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Settlement (Breached Boundaries #5)

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(Melody: Resolves the musical theme. Lyrics: Settle the battle.)
 

TESTIMONY OF QUENTIN-GRIFFITH, LIEUTENANT OF THE BORDER MOUNTAIN PATROL

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

Your message from yesterday is timely, as I have written a letter to my father this morning which pertains to your questions concerning the current war and Lord Andrew's part in it. I have enclosed a copy. You will forgive me, I hope, for sending a letter that is of so personal and, dare I say, emotional a nature. No doubt by tomorrow I will regret sending this off. This morning, my only regret is that I did not awaken to the truth sooner.

In short, I have had an encounter with Lord Andrew. I used to laugh at the tales of his powers. I suppose many a dead man did.

Quentin-Griffith, Lieutenant
 

To Quentin, Lieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol (Retired):

Father,

I received your letter from last week. It is written in Mother's hand, which I take to be an ominous sign. I hope that you can hold out until the first snows, as I wish to speak to you face-to-face. However, in case that meeting cannot occur, I am sending this to you now.

First, to answer your enquiry: I have learned no more news regarding the war between our southern neighbors. The last I heard, Koretia and Daxis were continuing to debate a peace settlement, but the Jackal and Prince Richard had not yet reached agreement. Something to do with a woman whom the Prince of Daxis wants placed in his custody. I hope he won't become as tiresome as his late father was concerning bedding matters.

Regarding Lord Andrew I can give you news. (Have you ever met him? I would advise against it.) That sly man slipped into the patrol points yesterday, bold as his blood brother the Jackal – though this time, I am happy to say, the patrol caught him. It wasn't entirely clear at first whether Lord Andrew was there to help Emor, harm Emor, or simply be the usual annoyance he is to the patrol. He is a man without loyalties to any land, as he shamelessly brags. Those types are always trouble. And of course he's as superstitious as any other man born in Koretia: believes in the existence of gods, believes his ruler the Jackal is a god-man, and so forth. That has always made it impossible to talk sensibly with him.

This time, he brought with him one of the Jackal's spies: a young man by the name of Perry. I don't suppose you ever met Perry; he would have been barely born when last you were in Koretia. I hear that the Jackal picked him up like a stray pup when Perry was a boy, and that the two have been the closest of companions ever since then. I can't help but wonder what Lord Andrew thinks of that.

At any rate, Lord Andrew didn't appear ready to murder the lad, so I wasn't forced to intervene. Lord Andrew had a Daxion slave-girl with him as well; I'm not sure what that was all about. But he was eager to bring them both into Emor, though he lacked the proper credentials for them to cross the border. Of course I would not let the two of them pass.

I expected him to abandon them on the spot – he's on some sort of ambassadorial mission for the Jackal, apparently – but instead he became insistent. He claimed that he was doing "the gods' work" and that he could prove it, if I would just watch a religious ceremony he had planned.

I hope you will not think less of me if I say I took the lure. I know that you have warned me in the past about him. Everyone has, I'm sorry to say. But I was rather bored, for we've had no border-breachers to chase for the past two days. And I didn't expect—

Well, what did I expect, I wonder? You and I have spoken on this matter for so many hours of my life. I'll confess it had reached the point recently where I was beginning to wonder whether your mind was growing soft in your old age. Of course, Mother insists that all those tales you've told of what spiritual matters happened to you in Koretia were true, but I've long thought she was simply trying to cover up for you. It's rather embarrassing, having a father who claims to have met a god.

But now I have too.

I'm not sure I can describe what happened during that ceremony. Words fail me. All I can say is that Lord Andrew has greater potentialities than I had thought. The entire world has greater potentialities than I had thought.

If I were to pray to them, would the gods listen to me, do you think?

You see why I so badly need to meet with you. Please do try to hold out, dear Father, until I have a chance to come home to speak with you and seek your guidance.

As for the war, it would be over in an instant if the Prince of Daxis would only agree to meet with Lord Andrew. He's a fool, like I was.

Your for-once humble son,
Quentin-Griffith
 

CHAPTER ONE

The Chara's trumpets were announcing the dawn when Perry and I arrived at the foot of the palace steps the next morning and gazed upwards with our mouths open.

Nothing I had heard about Emor had prepared me for the close sight of the Chara's palace – larger, it seemed, than the entire capital of Koretia, and built of an elegant white marble that made the Daxion palace appear rustic. It was well guarded too. We had already made our way past soldiers at the city wall, the outer palace wall, the inner palace wall, and were now facing our final challenge, the half dozen guards at the palace entrance. It was clear from the hostile looks of the soldiers we had encountered that nothing less than the Jackal's badge could have allowed two dark-skinned strangers such as ourselves up to this point. I could only hope that the guards at the palace would also accept our credentials, instead of deciding, as Lieutenant Quentin-Griffith had, that we had no right to the badge's protection.

"At least the dungeon cells here are likely to be spacious," I murmured.

Perry looked my way, but he did not smile. His harp case was pressed hard against his side. Although we had made the final stretch of the journey by darkness, I could see that he was becoming more and more miserable every moment that we came closer to meeting the Emorians whom he feared so much. I covered my own fear and gave him a reassuring smile. Then, as though I were used to monuments such as this, I began climbing the three dozen marble steps that led to the palace entrance.

The entrance was surprisingly narrow for such a large building; I realized that this must be in order to allow the soldiers to guard against intruders. As we reached the top of the steps, the two guards flanking the doorway lowered their spears so that their lances formed an X in the open doorway. Other than that, the guards did not move from their rigid position of staring outwards toward the city below.

After exchanging glances with Perry, I went up to the guard at the right of the doorway. He did not move his eyes to look at me, but I was willing to guess that he would move quickly enough if I tried to pass the sharp-arrowed spears. Trying to remember the Emorian I had been practicing with Perry and Andrew during the trip, I cleared my throat with a nervous cough and said, with absurd simplicity, "We're here to see the Chara."

The guard continued to look straight ahead, though I thought – perhaps it was my imagination – that a look of amusement flickered over his face. Feeling suddenly very childish, I held up the royal badge, saying, "We have the Jack—"

My words were cut off by the thud of the spears pounding to the ground as the soldiers lifted them clear of the doorway. I looked uncertainly at the soldier's expressionless face, decided I knew in which land Andrew had learned his unreadable expression, and walked past the guards, followed by Perry.

The short corridor running left to right of us had a familiar look to it. After a moment, I realized that the corridor reminded me of the Jackal's palace, also built by the Emorians. Directly in front of us were two gold-plated doors, reaching to the height of four men. On both of them were carved what I recognized, from Andrew's long-ago description, as the Emorian royal emblem: the Balance of Judgment holding the Sword of Vengeance and the Heart of Mercy. I made an inarticulate noise of awe.

It must have sounded like a question. "The Court of Judgment," Perry whispered to me, but he spoke no further because at that moment someone rounded the corner into our corridor and began walking toward us.

Perry stiffened beside me. I quickly walked forward, saying, "Excuse me. We're strangers here, and we don't know—"

I stopped. The man had glanced at us and then had ignored me, walking past me toward someone who was coming down the opposite end of the corridor. Perry had already noticed the man and had begun to tremble; it appeared that this was someone he recognized and feared.

The man had hair shining silver like a well-burnished blade, and his coloring was matched by the silver and gold tunic he wore. Clipped to his belt was a sword in a leather sheath that was impressive, not for its splendor of appearance, but because the sheath's rough edges showed that the blade had been put to use on more than one occasion. His body was sternly erect, and he looked at the man who had passed by us with all the friendliness of a soldier meeting his enemy in battle. Though his eyes were full of fire, his voice was so soft that I could barely hear it. This combination seemed to me peculiarly terrifying.

I caught only snatches of what he was saying; he addressed the other man as "Lord Neville" and was saying something about the Emorian council. Then the council lord whom he was addressing gave a low bow, and the man started walking in our direction.

Well, I thought, we were here to see the Chara, and this was our chance. But it would have taken a more imaginative singer than I to envision walking up to a man like this and introducing ourselves without preliminary. Perry too was beginning to step backwards. In silent agreement, we turned and fled through the first open door.

This door was immediately to the left of the palace entrance. Once inside and safely beyond the sight of the Chara, we stopped, and I tried to still my heartbeat by concentrating on the scene before us. By great luck, we had fled into a chamber that was empty of people. The chamber had a familiar look to it. Directly in the center of the room was a sturdy, granite altar with a hooked line above it holding the mask of the Unknowable God; on a wall nearby were hanging the other Koretian god-masks, as well as a variety of symbols I did not recognize. Perry, like a bee pulled straight to its nectar, headed immediately for the corner of the room and picked up a small item on the table there. It was a plectrum.

"How odd," I said. "I thought that Emorians didn't worship the gods."

Turning his head toward me, Perry opened his mouth to reply. All that came out was a choke, and his body went rigid. I turned round and saw standing by the doorway an Emorian several years younger than ourselves. He had a plain face, one that was almost babyish in its chubby features, and he was passing his tongue over his lips. Staring at us hesitantly beneath sandy-colored eyebrows, he said, "Excuse me f-for interrupting. Was that Daxion I heard you s-speaking?"

He spoke to us – stammered to us, rather – in Daxion that was heavily accented but comprehendible. This diffident greeting reassured me completely, so I replied in my own badly-fractured Emorian, "Yes, though we have come from Koretia. I am Serva and this is Perry, who is a friend of the Jackal. We have come bearing a message to the Chara from the Jackal, but we're lost. We can't find anyone to tell us where we should go, now that we're in the palace."

The Emorian immediately faced Perry and touched his heart and forehead in the free-man's greeting. He looked back toward me and hesitated; I realized that, for the first time in many months, someone was trying to assess my rank. I gave him no help, since I was still uncertain as to where my rank actually lay. He must have decided to venture the chance, for he ended up greeting me in the same manner as he had welcomed Perry and said, "My name is Brian; I am the Chara's c-clerk. I fear I know very little about the rules of palace guest protocol, but I will be g-glad to help you in whatever way I can."

I exchanged an uneasy glance with Perry, thankful now that I had not been so bold as to claim equality with this Emorian. In Daxis, at least, the royal clerk was the highest-ranked royal official. From what Andrew had told me, to pretend to a high rank in Emor was as dangerous as trying to assassinate the Chara. Wondering to myself whether even acting as a free-woman would be too brazen a claim, I lowered my eyes and said in a low, humble voice I had not used since the previous spring, "I am honored that you would trouble yourself to assist us."

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Perry staring open-mouthed at me; he had never heard me speak with such deference. Brian, with that lightning-quick power that high officials acquire in making decisions, looked from Perry to me and said, "The honor is mine, to serve as host to Perry, of whom we have heard so much. And of course his t-travelling companion is equally welcome."

I hesitantly looked up. The steady manner in which Brian met my gaze told me that my rank had been determined, at least provisionally. Gratefully, I said, "It is a relief to find someone who can give us direction."

"I am afraid that your arrival at the palace so early in the morning is what caused your difficulty," said Brian. "Ordinarily, there would be a porter at the door who would ask your business. From there, I believe that you would go to our Koretian liaison, who would greet you in the name of the Chara, and then you would sign the palace guests' roll at my quarters. After that, you would go to the palace slave-keeper—"

Perry's knuckles were beginning to turn moon-white as he gripped his harp case harder. I said swiftly, "Is it possible to bypass any of these steps? We've had a long journey, and I think we'd both collapse before we saw the Chara if we had to go through all that."

Brian gave a smile so faint as to suggest he did not wish to offend us with his amusement. "Emorian ceremony does tend to tire foreign visitors. To witness the truth, I think the only procedure that is really necessary is for you to see the palace slave-keeper. Obed's duties are wider than his title suggests: he not only supervises the palace slave-servants but also assigns the rooms for the palace guests. I can take you there now if you like. He is one of the few people likely to be up at this hour."

Perry turned without a word and went back to the table in the corner, carefully replacing the plectrum he had been holding all this while. To cover his silence, I asked, "Do many Emorians worship in this place?"

"That depends on how you define the word Emorian," Brian said, his gaze following Perry's movements. "Quite a few people from the empire's northern dominions come here; many Marcadians and Arpeshians still believe in the existence of gods, as you may know. Sometimes palace guests from the barbarian nations like to visit here. But mainly this place exists for the sake of the palace servants who were born in Koretia or Daxis. The Chara had this sanctuary created last spring on the advice of the Koretian Ambassador."

The last words cut through me like the dying note of a tragic song. I had succeeded until this point in keeping Andrew from my thoughts. Now I fell as silent as Perry while we followed Brian out the door and into the corridor where we had started our journey. Perry was watching Brian carefully as the clerk explained the function of the rooms we passed. We travelled left, then a short jog to the right, then left once more, before finding ourselves in a corridor whose end was hidden in the mist of torch-smoke before us.

The smoke was touched by the sunlight beginning to stream through the tiny windows high above us. Beyond them, nearly as high as the court doors, soared the corridor ceiling, twinkling with color from its mosaic tiles. These were set in neat, symmetrical patterns, except at one point where the pattern suddenly broke in order to form the royal seal. Looking down again, I saw that we were passing a door flanked by two soldiers. Brian was already speaking about the next chamber we were approaching, but I felt no need to ask him what lay behind the guarded doors.

"These are the slave-quarters." Brian's voice cut through my thoughts, and I looked over at the iron doorway which we were passing. "The slaves used to be locked in during the night, but the Chara James put an end to that practice. He pointed out that locking the doors hadn't stopped palace slaves from trying to escape before and that it only gave the guards a false sense of security. I believe that he made the decision simply to prevent the Koretian Ambassador and our High Lord from cutting each other's throats, as they had a rousing argument on the subject a few years ago. —Here we are."

Brian stopped before an open doorway next to the slave-quarters. Perry, his head bowed, followed the wave of Brian's hand; then he suddenly stiffened as he walked through the door. I entered behind him, and for once I found myself sharing Perry's apprehensions.

Brian closed the door behind the three of us. "Ah, Obed, I thought that we would f-find you here. You're as early a riser as the Chara."

"Brian my dear, how else can I find out what my slaves are up to except to arrive at an hour when they are slipping out of the quarters where they have been spending the night? The cut boys, of course, are free to do as they wish, as long as it is their own masters they are sleeping with, but pregnant slave-girls do cause such problems. You would think that they would be willing to take a little friendly advice from an old girl like me."

Obed smiled amiably at the three of us as he spoke these words. His appearance was remarkable: he must have been close to seventy years of age, yet he was wearing a magenta-colored tunic cut back so far that he might have been a youth exposing the beauty of his body. In Obed's case, there was a great deal of flesh to expose, for he was quite fat, and the only thing he had troubled himself to hide was his legs: oddly enough, his tunic sloped down as far as a woman's robe. He was gaudy with as much jewelry as a harlot, and the chamber in which he stood was filled with many delicate decorations, all in very bad taste. As I came closer to him, I realized with shock that he was wearing the rose scents such as are worn by noblewomen.

Brian was saying, "Here are two guests for the Chara: the J-jackal's friend Perry and his travelling companion Serva. Do we have any rooms available for them?"

"Well, let me see . . ." Obed walked over to a writing-desk nearby, his hips swaying in an exaggerated manner as he did so. He opened a book lying on the table; after perusing it for a moment, he said, "We are very full up at the moment, as always, but I think that I can squeeze them in somewhere. Would you like one chamber or two?" He looked up at Perry and me expectantly.

It took me a moment to realize what he was asking. Then I felt my face grow warm as I asked, "Do you have two chambers that are close together?"

"Certainly." Obed's eyes were framed by lines of laughter; I could imagine how he was interpreting this. "I have some nice quarters near here – a sitting chamber and two sleeping chambers. One of the chambers is intended for a servant, but if you do not mind that . . ." His voice trailed off. I saw that, like Brian, he was attempting to ascertain my status.

"That would be fine," I said flatly. I was beginning to tire of being placed in a narrow slot of rank. Even in Daxis I had never been assessed this often.

"Oh, good." Obed pronounced the words with such enthusiasm that they were nearly a gush. "Now, I'll come by when you've settled in and explain to you about the palace routine. Do let me know if there's anything you need before then. Of course, I'll have a slave come by daily and clean your quarters—"

"There's no need." My thoughts had been on Perry, who had been showing nervousness throughout this recital of how our privacy would be invaded. It was not until I spoke that I realized how my words might be taken.

"Indeed?" Obed scanned me with his eyes, and I suddenly realized what it was that had caused both him and Brian to hesitate in their approach to me: the slave-tunic I had been wearing since I left Koretia. With a smile – and perhaps a little condescension? – Obed said, "Well, my dear, I'll leave it all to you, then. But if you need assistance with anything, please feel free to visit me at any time. If nothing else, I am always ready to drop my work and have a nice round of girlish gossip."

I could not think of anything to reply to this and was therefore relieved as Brian took over the conversation and ascertained the details of where our quarters were. Perry was already edging toward the door; by the time that Brian led us out, he was starting to tremble again. Casting a glance his way, Brian said, "P-perhaps you'd like to wait in my quarters while I see whether the Chara is available. Since it's early, none of my scribes will have arrived there yet."

"Thank you," I replied. I found myself looking back over my shoulder at the door to Obed's quarters as we made our way back up the corridor the way we had come.

Brian said in a straightforward manner, "I suppose that, as a Daxion, you haven't met any eunuchs before."

Comprehension came to me, not in the form of light, but as a small, cold fist hitting the base of my stomach. "None like that," I said shakily.

Brian flicked his eyes over at me briefly, and then said, with the careful tact he had obviously learned in his work, "Since you've come from Koretia, perhaps you'll know whether the Jackal's blood brother has returned to that land. The Ch-chara has been anxious to speak with the Ambassador recently."

I shook my head wordlessly. Brian did not press the matter. Instead, he stopped at a doorway opposite the guarded one we had passed before and pushed the door open. "I shouldn't be long," said the clerk, kindly changing his language to informal Daxion. "Go on in and try to ignore the clutter my young scribes leave at the end of each day. Being a clerk is rather like being a schoolmaster with a large number of pupils, only the p-pay is better."

My smile was somewhat forced as Brian closed the door, leaving Perry and me standing in a dim passage, its only light coming through the doorways lining either side. Perry had already sought out the darkest corner and was pressed into it; only the right side of his face was exposed. After a minute, I asked, "Are you all right?"

Perry turned back toward me and said softly, "I was just thinking of the slave-keeper."

I slid my hands over my face till my fingers were covering my mouth. "So was I. Spirit of Merciful Peace, I never understood before. No wonder Andrew is ashamed of himself if he thinks that being a eunuch means being like that."

Perry pulled himself out of the corner and peered tentatively into one of the rooms. I looked past him and saw a tiny cubicle, barely large enough for a single person, with a desk cluttered with papers and pens and inkwells. Withdrawing his head hastily, Perry said, "Andrew told me once that, whenever he met a woman in this palace and she learned that he was a eunuch, she knew what sort of creature he was. I didn't understand before what he meant by that."

"And he lived here for how long? Fifteen years?"

"Until he was twenty-three."

"Well, then, it's a miracle that he's even willing to speak to any woman," I said flatly. "May the Spirit give me patience! First they mutilate him, and then they expect him to act in a manner that would be shameful in a woman. And when he tries to escape from this place, they beat him bloody for being so ungrateful as to want to leave here. What kind of brutal people are these Emorians?"

I had been so caught up in my anger that I had not noticed Perry's warning signals. In the end, unable to speak and unable to touch me, Perry was obliged to draw my gaze to the corridor door by walking over and standing next to Brian. The clerk, who appeared well trained in selective deafness, acted as though he was not aware that I was there, but turned to Perry, saying, "The Chara wishes to see you."

Perry's arm tightened around his harp case, his hands curled into fists, and his chin went up; he was breathing hard. Witnessing all this, Brian added quickly, "Actually, I don't think that he needs to speak to both of you. I have to stay here and look for a list that the Chara requires. I'd appreciate your company if you're willing to stay with me."

Perry's left fist flattened out, and he placed the black palm against the wall beside him as he stared uncertainly at Brian. In a while, apparently choosing the lesser of two evils, he nodded.

Brian looked at me for the first time. "Just go right into the Chara's quarters without knocking. He's expecting you."

Leaving the two men headed down the passage toward the back of the clerk's quarters, I walked with stoic steadiness to the guard-flanked door. Neither of the guards looked at me as I approached. I paused uncertainly at the threshold, my heart tapping quick and hard like a carpenter tamping nails, and then opened the door.

The Chara was standing in the midst of a room that was decorated with as much color and extravagance as the slave-keeper's quarters, but with considerably better taste. To the left, a shimmering golden curtain hid the entrance to another chamber, while directly ahead of me was a bookcase built of blackroot wood, which filled most of the back wall. I knew from what Andrew had told me that wooden furniture was quite valuable in the treeless land of Emor, and this floridly decorated bookcase had evidently just been installed, for I could see a few tools still lying on the ground in front of it. Also new was a half-finished stone carving over the fireplace that matched the mosaic on the ceiling corridor; the figures of the royal emblem were already chiselled, but they had not yet been painted.

The Chara himself had just turned away to accept a cup from his young free-servant, who appeared to share his master's taste in clothes and was bedecked in a tunic so brightly vermillion that I found myself blinking, as though I had been staring at a fire. With no hesitation – for I wanted to get this dreadful moment over with as quickly as possible – I closed the door, walked over to the Chara, and knelt before him, bowing my head.

There was a long pause. Then the man before me said in a sharp voice, "Gratifying though it is for me to encounter someone of your generation who understands the importance of respect, I think that you would make a better impression if you were to direct your obeisance toward the proper man."

At the first sound of his voice, I had jerked my head up to look at the silver-haired man before me. Then, following his gaze, I looked over to my left.

The younger man in the room, of about age twenty, had been returning the wine pitcher to its stand. As he turned around, I saw a grin on his face. In the next moment, the smile disappeared rapidly as though it had been crushed away by some powerful force. It was replaced by an expression that initially reminded me of Andrew's: it was very still and hard. Yet where Andrew's expression served to hide his thoughts, this expression spoke like a shout: I was being judged, pitilessly and thoroughly, as though I had been suddenly stripped of my clothes. If I had not already been on one knee, I would have sunk there upon encountering this look.

Then, as quickly as it had come, the look was gone, and all that I saw before me was a young, chestnut-haired free-man, staring at me with an expression of puzzlement on his face.

The older man, whom I had entirely forgotten, cleared his throat. "Was that necessary, Chara?"

His voice was so hoarse that I looked at him in surprise. His face, which had been ruddy before, was now nearly as white as the marble stones of the palace. Based on the conversation I had eavesdropped upon at the Daxion palace during the previous spring, I would never have expected Emor's High Lord to look this way.

"No," said the Chara James slowly as he continued to look at me. "No, I don't think that it was in fact necessary, Lord Carle."

"Well, then, Chara, I would appreciate it if you would confine such displays to your times of judgment. You do not want to frighten away every guest who walks into this palace."

Lord Carle's voice had turned sharp again. The Chara James looked over at him, and suddenly his grin was back. "Certainly, Lord Carle," he said serenely. "And please don't worry about the wine. I'll have Francis clean it up."

I looked and saw that wine had indeed spilled from Lord Carle's cup onto the floor. Neatly avoiding the damp patch, the Chara James walked over and helped me to my feet, saying, "Don't worry, Princess. I am routinely mistaken for a council lord, a palace official, or, on one humiliating occasion, an overgrown page. And you needn't kneel or curtsy to me or Lord Carle, since you are a Daxion. I think that even my High Lord is willing to waive proper signs of respect in such a case, aren't you, Lord Carle?"

Lord Carle replied shortly, "The law exempts foreigners from the obeisance, and I would not go against the law."

The Chara James bit his lip, as though repressing an instinctive reply; this action made him look very young. His gesture, though, was steady and confident as he waved me into a chair. Lord Carle waited a moment until the Chara James was seated before joining us. The Chara James curled himself up against the end of a reclining couch and reached over to a table next to it, picking up a broken-sealed letter lying there.

"Well, Princess," he said, "I received notice of your coming a short time ago from Lord Andrew."

I was trying to figure out what to do with my hands – whether to place them on my lap, where they would call attention to my short tunic, or to place them awkwardly on the uncomfortable-looking armrests of my chair. I said, "He sent you a letter, Chara?"

"He sent me a letter through my supposedly incorruptible private messenger; I thought it best not to enquire as to what methods Lord Andrew used to persuade Dunne to carry the missive. The Ambassador gave me a short explanation of your plight. You are certainly welcome to stay in my palace as long as you like. Our relations with Daxis are somewhat delicate at the moment, but Lord Carle and I are agreed that it would be politically to our advantage for us to give you refuge. One of the only factors that is preventing Koretia and Daxis from attacking each other is that I have announced that Emor will end its alliance with whichever land breaks the peace; even the Jackal does not care for the idea of fighting a war on two borders. So, since we are presently in a position of making threats, it is better for us to make as few concessions as possible to either of our southern neighbors, and this includes returning fugitives to the Prince."

"I see," I said in a neutral voice.

The Chara James flashed me a smile. "Also, you sound like a nice person from Lord Andrew's description, and I'd hate to see you come to any harm. Would you care for some wine, Princess?"

Without a word, Lord Carle placed in my hands the cup that he had half-spilled and that he had not yet drunk from, then stood up and went over to the wine stand to pour another cup for himself. His posture was as stiff as a soldier's, and he reached for the pitcher with as much decisiveness as though he were a subcommander issuing orders. Forcing my gaze back to the younger man, who was waiting patiently for me to speak, I said, "Chara, I hope Lord Andrew explained that I'm not really a princess."

"The Ambassador regards you as one," the Chara James replied, as though that settled the matter. "As I understand it, your rank in Daxis is part of the problem to be solved. For the purposes of Emorian law, we will assume you to be a noblewoman. Daxion law sounds to me as though it's rather difficult to interpret."

Lord Carle said as he went to stand by the mantelpiece, "Interpreting the law in Daxis consists of listening to the impassioned croonings of a bard who probably couldn't recite the shortest law Justification if she had a week in which to memorize it."

The Chara James paused from trying to brush away a bit of dirt from his clothes. "By my Sword, Lord Carle," he said, "was there anything you liked about Daxis when you visited there?"

Lord Carle cast a cool eye at the Chara James, who was still fingering his flame-red tunic. "Yes. King Leofwin was not at all ostentatious in how he chose to decorate his surroundings and himself."

It was perhaps just as well that at this moment there was a knock on the door, followed by Brian's entrance. He was holding in his hand a piece of paper. His bow toward the Chara James was followed by a nervous look at Lord Carle.

"You took your time," said the High Lord. "Did you decide to scribe a new copy so as to show off your handwriting to the Chara?"

"Have a seat, Brian," said the Chara James, glaring at his council lord. "Did you have a problem finding the list?"

"No, Ch-chara," said Brian, coming forward to take the chair furthest from Lord Carle. "I apologize for b-being so long. I asked P-perry to sing for me."

The Chara James laughed. "I should have guessed." Turning to me, he explained, "Brian has been working on a book on the history of Daxion music – rather difficult to research here in Emor, but he has uncovered a surprising number of old papers on the subject in his documents room. He has also been inviting to the palace every passing bard. It's a bit hard on the rest of us, trying to do our work with all that noise in the background, but I suppose it improves our relations with Daxis. I hope that Perry will be able to stay for a few days and satisfy Brian's appetite for music."

"He'll have to stay for longer, if you'll allow him," I said. "He doesn't have any way to get back home, Chara."

"But—" The Chara James broke off, staring at me as I sipped the wine in my cup. It had a cool, delicate flavor, as placid and serene as the low-lying hills which Perry and I had travelled between that morning. The Chara's expression changed to comprehension, and he said quietly, "Of course he is welcome to stay as long as he wishes. We would be glad to have his company if the Jackal can spare him."

Lord Carle jabbing at the fire with an iron. "Let us just hope that he does not model himself after a thief who stayed in this palace last spring."

The Chara James was fanning himself with the letter, as though the renewed fire that made the room tolerably warm for me was stifling him. He gave Lord Carle a sharp look, but said nothing other than, "I doubt that we need fear that will happen again."

"It will not happen again because you made clear to the Jackal that the next time you caught his Ambassador spying, you would consider it an act of war," growled Lord Carle. "I doubt that anything less than the Jackal's orders could stop Lord Andrew from gathering information in his usual unorthodox manner."

The Chara James gave an easy smile. "It's your own fault for spending so much time recently in your country home. You ought to know better than to leave the palace when Lord Andrew is scheduled to visit; you're the only person who has ever been able to uncover his tricks. I don't know how we will handle the Ambassador when you retire next year."

Lord Carle grunted and stabbed the fire all the harder, sending sparks fleeing up the chimney. The Chara James turned back to me, saying, "Do you know Lord Andrew well, Princess?"

"Does anybody?" I asked.

This provoked a laugh from Brian, who had been anxiously watching Lord Carle up to this point. Thus encouraged, I added, "I suppose that I will have a chance to understand him better now that I'm in Emor, since he spent so many years here."

The Chara James said, "Well, if you wish to understand Lord Andrew better, my High Lord is the one you should consult. He has known the Ambassador longer than any of the rest of us. How long has that been, Lord Carle?"

Lord Carle turned, thrashed the iron in a furious fashion against the floor, and said, without looking up, "The Ambassador arrived in Emor thirty years ago as of this month."

The Chara James said something in reply, but my thoughts were on Lord Carle – on a remark he had once made to the Daxion council about Andrew, and a remark Andrew had once made to the Koretian council about Lord Carle. After another few moments of beating the iron clean, Lord Carle raised his gaze and met my eyes with a challenging look that gave as much information as his words.

I pulled my gaze away hastily and tightened the hands laying in my lap. This, then, was the vicious slave-master who, to Andrew's friends, epitomized all that was worst about Emor. No doubt Emor's High Lord would indeed be able to explain much about Andrew to me, but I was not sure that I wanted to begin asking him the appropriate questions.

I asked abruptly, "Do you have many slaves in the palace?"

There was a pause. I looked up to see the High Lord glaring at me, the clerk looking shocked, and the Chara with his mouth still open in mid-sentence. Before I could worry about what I had done, the Chara James replied in a matter-of-fact way, "A fair number. The Jackal and I have had some discussions on that subject. I grew up in a village in the Central Provinces of Emor that was too small and poor to have any slaves, and so I still find slavery to be an odd institution. But despite the Jackal's advice on the subject, I can't see any way to abolish slavery in Emor without rewriting all of the law books – and I've tampered too much with the law in the past to want to risk putting Emor in danger that way again, particularly now that I am the embodiment of the law."

I waited for him to explain further, and then said hesitantly, "The embodiment of the law?"

The Chara James smiled. "Heart of Mercy, there's a lesson, if I ever needed one, in how little the people of the Three Lands know each other. No Emorian would need to have that phrase explained to him; I'm not even sure I can put the answer into words. Lord Carle, what does it mean, that the Chara is the embodiment of the law?"

"It means that you inherit the look of the Chara." Lord Carle had lowered his eyes and was concentrating on tracing invisible designs on the hearth rug with his iron point.

"Yes." The Chara's voice went soft. He too lowered his eyes, staring down at the velvet cushions of the couch on which he sat. After a moment, he raised his eyes and said quietly, "You see, Princess, I am reluctant to make great changes in the law because I didn't grow up in the palace like all of the previous Charas. I arrived here only six months before my enthronement and have had to fight my way to the title through war. There are still many people who doubt that I have truly inherited the Chara's legacy. They think that is just a trick the council used to place one of its members on the throne. Many of my subjects feel I am unworthy of the title. Sometimes I wonder myself." He reached out to fiddle with a cushion tassel.

"Lord Andrew has no doubts about your worthiness," Brian inserted swiftly.

Lord Carle had been on the point of saying something. Now he thrust the iron into its rack beside the fire and said loudly, "I am sure it is a great relief to the Chara's mind to know that a foreign ambassador approves of his title. I was not aware that this fact was one which either the Chara's subjects or the people of other lands had the right to call into question."

The Chara James was looking at his High Lord with a faint smile on his face. Suddenly dropping the High Lord's title, he said, "That reminds me, Carle; Andrew sent a letter to you as well. I forgot to give it to you before now." He reached into the side of his boot. Like a small boy uncovering a secreted code, he pulled out a letter and handed it to Lord Carle.

"Thank you, Chara," said the High Lord, who was apparently not the sort of man to be so frivolous as to address his ruler informally. As he pulled open the letter, I caught a glimpse of the seal. It was in the shape of a blank god-mask.

I could see no change in Lord Carle's expression as he read, but the Chara James was watching him closely and said, "Is there some trouble, Carle?"

Without looking up from the letter, Lord Carle said, "It concerns Lieutenant Quentin, formerly of the border mountain patrol – the father of the present Lieutenant Quentin-Griffith. Lord Andrew has learned from his son that Lieutenant Quentin is in ill health and is unlikely to live beyond the end of the year."

"I didn't realize that you were still in touch with any of your fellow patrol guards," said the Chara James.

"The lieutenant and I have not spoken to each other for quite some time." Lord Carle's gaze was still directed toward the letter, though he had ceased reading it. "We had an argument many years ago over the issue of discipline."

Brian suddenly spoke up, saying, "I w-would have thought, High Lord, that if anyone agreed with your views on d-discipline, it would be another mountain p-patrol guard."

Lord Carle carefully refolded Andrew's letter. "Our argument concerned the manner in which I had chosen to discipline one of my new slave-servants."

Silence followed. Finally the Chara James asked, "Would you like to take a few days away from your duties to visit Lieutenant Quentin, Carle?"

"I think I must, if the Chara can spare me," replied Lord Carle. "The Ambassador recommends that I do so, and if I do not follow his advice, I am likely to wake up one night soon and discover his dagger against my throat."

He stated this with such a serious expression that I found myself saying, "Surely you are jesting, High Lord."

Lord Carle's cold gaze drifted over my way. "Have you seen the Ambassador when he has his blade unsheathed, Princess?"

I discovered that my mouth had gone dry. I swallowed before saying, "Yes."

"Then you know that I am not jesting." Lord Carle thrust the letter violently under his belt. "It is beyond my understanding how Lord Andrew has managed to obtain his reputation as the greatest peacemaker in the Three Lands."

"Perhaps by such actions as bringing together estranged friends," said the Chara James mildly. "Well, before you go, Carle, I'd like us to discuss the foreign guest list for my enthronement."

"For your enthronement?" I said.

The Chara James laughed at my expression, saying, "I was privately enthroned by the council three days after the Chara Peter died. It had to be done quickly because I needed to take over command of the imperial armies in order to defend my title. The council thought it would be appropriate to celebrate our victory over the rebels by holding a public enthronement next summer."

"That was before we discovered what a flamboyant spectacle you envisioned," grumbled Lord Carle. "Elaborate decorations for the throne, a gaudy new cloak for the Chara . . . I am expecting your next suggestion to be that we hire Koretian dagger-throwers to entertain the guests in between the vows."

The Chara's smile disappeared, and for a minute he frowned at the High Lord. Then he looked back at me and said, "I was hoping that you could advise us on whether we have invited all the right people from Daxis and Koretia. Would you mind looking at the list?"

I ignored the paper in Brian's outstretched hand. "I'm afraid that I can't read, Chara."

Looking uncertain, the Chara James stared up at Lord Carle. "The slaves in this palace can read, can't they, Carle? Or am I even more ignorant of the subject than I thought?"

"It depends on the background of the slave," said Lord Carle. "Lord Andrew arrived at this palace able to read Koretian, Daxion, Emorian, and even ancient Emorian – but he was not a typical slave in any respect. Slaves who come from Daxis are generally not taught to read. The Princess is better educated than most in being able to sign her name."

I looked at Lord Carle in surprise, but the Chara James was already saying, "You are a treasure-house of information, Carle. Well, Princess, if you would like to learn to read during your visit here, I'm sure that Brian would be glad to teach you. It will give him the opportunity to ask you about Daxion music. In the meantime, read the list aloud, Brian."

"Including the t-titles, Chara?"

"I am certain that you are eager to show off your skills in researching the titles," said Lord Carle. "Nevertheless, I would like to get to the borderland some time before the end of the month."

"The shortened version of the titles," the Chara James said, glaring once more at his High Lord. "Start with Daxis."

Brian raised the sheet. Suddenly switching to a rigid and stilted voice and speaking without a stammer, he said, "From Daxis: Richard, Prince of Daxis; Llyr, Subcommander of the Prince's Army—"

"The Prince has changed his subcommander again," interrupted the Chara James. "He hasn't been able to find one yet who can lead the Daxion army as well as he did. Clydias is the new subcommander."

Brian went over to a writing table near the hearth, took up a pen that was lying there, and dipped it in a nearby inkwell before making the change. Then he continued, "Dowal, Royal Clerk to the Prince of Daxis. From Koretia: The Jackal, Master of the Koretian Land—"

"Who is unlikely to come unless a peace settlement is reached with Daxis," added the Chara James. "He says that he doesn't trust the Daxions not to slip over the border. I'm sorry, Brian; please continue."

"Hollis, High Lord of the Jackal's Council; Brendon, Subcommander of the Jackal's Army; Andrew, Lord and Ambassador of Koretia."

"Assuming that Andrew reappears by then," said the Chara James. "Have we missed anyone important, Princess?"

I said hesitantly, "You decided not to invite Baroness Eulalee and Lady Elizabeth?"

The Chara James bit his lip and frowned. "I do remember the question arising. What was the council's view on the subject, Carle?"

"The council believed that the Prince's Bard and the High Lady might feel awkward being the only woman guests," replied Lord Carle.

"Why aren't you inviting women?" I asked.

The Chara James started to speak, faltered, and then looked once more toward Lord Carle for guidance. The High Lord said, "Emorian oaths are taken on the blade of a free-man's weapon. Only men carry weapons; therefore only men are invited to the oath-taking ceremony."

"But guests do not take oaths to me," pointed out the Chara James. "I confess that the issue of women never occurred to me. Most of the guests to the enthronement come from the palace, and we have few free-women here because the palace is so crowded for space. Married palace officials usually take quarters in the city. Still, perhaps it would be a good idea to invite a few noblewomen to the ceremony. What do you think, Carle?"

Lord Carle folded his arms. "It has never been done in the past. I think that it would be unwise to introduce such a radical innovation into the ceremony."

The Chara James stared up at him, his young face growing dark with anger. "Nor has a Chara ever been chosen before from outside the royal family, Lord Carle. Not every break from tradition is a bad idea. Or are you simply worried that I will invite Lady Ursula to the ceremony?"

It was the second time in which I had heard Lady Ursula's name mentioned in Lord Carle's presence, and the second time in which the mention of that name had been followed by a long pause. This time, though, I could guess the reason. Lord Carle must hate Andrew very much indeed if the mention of his sister could so easily provoke the High Lord's anger.

Lord Carle had turned pale once more. Walking away abruptly, he went over to the writing table, snatching the list and pen from Brian's hands. Turning the list over, he spent a minute scribbling on it. Then he went over to the Chara James and wordlessly handed him the paper and pen.

The Chara James looked at what Lord Carle had written, then took the pen and drew a line through words at the top of the page. He said quietly, "Lady Ursula has indicated to me that she does not wish to visit here again, as she fears that her presence might cause complaints from the palace dwellers. I apologize for mentioning her name." Taking up the pen again, he wrote something at the bottom, and then turned toward Brian, who had come over to stand beside him and was holding in his hand a small ball of wax. The Chara James took the wax, removed the ring on his right hand, and used the ring to press the wax to the paper below the words he had written. Handing the list back to Lord Carle, he said, "I would appreciate it if, upon your return to the palace, you would bring the names of these other women you have suggested before the council and vote on the matter. If the council wishes to summon me to one of its meetings, I would be glad to give my views on the subject."

Lord Carle was watching the Chara James with a face drained of all color and expression. He made no spoken reply to the Chara's words, but bowed and walked away, closing the door quickly as he entered the corridor.

The Chara James released a great sigh as he left. Brian said quietly, "If I may offer my view, Chara, I d-don't think you should have said that."

"May I die a Slave's Death – of course I shouldn't have. But I grow so tired of fighting him on every small matter and listening to all of his insults. It makes me lose my temper."

"He seemed in a worse mood today than usual," said Brian.

"That was my fault," said the Chara James, twirling the pen in his hand. "I accidentally showed my look."

"Ah." Brian went back over to the writing table and closed the inkwell there.

"I don't understand," I said.

The Chara James gave a quirk of a smile. "Have you ever heard of the look of the Chara in judgment, Princess?"

"Yes, Chara." My mind drifted back to the Jackal, speaking of the burden his own god-mask brought to himself.

"Its appearance affects different people to different degrees. Brian, for example, is hardly affected by it – which is just as well, since he has to stand by me in the court whenever I am giving judgment. Lord Carle, on the other hand . . . It must have something to do with his respect for the Chara, which is tremendous. I need hardly add that his respect for me as a private man is considerably lower."

"The look of the Chara scares everyone," said Brian, glancing up from the writing table, where he was straightening piles of paper. "It's the only thing that I've ever seen unnerve Lord Andrew – though he tells me that the Jackal in judgment has the same effect on him."

"Lord Carle goes into a foul temper whenever he thinks I've been misusing the look," said the Chara James. "I'm afraid that you've had a poor introduction to Emorian hospitality today, Princess – or do you prefer to be addressed as Lady Serva?"

I sighed. I had undergone this type of conversation so many times in Koretia that I knew what was coming next. "Just Serva is fine. I suppose that I am now supposed to address the ruler of a great empire by his name."

Brian's indrawn breath was what alerted to me the fact that I had just made a terrible mistake – that, and the sudden hardening of the Chara's face. For a moment that lay suspended in eternity, I saw the look of the Chara, piercing my spirit to judge my innermost being for the wrongdoing I had just committed.

Then the look was gone, and I had a moment to reflect that I was a fool to have supposed that all foreigners acted alike. In Koretia, references to rank were dropped as quickly as possible, but here in Emor . . . I waited breathlessly to learn what judgment the Chara had made of me. Spirit of Merciful Peace, what if I had broken a law here?

The Chara James laughed. Brian relaxed. I went limp in my chair and began to murmur an apology, which the Chara waved away with his hand. "Please do," he said, still grinning. "Carle never will, so I need as many people as possible to make up for his insufferable formality. Besides, you're the Princess of Daxis."

He stated this firmly, as though issuing a royal decree. I made no objection, but I thought to myself that Andrew had been right: despite all of Emor's efforts to class people in neat ranks, I would never be completely a princess. One part of me was still down in the palace slave-quarters, watching the nobleman before me with alien eyes.