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Surrender (Breached Boundaries #6)

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(Melody: Replaces the musical theme with the primary sub-theme. Lyrics: Reverse the settlement.)
 

TESTIMONY OF ANDREW, AMBASSADOR OF KORETIA

Brian, some matters I will not share, even with you.
 

TESTIMONY OF ELIZABETH, HIGH LADY OF THE DAXION COUNCIL

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

I regret to report that, while Daxis's present war continues with Koretia, I am unable to discuss the war with you.

On the other subject of which you have enquired: It is a matter of public record that the council of Daxis has not yet confirmed Prince Richard's right to the throne, following his uncle's death in battle. He has not requested such confirmation, instead stating that he wishes to engage in a period of mourning and penitence. We do not at this time have any alternative candidate to consider for the throne.

Regarding the Prince's cousin: I cannot say whether her account for why she fled the Daxion palace is correct or not; I can only confirm that she did indeed leave this palace on the night in question, and that she did so by subterfuge. (My free-servant has since confessed to aiding her in her departure.) I have had no contact with the Prince's cousin since she was very young. The reports you have heard are correct that she has won the respect and affection, not only of many inhabitants of this palace, but also of many Daxions she encountered on her travels north.

I hope to be able to discuss related matters with your High Lord upon my arrival in Emor next month. Please give my greetings to Lord Carle and my respects to your Chara. On behalf of my council, I thank you for your invitation to the Chara's enthronement.

Elizabeth, High Lady of Daxis
 

TESTIMONY OF BRIAN, ROYAL CLERK TO THE CHARA

I have been unable to find anyone who is willing to provide a narrative that will finish the chronology of the war between Daxis and Koretia, which I started many months ago, before the arrival of the Princess of Daxis at the Chara's palace. I am therefore forced to supply the final facts myself, although it is unusual for a historian to draw upon his own memory to supply facts.

To summarize the situation as it stood on the eve of the Chara's enthronement: The Chara had given refuge to Serva, natural daughter of the late King Leofwin of Daxis. I hesitate to use the word "illegitimate" to describe her birth status, for the land of Daxis recognizes two types of marriage: public marriage, in which the vows are sung before witnesses, and private marriage, in which there are no witnesses to the sung vows. King Leofwin's marriage to his beloved slave was of the latter sort.

"Princess Serva" is how I will term King Leofwin's daughter in these chronicles, for that was the title which the Chara graciously granted to the former slave when she first arrived at his palace. The princess held an uneasy position in Daxis, for her cousin, Prince Richard, appeared to fear that she would marry a man who would claim the throne in his place, even though King Leofwin had named Richard as heir before his death. All evidence pointed to the likelihood that the Prince would eliminate this threat by removing any likelihood that another man would want to marry her.

Prince Richard's threats against Princess Serva's virtue caused that lady to flee Daxis, first to Koretia, and then – upon the advice of Koretia's ruler, the Jackal – to Emor. Her escort on that dangerous journey north was Perry, the Jackal's special friend. Perry was normally mute and childlike, but he had demonstrated many times over the years that he held the courage of a full-grown man. He protected her on his journey, not only with his sword, but also with his singing voice, which was as gifted as the voice of any Daxion bard. Nonetheless, it was clear upon his arrival at the Chara's palace that he greatly yearned to be home at the side of the Jackal, who had first befriended Perry when he was a homeless boy, living on the streets of Koretia's capital. The bond between those two men had grown close over the years – as close, in its own way, as the bond between the Jackal and his blood brother, Lord Andrew.

I have said nothing about Lord Andrew until now because he was absent during most of this period, having apparently fled out of fear of being drawn into entanglements with Princess Serva.

I choose to be delicate in indicating the nature of that fear, although all the world knows that Lord Andrew underwent irreparable harm to his bodily puissance as a boy. This would have left him in a most uneasy position in Emor, where he spent his youth – for the Chara's law, you will understand, regards people like Andrew to be neither male nor female, a state pleasantly embraced by most people who find themselves in this position.

Andrew, however, firmly rejected such a legal state and insisted from the start that he was entirely male, if not in body, then at least in mind. Fortunately for him, he was treated as a man, both by the prior Chara and by the current one, James. So there was no legal reason, in any of the Three Lands, that he should not have pursued a bonding of some sort with Princess Serva.

All of this may seem trivial in comparison to the conflict between Koretia and Daxis, which had already left hundreds dead in battle. Yet if you recall that Prince Richard feared a rival for Princess Serva's hand, and if you keep in mind that Lord Andrew – close friend to the rulers of Emor and Koretia, while subject to neither ruler – was widely considered to be the most powerful man in the Three Lands, you begin to see the dilemma that Emor faced in providing refuge to Princess Serva.

Would Princess Serva allow herself to be bedded by Prince Richard? Would she instead marry Lord Andrew? And if she married Lord Andrew, how would Prince Richard react?

That was the question which Emor faced on the eve of the Chara's enthronement, when we hosted, not only Princess Serva and her escort Perry, but also Prince Richard, who was to represent Daxis at the enthronement ceremony.

Amidst all this tension, Lord Andrew silently slipped into the Chara's palace. It was like throwing a torch onto an oil-slicked pyre.
 

CHAPTER ONE

It was fitting, I decided afterwards, that my marriage bed would turn out to be two cloaks, one above and one below, flung hastily onto the stone floor of a hidden passage leading from the slave-quarters.

I turned my head to look at Andrew. He was propped up on one elbow, smiling; he had barely stopped smiling since he first kissed me. His fingers were tracing letters upon my arm.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Writing my name on you," he said. "Since I'm a man of no land, I thought that I ought to marry you in accordance with the customs of all the Three Lands. In Daxis, the marriage vows are sung, in Koretia they are exchanged through blood – we've already had the song and the blood – and in Emor the vows are written on documents." He finished writing his name three times for each of the languages. Each time his name remained the same.

"So which of the Three Lands have you been in for these past four months?" I asked.

"Need you ask? I've been visiting the bards." Andrew leaned back against the floor, placing his hands behind his head as a cushion. I turned over onto my stomach, the better to see him, and watched the soft firelight play against his face. Andrew's smile turned wry. "I told myself that I was leaving you in order to learn more about the forbidden passage in the Song of Succession – strange, after all these years of deceiving others, to be on the receiving end of my lies. I travelled around, filling myself with as many songs as I could hear and trying to understand what the Daxion people were like."

"Did you discover anything?" I asked.

"About the forbidden song? No. But I found that I was beginning to think like a Daxion. I finally ended up in the wilds of southwest Daxis, far from any people, and I felt the tremendous need to pray. So I went deeper into the marshland. There I saw animals so ancient that they no longer exist anywhere else in the world. They had no fear of me; they had never seen men before. When I reached the heart of the marshland, I remembered, too late, that I had always prayed to the Unknowable God in whatever tongue or manner that the gods were prayed to in the land I was visiting. So I had no choice, in the end, but to give the Song Spirit what she wanted." He turned over on his side to face me, laying the back of his scarred fingers against my cheek. "The Song Spirit brings truth. Afterwards, I recognized that all my fears about whether I would make a good husband to you were mere masks, hiding my deepest fear. And I decided that, if I could endure the sound of my high voice, I had no excuse for keeping that from you. So I started back toward Emor. It occurred to me halfway through my journey, though, that my latest betrayal of you might have been one too many. I nearly decided to move to the barbarian lands and spend my life in the icy wastes there, rather than face your horrified expression when you saw me again."

"That," I said, "was self-deception on a grand order."

"Well, I nearly did encounter such an expression – at any rate, I saw it on the face of your cousin the King when we crossed paths this morning."

"The Prince," I murmured.

"No, he styles himself as King now. I met him in Brian's quarters, making the proper changes to the enthronement documents. Brian didn't even have a chance to finish introducing me; your cousin took one look at me and stormed out of the room. I think that he recognized me from our one previous meeting in the Daxion palace dungeon and realized for the first time how far back my song has been intertwined with yours."

"But—"

My voice caught in my throat. His smile fading, Andrew asked, "What is it?"

"He swore that he wouldn't," I whispered. "He said that he wouldn't anger the Song Spirit by becoming King; he told me so last night."

"You spoke to your cousin last night?" Andrew's face had become unreadable once more.

I nodded, laying my face down on the back of my hands. "He asked me to marry him. He wanted me to be his Consort."

After a while, my thoughts drifted far enough away from the Prince for me to become aware that Andrew had not replied. I looked over at him and saw that he was staring past me at the fire. "Well," he said, "he offered you more than I can give you."

I lifted my head and gathered my breath quickly. "Andrew . . ."

He picked up one of my hands and kissed the fingertips. "Fear not; I am not going to return to my valley of self-pity. Looking at the matter in the objective, cold-blooded manner for which I am famed, I think that I would make a better husband for you than your cousin would. I'm just sorry that my courage doesn't extend far enough to have provided us with a witness, so that we could be married in the law."

"Do you really think that, after all my entanglements with Daxion law, I would care whether I was married in the law?" I said, my mouth quirking. "Daxion law has almost been the death of me. I would rather spend my days with a man I have married in the Spirit."

Andrew bowed his head toward me. "Then I will do as the Princess wishes. I confess, though, that I'm curious to know what reason you gave your cousin for not marrying him."

He was still holding my hand against his chest. I curled my fingers around his and said softly, "I told him that I could only marry a man who sang the marriage song to me in truth."

For the second time that afternoon, I felt a sudden pain as Andrew's hand crushed me. He quickly released me and bent forward to lightly kiss me on the forehead. "For a woman who spends most of her time listening to other people talk," he said, "you have a special talent for always saying the right thing."

"It's true," I protested.

Andrew's face remained in its usual unemotional hardness, but there was a lightness in his eyes. "I wouldn't doubt it. Everything you say is true."

The faintest of noises arose above us, a note repeated several times. Andrew caught my querying look and said, "The palace trumpets, calling the lesser free-men to the enthronement. They'll be calling the high noblemen next; we had better make haste if we're not to miss the ceremony."

"You make haste," I said, reaching over to seek the pin that had held my hair up. "The council was having trouble finding room for everyone, so I told Lord Carle that they could use my place for someone else."

"Then come as my guest," said Andrew, rising and reaching toward his clothes. "All of the foreign guests are entitled to bring their wives or husbands. If the council lords assumed that I would have no wife, that's their dilemma. Besides, there will be plenty of room since the Koretian party didn't make it here." He stopped in the act of tying on his breechcloth. His voice tightened as he asked, "What are you looking at?"

"You," I said serenely. "If you didn't want me to admire your body, you ought not to have married me."

He finished tying the cloth then, saying, "I suppose I'll get used to it. You're the first person to see me this way since I obtained my freedom and had any choice in the matter. You alone," he concluded lightly, "will be witness to the naked truth about me."

o—o—o

The trumpets calling the noblemen to the enthronement had already sounded by the time we reached the Court of Judgment. We would have been even later if we had stopped at my chamber so that I could change, but we decided that, since the palace slaves had been forced to witness Andrew in his nobleman's tunic, the noblemen would have to settle for seeing me in my slave's tunic.

This decided, we saved further time by not trying to squeeze through the crowds clogging the great, gold entranceway on the east side of the court, which faced the main entrance to the palace. Instead, Andrew led us through the corridor that wrapped around the back of the court to a small entrance on the north side, where the highest ranked guests were being admitted and heralded.

Even this area was crowded. Many of the guests, it appeared, were receiving their greatest pleasure in seeing who the Chara had invited to stand in the section of honor. Suddenly feeling abashed by all the gazes on me, I ducked my head and followed Andrew blindly toward the door. We had nearly reached the front when Andrew said, "Wait here a minute." He left me standing several paces from the door, with a clear view of the court.

This was the first time I had ever stood at floor-level to the crowded court. Before me I could see the enthronement guests, standing in rows so neat that they looked like Lord Carle's orchard trees. Beyond them, rising like a mountain over the forest of bodies, was the Chara's dais, topped by his white marble throne. Brian was already up there in his capacity as the Chara's clerk, sorting documents on a small table near the throne. On the previous occasion I had visited, he had been forced to squint from the dim light thrusting its way through the alabaster ceiling, but on this night the court was bright with torchlight. Some rather odd flute music was rising above the hum of chatter; I recognized this as originating from one of the barbarian nations, having heard such music at my father's palace once when I was younger. My father had made critical remarks about modern works and had made sure the flute player was sent on his way the next morning. I found myself wondering what Richard, whose love of music was deep and abiding, thought of so strange a tune.

The music was punctuated at intervals by the sound of the herald announcing the entrance of noble guests. The herald paused, and I saw that he was talking in an undertone with Andrew. Standing next to him was the council porter, flipping through several sheets of paper and looking distressed. He stepped into the aisle and gestured wildly at Brian, who had just reached the bottom of the throne and was heading toward the vestibule door. Glancing over and seeing Andrew, Brian merely waved his hand in permission of whatever was being asked.

After more negotiations, Andrew rejoined me, saying, "I'm sorry about that. The Jackal is the only person who ever remembers my correct title, and of course your name wasn't on the guest list at all. Are you ready?"

I was surprised at this first indication that Andrew cared what his noble title was, but I simply nodded. His palm touched me lightly on the small of my back as he guided me to the door. We paused at the doorway, and the herald, in a voice that reached to the farthest ends of the enormous court, cried out, "Serva, Princess of Daxis, and Andrew, Lord and Ambassador of the God's Land."

The voices stopped as though the Chara's executioner had just cut everyone's head off. Only the eerie flute music continued in the background. For a moment I was overcome with two embarrassments: firstly, that my name had been given the position of honor over Andrew's, and secondly, that everyone in the court had turned to look our way. Then I looked at Andrew, still holding his hand behind my back and watching me with his usual unreadable expression. He said nothing, but his steady gaze opened my eyes to what had happened.

Now I understood why Andrew had spent so much time making sure that our titles were correctly announced. By linking our names together in this public way, he was announcing our marriage.

I forgot about everyone watching us: I simply smiled at him, warmed throughout with happiness. Only the renewed murmur of voices around me made me aware that my action had been noticed and correctly interpreted. Well, so much the better.

Andrew's expression did not change, but I felt his hand tighten on my back as we followed the porter down the aisle to the front of the crowd. Waist-level metal fences had been set in place to divide the court into separate sections; the porter opened the gate leading to the section directly to the right of the dais, which placed us at the northwestern end of the court. The porter pointed, and I sighted a large gap in the front row, past several people wearing dominion clothes. Andrew murmured his thanks and started forward, greeting the dominion guests as we squeezed past them. They all seemed to know who he was. Once we had stopped, he looked around slowly, as though he were a spy scouting enemy territory, before saying quietly, "This is certainly a change for me from the Chara Peter's enthronement."

I knew what he meant. I could see the glint of sheathed blades around us, and I remembered that women were not the only palace dwellers who could not bear free-man's weapons and therefore had been barred from past enthronements.

I replied, "This is a wonderful view of the throne. I feel quite guilty. Do you suppose someone will remember we were originally palace slaves and throw us out?"

The words were no sooner out of my mouth than I saw the porter hurrying toward us again. He came around to the front of the barrier, leaned over, and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "Lord Andrew, I don't know what to do. All of the lords and high officials are already gathered in the vestibule. If I interrupt them now, Lord Carle will have me in the execution yard by dawn."

"What is the problem?" asked Andrew.

The porter glanced uneasily at me. I walked a few paces away, over to the empty space on the right side of our row. As I turned back to look at Andrew, I saw that the porter had already explained his problem and was beginning to edge away; the cause may have been Andrew's expression, which had grown cold. As I came over to rejoin him, Andrew said in a low voice, "Your cousin refuses to enter the foreign guests' area while we are here."

I stood on tiptoe and craned my neck; I could barely see a bit of white cloth in the aisle. I told Andrew, "I think we should leave. I don't want to cause problems for James."

Andrew nodded. "Don't worry; I know another place where we can watch the enthronement." He took my hand; holding it firmly, he began to squeeze his way back the way we had come.

I was dreading the moment when we would reach the aisle, but in fact I doubt that Richard even noticed me. All of his wrath was reserved for Andrew, who kept his eyes as carefully fixed on him as though he expected my cousin to draw his sword and run him through. Never before had I seen Richard look so darkly dangerous; this must be what his enemies witnessed in the moments before he killed them. Even with Andrew's hand warm around mine, I felt myself grow cold.

It took only an instant for us to pass this gauntlet of peril; then Andrew was pulling me quickly down the aisle. Behind us, I heard the Chara's trumpeters calling three long notes. Andrew turned to the left as we exited the doors, thrusting us through the lingering crowd there; then suddenly we were racing through the back corridor as rapidly as though Richard's subcaptain were still after us.

After rounding two corners, I had to pause to press my hand against my side. Andrew said, "I'm sorry, but if we don't hurry, we'll cross paths with the Chara answering his call to the enthronement. No one is allowed to see the Chara today before he enters the court. Even his guards avert their eyes when he leaves his quarters."

This was news enough to start me running again. We were now on the corridor to the south of the court, the one that intersects with the corridor leading past the Chara's quarters. As we rushed past that corridor, I glimpsed a figure enveloped by a billowing cloak; then we were beyond the danger point, and we slowed to a dignified pace as we turned the corner to walk to the main court entrance.

This was clear by now. Everyone had entered, and I could see at a glance that there was no more room on the floor ahead of us. But Andrew took no notice of the gilded doorway. Instead, he headed beyond it for a small door guarded by a young soldier.

"My apologies, sir," said the guard as we approached. "The balcony is available only for the free-servants to the Chara and his council."

Andrew replied quietly, "I am Andrew son of Gideon, former free-servant to the Chara, and this is my wife."

The guard looked at him uneasily. He obviously had never heard of Andrew – at least, not without his current title – and was uncertain whether former free-servants and their wives should be allowed through the door. For a moment, it looked as though he would bar our way for the rest of the night. Then he looked over at me, and recognition entered his face. Quickly, he stepped aside.

I thought I saw the faintest flicker of a smile enter Andrew's eyes as we passed the guard. This time, rather than lead me, Andrew followed me up the winding stone staircase lit by torchlight.

The sound of voices told me we were reaching the top. We emerged onto a stone balcony as crowded as the floor below, and a good deal less organized; the men on it milled around, jostling for space. At first, Andrew and I stood in the doorway to the stairs, searching for an open area. Then someone waved at us through the crowd and gestured us toward him. It was James's free-servant.

We wriggled through the crowd – that is, we would have wriggled, if Andrew's expression had not caused the crowd before him to part like waves before a prow. We reached the Chara's free-servant and found that he was guarding a small, empty space at the front of the balcony.

"Heart of Mercy, Andrew, I was worried you were going to be stuck in that crowd of haughty noblemen and lose out on all the good gossip flowing up here," he said. "I see that you thought the better of it in time."

"I wouldn't have wanted to have missed out on your company, Francis." Andrew spoke with polite formality, his face rigid in the cool look he had given the inn-maid in Daxis.

Francis, though, seemed to accept this as no insult, for he said easily, "Of course, the hottest gossip has been about you. Congratulations, by the way."

"Thank you," said Andrew, his face relaxing somewhat. "I take it that you are already acquainted with Serva?"

Francis smiled at me. He was twice as old as his master, with lines of humor around his eyes that matched the Chara's. "Yes, my first meeting with the Princess came when I accidentally dumped a bucket-load of ashes over her feet. I was just reciting in my mind all the places where I might seek new employment when she dropped to her knees and began helping me sweep up the mess. I immediately concluded that she must be a friend of yours."

I expected Andrew to laugh, but when I looked over at him, I saw that his face had grown even harder than before, as unmoving as a boulder. Following his gaze, I saw that a tousled-haired man of about my age had squeezed through the crowd to Francis's side. Without looking our way, he said, "I'm sorry I'm late. Lord Neville kept me till the last minute, giving me his usual tedious speech about how Lord Carle is all to blame for the fact that the Chara isn't appointing him as the new High Lord. I can't take much more of this; I don't know what mad impulse made me leave—"

He stopped. He had seen us now, and his gaze was hooked by Andrew's. Francis, his eyes travelling from one man to the next, said, "Andrew, I'm sure you remember Lord Neville's free-servant Curtis."

"Of course." Andrew's voice was as cold as a northern wind. "But when last we met, he was Lord Carle's servant."

For a moment, I could make nothing of this exchange. Then I remembered what James had told me about Lord Carle being abandoned by his friends.

Curtis was standing motionless; only the rapid rise and fall of his chest betrayed what he was undergoing. Unlike Patrick, he did not make the mistake of excusing his past behavior. Instead, he said in a low voice, "Good day to you, Ambassador. —Francis, I don't think there's room enough for all of us in this small space. I'll find a spot further along."

He began to sidle back through the crowd. Acting on some impulse, I stepped over and blocked his path. I need not have bothered, though; Andrew was already saying, "I'm sure there's enough space. Serva can stand in front of me." As he followed me back to the railing, he murmured in my ear, "What are you trying to do, steal my reputation as the Great Peninsula's peacemaker?"

I was still laughing when the sound of trumpets rang through the room, much clearer than before, going up and down the scale in orderly, mathematical fashion. This was the closest thing that Emor had to music. Marching out from either side of the back of the dais came the eight trumpeters, white pennants hanging from their long, silver horns. The four pairs kept in step with each other until they rejoined at the foot of the dais. Then they turned to face the dais, and their short notes suddenly changed to three long, soaring calls. There was a stirring in the crowd, particularly from the guests who could see the area between the hidden vestibule door and the back of the throne. After a time, I saw the head of a figure begin to rise up from behind the thirty-step dais. In the next moment, James had reached the short platform at the top of the dais and was standing motionless in front of his throne.

I looked over at the servants around us and saw that most of them, perhaps wise to the dangers of looking too long at the Chara when he was wearing his formal face, had already dropped their gaze to the pageantry that was continuing below the throne. The trumpeters had parted ways again, half going to the left corner of the dais, half to the right. Now they were singing in the entrance of other men: first Brian and the head court summoner; then, with suitable spacing, more pairs of high officials from the court, the army, and the council; and finally the thirty council lords. In each case, the men coming from either side of the dais would meet at the area directly below the throne, give a low bow to the Chara, and then go to stand to either the left or the right of the dais.

It takes quite a while for so many men to make their entrance, even when they arrive in pairs. Before the palace officials had finished, the servants were back to talking, the sound of their voices covered by the trumpets. Andrew was asking Curtis about the foreign guests.

"That was the Chara's idea, actually," said Curtis. "Since none of the barbarian representatives were able to come, the Chara had his soldiers search the city for visitors from the mainland to invite to the enthronement. It's surprising how many barbarians he turned up."

"They are nearly all common folk, of course," added Francis, "but the Chara said that that was all the more reason they were likely to remember this event and carry the news back to their homelands. The council didn't much care for the idea – you can imagine what Lord Carle had to say – but the Chara distracted their attention by sweetly asking their advice on what order he should have the land's gifts presented in."

"Gifts?" said Andrew.

"That is another innovation, one that was proposed by the Jackal and that the High Lord actually approved of. Each land sending a representative is offering an enthronement gift. The gifts all arrived last autumn, and the council decided that they would be presented at the enthronement in accordance with the length of alliance between Emor and each land. Lord Carle took weeks in deciding how to order the presentation."

"Well, you can't blame him," said Curtis. He was watching over the railing as the senior-most lords entered: Lord Carle and Lord Neville. I could tell that his gaze was following the High Lord rather than his own master. "It all hinged on the question of whether Koretia broke its alliance with Emor five years ago. Nobody wanted to bring up that troubled period once more – enough foolish actions were taken at that time. Lord Carle finally decided to announce Arpesh and Marcadia first, since they are imperial dominions, then Koretia, then Daxis, then the mainland nations. I think he ended up tossing a dice to figure out whether Koretia should come before Daxis or vice versa, but Daxis doesn't seem to have been offended."

"Enthronements cause more trouble than they're worth," Francis concluded. "What was the Jackal's enthronement like, Andrew?"

Andrew was standing behind me, his body lightly pressed against my back; I was more aware of this than the conversation taking place next to me. He said in his tightly restrained voice, "I only saw his public enthronement. His private enthronement took place while I was still living here."

"Before the Chara gave him the throne?" Curtis sounded shocked.

I looked over my shoulder at Andrew. He was watching the Chara James, who had been standing still as a tree all this time. "In the Jackal's eyes, Koretia was given into his care from the moment that he received the god's powers; that happened in a small chapel in the Koretian priests' house, with only three of his thieves present. He refused to become Master of the Koretian Land, though, until he had received the consent of the Koretians. So once the Chara had released his hold on Koretia, the Jackal spent the first six months of his official reign travelling to each town, and meeting there with the councils of the towns and surrounding villages. Not until they had all voted to accept him as ruler did he hold his public enthronement."

Francis laughed. "You Koretians! All of your masters are ruled by their servants. What a topsy-turvy land you live in."

I said, "But isn't there a part of this ceremony where the High Lord asks the Emorians present for their consent to the Chara's enthronement?"

Francis and Curtis exchanged uneasy glances. I could feel Andrew's chest vibrating behind me; he was laughing silently. I opened my mouth to tell the others about the Daxion equivalent – about the consent required by the King's Bard and Consort – but at that moment the trumpets ceased, and the servants grew quiet once more.

The ceremony had begun, but I barely noticed what followed. My mind was still on the gifts. I was thinking that I could not marry Andrew without giving him some sort of wedding gift, but I could not think of anything he needed. He was the most powerful man in the Three Lands – I heard Richard's voice echo in my mind once more – and he could have anything he wanted for the asking. Of course, he might believe that just in marrying him I had given him the gift he most needed, but like Perry, I was not satisfied with the idea of simply being valued for myself. I wanted to give Andrew something more.

I was dimly aware of speeches being made, people walking up and down the dais steps to carry out ceremonial gestures, oaths being taken. For me, all this was a dim background to the sound of Andrew's voice as he exchanged whispered comments with Francis and Curtis. I could feel Andrew's heart against my back.

I came awake again when I heard Andrew asking quietly, "Isn't that the princess whom the Chara Peter nearly married?"

I peered over the railing and saw a woman a bit younger than me, with the very pale skin and white hair common among dominion dwellers, climbing the dais to place a package in the Chara's hands. James stood as motionless as he had been throughout the long ceremony.

"Yes, that's the one," replied Francis. "From a political point of view, it would have been a good deal better if he had married her. The Arpeshians have never forgotten the way that the Chara Peter treated their princess. It was bad enough when the Chara Peter called off his scheduled meeting with her, but his excuse was that he wasn't ready to be married. Then he promptly went off to Koretia, and there he betrothed himself to Lady Ursula."

He paused as the herald called forth the representative from Marcadia, a soldier in full armor. Then Francis added, "The Chara thinks that the only thing preventing Arpesh from going to war against Emor is its lack of an alliance with Marcadia. It isn't a case, as with Koretia, where Arpesh simply wants its independence. The Arpeshians want revenge – they want to destroy Emor. If the Marcadians were to join with the Arpeshians . . . Well, it would be the Battle of Mountain Heights all over again."

"I know all this." Andrew's voice was so quiet that I could barely hear him, standing as I was right next to him.

Francis was equally quiet as he said, "I thought that you would. One thing you don't know, though, is that the Chara would dearly love to appoint you as his ambassador to Arpesh, but he's afraid to involve you in his negotiations there because he never knows where you'll be from one month to the next. He says that the Jackal advised him against asking you, telling him that you seemed so eager to wander endlessly around the Three Lands and the mainland that even he could no longer count on your being nearby when a crisis arose. The Jackal said that he could not depend on your support any more, though he valued your service more than that of any other man."

I looked over and saw that Curtis was eavesdropping on all this, though he was pretending to watch as the Marcadian made his way back down the dais, having delivered his gift. I could not see Andrew's face, but I could feel the rise of his heartbeat as Francis made his speech – which, I knew, broke Francis's vow as the Chara's free-servant to remain silent about conversations he witnessed. After a moment, Andrew said very quietly, "Thank you, Francis. I appreciate your sacrifice in telling me that."

Francis was saved from having to reply, for at that moment the herald cried out, "From Koretia . . . a gold replica of the Jackal's god-mask . . . presented by Lord Andrew."

The free-servants around us, who had been busying themselves with gossip about the foreign guests, suddenly stirred and looked our way for the first time since we arrived. Behind me, Andrew said, "May the Jackal eat his dead. Carle didn't tell me about this."

"It was probably a last-minute decision," said Curtis. "The council had to decide this afternoon how to rearrange the ceremony to account for the absence of the Koretian party. Lord Carle must have assumed that you would be willing to serve as that land's representative."

Now the people below us were beginning to murmur. Much of the crowd was looking up toward the balcony.

"They've seen me," said Andrew. "I'll have to go down."

I waited for him to say more, then turned and saw that he had slipped away as silently as a Jackal's thief – or so the Koretian phrase goes. After another minute, in which the murmuring had grown like storm-waves, I sighted him directly below the balcony, walking steadily down the long aisle toward the throne. He stopped at the foot of the dais to take the gift from the hands of the council porter. On his other side, Lord Carle was waiting, his brows drawn low. The High Lord escorted Andrew up to the top of the steps and watched while Andrew handed James the gift.

There was a long pause. From my perspective, I could see only the back of Andrew, with a bit of the Chara's body behind him. Having passed the gift on to Brian, who was standing nearby, James had returned to absolute motionlessness. Suddenly he moved, gesturing toward Lord Carle, who had been waiting several paces behind. The High Lord came forward and joined whatever conversation was taking place. The murmuring from the crowd returned.

"The Chara is angry," said Francis in an undertone that only Curtis and I could hear.

"How can you tell?" I asked. I still could not see James's face.

"Look at his body."

I did, and saw that James had broken out of the bonds of ritual that usually held him captive in the court; he was gesturing vigorously with his hands. One gesture brought Brian over to join the conversation. The High Lord nodded to something that had been said, then turned toward Brian and told him something. In the next moment, Andrew had turned away and was being escorted by Lord Carle down the dais steps. I noticed Brian go over and speak to the herald, who was perched at the corner of the dais platform.

The guests, seeing the drama ended, settled down in anticipation of the next part of the ceremony. They did not have to wait long, for Andrew had not even reached the foot of the dais before the herald cried out: "From Enkloo . . ."

The rest of his words were drowned out by the sudden return of the crowd's voices. This time their sound was too loud to be called a murmur. Francis said, "That's done it."

"What's happening?" I asked.

Francis was too absorbed in the action below to notice my question. It was Curtis who finally replied, "They've skipped Daxis."

I followed Francis's gaze. Until this time, I had avoided looking toward the foreign guests' section. Now I could see clearly the figures of the Prince – I could not think of him as King – accompanied by his Bard, his clerk, and his High Lady. Lady Elizabeth was keeping her own counsel, Eulalee and the clerk were both excitedly talking to the Prince, and Richard had his head turned to watch the retreating figure of Andrew.

Francis was reporting the action to the free-servants behind us who did not have a good view: "The King is speaking and shaking his head. . . . He's waiting. . . . He's a good diplomat; he's not going to do anything until he's sure that a mistake hasn't been made. He's going to see what happens next."

He did not have long to wait. The herald, with an eagerness that suggested that he was enjoying this drama as much as the free-servants, barely waited for the Enkloo representative to turn away before he cried out, "From the Hunt—"

He had no opportunity to complete the name this time. The crowd had grown louder, not so much at the herald's cry, as at the immediate departure of the Daxion party. The Daxions were intercepted at the north door by the guards, who politely but firmly refused to allow them to leave, demonstrating a confident air which suggested that they were accustomed to dealing with this type of crisis every day. Into the midst of the argument that followed waded Brian, who had made his own hasty exit from the dais.

By now, nobody was paying attention to what was happening on the dais except the Chara, the High Lord, and the herald, all going through the steps of the ceremony as though nothing else was happening. The barbarian representatives who came forward looked so nervous that they were probably grateful to be upstaged; moreover, the Chara was now taking the time to exchange a few words with each of them, which was an honor they could not have expected.

The guards were giving access to the door, and the Daxion party was leaving, but joining them was Brian, who was in animated conversation with the Prince. The trumpets below were signalling the end of the enthronement for the sake of those who had long since ceased to pay attention to the ceremony. I looked over at Francis and Curtis and saw that both of them had bleak expressions on their faces.

There was a nudge at my elbow. Looking down, I saw that a page was prodding me aside in order to reach Francis. It appeared that he had lost his instinct to be polite, for, like a salmon fighting its way upstream, the boy had been forced to make his way through the servants rushing off the balcony to see whether there was more spectacle in the corridors.

I caught a glimpse of the blank-masked seal as the page handed the letter to Francis. As James's free-servant tore open the letter, Curtis glanced backwards to ensure that no one was listening before he asked, "What is it?"

"A message from the Chara, by way of Andrew. My master needs me back in his quarters; he has invited the King to visit there." Francis shoved the letter under his belt and said to Curtis, "Andrew wonders whether you could look after Serva; he and the High Lord have been summoned as well. By the Sword, we might have known that any enthronement that Andrew attended would not be a dull one." With a final quirk of a smile, Francis turned and rushed toward the stairs.

"Well." Curtis's word came as a deep sigh. Below us, the Chara and the High Lord had left the court. The guests were slowly making their way out, their voices raised high. Curtis raised his voice as well, saying, "I know that anything following this will be an anticlimax, but which would you rather go to, the council's celebration or the lesser free-men's celebration? I can take you to either."

Curtis's matter-of-fact question caused me to collapse into nervous laughter, but I quickly quenched this when I realized that the serious-faced servant was hurt by my reaction. I asked, "Which would you recommend?"

Again Curtis looked around before replying. "If Lord Carle has been summoned to the Chara, then Lord Neville will be in charge of the council's celebration, and— Well, he'll want to make a few speeches about the importance of loyalty to the Chara and how those who betray him should never be forgiven. If you're looking for lighter entertainment, you might prefer the lesser free-men's celebration."

"Light entertainment is just what I need," I said. "That, and a place where I can find some wine. Either wild-berry or wall-vine will do."