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Battle (Breached Boundaries #4)

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(Melody: Transforms musical theme into a martial air. Lyrics: Depict the conflict.)
 

TESTIMONY OF SERVA, PRINCESS OF DAXIS

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

You have asked me to comment, for the sake of the historical records, on how much truth lies behind the Tale of the Spy and the Princess. I'm afraid that the answer is: Not a great deal. Oh, the facts of the song are more or less true, but the song fails to convey the horror of what I and the other participants experienced: our daily fear that our flight would end in capture, torment, and death.

But rather than speak in general terms, let me comment directly on the song itself. Here is the song as Perry and I first heard it during our flight through Daxis. Perry, of course, recalls the original song with complete accuracy.

In the land of Daxis, the land blessed by the Song Spirit with the music of bards, there once lived a princess. She was beautiful and kind, and all who met her loved her.

I must confess that, whenever I hear a bard sing these lines, I have a hard time holding back my laughter. The reality, as you know, was quite different. My mother was nothing more than a slave-woman whom my father the King had married in the Spirit – that is to say, without witnesses. By law, I was nothing more than another slave. The only people who called me Princess were Rosetta, the King's Bard (who died around this time); Sandy, the dungeon-keeper (who loved me as though I were his niece); and my father's nephew and heir, Prince Richard (who called me Princess only to emphasize the difference in our fortunes).

As for being loved by all, it would be closer to the truth to say that I was hated or ignored by all. Certainly my fellow slaves never trusted me.

One day, while bringing comfort to the prisoners in the dungeon, she met a wounded spy who was doomed to die. In the moment that she first saw him, she fell in love with him.

Actually, like most people, my first impression of Andrew was that he was cold and cutting. My second impression of him – acquired when he held a dagger to my throat – was that he was a very dangerous man.

Taking pity upon him, she tended his wounds and helped him to escape from his enemies. But the Princess also had an enemy, a man who wished her to die. He knew secrets that would have increased her fortunes, and he kept those secrets in his heart.

The song is vague here, both because it would not have been wise to name the Prince explicitly, and also because no one was sure of why my cousin Richard was so determined to capture me. I knew little more than the rest. I only knew that the Prince was privy to a forbidden passage in the Song of Succession – that is, a forbidden song known only to the King and his Bard – that was somehow connected with me. My father (may the Song Spirit have mercy on him) had killed his own Bard rather than risk having the secret revealed. Since no Consort was alive to guide him in such matters and to give him the Song Spirit's command that he had strayed from her law, the King spoke his thoughts only to the Prince. The Prince in turn had reason to fear me, since any man who married me might be named by the Daxion Council as the true heir to the throne. For this reason my father tried to force me to marry the Prince, and for this reason—

The princess, learning of her father's death and fearing the vengeance of her enemy, fled from the Land of Daxis with the help of the spy she had saved.

The chronology here isn't right, but it's true that, having refused the Prince's offer to marry me in the Spirit, I feared that he would try to rape and kill me.

Then the spy revealed to her that he was in fact a great man, sent by the gods to bring peace to the Three Lands.

Isn't it odd how often bards anticipate events in their songs? Surely this must be a sign that they are guided by the Song Spirit. In fact, at this time Andrew had brought peace only to Emor and Koretia, but it's true that he was already a great man: blood brother to the Jackal of Koretia, friend to the Chara of Emor, and an ambassador between those two nations. To find myself assisted by such a man was humbling. To find myself in love with him was embarrassing beyond words.

He took her to a beautiful palace, where she would be safe from her enemy.

Of course, this was the palace of the Jackal, the god-man who serves as ruler of Koretia. I did not stay there for long. The Jackal, fearing that the Prince's spies would try to capture me there, sent me on a journey to the Chara's palace, where he believed I would truly be safe.

There she met a mighty bard, loved greatly by the Song Spirit.

There I met Perry, mutilated by fire in his childhood, unable to bear being touched, and unable to speak to any but a few people, of which I was one. In spirit, he was less a man than a terrified boy; he was even afraid of daylight. Yet already he had certain gifts: a perfect memory, a great love for the Jackal, and courage that gave him the strength to escort me on my journey to Emor.

There too the spy came to love the princess. But he feared the princess, believing that it was the gods' will that he touch no woman.

This, alas, was true.

And so he fled from the palace, leaving the princess to weep with loneliness for the man she loved so well.

How the slaves of the Daxion palace learned all this, I will never know. Perhaps one of the bards who was expelled from Koretia at this time brought back gossip from the Jackal's palace, and the slaves incorporated it into the older song they adapted for this purpose: the Song of the Wounded Man.

Nor was her danger lessened, for her enemy continued to seek her, sending his soldiers to the palace to capture her. But the Song Spirit denied them their chance, sending them home empty-handed.

If I had heard this song without knowing the facts, I would have considered this passage to be a fancy spun by a bard. But in fact, no one has ever been able to find any rational cause for the fire that destroyed most of the Daxion soldiers who were attempting to capture the Koretian capital.

Of course, I was not the focus of the fighting. The Prince and the Jackal were quarrelling over who should own the mountain that lay between their two capitals. Yet the Prince tied the two issues together by demanding my return as part of the peace terms. And so I, who had been a mere slave-woman, found myself at the center of a life-threatening dispute between two lands.

Yet none of this mattered to the princess, for her heart was broken by the loss of her true love.

And there the song ends, for that is where matters stood when Perry and I began our journey to the Chara's palace. The rest you know.

Serva
 

CHAPTER ONE

By dawn of the day following Andrew's departure from the Jackal's palace, Perry and I had begun making our way across the northern face of Capital Mountain, where all was new-grown and green-scented.

The tapestry-bright flowering of late spring were giving way to the greens of early summer: the apple green of the leaves that bowed to hold the weight of the dew-sagged spiders' webs; the dark green of the trunk-clinging ivy; the golden green of the swaying ferns; the diamond-specked green of a tumbling forest brook; and the pale green of the clovers opening their faces above the emerald-green moss.

Trailing swiftly over the moss was the ragged edge of Perry's cloak – the cloak he had loaned me in Daxis. The day was far too warm for him to be wearing a cloak, even with it thrust back over his shoulders, but I suspected that he wore it as a symbolic protection to our journey, since the Jackal had given him the cloak many years ago.

So far Perry had spoken no word since we left the palace: not when we walked down the night-dark slopes of Council Hill that were still choked with the tents of refugees from the war, not when we made our way through the fire-blackened remains of the city and past the guards just opening the city gates to the dawn, and not when we made our lonely way down the road that eventually led to the Western Gap, passing on our way a few farmers bringing their goods to the newly reopened city market.

After that, our route had grown more mysterious. First we turned onto a well-marked track winding its way up onto the wooded mountainside, and then we plunged into the thick of the woods, over no track that I could identify. Perry, though, appeared to know every step of the way we took. The tension in his shoulders slackened somewhat, even though the sun rode higher in the sky each moment.

We broke free of the trees at last. I brushed the cobwebs and leaves out of my hair as I glanced over to my left, where the Koretian capital lay. We were not far up the mountainside at all, and I could barely see over the stone wall into the ruins of the city. But what I saw was not mere waste and death. Amidst the black timbers were bits of color from farmers setting up their stands in a cleared area, and from city dwellers streaming down from Council Hill to break their fasts. For now, the Koretian government was paying the farmers to provide food for the city dwellers who had lost everything.

"It's like a forest growing again after a fire."

I had not realized I had stopped walking until I heard myself speak. Perry stood on the edge of the ridge we had been travelling along, close enough that his dawn-stretched shadow touched me. Over his right shoulder, hanging from one strap, was a case holding the harp that the King's Bard has given me at a time that seemed forever ago, but which had actually only happened six weeks before. The city home of the Jackal's subcommander, where I had left the harp during the fire, had miraculously escaped the flames that had swallowed so many of the city houses. The Jackal had returned the harp to me, and I had promptly gifted the harp to Perry.

From where I stood now, on Perry's left side, I could see nothing but the twisted remains of his face, burnt in a much earlier fire. Then his head turned, and I saw the smooth curve of his other cheek.

"That's what John said once, about the fire in the city when we were children," Perry replied softly. "He said that the god took the fire that the Emorians had made, which was evil, and made it his own fire in order to bring about good." He stared down at the dark city for a moment more, his thoughts clearly focussed on the Jackal, whom he most often called by the god-man's human name, John. Then he pointed and said, "Look. That's where the Emorian is planning to build his houses."

It took me a moment to recall what he was talking about. "But I thought that the Jackal tore up Valerian's request to build houses, because of how Valerian had abused you when you were young."

Perry shook his head. His long hair fell forward, shielding his face. The long hair made him look very young, not in the least like one of the Jackal's thief-spies. "We talked about it afterwards," he said. "That was such a long time ago; the Emorian may have changed since then. Perhaps he's half Koretian in his spirit now, the way Andrew is. John and I decided that it wouldn't be fair to judge the Emorian only on what he did twenty-five years ago. So John is going to meet with him and see what he's like now."

I felt curiosity tremble in me then. I remembered John tearing up Valerian's petition and wondered whether, in the moment that he did so, he had planned the conversation that followed. Whether or not he had, the Jackal had given Perry what he most required: a demonstration of the Jackal's love. In doing so, John had strengthened the trust that Perry held for the Jackal.

For a moment, I felt as though I was touching on something important – something I needed to know for the future – but my thoughts were scattered as Perry pivoted on his heel. He pointed down the slope. "Do you see the building through the trees there? That's the priests' house. That's where John and I lived before he became the Jackal."

I could just see the massive, cream-stoned building that looked as though it were a mere outgrowth of mountain rock. Shading the left side of his face as though shielding himself against the touch of the morning sun, Perry said, "John and I go back there sometimes. The priests made the cell where we lived into a chapel dedicated to the Unknowable God. They were going to dedicate it to the Jackal, but John pointed out that he wouldn't be able to worship there if they did. After all, he can't worship himself."

"Isn't the Unknowable God supposed to be all of the gods together? I don't understand how John could worship any god at all."

"I don't really understand it either. But John says that he can worship the Unknowable God, so it must be true."

His voice was low, barely audible above the cicadas who were briskly greeting the morning warmth. To me, the mountain appeared deserted of all people, but Perry spoke with the hush of a spy making his way through enemy territory. I turned, ready to hasten through this stage of our journey, but Perry was saying, "Ursula lived in the priests' house too. John took care of her because she was an orphan."

My mind drifted back to the cheerful woman who had been Chara Peter's Consort before the death of that Emorian ruler. "I've been wondering about Lady Ursula," I said, tilting my head toward the warmth of the dawn sun as I stared back up at the bulky house. "She's Andrew's sister, yet her skin is so pale. Do she and Andrew have Emorian blood in them?"

There was a scuffing noise. I looked over to see that Perry was kicking up small puffs of dust with his boot. After a moment, he said, "Andrew doesn't. Andrew's father was a Koretian soldier who was killed by a man in the Emorian army during the Border Wars."

"And Andrew's mother was Koretian as well?"

Perry nodded, still staring at the airborne sand drifting slowly up. "She was killed by another Emorian soldier, though it took her several months to die. Ursula was born before that happened."

"But who was Lady Ursula's—?"

I stopped abruptly, understanding finally what Perry was telling me. I concentrated my gaze on the fire-orange mushrooms blooming at the edge of the woods until Perry added, "It was when the Emorians attacked; John and Andrew saw it happen. The soldier ravished Andrew's mother and tried to kill her. Andrew attacked him, and John tried to help Andrew. The soldier tried to kill John as well. John fell unconscious from his wound. When John woke up a short time later, Andrew was gone; the soldier captured Andrew. So John helped Andrew's mother escape from the fire."

It was clear from the manner in which Perry told the story that his thoughts were focussed on John's courage on the day of the first fire. My thoughts, though, had shot back to the moment two weeks before, when Andrew had flung a young Daxion soldier – my would-be rapist – back against a cottage wall and placed a sword-tip against his throat. So much, then, lay behind the look that Andrew had given him.

And yet . . . and yet Andrew had saved young Marius's life shortly thereafter. Even more than that—

"He stayed in Emor," I said wonderingly. "After all that the Emorians did to him and his mother and his blood brother, Andrew stayed in Emor after he was freed from slavery."

Beside me, Perry's cloak fluttered like the wings of a bird as he whirled around to stare once more at the city below. I briefly glimpsed his untouched face, tight with anger, and then saw nothing more than the ruins on the other side. "I don't understand!" he said with vehemence. "I don't understand how Andrew can like the Emorians. They're a cruel people: they conquered all of the northern peninsula by warfare, and they'd do the same here if they had the chance. They cut their slaves and they beat their children. Why he would want to keep visiting there after what they did—"

His foam-white teeth reached out and bit his lower lip shut as he continued to tilt his face to look at the fire-ruined city below. After a moment, I focussed my gaze on the green shoots struggling their way through the dead leaves of the previous winter. I looked up again as Perry turned once more toward the mountain. As though there had been no interruption in our conversation, he pointed toward the peak. "Look. You can just see it from here."

For a moment I could see nothing through the dark pines and scrub of the high slopes. Then the sun must have risen another notch in the sky, for suddenly the peak was bathed in a nimbus of light. Near the top of the mountain, I could see a bit of a building, built of sandstone as though it were another outgrowth of the mountain, but tiny, crumbling, like the marking stone of some ancient ash-tomb.

I caught my breath as Perry said, "It's the gods' house. That's where the priests used to worship in the old days."

"I remember that you mentioned it once. You said that John goes there."

"John and Andrew. It's Andrew's house, really; that's where he usually stays when he visits the city. John goes up and stays with him. It drove the royal officials mad at first, the way the Jackal kept leaving his duties and going off onto the mountainside, but he always comes back with new ideas about how to run his government, so they've become used it."

I looked over at Perry, who was staring up at the ancient house with narrowed gaze, as though trying to see something in the far distance. "Do you go there as well?"

Perry shook his head, allowing his gaze to drop. "They always invite me, but I think John and Andrew like to have time alone. Andrew was John's blood brother before John and I met, you see."

There was an odd tone in Perry's voice, as different from his normal tone as the fire-orange mushrooms were different from the dark colors of the woods. I had no chance to analyze what it was, though, for Perry turned suddenly and began making his way along the ridge, which curved uphill.

The tender spring grass gave way to bare rock. Perry, still following his own invisible route, began to scramble up the side of a bare rock, then looked back at me and said hesitantly, "It's a bit steep here."

"I'm dressed for a climb," I said, pulling my tunic up higher so that I could stretch my leg up to find a toehold on the rock. By the time I reached the top of the rock, I was as pale as an Emorian with rock-dust, and my palms were scraped white. Perry was sitting cross-legged at the top of the rock, with his sheathed sword over his knees, staring down intently at the landscape below as though he had forgotten I was there. I made the final scramble onto the top, then sat down beside him and looked out upon the Sea of Koretia.

That, my father had taught me, was the name for Koretia's unending forest, and now I could see why: the green mass of trees that reached to the horizon reminded me of the green sea-waves I had seen in pictures. The forest started at the triangle tip of Capital Mountain and spread outward, as though the mountain were a ship leaving a furrow in its wake. My eye was caught by the mountain range whose line travelled northwest. On the western side of those mountains, I knew, were the close-clustered towns of eastern Daxis; there lay our route to Emor, and there lay renewed danger.

Glancing over at Perry, I found that he was no longer looking at the landscape but at my tunic, which was still pulled high up on my thighs. Feeling my face grow warm, I hastily pulled the hem down, then regretted the gesture as Perry noticed it and quickly looked away. After a moment he said in the tentative voice of a child caught looking where he had no business to look, "I was just thinking . . . I was wishing that you didn't have to wear that. That you didn't have to pretend you're my slave."

"I'll be less conspicuous as a slave-servant than as a free-servant. Anyway, it will save us money. We can share rooms along the way."

Perry gave me a startled look. "But won't people think— I mean, you're a woman, and I'm . . ." His voice trailed off.

I managed to keep from smiling. "I assure you, it's quite common for male bards to be accompanied by slave-women and for female bards to be accompanied by slave-men. It's an old tradition; I think it's supposed to symbolize the fact that the Spirit sends her songs to both men and women. Nobody will assume that there's anything more to our relationship than that."

"Oh, I see." Perry was staring down at the rock now, tracing figures in the dust with his finger. "Well, I don't suppose anybody would think that anyway. I mean, I'm not really—"

He voice broke off abruptly, and his right hand rose from the dust and gripped his sword hilt in a fumbling movement. I half rose from my place, having also heard the rustling in the bushes behind us. The bushes were low and scrubby, the type that flourish in shallow soil, and there was no room in them for a man – unless he were lying down, watching us and waiting for the right moment.

I heard a familiar whispering sound – familiar from my years spent visiting the Daxion army headquarters – as Perry pulled his blade from its silver sheath. His hand was nearly steady as he slowly turned and rose from his place, but I did not care for the look in his eye. In any case, I was not going to sit by passively while Perry confronted a dangerous and armed man.

The bush continue to rustle, as though our eavesdropper had not yet seen us coming. Then suddenly it stopped. Perry paused, as though judging how best to approach his attack. Realizing that part of his problem was reaching the man who had been spying upon him, I gestured toward the bushes. After a moment of hesitation, Perry nodded.

Swiftly, I pulled back the branches of the bush . . .

. . . to reveal a rabbit.

It was trapped, not by a hunter's loop, but by vines that had entwined its hind feet. It was frozen, trying to hide itself through stillness. Beside me, Perry slid his sword back into its sheath with its telltale whisper. When I looked his way, though, I saw that his expression of concentration had not altered.

I had been about to let the branches fall back into place, but now I said softly, "Can you cut it free with your sword? Or with your dagger?" I glanced at his thigh, where spies carry tiny daggers hidden in thigh-pockets.

Perry's gaze remained fixed upon the rabbit, but he flicked up the hem of his tunic to reveal that his right thigh was bare of all weapons. Of course, I thought to myself. Of course Perry would not carry a weapon that small. He wouldn't be able to come close enough to anyone to use a thigh-dagger. That was why Andrew had trained him to fight with a sword.

A blur of movement caught my eye; it was Perry coming forward, bare-handed. "Be careful," I warned as he crouched down to the rabbit. "It may hurt you—"

A high wail cut off words. It was the eeriest, highest-pitched sound I had ever heard. Sensing its death, the rabbit was screaming.

Perry's back was between me and the rabbit; I did not see how he managed it, but a moment later, the rabbit limped away, as rapidly as it could, still screaming in fear. Its cry faded as it moved out of sight.

Shaken, I said, "It really didn't like being touched."

Too late, I heard my own words and looked at Perry. But he simply nodded, as though I had spoken a truism he was long familiar with. "The cave entrance is over there," he said in his quiet voice.

o—o—o

The cave was the same cave that was the source of Daxis's troubles with Koretia, of course.

I had grown up hearing the story of how, when I was eight years old, Koretia fell to Emor at the end of the Border Wars because Daxis allowed the Emorian army entrance to Koretia through the mountain cave between the Daxion capital and the Koretian capital. Here in this cave, in ancient times, the gods and goddesses had dwelt among their people, and the Song Spirit had drawn her children to her bosom.

Prince Richard, with his single-minded focus on soldiering, had told me earlier in the spring that the mountain and its cave were of military importance to both Daxis and Koretia. It would have been more to the point to say that the cave was of sacred importance. The cave was the birthplace of both Koretia and Daxis; tradition said that both nations had been founded there, by divine bidding. The Koretians, who chose to follow their seven gods and goddesses, had spread northward from the cave. The Daxions, who chose to follow only the Song Spirit, had spread to the west and northwest and southwest of the cave. But neither land had ever released its claim upon its birthplace.

Despite my royal origins, I had never before visited the cave. I stood at the entrance, breathing in the cool darkness. At the end of the tunnel in front of us, something glowed. But I could not see the source of the glow: I could only hear the quiet sound of voices, speaking in Koretian.

Border guards, presumably. I wondered how we would manage to get past them. The Jackal had declined to give Perry or me any form of identification, saying that we might be searched by Daxion soldiers. He seemed very certain that the Chara of Emor would nonetheless welcome us into his palace and offer me refuge from the Prince. I was a good deal less certain.

As for the Koretian guards, perhaps they already knew Perry? Perry, I was aware, almost never left the palace and had only visited Daxis once, during the previous month. He had implied to me that he had slipped over the border through some secret means. Had he been permitted past the Koretian border guards first?

I looked over at Perry, seeking the answer to my question, and found that he was gesturing to me. So well hidden in the shadows that I would never have noticed it was a crack in the wall, about the height of a child. As I watched, staring, Perry slipped through the crack.

I looked down at myself. As a slave, I had never achieved the enviable plumpness that most noblewomen aspired toward. Even though I had been well fed in the Jackal's palace during the past month, I was still slender as a reed. I was not, however, as slender as Perry; certain parts of me jutted out.

I sighed, studied the problem as best I could, and turned myself sideways to slide through the gap.

It was like being a baby trying to push its way back into a womb. I very nearly trapped myself when the belt-purse I was wearing snagged on a rock. For a frantic moment, I felt myself stuck and knew that I would not get out.

Then Perry tugged at me, and I fell forward.

When I straightened up, I saw Perry hunched over his hand, nursing it. It was his left hand, I saw. Normally he never used that hand, for it was disfigured by the fire that had burnt him when he was a child. But he'd had enough sense not to use his right hand, which was his sword hand.

I bit my lip. My impulse was to pour out apologies, but there was nothing to apologize for here. This was the reality of Perry's life: he could not touch anyone without feeling fire. Probably not a month of his life had gone by when he hadn't been forced by circumstances to brave the bite of the fire. As long as the touch was brief, all he had to fear was the intense pain – "like deliberately touching a hot stove," the Jackal had said softly to me once, watching Perry help to her feet a small girl who had tumbled during her visit to the palace. The Jackal's voice had been matter-of-fact, but in his eyes I had seen admiration for Perry's courage.

It must be something to have courage that would impress a god-man, I thought as I waited for Perry to catch his breath. And the strangest part about it was that Perry continued to believe that he was a coward.

"I'm sorry," he finally whispered, as though what had happened was his fault.

"Thank you for rescuing me," I whispered back, certain now that he didn't want to attract the attention of the Koretian border guards.

"You would have rescued yourself eventually," he whispered, dismissing the matter with a wave of his uninjured hand. "We go this way."

I followed him through the narrow tunnel, which seemed more like a crack between rocks. The light from the cave entrance gradually dimmed, till I was following Perry only by the sound of his footsteps in front of me. My hands brushed cool, moist rocks on either side of me. I could feel a light breeze touching my face. Truly, this was like entering a womb, but I felt more excited than frightened. So small was the entrance to this tunnel that few men and women could have ever entered it – perhaps only children. Perhaps, a thousand years ago, the Song Spirit's earliest children had played here.

Gradually, light began to glow again. Stepping under an arch, I found that Perry and I had entered a cylindrical room, bathed in light. Looking up, I saw that there was a substantial hole in the ground above us, letting in the light of the outside world.

There was nothing in the room except what appeared to be a fire-pit. Perry knelt down, touching it, his long hair stirring in the breeze.

"What is this place?" I asked, keeping my voice low, because of the hole above.

"This is where it all began," Perry said softly. "This is where John and Andrew exchanged their blood vows of friendship, when they were boys."

I felt a chill down the back of my neck that wasn't the breeze. "Andrew showed you this place?"

"John did." Perry stood up finally. "And further on is the cave where John and Andrew first saw the late Chara Peter, when he was still a boy. That was the day when the Emorians attacked us. Andrew said that, the moment he and the Chara caught sight of each other, it was as though they both knew. The Chara Peter said it later, too. There was a binding here. Between the Chara and Andrew and John."

Fifteen years later, the lands of Koretia and Emor had been bound in peace together, not only through Andrew's peacemaking, but also through his bonds of friendship with both the Chara and the Jackal. I had heard that story growing up, too – of how the Chara had released the rebellious dominion of Koretia to its freedom and given the rulership of the land over to its rebel-leader, the Jackal. Only recently had I realized, though, that this peacemaking would never have taken place if it had not been for Andrew.

And this was where it had all begun. The blood vow that would bring peace to the Three Lands.

A peace that had now been broken through the war between Koretia and Daxis.

o—o—o

The Spirit's womb was golden, and it glowed like the sun.

I turned in a circle, taking in the miracle. It was just as it had been described in the Song of Gold Walls. What lay beyond the narrow tunnel we had travelled through was a mighty cavern, the size of a village. The top of the cavern was lost in darkness. Where Perry and I stood, though, the walls of the cavern glowed.

I put my hand tentatively upon the cool rock. When I took my hand away, my hand glowed. Touching my hand with my fingers, I realized that something clung to the cave walls, turning them golden.

Yet the walls underneath, I could dimly see, were of the same golden rock as the older portion of the Jackal's palace was built with.

"How old is this cave?" I asked Perry in a whisper.

He simply shook his head. He had not spoken since we left the shelter of the "sanctuary" where John and Andrew had played when they were boys. Faintly, I could hear the sound of the Koretian guards chatting to one another.

Perry beckoned, and I followed him. It took us quite a while to reach the other side of the cavern. When we did, all that lay behind it were more caverns. These were the size of large rooms, each large enough to house a family; they were strung together like beads.

I was remembering more history now. My ancestors – the ancestors of all the inhabitants of the southern portion of the Great Peninsula – had come from the east, over a desert. They had not originally lived in a desert, though; the tales said that they had lived in caves, in a land filled with greenery. As time went on, the desert took over their land. Seeking verdure again, they had travelled over the desert, and eventually across the Koretian Straits to the black border mountains, where they met and intermarried with men and women who had come down from the northern mainland. Then the desert people – now mixed in blood with the northerners – had travelled further south until they reached a mountain with a cave.

Why Capitol Mountain had a cave, I was not sure. Rosetta the King's Bard had once told me that the waters from the Daxion Gulf were closer to Capital Mountain then; perhaps the waters had carved out a cave. If so, the southerners were dissatisfied with what they found; they set about extending the cave until, in the end, the system of caverns served as a tunnel between what became two capitals. Originally, though, the caverns had been dwelling places for all the inhabitants of the southern peninsula. These caves that Perry and I walked through had once housed men and women and children who went outside only to gather food and fuel. Here children had been born and had grown and had died as old men and women.

How long ago? At least a thousand years ago, if the dating system of the Three Lands was true. All of the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula dated their origins to 991 years before, on a day when the Koretians had determined to follow their seven gods and goddesses, while the Daxions had been called to worship the Song Spirit.

And Emor? What had happened in the northern peninsula on that day, to make the Emorians found their own government?

The light was growing dimmer, the farther that Perry and I travelled; the glowing walls were apparently confined to the main cave and its surrounding caverns. As I touched the walls, I felt that they had grown rougher; perhaps we were now in the sandstone sea-caves that had originally existed under the mountain.

Were there mountains in Emor? I knew very little about our northern neighbor. Emor to me was a mighty army ruled over by the pitiless Chara, who grabbed land at the slightest provocation. He had enslaved Koretia during my childhood. Only the Jackal's skills as a rebel-leader – and, I had learned later, Andrew's skills as an ambassador – had persuaded the Chara to allow Koretia its freedom.

But that was an older Chara, I reminded myself: the Chara Peter, who had died four years ago. The new Chara, who had successfully fought a civil war to hold his throne, might be even more ferocious.

Chilled now, not only by the coolness of the cave but also by thought of what lay at our journey's end, I almost walked into the Daxion guards.

They had placed themselves just out of sight at an abrupt turn of the tunnel we were following. We had reached them by ill chance; Perry had been choosing our turnings in the maze of caverns seemingly at random. But there they were, with a lantern hanging from a great nail that was hammered into the wall: six guards, all armed.

Running would do us no use, though Perry looked very much as though he wanted to. He stood steady, though, lifting his chin at this challenge.

The real challenge would be mine, though. Surreptitiously wiping my moist palms on my tunic, I stepped forward, taking care – for the first time since I had escaped Daxis the previous month – to lower my eyes in the presence of free-men.

"May the Spirit sing to you, sirs," I said, doing my best to sound cheerful at meeting my own countrymen. "I am Serva, servant to the bard Perry. Can you direct us to the best way to reach the land of the goddess?"

We had decided, after much discussion, to keep our own names. "Perry" was a common enough name in the Three Lands, Perry's distinctive face was little known, and only Perry's friends were aware that the Jackal's longtime companion had unexpectedly shown himself to possess a Daxion talent for singing. As for my name, I had been the only Serva living in the King's palace, but I had heard that every dozenth slave in Daxis was named Serva, the Old Daxion word for slave. A slave by that name who was serving a bard should excite no interest.

And indeed, the sublieutenant of the guards, after glancing briefly at me, turned his attention to Perry. "What is the purpose of your visit to Koretia, sir?"

"He does not speak, sir," I said hastily. "He made a vow, long ago, to reserve his voice only for the Song Spirit."

This announcement happily drew the guards' attention away from the vexed question of why we had been travelling through an enemy land during wartime. "A mute bard?" said one guard with a disbelieving laugh. "I've never heard of such a thing."

"How do we know that he's really a bard?" demanded another guard. "Anyone can carry a harp." He pointed to Perry's harp case. During our final day in Koretia, I had taught Perry to play the harp. It had taken only one lesson for him to memorize everything I knew.

A third guard nodded. "Give us a song, then, to prove what you are."

They had lost interest in me again. All their eyes now were on Perry. This in itself was a danger; I could see that Perry's breath had turned rapid.

As I already knew, though, Perry was no coward. For him, to be scrutinized by strangers was agony, but he simply took out the harp and waited.

He could not sing unless instructed to; that was what none of the expectant guards knew. I asked quickly, "What song would you like, sirs?" I prayed that they would not ask for a song we didn't know. I had taught Perry every song I had been taught, and he, with his perfect memory, could now sing those songs. But my own repertoire was small, confined to the songs I had heard Rosetta sing over the years, or the work-songs of slaves, or the occasional ribald song of a soldier.

"Something merry and bright," suggested the last guard who had spoken. "It is dark here, in the womb of the Spirit."

"Merry, yes," agreed another guard who had not yet spoken. "Something we can dance to. Sing us that, bard."

Perry ran his hand lightly over the strings; his gaze had gone beyond the guards to the darkness behind them. I held my breath. Then Perry began to sing.

He had chosen – or perhaps the Song Spirit had chosen for him – a song that required little knowledge of harping: a simple tune such as might be heard in a nursery. It was in fact the first song I ever remembered hearing, back in the days when I lived in the palace nursery, along with my cousin Richard. The King's Bard had sung it for us one day, in an idle moment, as Richard and I joined hands together and danced about the room. It was about a merchant on his horse, jauntily making his way to market, bouncing up and down on his horse . . .

The guards did not dance, but they tapped their toes and clapped and shouted "Hey-up!" at all the appropriate moments. I felt myself relax as Perry quickened his pace in response to the guards' clapping. I was home again, in a land where the goddess' gifts were truly appreciated. Where Perry's gifts would be truly appreciated.

For this was why the Jackal had chosen to send us through Daxis on our dangerous journey north. Not only in hopes of hiding us in plain sight from the Prince, but also to give Perry an opportunity to exercise his newfound talents in a land where his singing would be truly appreciated.

The guards applauded thunderously when Perry finished. One of them would have pounded Perry on the back, except that I said hastily, "He has also taken a vow to touch no one, except in the Song Spirit's service."

They accepted this. The eccentricities of bards were well known. The sublieutenant said, "Welcome home, Bard Perry. I am willing to guess you are well pleased to be among the Song Spirit's children again." Then he turned to the other guards and said, "Take them."

Three of them were around us at once, not touching us, but making clear that we would not be allowed to retreat. I felt my throat close in. Perry's eyes had widened, and his hand began to drift toward his sword hilt.

"But why?" I demanded. "He's a bard. I'm his servant. There's no reason to arrest us."

"The Prince wants you," declared the sublieutenant. Then, just as I was tempted to scream, he added, "You won't have heard; you were in Koretia. The Prince has sent out his summons. All male bards within a day's ride of the palace are to attend him."