upwards, trying to ascertain how far we had to climb. Over the roar of the fire, I shouted, "What is this?"

"A bit of the old palace wall," Andrew replied, his gaze fixed on the immobile stones before him. "Most of it was torn down when the moat was built, but the Jackal kept part of it as a place for soldiers to keep lookout. The moat is on the other side of it." He let go of my hand, drew back a few paces, then ran forward and jumped toward the top of the wall. His fingers just caught the edge of the wall, and then he slipped down again. He landed with a thud that sent him to his knees.

I hurried over to help him up. "We could pile some crates on top of each other!" I shouted over the flame-rumble. But as I looked back over my shoulder, I saw sparks flying out from the length of the alley where we had just run.

Andrew said nothing. He was looking toward the top of the wall again. As I followed his gaze, I saw that a man was standing there, outlined black against the grey clouds. He fell onto his stomach and put his arms over the edge of the wall, holding them down toward us. Without speaking, Andrew swept me into his arms and started pushing me up the length of the wall, like a miller trying to push a bag of grain onto the top of his store. I reached up to the waiting hands, felt them draw me upwards, and in the moment before I was hauled onto the top of the wall, I recognized my savior as the young soldier.

He held me only long enough to place me to the side; then he was on his stomach again, waiting for Andrew. Andrew stepped back and looked up at us; then, like a cat springing forward, he raced toward and up the wall.

This time the soldier caught him, so precariously that I think both of them might have fallen back down into the alley, but I had already grabbed onto the soldier's legs. There was a struggle, as though the soldier was a fisherman trying to land a particularly squirmy fish. Finally he pulled Andrew onto the wall. All three of us lay for a while where we were, trying to regain our breath in the smoky air.

Having done the least work, I recovered the quickest. I rose to my feet to look around me. From this vantage point, I could see that the two halves of the city fire had begun to close in on each other, like a wound that is healing. No escape lay to the north, where the city wall stood high and gateless. Yet in the small gap remaining between the fires, a grey line of soldiers was fleeing desperately and hopelessly toward that wall.

I turned away quickly and looked toward the south. Some soldiers had had sense enough to run in this direction; the first of them were just reaching the moat. Lining the other side of the moat were soldiers in black uniforms. Some of the Koretian soldiers were in the process of pulling at a large, heavy wheel. As I watched, the wooden bridge over the moat rose into the air like the petals of a flower closing at night. The Daxion soldiers who had just reached the moat were left helpless, staring at the wide expanse of water.

Beside me, Andrew said, "The Jackal left orders that the palace grounds should be defended to the death, since that's where all the city dwellers are now. He intended the moat to be a final line of defense in case the city gates should be breached – but he didn't anticipate anything like this happening."

Faintly, I heard the screams of the Daxion soldiers who had turned and were trying to fight their way back through the voracious fire. Looking over at the hill, I saw that the palace grounds were crowded with people. At this distance, they looked like ants standing amongst grass blades. I could hear their murmur rising like smoke, punctuated at intervals by the shouted orders of the black-tunicked Koretian soldiers. Then something bit at my arm. I turned to see the fire angrily rising toward us from the houses to the north of the palace wall.

The young soldier looked uneasily at us, obviously uncertain as to whether he should trust us, but equally uncertain of what to do. Andrew was looking toward both ends of the wall, but if the soldier had reached the top of the wall by means of stairs, those stairs were now in flames. The fire was battering against the back of the wall; in front of the wall was a short, wood-planked wharf, but it too was now being eaten on both sides by fire. I thought of the harp I had left behind in the house, and I felt a pang of pain at the loss of Rosetta's gift.

A muffled thump occurred within the growl of the fire. It came from Andrew, who had just jumped to the ground below. He fell to his hands as well as his knees, and stayed in that position for a moment, as though he had been stunned. Then he rose to his feet and raised his arms.

Once more, I felt myself jerked off my feet, this time by the young soldier. Without preliminary, he dropped me into Andrew's waiting arms. I felt a lightness, then a jolting, and then Andrew staggered under my sudden weight. I pulled myself quickly out of his arms, nearly stepping into the path of the soldier, who had jumped down beside us.

Andrew took a step toward the water, which was blood-red like the sky. It was as wide as a small lake and looked as deep as one. The growing storm-winds were buffeting it with waves. The soldiers on the other side of the moat appeared small. The fire was now so loud that I could no longer hear their shouts.

Andrew asked, "Can you swim?"

I shook my head wordlessly. The young soldier said, "I can't."

"Splendid," said Andrew. "Neither can I; we'll enter the Land Beyond together. Jump!" He grabbed my hand and pulled me over the edge, just as the first flames of death reached out to caress our bodies.